David Hajdu
February 13, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Pillar of Fire

Current Status
In Season
Taylor Branch

We gave it an A

In the days following his State of the Union address, the conflicting messages about President Clinton were dizzying. I couldn’t see him in perspective anymore, only as an ethereal figure at the heart of talk about sexual excess, grand oratory, master politicking, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Then I read a book by Clinton’s friend and sometime speechwriter Taylor Branch, who explores many of those same themes, though in a context so different, so dramatic, and so illuminating that Clinton no longer seemed ephemeral to me: He disappeared altogether.

The subject of Branch’s epic new work of nonfiction, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, is Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the author describes as “the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” Fortunately, however, Branch succeeds in evoking King as more than metaphor — rather, as a conflicted man with a genius for understanding race and inspiring others to rise above it. Everybody knows King changed the world; Pillar of Fire, the second work in a trilogy by Branch about King and his time (the first, Parting the Waters, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1989), brings us back into his world to show us how much we’ve forgotten: quotidian acts of horror, the tortured heroism of Lyndon Johnson on behalf of civil rights legislation, the brutal eloquence of Muhammad Ali. In a masterly departure from conventional biography, Branch attends equally to King and dozens of other figures in the civil rights movement around him, behind him, and ahead of him. And does it, most miraculously, with a sense of humor. A

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