Friday, March 25, 2016

A Pocket History of the United States by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager with Jeffrey Morris (1942, 1986)

Found this book in the trash heap.  It's not something I usually would even glance at - it looked like a text book - but I thought it would make some good "in between" reading - something to glance at every once in a while.  At this very moment as I type this, I'm enjoying it immensely - it's really quite well written, with great turns of phrase, like this one:

"Here was a great, shaggy continent, its Eastern third covered with pathless forests; its mountains, rivers, lakes, and rolling plains all upon a grandiose scale; it's Northern stretches fiercely cold in winter, its Southern areas burning hot in summer; filled with wild beasts, and peopled by a warlike, cruel, and treacherous people still in the Stone Age of culture."

This paragraph says two things about this book.  The first is that beautiful word "shaggy" which instantly calls to mind (at least to my mind) wildness and crag, mountain upon mountain covered with pine trees.  This was on page 2 - a literary beginning that to me meant this wasn't report fodder or simply a text book; some love and care went into the writing of this book.  Fine writing, and that has continued to prove true (I've reached the Revolutionary War as of this point).

Two, the "Stone Age of culture", those cruel and treacherous Indians.   That's definitely something wrong with this book - it's portrayal of Native Americans.  I think newer research and theories about Native American life prior to the coming of European settlers have revealed many new things about Native Americans - the noble savage never existed, they were much, much move "civilized" than given credit, that writers and historians had themes in mind when writing that did not include Indians (or Mexicans, or Russians, or Vikings, or the Chinese).  The writers treatment of Native Americans definitely has to be taken with a large grain of salt.  Those pesky treacherous Indians one one had are teaching the earliest colonials about corn and turkey and pumpkins and potatoes, and then turning around and slaughtering them all.  If they were so stone age, how come they had to do all the teaching?

Another beautiful passage:  Talking about "the back country," essentially the entire range of the Appalachians from north to south.  The back country "produced the archetype of restless pioneers in Daniel Boone... who in 1769 passed through the magic door that pierced the wild Appalachian wall into Kentucky- the Cumberland Gap."  A beautifully piece of prose, using the words "magic door that pierced" is so evocative and haunting.

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So I started this book months ago, and like I mentioned above, just read "in-between."  You can figure out what that means yourself.  I became far less enamored  of the book as time went on, but some reason, I couldn't put it down.  It definitely had a pro-labor slant, that would have made sense, coming from progressive historians of the 1940s.  At the same point, it was lousy when it came to writing about diversity and civil rights.  As the book grew - I imagine it was added to periodically - civil rights got more mention, but certainly earlier chapters, particularly those that mentioned Native Americans in "red man" type of terminology, weren't as palatable.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, but as a period piece of historical writing, taken with a somewhat jaundiced (and cynical) grain of salt, it was (mostly) engaging.


A Pocket History of the United StatesA Pocket History of the United States by Henry Steele Commager
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three months and hundreds of years later, I finished this pocket history of the United States. I literally found in a trash can. It was first published in 1942, and was renewed at various times since then; the edition I read is 1986, with Carter and Reagan getting scant coverage (although Carter's place in history already seemed to be firmly set in 1986). If you are looking for a modern history of the United States, this probably shouldn't be the book you pick up. What's interesting about this book is the study of history itself, and how over time, what's important to historians changes. The pro-labor slant of this book is evident again and again; the entire progressive era is one big chapter on the push Labor made against the Gilded Age plutocracy. If you are looking for diversity, you're going to be disappointed; there is much "red man" terminology when referring to Native Americans, also the empty new world concept (See1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for a look how the world was neither new nor particularly empty). African Americans and civil rights get scant attention until the 1960s, and even then it's not as in depth as I think a modern history (or text book) would make. All that said, there is some beautiful passages here, particularly the beginning. These authors - Allan Nevins, Henry Steele Commager, Jeffery Morris (whoever they may be) clearly love the United States in that old fashioned, flag waving, admirable patriotic sort of way. You know they dressed up in tricorns and muskets in 1976 (and probably before). The writing becomes more factual and dryer as the book progresses, but there are still some stirring phrases every so often (democracy verses totalitarianism is one such passage). I would not recommend this to anyone other than a student of history, and perhaps I should say a student of historians. But if you want to see how writing about the United States has changed over the last 75 years or so, pop this in your pocket for some fun reading.


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