About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

115 - A Short History of the United States

Same old song here. I'm hoping for real reviews later, but in the meantime, I'm just noting titles and authors to whittle down the backlog:

115 - A Short History of the United States, by Robert V. Remini (HarperCollins, 2008). OK, I have to admit, the title and format of this book made my eyebrows shoot up. Simply put, it's not a lengthy book; 373 pages, including the references and index, and the dimensions are about the size of a hardcover novel. How on earth does one do 500+ years of history justice in 11 short chapters? Some of the answer lies in how the chapters are constructed; for example, Chapter 7 lumps together "Manifest Destiny, Progressivism, War, and the Roaring Twenties," while its successor covers the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II.

Add to that the whole "are you smarter than a 5th grader?" angle. I consider myself pretty well-informed about U.S. history, but certainly there are gaps in what I know. From the Great Depression, even the 1920s, on, I'm in pretty good shape, but when it comes to the real olden days, I pretty much jump from one war to the next, without much recollection of what's in between save the motley stew of misinformation I've picked up from historical fiction. Perhaps that's why I chuckled at Remini's lumping the Great Depression and WWII together, but didn't really bat an eye at the "Emerging Identity" or "Jacksonian Era" chapters, even though those covered longer spans of time (1797-1829 and 1829-1846, respectively).

And so I checked out Remini's book. While it was a bit of a slow starter, I'm glad I stuck with it, warts and all. It has its flaws, but overall, provides a decent overview of U.S. history, and an extensive but not overwhelming reading list at the end for those (like me) who find that the 25-cent tour only whets our appetite for more details. The text really shines in two areas. One is its discussion of presidential selection. While the treatments are necessarily abbreviated, Remini does manage to give the reader a flavor for all but 2 of the presidential elections (the 2008 election hadn't yet happened when the book was printed, but I'm not sure why he fails to mention the 1852 election of Franklin Pierce) the U.S. has seen in its 233-year history. Anyone who remembers holding their breath in November 2000 and listening to yet another joke about hanging chads will enjoy reading about the election of 1824, when John Quincy Adams became president in exchange for making House Speaker Henry Clay Secretary of State, even though Andrew Jackson had more popular and electoral votes; or 1876, when allegations of fraud in Louisiana, South Carolina, and, yes, Florida, put the election in the hands of a 15-member Electoral Commission, which eventually split 8 to 7 along strict party lines, giving all the disputed votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden (again, even though Tilden led the popular vote). Likewise, more than 100 years before George Bush the elder's Willie Horton ads in 1988, and the era of the sound bite, came the elections of 1884 ("Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine" vs. Grover "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha" Cleveland) and 1840 (William Henry Harrison, a/k/a "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too," vs. incumbent Martin Van Buren, which Remini describes as "a rollicking campaign of songs, parades, noise, and nonsense. ... Complete with hard cide, coonskin hats, rolling balls, and other such paraphernalia, this campaign was one of the liveliest and funniest in American history.")

The other thing that impressed me about the book was Remini's ability to describe not just what happened, but why it was significant. For example, he notes Henry Clay's vehement objection to then-General Andrew Jackson's 1816 invasion of Florida, which set the stage for an enmity between the two that continued to affect politics for the next 20 years; James Garfield's election in 1880 as the first president to be elected directly from the House of Representatives; Grover Cleveland's record-setting 414 vetoes in his first presidential administration; and Ross Perot's 1992 performance as the strongest by a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose in 1912.

As I noted earlier, the book has its flaws. One, though this will sound picky, is the maps. I'm usually a big fan of maps, but here, they're poorly executed, many are difficult to read (blurred, and with tiny text, which makes me think someone just shrunk 81/2" x 11" documents down to be roughly index-card sized), and they're often inserted at a point in the text that has nothing to do with what the map's illustrating. For example, a map illustrating westward exploration and expansion from 1803 to 1807 is tucked away amidst the Revolutionary War, and a map of the 50 states and their 2-letter postal abbreviations lands smack dab in the middle of the Cold War and Sputnik. (The latter makes some sense, I guess, as it comes just before a note about the election of 1960 being the first in which the new states of Alaska and Hawaii voted, but the lack of content or explanation made me look at it and say, "Huh?") Remini also has a habit of jumping around chronologically, and while I understand the reasons for this (it makes sense, for example, if you're writing about World War II, to talk about the North African, European, and Pacific campaigns separately, rather than follow a strict time line that jumps around from place to place and makes it tough to follow the big picture), some additional help (i.e., clarifying dates) would have been appreciated.

I also take issue with some of the book's presentation of late 20th and early 21st century history. Perhaps this is inevitable; Remini is primarily a Jacksonian-era historian, and the challenges of interpreting cause and effect and other relationships is different when we're looking back 200 years than when we're considering a more recent period from which frankly, all the dust is still settling. For example, in the "Cold War and Civil Rights" chapter, he notes that the 1950s saw the emergence of a youth culture that found its expression in rock and roll music. Fair enough, but the latter half of this paragraph conflates events which, while they may have happened around the same time, weren't all that closely related otherwise:
"With the arrival of the British rock group the Beatles, the popularity of rock and roll dominated all other forms of music. What soon evolved was an anti-establishment counterculture in which 'hippies,' as they were known, wore long hair, engaged in communal living, became sexually promiscuous, experimented with marijuana and other drugs, and foreswore political involvement. This hippie phase of the youth movement faded by the early 1970s."
While there was likely some overlap between Beatlemania and hippiedom, the Fab 4's stuff was at best, a small fraction of the counterculture's music. What happened to Jimi Hendrix? Bob Dylan? CSN? I recognize that a book of this breadth necessarily sacrifices some level of depth, but given the full page devoted to the Roaring '20s jazz age culture, it seems like a bit more light could have been shed on the youth movement of the 1960s and '70s, rather than implying that all Beatles fans were pot-smoking, free-loving communitarians straight off the set of Hair. Mr. Remini, allow me to present my mother.

The last chapter, entitled "The Conservative Revolution," makes me further suspicious about the chip Remini may have on his shoulder about contemporary history. The title itself seems, if nothing else, a bit premature; as an historian, he should know better than to proclaim events of 15 years ago "revolutionary" without at least some disclaimer about how they'll be viewed in a generation or 3. Moreover, some of the comments about social changes are just plain wrong, or at least misleading:
"Of particular concern to an older generation was the fact that the family in which children were raised by two parents of the opposite sex, one of whom (usually the male) worked and the other (usually the female) stayed home and raised the children, was disintegrating at an alarming rate. Marriage was often put off until the male had reached his mid-thirties and the female her late twenties."
While I won't argue with his assertion that "an older generation" may be concerned about this trend, I do think he's remiss in taking this concern at face value. Granted, this is my chip on the shoulder, but I feel compelled to point out that a) it's not that the average age of first marriage today is unusually high, but that in the 1950s, it was unusually low; and b) while it's true that compared to 50 years ago, far more children now live in single-parent homes because their parents are divorced or were never married, we also have far fewer children lose a parent to death (from wars, illness, etc.). I won't hijack my own review for the sake of my trusty soapbox, but I do think Remini does better when he sticks to legislative and political history, especially in the modern era, and leaves contemporary social history to those who specialize in this field (Stephanie Coontz's work makes fascinating reading, if you're interested.)

That said, I still consider A Brief History on balance as a book that did what I wanted it to do: provided a mostly-balanced and thorough introduction to U.S. history, and provided a refresher in some of the pre-WWII era stuff that I either didn't learn or have forgotten since high school. I appreciate the Reading List at the end of the text, too, and am adding several of Remini's recommendations to my TTR list as we speak.

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