The Hellhound and HeLa: Recent American Historical Writing At Its Best

| February 1, 2011 | Reply

The last really good history I read was “Hellhound On His Trail, ” which follows James Earl Ray’s path from his childhood in Alton, Illinois through a violent intersection with the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and continues to follow Ray’s trajectory with his quizzical recantations of his “life’s purpose.”  With the same cool hand, Sides sketches the strengths and inadequacies of Dr. King’s inner circle and paints larger atmospheric strokes with newspaper headlines on the increasing violence in response to desegregation and the influence of war in Vietnam on national sentiment about federal involvement in heretofore state affairs.

By themselves, vignettes about Ray’s lackluster career as a petty criminal, his stunted attempts at artistic grandeur and addiction to prostitutes would simply depress the reader.  Here, the intentional failures and manipulations of Hoover’s FBI  and first-hand accounts of Ray’s behavior appear like birds descending on a tragic town, flickering across the broader canvas creating momentum and dread. Awful as the true subject of this thriller may be, I found myself disappointed to reach the end.

More recently, I’ve been reading about the cells of an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, or, more specifically, an attempt at the repatriation of what became known as “HeLa” cells. Written by Rebecca Skloot, this history portrays the people who populated Henrietta Lacks’ personal life, the doctors and scientists who erased or ignored the provenance of increasingly valuable cell cultures bred from her cervical tumor and the practice of medicine on patients living in the margins of deep South society in the 1950s.

The Immortal Life transitions between biography, history and light science easily and with infectious fascination. I don’t ever remember being so captivated by scientific reading before, but Skloot’s got the exquisite combination of conversational honesty, earnestness and palpable hunger for information that allow her to tackle the intersection of bigotry, science, public good and private rights with grace.

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Category: American Culture, Art, Bigotry, Biology, Civil Rights, Culture, History, Ingroup/Outgroup, Journalism, law and order, Medicine, Privacy, Reading - Books and Magazines, Reproductive Rights, scientific method, Social justice, Writing

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Zoevinly is a poverty lawyer practicing in the bible belt.

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