'Rosenberg Letters' review sends poignant message


Love letters between the Rosenbergs. The Rolling Stones' terrifying introduction to the American blues culture. In defense of the robber barons. This is the top of the reading this week.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg communicated via letters during their three-year death-house incarceration in Ossining, N.Y., while awaiting their execution in the electric chair in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Russians.

In a review of Michael Meeropol's "The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" in the February/March Boston Review, David Thorburn reveals the dimension of the tragedy in an intriguing way. (Mr. Meeropol is the older of the couple's two sons.)

Mr. Thorburn finds in the book the humanity of Mr. Meeropol's parents, the crucial context that was lacking in a previous, politicized, badly edited and truncated version of some of the letters. Excised from the original but restored in Mr. Meeropol's collection are the Rosenbergs' evocative discussion of their sons; their comments on books, songs and radio programs; repartee about their shared passion for baseball and the sustenance they find in their Jewish heritage; and, perhaps most important, their longing for each other.

Mr. Thorburn writes that this new edition effectively renders obsolete the "Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," rushed into publication in the month of their execution. That edition has until now misleadingly if not erroneously served as "the primary source for all versions of the Rosenberg mythology," Mr. Thorburn writes.

When Wells met Stones

Founding editor Jim O'Neal's encyclopedic two-day 1994 interview with blues legend Junior Wells appears in this month's Living Blues, the bimonthly magazine of the African-American blues tradition published by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

It's not only a hymn to Mr. Wells but also a vivid characterization of the major blues interpreters against the backdrop of their often gritty surroundings in the culture.

You can note here the happenings called "Blue Monday parties" and a description of a juke joint called Crossroads that straddled the Missouri/Arkansas border. If the police came in looking for someone who was on one state's side of the floor, the fugitive would simply cross the floor to the neighboring state.

The story traces Mr. Wells' flight from his father's sharecropper destiny out of West Memphis, Ark., to the bus that would take him to Chicago and his ultimate liberation and realization of his gifts.

Mr. Wells also talks about the judge who paid a dollar for him to the store proprietor who'd unjustly accused him of stealing a harmonica. And about his philosophical disagreement with Martin Luther King Jr. ("Yeah, I'm non-violent. But I am violent if somebody hits me.")

Still, the highlight may be Mr. Wells' first meeting with the Rolling Stones. He finds them cowering against a wall in a Chess Records recording studio while performers Sonny Boy and Little Walter are cursing and pulling their knives on each other in front of them. Leonard Chess, owner of the label, has beseeched Mr. Wells and friend Buddy Guy to break up the fight, and they do. Then they reassure the terrified British visitors that this is how Sonny Boy and Little Walter -- and even Mr. Wells and Mr. Guy -- "play" with each other between takes.

Entrepreneurs, not robbers

Maury Klein's "The Robber Barons' Bum Rap" in the winter issue of City Journal, the slick magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, is not only timely and provocative but fun to read.

He defends Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, James Stillman (who helped Morgan) and E. H. Harriman, among others.

Mr. Klein argues that the robber barons were entrepreneurs who came to dominate an undefined and wide-open economic playing field the way the Founding Fathers did with the political system.

"The best of them exemplified virtues long treasured by Americans: vision, energy, perseverance, hard work, and character," writes Mr. Klein. "Even though most started near the top, enough outsiders, like Gould, Carnegie and Vanderbilt, climbed the slippery ladder of success to preserve the American dream that anyone could do so."

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