- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sandra Day O’Connor need not read “Howards End,” by E. M. Forster, whose motto “Only connect” reflects his belief that people should “connect” with others of different classes and races and be sensitive as well as practical.

As Joan Biskupic shows in Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice (Ecco/HarperCollins, $16.95, 419 pages, illus.), Justice O’Connor’s path to power was rooted in her commitment to community and in her ability to impress virtually everybody she has ever met.

It didn’t hurt that she happened to be in the same law school class at Stanford as a future chief justice, William Rehnquist, and that, when she was an Arizona legislator, she happened to be invited to share a houseboat weekend with Chief Justice Warren Burger, where her “blend of lawyerly seriousness and Western common sense” captivated him.

Smart, attractive, hardworking and ambitious, she has managed throughout her remarkable career to project intelligence and competence in a nonthreatening way. Blessed with a judicial temperament and largely free of ideological baggage, she has fostered collegiality on the court, even to persuading all the justices to have lunch together after their daily oral arguments.

Ms. Biskupic, a longtime journalist with a law degree, has reported on the court for The Washington Post, USA Today and PBS, but she does not claim to have all the answers as to what makes so private a person as Justice O’Connor tick. The justice herself did not cooperate in the book, but most of the other justices and many of their assistants did, and the author has avoided a major pitfall: excessive speculation.

The book is a readable, insightful investigation of the accomplishments of the woman who once described herself as “a doer. There’s not a lot of introspection at the Lazy B [the family ranch] or in my life generally.”

The author emphasizes the development of Mrs. O’Connor’s competitiveness and independence within her family on the ranch and at boarding school in El Paso, the expansion of her horizons by a professor at Stanford (she went to law school at age 19), and the decision she and her ever-supportive husband made to settle in Arizona, where opportunities were greater than in California. Even while she was primarily at home rearing her three sons she “could be counted on for any civic cause, from the Junior League to the historical commission.”

When President Reagan announced, just before the election of 1980, that he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Burger, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and others called Mrs. O’Connor to his attention, and once the president met her he was so smitten that he refused to meet with any other prospects.

Ms. Biskupic skillfully demonstrates — without lapsing into legalese — how Justice O’Connor began as a reliable, states’ rights, conservative vote and became a more centrist justice, working with Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. to obtain a majority and taking over his role as the swing vote once he retired in 1987. The author carefully traces the evolution of Mrs. O’Connor’s views, amid the often sharp exchanges with her fellow justices, on affirmative action, abortion rights, the death penalty and religious freedom.

This is not the last book that will be written about the pivotal Justice O’Connor, but it makes an excellent start toward explaining this cultured, professional woman, wife, and mother who seems to have been able to do it all.

Nineteenth-century author Herman Melville is today remembered primarily for his novel “Moby Dick” — the story of the crazed Captain Ahab and his search for revenge against the great white whale that had cost him a leg. But Melville had a long career in writing and his life is now the subject of an excellent biography, Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, $30, 414 pages, illus.) by a prominent intellectual historian, Andrew Delbanco.

Melville grew up near Albany, N.Y., where the dominant event of his youth was his father’s bankruptcy when Herman was 12. He had little formal schooling but was an omnivorous reader, and he early felt the pull of the sea. In 1841 he shipped aboard the whaler Acushnet, but deserted 18 months later in the Marquesa Islands.

There he passed his time among friendly cannibals until escaping again, this time to Tahiti, and making his way home on a U.S. Navy frigate, United States. Melville would later write, “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Melville determined on a writing career, and the sea was his stage. “Typee” and “Omoo,” both drawn from his South Seas adventures, established him as a promising writer far removed from the genteel New England tradition.

Melville married into a prominent Massachusetts family and purchased a farm at Pittsfield, Mass., where he became a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne. There he wrote “White Jacket,” based on his return from Tahiti on the United States, a book in which Melville’s vivid description of flogging helped end this practice in the U.S. Navy.

In 1851 Melville published “Moby Dick,” which began as another sea adventure but evolved into perhaps the most complex allegory in American literature. Ishmael, the narrator, signs aboard a Nantucket whaler, Pequod, only to find that it is commanded by the psychotic Captain Ahab, obsessed with his search for Moby Dick. When the whale is at last sighted and attacked, it rams and sinks the Pequod, leaving Ishmael the sole survivor.

Metaphysical in its inspiration and disorganized as a narrative, “Moby Dick” baffled Melville’s contemporaries much as it does college students today. Earnings from American sales of the book totaled $556, considerably less than those from any of the author’s earlier works. Melville continued writing, but he soon vanished from the front rank of the literati. Beset with financial problems, he grew increasingly introspective and appears to have abused his long-suffering wife, Elizabeth.

One of Melville’s contemporaries recalled that the author “was not a man of noticeable appearance; but when the narrative impulse was on him, he looked like all the things he was describing — savages, sea-captains … or the terrible Moby Dick himself.”

Working as a customs inspector in New York after the Civil War, Melville completed a short novel, “Billy Budd,” perhaps his most accessible work. Billy Budd tells the story of a young British seaman who is hanged, amid universal expressions of regret, for his accidental killing of a cruel officer. Its appeal — the dominance of the powerful over the powerless — has led to its production as both a play and an opera since its discovery in 1924.

Literary biographies are demanding, for they deal not in tangible events like battles or elections but in ideas. Melville, who destroyed his incoming correspondence and left only some 300 letters of his own, is a notable challenge to any biographer.

Mr. Delbanco makes splendid use of such documents as he has, and skillfully draws biographical inferences from incidents in Melville’s writings. He calls attention to Melville’s rich use of language and concludes that “the glare of his genius remains undimmed.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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