The Greek Treasure: A biographical novel

The Greek Treasure is biographical novel* by the 20th century’s master of that form, Irving Stone, whose books on Freud, Michelangelo, and Mary Todd Lincoln were top-10 bestsellers.

Photo of circular stone on The Greek Treasuredustjacket
The Greek Treasure lies under a dull lid.

In Greek Treasure, Stone tackles a less familiar subject: 19th century amateur archaeologists Heinrich and Sophia Schliemann.

Sophia has just graduated high school in Athens when her Uncle Vimpos recommends her as wife to a divorced, self-made millionaire twice her age.

Henry Schliemann says he wants a poor but well-educated woman who loves Homer and will assist him in digging with pick and shovel to prove that Homer’s Troy was a real place.

Sophia is young, flattered, and willing to marry her family’s choice, sure she will learn to love him after they’re married.

Greek Treasure suffers from the perennial problems of Stone’s extensively-researched novels: Much of the source material is dry-as-dust.

Readers get very few glimpses into the inner lives of the characters that little comes mainly from self-edited documents.

Stone is a skillful writer, but this particular book is probably not one that will attract many 21st century readers. Baby Boomers were the last generation to know where the Dardanelles are, and millennials know Homer only as a character on The Simpsons.

The Greek Treasure by Irving Stone
A Biographical Novel of Henry and Sophia Schliemann
Doubleday [1975] Book Club Edition 470 p.
1975 bestseller #7. My grade: B

*Stone used the term “bio-histories” instead of the publishers’ term “biographical novels.”

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Passions of the Mind: Where’s the novel?

In The Passions of the Mind, Irving Stone presents Sigmund Freud as a family man who works hard, walks fast, and writes prodigiously while smoking expensive cigars.

The random pattern represents the Passions of the Mind
Random pattern represents the mind.

He also loves Renaissance art, collecting antiquities, and reading literature.

Freud takes a medical degree, intending to go into research instead of treating patients. Circumstances conspire against him; he ends up practicing as a neurologist in Vienna.

Freud’s inability to treat by conventional means patients whose symptoms don”t arise from physical causes lead him into what in later years would become known as psychoanalysis.

Freud is determined to have his theories accepted by the medical community. To that end, he befriends and nurtures younger analysts, several of whom he supports financially as well as emotionally.

Stone reveals Freud as frequently unaware of the import of events around him, both among fellow practitioners and nationally.

Only as the Freud family suffers deprivation in WWII Vienna and Sigmund develops cancer of the mouth does the analyst begin to seem like a real person.

Stone’s meticulous research (the novel includes a bibliography and a glossary of psychoanalytic terms) will appeal to those already interested in Freud.

Readers looking for an interesting story will be quit reading long before Freud sees his first patient.

The Passions of the Mind: A Novel of Sigmund Freud by Irving Stone
Doubleday, ©1971. [Book club edition.] 856 p.
1971 bestseller #3. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Immortal Wife is a lifeless figure

Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck
Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Those Who Love: Romantic, Educational, Hopeful

John Adams was “nothing but a lawyer” when Abigail Smith married him, but he was determined to be the best lawyer he could be.

Early on, John spent weeks “riding circuit” while “Nabby” took care of house, farm, and family.

Abigail and John


Those Who Love by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1965. 647 pages. 1965 bestseller #6. My grade A-.


As John rose professionally, even more of the couple’s lives were lived apart. Fortunately for us, both were prolific writers of letters and journals.

By careful selection and judicious updating of the 18th century language, Irving Stone transformed their words into a novel that rings true today.

Since Stone published his novel about the Adams family, their lives were chronicled on stage and on television. Those productions may have rendered the general outline of their lives familiar, making Stone’s nuanced novel all the more appealing.

Stone relates Those Who Love primarily from Abigail’s perspective, revealing the bread and butter aspects of the long struggle to build a nation.

That vantage point allows Stone to downplay the partisanship and animosities almost split America in the days of Adams, Tom Jefferson, and  Ben Franklin.

Reading Those Who Love may give us hope that statesmen may arise to pull together our own divided national government.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The portrait of Abigail Adams is from the National First Ladies Library. It was painted by an unknown artist at the time of her wedding. The portrait of John Adams by Asher Brown Durand was released by the United States Navy with the ID 031029-N-6236G-001. Both works are in the public domain.

History Trumps Story in Love Is Eternal

The trouble with historical novels is that they have to be historically accurate. To meet this demand, authors often must attempt to account logically for illogical human behavior.

Irving Stone’s Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln is a case in point.

the Lincoln family
According to the novel’s dust jacket, Stone’s goal is to take readers inside Mary Todd’s heart; however, even getting into her head would take a team of psychiatrists: Both Mary Todd and Lincoln suffered from depression that at times was almost pathological.

(The liner notes also say “Literally the whole [Civil] war was fought across her bosom,” a claim whose veracity I doubt. But I literally digress.)

Irving devotes most of the novel to the Lincolns’ political struggles. Stone shows Mary shrewdly aware of how the successful politician’s wife should behave but totally unaware that her husband’s election to the presidency was a fluke of the electoral system, not an indication of his popularity.

Readers get very little sense of the Lincolns as a couple before the White House and no sense of the Lincolns as a couple afterward.

Stone ends Love Is Eternal with Abraham Lincoln’s widow wanting to die.

And he leaves readers with no reason to want her to live.

Readers may enjoy these photos of Lincoln more than Stone’s novel.  I’m indebted to @dougpete for the link.

Love Is Eternal:
A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
By Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1954
1954 bestseller #3
462 pages
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Agony and the Ecstasy tilts toward agony

Irving Stone’s hefty 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy : a Novel of Michelangelo starts off  with the 13-year-old Michelangelo signing on as apprentice to the leading artist in Florence. In a stunning reversal of normal practice, Michelangelo gets the artist to pay him for the privilege. It’s the most financially astute deal he ever pulls off . Once Michelangelo gets his hands on marble, he forgets all about money for the joy of sculpting.

Stone takes readers on a trip through Renaissance Italy as seen by Michelangelo, whose acquaintances included political leaders like the Medici, popes, writers, the best artists of he day, and a host of other 16th century celebrities.

Stone did extensive research for the novel, as the lengthy bibliography shows. Unfortunately, he tries to put everything he learned into the novel.

Stone packs so much detail into his narrative that nothing stands out.  Stone notes when the artist changes his clothes and what he wears to visit the Pope, but the man himself seems less alive than his statues.

Readers need a thorough grounding in Renaissance history to appreciate the novel, and  then they are likely to find reading it a tough job.

The Agony and the Ecstasy:  A Novel of Michelangelo
by Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1961
648 pages
1961 bestseller #1
My grade: C-

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni