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Bobrick, Benson 1947-

Bobrick, Benson 1947-

PERSONAL:

Born 1947. Education: Columbia University, Ph.D.

CAREER:

Historian and author.

WRITINGS:

Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways, Newsweek Books (New York, NY), 1981, published as Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, and War, Quill (New York, NY), 1986.

Parsons Brinckerhoff: The First Hundred Years, Van Nostrand (New York, NY), 1985.

Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.

East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and the Quest for a Cure, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001, published as The Making of the English Bible, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 2001.

Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Fight for Freedom: The American Revolutionary War, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2004.

The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS:

Praised by New York Times Book Review contributor Max Byrd as "perhaps the most interesting—and certainly the least predictable—American historian writing today," independent scholar Benson Bobrick specializes in complex historical events and characters. His first book, Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, and War—originally published as Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways—is a sociological history of the subway systems of London, Paris, New York, Moscow, and other major world cities. Many reviewers were impressed with the book's scope and engaging writing. A Publishers Weekly critic, for one, commented that Bobrick "exploits an unexpectedly rich lode of subject matter with care and enthusiasm," and called the author a "gifted writer." A contributor to Choice criticized Bobrick for sacrificing intellectual complexity for readability, pointing out that the author neglects issues relating to engineering and technology, but New York Times Book Review critic Richard F. Shepard praised the author's explanation of the psychology involved in making tunnels and recommended Labyrinths of Iron as good reading.

Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible is Bobrick's biography of the murderous Russian leader. Like Labyrinths of Iron, it synthesizes research gathered from many sources. Though New York Times Book Review contributor Alfred J. Rieber expressed disappointment that Bobrick did not discuss the role played by economic conditions in Russia, or Ivan's reforms in the areas of commerce, government, the military, and the Russian church, he praised the book for its portrayal of Ivan's character. Rieber noted that Bobrick avoids "amateur psychologizing" and concentrates mainly on biology and politics. Philip Longworth, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, acknowledged the book's popular appeal but questioned its academic rigor. Bobrick "is insufficiently discriminating," according to Longworth, who pointed out that the author repeats common misunderstandings about Ivan and relies too heavily on "hostile witnesses" in forming his opinions.

Researched during Bobrick's travels in Russia just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia traces the history of Siberia from 1581, when the territory was first explored by Russians, to 1991 and the fall of the Soviet empire. Like Bobrick's study of Ivan, this book met with generally positive reviews, particularly for its scope and its wealth of information. Jane E. Good, writing in the Washington Post Book World, found East of the Sun engaging and full of "interesting anecdotes and insights," but added that Bobrick presents little recent information. Norman Davies, in his assessment for the New York Times Book Review, took note of the scope of research and reader interest in the subject but faulted Bobrick for ignoring "crucial non-Russian perspectives," particularly that of the Chinese. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor called Bobrick a "versatile researcher" who "firmly fixes explorers and conquerors … to the native tribes and physical landscape they subdued."

Bobrick tackled a more personal project in Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and the Quest for a Cure, a historical and physiological examination of a condition from which Bobrick himself suffers. A writer for Kirkus Reviews described Knotted Tongues as "a surprisingly entertaining essay." Reviewing the book for the Nation, Edward Hoagland—who is also a stutterer—stated that it "delves into … matters more comprehensively and with deeper metaphorical resonance than any of its competitors."

Bobrick returned to political history with the critically acclaimed Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York Times Book Review critic Frederick Allen praised the book highly, noting that Bobrick "has studied his subject deeply and writes about it with real understanding and verve." Allen also commented on Bobrick's skill in conveying the "texture of life at the time, with all the necessary sense of how people lived and thought." Singling out Bobrick's ability to draw strong characters—George Washington as epic hero, Benedict Arnold as villain—the critic added that the author does not oversimplify the story as a conflict between good and evil. A Library Journal contributor deemed Angel in the Whirlwind "a glorious retelling of the American Revolution."

A revolution of a very different kind is explored in Bobrick's Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. This 2001 book investigates the many social, religious, and political waves that were created in English history after technological advances allowed the Bible to be translated and printed in English and made available to the general public. As Bobrick relates, for centuries, the Latin version of the Bible had been jealously guarded by the Catholic Church and by royalty in Europe and England for fear that extending access to the scriptures to a larger public would result in unorthodoxy and political turmoil. However, intellectuals such as John Wycliffe felt that it was important to make the Bible accessible to speakers of English, and popular pressure to do so eventually prevailed. Social and political conflict did indeed erupt as a result of the Bible's translation and distribution, just as the clergy and royalty had feared. "Once the people were free to interpret the word of God according to the light of their own understanding," Bobrick explained in an interview with Ray Suarez posted on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Web site, "they began to question the authority of all their inherited institutions, which led to reform within the Church." Wide as the Waters also explains the political implications of the translation, which caused people to doubt the divine right of kings, thus instigating government reform in England.

Additionally, in Wide as the Waters, Bobrick maintains that the English Bible improved literacy throughout England. "There was such a hunger and thirst for scripture [in England]," he explained, "that once it was available in English, people learned how to read their own language in order to read it, and children were then brought up learn[ing] their ABCs from biblical texts. The rise of literacy … owes a great deal of its momentum and growth to the translation of scripture into English." This education helped make the English citizenry some of the best educated in the West; it also led to the standardization of English and to its evolution into its modern form. Furthermore, Bobrick asserts in his book that the effect of the translation of scripture in England was much more wide-ranging than in any European countries.

Reviewing Wide as the Waters in the New York Times Book Review, Simon Winchester described it as "ambitious," as well as "fascinating, readable and scholarly." Calling Bobrick "an exceptionally able writer of popular histories," Winchester added: "Bobrick's message throughout is abundantly clear…. The word of the Scriptures was a formidable ally for all those … who demanded the rights of the individual and their primacy in matters of governance." Still, some minor complaints were noted. In a review for Reason, Mark Goldblatt wrote that Bobrick cited too many secondary sources and used an "abominable method of citation," often neglecting to provide the name of a scholar within the text itself and forcing the reader to refer to the back of the book. Nevertheless, Goldblatt asserted that "these are quibbles…. Bobrick has written a fine, readable study on an important subject." Harper's reviewer Guy Davenport likewise praised the book for its importance and readability, calling Wide as the Waters an "admirably clear and abundantly informative history of the Bible in English."

In Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War, Bobrick mines the letters of his great-grandfather, Benjamin "Webb" Baker, and from those letters creates what Library Journal reviewer Edward Metz described as a "thoroughly absorbing survey" of the U.S. Civil War's western theatre and "an intimate, firsthand account of a soldier's travels and hardships." Baker, a member of the 25th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, saw action in the battles of Pea Ridge, Stone's River, Chickamauga, and General Sherman's devastating March to the Sea. Through his ninety letters home to his mother, as well as what Booklist contributor Roland Green described as Bobrick's "excellent narrative continuum," readers gain a sense of the war through the eyes of a thoughtful, intelligent American. Praising Baker as "an impressive person … likeable, brave, admirably selfless," and "idealistic," Max Byrd added in the New York Times Book Review that Testament "is obviously a labor of love, but it is also, in Robert Frost's lovely phrase, the tribute of the current to the source."

Bobrick delved further into American history with his 2004 work, Fight for Freedom: The American Revolutionary War, a book that makes available to younger readers some of the research and information contained in his earlier book Angel in the Whirlwind. Geared toward middle school students, Fight for Freedom provides biographical information on major actors in the Revolutionary War, along with a basic history of the conflict and numerous sidebars containing quick facts. On each facing page is a full-page illustration that deals with aspects of the accompanying text. Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan noted that "students will find the book a well-organized and clearly written introduction to the war." School Library Journal writer Elaine Fort Weischedel concluded the book was "an excellent choice for both general readers and report writers," while a Kirkus Reviews critic called it a "must for libraries and classrooms."

In his 2005 title, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, Bobrick surveys over five thousand years of the "science" of astrology from Sumerian times to the present. Much of the book is given over to profiles of famous astrologers. Dan Harms noted in Library Journal that the book is "well written" and provides examples of astrological predictions that were "striking and entertaining." However, Harms also faulted Bobrick for failing to provide adequate historical context to his survey, to look at mistakes astrologers had made, and to provide skeptical voices to the efficacy of astrology. A more positive assessment came from a Publishers Weekly contributor who commented: "With great passion and clarity, Bobrick has written the perfect thinking reader's companion to the daily horoscope." Similar praise came from Booklist writer Kristine Huntley, who concluded that The Fated Sky is "an accessible, enjoyable look at an influential practice throughout the ages."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

America, September 27, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, p. 2.

Atlantic, August, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 96.

Booklist, October 15, 1992, Gilbert Taylor, review of East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia, pp. 395-396; April 1, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and the Quest for a Cure, p. 1368; June 1, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 1652; March 1, 2001, Steven Schroeder, review of Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, p. 1210; September 15, 2003, Roland Green, review of Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War, p. 196; November 15, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of Fight for Freedom: The American Revolutionary War, p. 575; November 15, 2005, Kristine Huntley, review of The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, p. 7.

British Heritage, September, 2002, Katherine Bailey, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 60.

Catholic Insight, January-February, 2002, David Dooley, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 44.

Choice, January, 1982, review of Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways, p. 646.

Christian Century, November 7, 2001, Susan M. Felch, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 29.

Harper's, May, 2001, Guy Davenport, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 66.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues, p. 116; May 15, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 767; September 1, 2003, review of Testament, p. 1108; September 15, 2004, review of Fight for Freedom, p. 910.

Library Journal, August, 1987, review of Labyrinths of Iron, p. 119; February 15, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues, p. 175; June 15, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 821; February 15, 2001, Michael W. Ellis, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 174; January, 2002, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 48; November 15, 2003, Edward Metz, review of Testament, p. 79; October 15, 2005, Dan Harms, review of The Fated Sky, p. 64.

Nation, June 30, 1997, Edward Hoagland, review of Knotted Tongues, pp. 32-33.

New Republic, June 12, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues, p. 42.

Newsweek, November 23, 1981, review of Labyrinths of Iron, p. 110.

New Yorker, November 23, 1981, review of Labyrinths of Iron, p. 226.

New York Times, July 28, 2001, Edward Rothstein, "When a Demystified Bible Became Anathema to Orthodoxy," pp. A17, B11.

New York Times Book Review, September 7, 1986, Richard F. Shepard, review of Labyrinths of Iron, p. 36; November 8, 1987, Alfred J. Rieber, review of Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible, p. 60; November 15, 1992, Norman Davies, review of East of the Sun, p. 37; May 7, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues, p. 14; July 6, 1997, Frederick Allen, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 8; April 8, 2001, Simon Winchester, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 8; June 3, 2001, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 31; February 17, 2002, Scott Veale, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 20; November 16, 2003, Max Byrd, review of Testament, p. 9; February 5, 2006, Dick Teresi, "The Stars Can't Help It," review of The Fated Sky, p. 16.

Observer (London, England), December 19, 1993, review of East of the Sun, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, July 24, 1981, review of Labyrinths of Iron, p. 138; August 7, 1987, review of Fearful Majesty, pp. 440-441; February 13, 1995, review of Knotted Tongues, pp. 68-69; October 6, 1997, review of Angel in the Whirlwind, p. 2; February 19, 2001, review of Wide as the Waters, p. 78; September 26, 2005, review of The Fated Sky, p. 76.

Reason, December, 2001, Mark Goldblatt, "Revolutionary Book: Did the Vernacular Bible Create Individual Liberty?," p. 73.

School Library Journal, November, 2004, Elaine Fort Weischedel, review of Fight for Freedom, p. 159; April, 2005, review of Fight for Freedom, p. S39.

Times Literary Supplement, October 12, 1990, Philip Longworth, review of Fearful Majesty, p. 1090.

Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2001, Marc Arkin, "The Word in New Words," p. A18.

Washington Post Book World, December 20, 1992, Jane E. Good, review of East of the Sun, pp. 3, 7.

ONLINE

Public Broadcasting Service Web site,http://www.pbs.org/ (July 25, 2001), Ray Suarez, "Author Benson Bobrick Discusses His New Book, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired."

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