Sunday, 6 December 2020

Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford


Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford
Published by Oxford University Press in April 2015.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating:of 5 stars


With a single shot from a pistol small enough to conceal in his hand, John Wilkes Booth catapulted into history on the night of April 14, 1865. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln stunned a nation that was just emerging from the chaos and calamity of the Civil War, and the president's untimely death altered the trajectory of postwar history. But to those who knew Booth, the event was even more shocking--for no one could have imagined that this fantastically gifted actor and well-liked man could commit such an atrocity.

In Fortune's Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth's story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. Despite the fame and success that attended Booth's career--he was billed at one point as "the youngest star in the world"--he found himself consumed by the Confederate cause and the desire to help the South win its independence. Alford reveals the tormented path that led Booth to conclude, as the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, that the only way to revive the South and punish the North for the war would be to murder Lincoln--whatever the cost to himself or others. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford's Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth's capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago.

Based on original research into government archives, historical libraries, and family records, Fortune's Fool offers the definitive portrait of John Wilkes Booth.

I first blogged this review in May 2015.
Abraham Lincoln is such a global cultural icon that he is one of the few American presidents that I can recognise instantly, by face as well as name. Whether he would be so memorable now if he had not been assassinated when he was, before his career suffered some inevitable decline, is an interesting thought. And would anyone remember John Wilkes Booth as an actor, rather than an assassin?

Prior to reading Fortune's Fool I was aware of Booth's name and defining action, but knew nothing more about him. I think I now have a good overview of his life and understanding of his beliefs, bizarre though they are to modern sensibilities. Alford has obviously spent hours and hours researching his book and seems to have uncovered practically every public mention of Booth during his acting career. As the son of a famous thespian father, notices appear frequently, but therein lies my main problem with this book. By including so much minutiae, I found the pace very slow, and there are rarely great insights so Alford often has to make great leaps.

Booth was not a prolific writer so little remains of his own words and, while later interviews with friends and family have interest, it is impossible to tell how coloured their views are by What Happened. I still don't really know what turned an aspiring actor to a crazy fanatic. That he believed slaves were less than human and 'deserved' to be owned is obviously proven, but how he came to view Lincoln as a tyrant and dictator is unclear, especially as most of his time in the years prior to the assassination were spent in the North, rather than amongst similarly entrenched bigotry in the South. 

A drier read than I usually like, Fortune's Fool did take me a long time to get through. It is interesting in short bursts, but then I kept forgetting who everyone was. And the information is too dense to read for hours at a time! The biography has led me to want to understand more about Booth and this period of American history though because I am left with more questions than answers. 


Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Terry Alford / History books / Books from America

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