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Books Of The Region

April 08, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Everyone in America is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants -- via the oceans or Bering Strait. Everyone in this new world is, however faintly, aware of an older world, and has attitudes toward it: indebtedness, scorn, curiosity. The easier the journey becomes, the more of us there are who go back -- to examine, to compare, to send postcards.

Larzer Ziff, who at Johns Hopkins University is the English Department's top Americanist, has picked five of earlier times' top travel writers (travel being a cut above tourism) for close analysis. Mark Twain and Henry James are big names in any context; today, John Lloyd Stephens and Bayard Taylor have faded; meet John Ledyard, in 1787 "the first American to enter Siberia." Ledyard had been with Capt. James Cook on the latter's third, fatal Pacific voyage; Ledyard, from Connecticut and Dartmouth, later set out "to walk around the world," and got as far as Yakutsk. Ledyard died, at 34, of dysentery, in Africa.

Yet adventures are not the point in Ziff's "Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910" (Yale University Press, 304 pages, $29.95). One of these five travelers reports that his fellow Caucasians are superior beings; every other creed, color and race is inferior. Another sides with the islanders who slew Captain Cook. Another, entering "the New York Ghetto," shudders at "the whole hard glitter of Israel." Another finds the Arabs filthy, squalid, superstitious, indolent and iniquitous. Still another confronts a conundrum: when an archaeological ruin catches his eye, the local land owner's price for it at once soars.

Ziff, from his second home in the 1800s, presents these clashing perceptions and ideas in prose that gives off a soft gleam. "Return Passages" could well become that eighth wonder, the thoughtful academic book with a large lay popularity.

Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, have used part of his income as entertainer to buy art: works by many hands, but especially by and about African-Americans. Today theirs is "by far the most significant collection in the hands of an African American family," remarks David C. Driskell, formerly head of the Department of Art at the University of Maryland College Park.

Since 1974, Driskell has also been curator of these "major works of museum quality by some of the most renowned African American artists of the past 200 years," as well as others of European origin. And Driskell is the author of "The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr." (Pomegranate, 213 pages, $65). The collection, in New England, is not on public view; this lavish yet careful book is an impressive substitute.

Of the 47 artists represented, chronologically (each with a life sketch), the first is Joshua Johnston. The Cosbys have five examples of the work of that Federal period portraitist and Marylander. It is good to see honor given also to James Amos Porter (1905-1970), a Baltimorean who, a painter himself, while on the Howard University faculty became "the first black art historian whose writings centered on the art of African peoples in the diaspora."

When Driskell comes to Henry Tanner, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and other pillars, the Cosbys give him important material to work with.

The painter Charles White (1918-1979) did the cover portrait, of Langston Hughes; and one inside, of Bill Cosby.

Colby Rodowsky has this strange habit of writing about life as it really is. In her short novels about children, no magic, no dreaming and precious few grown-ups are around to help the central figure hold steady, after her or his parents mess up.

In "Clay" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 166 pages, $16), a sister and brother, 11 and 7, Baltimore kids, are living elsewhere, in forced hiding -- four years ago, their divorced mother, denied custody, kidnapped them. It'll take some doing to rescue and reorient these kids (the girl is narrator). But here is an author who doesn't overdo.

Rodowsky's next book will be her 20th. Applause? Too mild a word.

In the guise of futurist fiction, Gabe Sinclair's engaging book, "The Four-Hour Day" (Four-Hour Day Foundation, 264 pages, $15, softbound), takes on the here-and-now problem of overwork. Technology, he finds, is at the point where a 20-hour work week would sustain it. Sour question: given the entertainment industry's bloat, greed and cynicism, would society put additional nonwork hours to good use?

A current vogue in romance fiction is the series novel. In less than three years, Loree Lough of Ellicott City has produced a five-volume set, with "Suddenly" as the first word in each novel's title. "Suddenly Home" (Steeple Hill, 249 pages, $4.50, softbound) pairs off a grounded naval aviator and a therapist / singer, alike youthful and good-looking; in Ellicott City, yet. End of series, but another begins soon.

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