Not a Book Club Pick: Good Brother, Bad Brother

Good Brother Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin

What would you do if your brother killed a President? How could you cope with that? How would it change your life?

These questions are not answered definitively, but Giblin does give some insight into the life of Edwin Booth, who--had he not been John Wilkes' brother--might even now be remembered as one of America's finest actors.

The book seems to be written for upper elementary or junior high students. It's easy to understand, but some of the language seemed very juvenile to me. There were times when I felt that Giblin over-explained, but then I remembered that just because I know something, it doesn't mean everybody else does.

As I read the book, I became more and more impressed with Edwin Booth and his abilities as an actor (at least as they were described in reviews of the time). I wish that he were better known, as he seems to have made quite an impression on theater audiences in the 1800s. Apparently his acting was a bit more realistic than his contemporaries', who tended to be more flamboyant in their performances. Giblin does mention that Edwin made some phonograph copies of plays or stories so that his grandchildren could hear his voice; I would be interested in listening to them, as most critics made special mention of how his voice carried throughout the theaters.

John Wilkes Booth was also very well-known as an actor. His style was quite different from Edwin's; one critic said this: "Edwin has more poetry, John Wilkes more passion; Edwin has more melody of movement and utterant, John Wilkes more energy and animation; Edwin is more correct; John Wilkes more spontaneous ..."

Furthermore, he was clearly a gifted actor, but he was the kind of person who wanted to live by talent alone and never work on his craft. Giblin does say that John Wilkes did not use his voice properly onstage, drawing volume from his throat rather than his diaphragm, which caused him to eventually lose his voice for an extended period. My impression is that he did not try to delve into his characters, but instead played them as a variation on John Wilkes Booth.

Frankly, it seemed to me that John Wilkes was a spoiled brat and that his mother coddled him and gave in to him far too much. Which is an excellent object lesson for parents: if you don't discipline your kid, he may grow up to shoot the President.

I don't know if Giblin was not objective enough in his writing, or if I had preconceived notions about John Wilkes, but ... man, I hate that guy. He was overzealous in his support of the South (which, if I'm saying that, you know he was cracked), and he would be all, "We deserve to own slaves! We don't need no Yanks telling us what to do!" And I would think, "Dude. You lived in MARYLAND. That is the NORTH." (Technically speaking, it was a border state, but ... please. It is way up there; look at a map).

Edwin had been away from home, traveling with his father, for most of John Wilkes' childhood, so the brothers were not very close. Edwin felt that unity between the states was important, but he did not seem to be hardnosed about it, or intolerant of other views, as John Wilkes seemed to be. Eventually, the brothers got to the point where they just wouldn't discuss politics with each other, as it was too volatile an issue. At one point, John Wilkes wrote a letter to a friend that said if it weren't for his mother living with Edwin, he's never visit at all.

I didn't know, before, that John Wilkes and some friends had planned to kidnap Lincoln, or even that he had co-conspirators at all. Ultimately, the assassination was wholly John Wilkes' idea, and he talked two of his friends into murdering Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward on the same night; the guy who was supposed to kill Johnson chickened out, and the the guy who went after Seward did manage to stab him three times (Seward survived).

There are a lot of details about the assassination, which I found to be interesting, but not gross. That's a pretty fine line, and Giblin did a great job by recounting the facts and not mucking the story up with a bunch of gory details.

There's a lot of information about what John Wilkes did afterwards: his escape, the manhunt, and his eventual death. All of his co-conspirators were arrested; four were hanged and the rest were given prison sentences (interesting: the guy who held JW's horse at the theatre was put in jail, though that was his only connection to the assassination--he had not been in on the plot at all).

Edwin and the rest of his family were obviously affected by their brother's reputation. Edwin did not act onstage for over a year, and all of the family were afraid for their lives, as people were very angered by the assassination. When he did return to the stage, he was accompanied by bodyguards, just in case some nutjob tried to avenge the President's death.

The rest of the book is about Edwin's continued acting success, and though it was quite interesting to me, it's too much for me to recount here. I will say that he toured Europe for a good while and was well-received there. That's quite an accomplishment, I think, because oftentimes American actors will find that their performances are not appreciated as much overseas as they are here.

For the rest of his life, Edwin would never talk about John Wilkes or allow anyone else around him to mention his name. He was disgusted that, when people wrote of him in newspapers, he was always mentioned as "Edwin Booth, brother of the man who killed the President," or a variation thereof.

I found the book to be very interesting; I'm definitely going to recommend it to some of my students. It's not really a quick read; it took me about three days, because I needed some time to digest some of the information and compare it to what I already knew (or what I thought I knew), but overall, I learned a lot about two brothers who were both famous in their own right, but for very different reasons.

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