The Best Way to Learn the History of the United States

Sorry, this is not about my Argentine mistress.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I have a regret to share.

No, not about my Argentine mistress.

My sorrow is, sadly, far more mundane. It is that I got into this history gig somewhat late in life, and though I have been at it for 15 years, my amateur? undocumented? fledgling? status will forever keep me from being chosen to write a volume of the Oxford History of the United States.

But that won't stop me from reading, and recommending, these marvelous books.

The Oxford formula is simple. Take a great historian. Give them a contract, an "era" in U.S. history, and about 700 or 800 pages with which to play. Two late greats—C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter—hatched the idea, 40-plus years ago. The first volume was published in 1982.

And so we have had James McPherson on the Civil War (Battle Cry of Freedom), and David M. Kennedy on the Great Depression and World War II (Freedom From Fear), and James T. Patterson on the postwar era (Grand Expectations).

I've just finished Robert Middlekauff's wonderful study (the 2005 edition, revised and expanded) of the American Revolution (The Glorious Cause), which, with no intention of slighting the skills and heroism of Abe Lincoln, persuaded me that George Washington was, and must forever be, the Greatest American.

Now on my bedside stack: Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, the story of how the post-Revolution generations of Americans advanced, or bungled, the holy causes of freedom and liberty they inherited from the Founding Fathers. I need to read it fast. Due out in the fall is Empire of Liberty—the story of the Federalist and Jeffersonian era by Gordon S. Wood.

The series has had its ups and downs. It has failed repeatedly at producing a book on the post-Civil War era, one of our most turbulent, fascinating, and overlooked times. Three of the authors—McPherson, Kennedy, and Howe—won Pulitzer prizes, but occasionally, the historians assigned to the task have faltered, grown ill or died, or ended up writing quite another book. And so with The Age of Federalism, published by Oxford, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick dazzled readers and historians and won a Bancroft Prize, but were not officially made part of the series.

A few critics have complained that the whole idea of the series is middlebrow, and the analysis unoriginal. In one sense they are right. Any volume that has to deal with an era, in encyclopedic fashion, runs a risk of reading like a James Michener novel, plodding through the years with paper heroes. The great dramas of battle, or political intrigue, are inevitably boiled down to unsatisfactory capsules. It takes an author of great skill, like the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did in his own history of the New Deal, to capture the essence of a politician or businessman in three or four unforgettable paragraphs.  

For foreign policy mavens, the Oxford editors have deviated from their formula, and issued From Colony to Superpower, by George Herring, a study spanning all of our history, on American foreign relations. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I like the original chronological approach. And when the editors asked Patterson to expand his take on postwar America to include the Nixon and Reagan and Clinton eras (Restless Giant), I think the Oxford folks made a mistake.

History needs distance. Even in Grand Expectations, his story of the 1950s and 1960s, you can see Patterson struggling a bit. I have to think there is just too much locked away in the presidential libraries and letters and diaries and unpublished memoirs and E-mails of recent years to allow us to properly and objectively analyze our own history—and there are far too many dominoes still falling to let us make judgments on the Clintons, or Reagan. Heck, the Nixon library just released more tapes the other day.

But these are quibbles. This series is jammed full of revealing statistics on social and economic trends, and great anecdotes about heroic, and average, Americans. And if you're the kind of reader, as I am, who likes to collect books for their reassuring heft—to be there when you just have to have a name or date immediately summonable—they look great upon the shelf. 

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