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Best Books of 2013 About American History

A splendid rendering of the messy human story of our fourth-most populous state.

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FINDING FLORIDA

A rich and lively history of Florida, minus the Disney gloss.

“To find the real Florida you…must tear up the picture postcards! Get rid of the plumed conquistadors and Confederate cavaliers!” writes veteran journalist and native Floridian Allman (Rogue State: America at War with the World, 2004, etc.). In this colorful, sometimes angry account, he shatters five centuries of mythmaking to tell the real story of a soggy, inhospitable place with few resources, whose most memorable events are often fabrications and whose real history has been hidden by boosters and historians. Ponce de León did not discover Florida. Nor was he searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth, popularized by Washington Irving. But the courtier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, since airbrushed out of history, did secure Florida for Spain in 1565, slaughtering Frenchmen near St. Augustine. In 1816, on Gen. Andrew Jackson’s orders, Americans committed “one of the worst massacres in American history,” killing hundreds of civilians in the Indian, black, and mixed-race community known as Negro Fort, now the Fort Gadsden Historic Recreation Center. A turning point in the U.S. acquisition of Florida, the massacre was followed by years of inhumane policies toward Indians and blacks. The author lambasts the work of historians who have whitewashed Florida’s unseemly moments in the apparent belief that people do not like to be reminded of unpleasant things. Much of his gripping narrative focuses on key figures like Seminole resistance leader Osceola, who later became a celebrity Indian chief; industrialist Henry Flagler, one of the indefatigable promoters who made waterlogged land seem like real estate; and go-getter Walter P. Fraser, who turned St. Augustine into a travel destination and precursor of Florida theme parks.

A splendid rendering of the messy human story of our fourth-most populous state.

Pub Date: March 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0802120762

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

A welcome addition to a rich, indispensable field of scholarly study.

OUR LIVES, OUR FORTUNES, AND OUR SACRED HONOR

THE FORGING OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, 1774-1776

To create this lively study of the main players of the two Continental Congresses, Beeman (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania) draws on his wealth of research from his previous, award-winning works, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009) and Patrick Henry (1974).

The author concentrates on the fascinating human contrasts among the delegates, from the fiery Bostonians, including the Adamses, to the loyalist New Yorkers, as they brought with them their provincial biases and sincere and honorable hopes for fair, just government, but mostly a desire for reconciliation with the British crown. Indeed, Beeman’s leitmotif throughout his fluid study of the events of the key 22 months is the frank reluctance on the part of the delegates to make that rupture, as Pennsylvania lawyer John Dickinson would eloquently argue in moving speeches opposing independence up until the decisive vote of July 2, 1776. While Virginia’s “son of thunder” Patrick Henry harangued the delegates on the second day of the first Congress with an appeal to their “American” rather than regional identities, the others were not yet ready to renounce the British constitution, hammering out successive appeals to the king, despite the hardening of British sympathies against them. From voting on the banning of British imports and exports to appointing George Washington as commander of the Continental Army to the selection of little-known Thomas Jefferson to the committee to write a declaration of independence to the publication of Thomas Paine’s incendiary Common Sense, Beeman elegantly moves through the deeply compelling process of how these motley characters fashioned government as an agency for the people.

A welcome addition to a rich, indispensable field of scholarly study.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-465-02629-6

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

An authoritative, illuminating history/memoir.

YEAR ZERO

A HISTORY OF 1945

Insightful meditation on the world’s emergence from the wreckage of World War II.

Buruma (Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism/Bard Coll.; Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, 2010, etc.) offers a vivid portrayal of the first steps toward normalcy in human affairs amid the ruins of Europe and Asia. The end of hostilities left landscapes of rubble and eerie silence and an economic collapse that gave rise to countless black markets. There was widespread hunger and misery. Millions were displaced, including Buruma’s grandfather, who was seized by the Nazis, forced to work as a laborer in Berlin and finally reunited with his family after the war. Many of the displaced were afraid to go home, fearful that their homes were gone or that they would be regarded as strangers. Buruma re-creates the emotions of the time: the joy that lipstick brought to emaciated women in Bergen-Belsen; the wild abandon and eroticism of the liberation; and the desire for vengeance, sometimes officially encouraged, as in Russian road signs that said, “Soldier, you are in Germany. Take revenge on the Hitlerites.” By the end of 1945, after years of danger and chaos, most people yearned for a more traditional order to life. They “hungered for the trappings of the New World, however crude, because the Old World had collapsed in such disgrace, not just physically, but culturally, intellectually, spiritually.” Recounting the occupations of Germany and Japan and life in the Allied nations, Buruma finds that the war was a great leveler, eliminating inequalities in Great Britain and rooting out feudal customs and habits in Japan. Despite much longing for a new world under global government, postwar life was shaped not by moral ideals but by the politics of the Cold War.

An authoritative, illuminating history/memoir.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59420-436-4

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

This detailed, mostly worshipful account will not convince everyone, but few will put it down.

JFK'S LAST HUNDRED DAYS

THE TRANSFORMATION OF A MAN AND THE EMERGENCE OF A GREAT PRESIDENT

Prolific popular historian Clarke (The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America, 2008, etc.) argues that the charismatic president, whose achievements are generally low-rated by scholars, in his final months revealed himself as a great statesman.

The book opens on August 7, 1963, when Jackie delivered a premature son whose devastating death brought the couple together. The author spends much time on JFK’s personal life, not avoiding his well-known sexual appetite and often crippling medical problems. On the political front, this period saw the approval of the first nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy was not so fortunate with his proposals to Congress for a strong civil rights bill and a tax cut to lower the very high rates Americans had been paying since World War II. Both bills stalled: Southern legislators opposed any law advancing civil rights, and Republicans, in those far-off days, considered the tax cut fiscally irresponsible. Their passage required the political skills of JFK’s successor and unhappy vice president, Lyndon Johnson, universally despised by Kennedy aides as “Uncle Cornpone." Clarke emphasizes that JFK yearned to withdraw American advisers from Vietnam, which seems true, but since most aides and ultimately Kennedy himself decided that a noncommunist South Vietnam was vital to American security, intervention was inevitable once it became clear that South Vietnam’s army couldn’t defeat the Vietcong. Clarke certainly demonstrates that three often painful years in office had taught Kennedy valuable lessons. No one can say what would have happened if he had lived, but no one will deny that he was a spectacularly appealing character, and Clarke delivers a thoroughly delightful portrait.

This detailed, mostly worshipful account will not convince everyone, but few will put it down.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59420-425-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

Eisler’s fine, thorough work begs for a fresh reappraisal of this pioneering artist.

THE RED MAN'S BONES

GEORGE CATLIN, ARTIST AND SHOWMAN

A welcome new evaluation of a significant American artist honed by the Wild West spirit and hucksterism of the age.

Biographer of Byron, Chopin, George Sand and others (Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, 2007, etc.), Eisler now turns her considerable research talents to fleshing out the life and work of Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin (1796–1892), whose sympathetic portraits of the Native Americans he sought out and lived among render an incalculable record of (and tribute to) a vanished people. Trained as a lawyer, Catlin fled the tediousness and drudgery of the profession by immersing himself in drawing, specifically miniatures. Largely self-taught, he nonetheless had some formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in the early 1820s, under Thomas Sully and Charles Willson Peale, and he made his way as a journeyman artist. His portraits of Gov. DeWitt Clinton garnered some attention, but he was always in need of official patronage. Perhaps inspired by Charles Bird King’s portraits of tribal leaders in Washington, Catlin struck out West and attached himself to Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory. Portraying the Indians of the Southwestern plains became Catlin’s passion, and during the 1830s, over numerous visits embedded among the tribes, he painted hundreds of careful portraits; he often bought the Indians’ garments and artifacts to display later with the work as proof of his eyewitness. Much of the rest of his restless life was spent roving among London, Paris and Brussels, displaying his traveling Indian Gallery (and making a living from it), toeing that precarious line between artist and impresario. The author thoughtfully explores the complicated bleeding of empathy into exploitation.

Eisler’s fine, thorough work begs for a fresh reappraisal of this pioneering artist.

Pub Date: July 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-06616-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

Kevin Phillips’ 2012 tour de force, 1775, delivered a massive argument for that year as the key to American independence. A...

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REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER

THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Ellis (First Family: Abigail and John Adams, 2010, etc.) writes book after book on the American Revolutionary period. Practice makes perfect.

The author’s latest alternates between 1776 colonial politics during which the Continental Congress, dominated by John Adams, finally put aside efforts at compromise and opted for independence and the fighting where George Washington’s army marched from triumph in the siege of Boston to catastrophe in New York. Ellis delivers few surprises and no cheerleading but much astute commentary. He points out with no small irony that the Continental Congress was at its best in 1776 when thoughtful men debated the benefits of liberty versus the consequences of war with the world’s most powerful nation and came to the right decision. Only in the following years, faced with governing the colonies and supplying the army, did it reveal its incompetence. When British forces withdrew from Boston in March, colonial rebels declared a great victory, but Washington worried. Sieges and fighting behind fortifications (i.e., Bunker Hill) were simple compared with standard 18th-century warfare, which required soldiers to maneuver under fire and remain calm amid scenes of horrific carnage. He suspected that his largely untrained militia army would do badly under these circumstances, and events in New York proved him right. Luckily, British Gen. William Howe, despite vastly superior forces, refused to deliver a knockout blow. He would never get another chance.

Kevin Phillips’ 2012 tour de force, 1775, delivered a massive argument for that year as the key to American independence. A traditionalist, Ellis sticks to 1776 and writes an insightful history of its critical, if often painful, events.

Pub Date: June 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-70122-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

It’s no small achievement to have something new to say on Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but Goodwin succeeds admirably. A...

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THE BULLY PULPIT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM

Swiftly moving account of a friendship that turned sour, broke a political party in two and involved an insistent, omnipresent press corps. Cantor and Boehner? No: Teddy and Taft.

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005, etc.) may focus on the great men (and occasionally women) of history, but she is the foremost exponent of a historiographic school that focuses on the armies of aides and enactors that stand behind them. In this instance, one of the principal great men would revel in the title: Theodore Roosevelt wanted nothing more than to be world-renowned, change the world and occasionally shoot a mountain lion. His handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was something else entirely: He wished to fade into legal scholarship and was very happy in later life to be named to the Supreme Court. The two began as friends of what Taft called “close and sweet intimacy,” and the friendship ended—Goodwin evokes this exquisitely well in her closing pages—with a guarded chance encounter in a hotel that slowly thawed but too late. A considerable contributor to the split was TR’s progressivism, his trust-busting and efforts to improve the lot of America’s working people, which Taft was disinclined to emulate. Moreover, Taft did not warm to TR’s great talent, which was to enlist journalists to his cause; problems of objectivity aside, they provided him with the “bully pulpit” of Goodwin’s title. She populates her pages with sometimes-forgotten heroes of investigative reporting—Ida Tarbell, Ray Blake, Lincoln Steffens—just as much as Roosevelt and Taft and their aides. The result is an affecting portrait of how networks based on genuine liking contribute to the effective functioning of government without requiring reporters to be sycophants or politicians to give up too many secrets.

It’s no small achievement to have something new to say on Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but Goodwin succeeds admirably. A notable, psychologically charged study in leadership.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4165-4786-0

Page Count: 960

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2013

Robust, memorable reading that will appeal to Civil War buffs, professional historians and general readers alike.

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GETTYSBURG

THE LAST INVASION

A stirring account of the “greatest and most violent collision the North American continent [has] ever seen,” just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Though the battle site was not inevitable, the actual battle was: The giant armies of North and South were destined to lumber into one another in a time when, as Guelzo (Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, 2012, etc.) cites a Confederate officer as observing, they “knew no more about the topography of the country than they did about Central Africa.” What is certain is that Robert E. Lee’s arrival in Pennsylvania sent “Yankeedom,” to quote another Confederate officer, “in a great fright.” The Union had reason to be concerned, but, as Guelzo documents, their foe was scattered and divided, with rivalries and miscommunication—and perhaps even insubordination—keeping James Longstreet from attacking, J.E.B. Stuart from arriving on the battlefield in time, and the much-disliked George Pickett from enjoying a better fate than being cannon fodder. And what fodder: If there is a leitmotif in Guelzo’s book, it is the image of brains being distributed on the grass and the shirts of fellow soldiers, of limbs disappearing and soldiers on both sides disintegrating in a scene of “muskets, swords, haversacks, human flesh and bones flying and dangling in the air or bouncing above the earth.” The author ably, even vividly, captures the hell of the battlefield while constantly keeping the larger scope of Gettysburg in the reader’s mind: It was, he argues, the one central struggle over one plank of the Civil War, namely the preservation of the Union, that nearly wholly excluded the other one, the abolition of slavery.

Robust, memorable reading that will appeal to Civil War buffs, professional historians and general readers alike.

Pub Date: May 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-59408-2

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

An exceptional account of the development of the Constitution’s most basic right and an illuminating story of remarkable...

THE GREAT DISSENT

HOW OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES CHANGED HIS MIND—AND CHANGED THE HISTORY OF FREE SPEECH IN AMERICA

The writings of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are the basis of today’s interpretation of freedom of speech, but it took many great minds to convince him of its value. Seton Hall Law School professor Healy tells the engrossing tale of how it happened.

In his debut, the author traces the evolution of Holmes’ opinion away from the view that you may say what you like, but you will be liable for prosecution. Holmes could not accept that the right of free speech was absolute, and he sought to define its limits. Those who influenced him were the best intellects of the time, including Justice Louis Brandeis and future justice Felix Frankfurter. The author deftly follows the progression of Holmes’ changing view without descending into incomprehensible legalese. Justice Learned Hand’s decision in Masses Publishing Co. v. Patton (1917) was the first step in convincing Holmes that unacceptable views could be tolerated, and Harvard instructor Harold Laski, as near a son as possible, was the greatest influence on the justice. Laski, along with Zechariah Chafee and Herbert Croly, were in the vanguard of those who fought against the persecution of dissenters instituted by the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These two acts produced the cases that would completely change interpretation of the First Amendment. Holmes’ opinions, especiallin Schenck (1918), show his growing recognition that only a “clear and present danger” can curtail freedom of speech. It was when he wrote his dissent for Abrams (1919) that he truly outlined the free marketplace for ideas and defended our right under the Constitution to express an opinion.

An exceptional account of the development of the Constitution’s most basic right and an illuminating story of remarkable friendships, scholarly communication and the conservative justice who actually changed his mind.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9456-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

Some will quarrel with aspects of Katznelson’s analysis, few with his widely allusive, elegant prose.

FEAR ITSELF

THE NEW DEAL AND THE ORIGINS OF OUR TIME

A wholly new approach to the New Deal takes history we thought we knew and makes it even richer and more complex.

In this deeply erudite, beautifully written history, Katznelson (Political Science and History/Columbia Univ.; When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, 2005, etc.) adopts an expansive view of the New Deal, extending it to the end of the Truman administration. He reminds us that, while anxieties and apprehensions attend every age, FDR assumed office at a time when a profound, abiding fear predominated: about the very survival of liberal democracy in the face of economic meltdown and competition from fascist and communist dictatorships abroad. The dread persisted through a brutal world war, the dawn of the Atomic Age and the beginning of the Cold War. By the time of Eisenhower’s inauguration, a vastly different state had emerged, and its architecture would remain largely undisturbed by the first Republican president in 20 years. Katznelson distinguishes his history in two other important ways. First, in keeping with his theme about the survival of representative democracy, he places special emphasis on the role of Congress in helping to forge the policies and programs that came to define the era. Second, he is cold-eyed about the dicey compromises the New Deal made domestically with the legislature’s dominant force, the Jim Crow South, and internationally by associations with totalitarian governments. An especially fine chapter illustrates the nature of these disturbing alliances by resuscitating the now almost forgotten stories of Italy’s intrepid aviator Italo Balbo, the Soviet Union’s Nuremberg judge Iona Nikitchenko and Mississippi’s racist senator Theodore Bilbo. Although he sees the New Deal as “a rejuvenating triumph,” the author unflinchingly assesses its many dubious, albeit necessary concessions.

Some will quarrel with aspects of Katznelson’s analysis, few with his widely allusive, elegant prose.

Pub Date: March 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-87140-450-3

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

Despite the calendar slog, the authors make a compelling, tacit parallel to today’s running threats by extremist groups.

DALLAS 1963

In a chronological, episodic narrative that grows somewhat tedious yet chilling, Minutaglio (City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle, 2004, etc.) and Davis (J. Frank Dobie, 2009, etc.) unearth the various fringe elements rampant in Dallas in the three years (from January 1960 to November 1963) preceding John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

These anti-communist and racist groups were essentially sanctioned by officials and created a dangerous climate for the president and first lady during their visit on November 22, 1963. Indeed, Kennedy had been warned not to come, especially after the violent reception of U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson by Dallas crowds several weeks before. “Super-patriots” like Gen. Edwin A. Walker, formerly enlisted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in helping integrate Little Rock Central High School, had made an about-face and grown stridently pro-segregationist, distributing Wanted for Treason posters at the time of JFK’s visit; billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt was bankrolling right-wing groups; Frank McGehee was organizing a National Indignation Convention; and publisher Ted Dealey, whose paper the Dallas Morning News routinely attacked the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ran an incendiary full-page advertisement from Bernard Weissman’s American Fact-Finding Mission on the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas. In this xenophobic, anti-liberal, anti–East Coast atmosphere, Lee Harvey Oswald purchased a mail-order rifle, which he tried out first by shooting at Gen. Walker through a window of his home. Minutaglio and Davis alternate their doomsday scenario with chronicles of the upbeat attempts at integrating and liberalizing Dallas—e.g., international marketing efforts by showman Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus) and New Hope Baptist Church pastor H. Rhett James’ engineering of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the city.

Despite the calendar slog, the authors make a compelling, tacit parallel to today’s running threats by extremist groups.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4555-2209-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

A vivid, colorful evocation of a charged era.

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THOSE ANGRY DAYS

ROOSEVELT, LINDBERGH, AND AMERICA'S FIGHT OVER WORLD WAR II, 1939-1941

A fully fleshed-out portrait of the battle between the interventionists and isolationists in the 18 months leading up to Pearl Harbor.

Former Baltimore Sun White House correspondent Olson (Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour, 2010, etc.) looks closely at both sides of the U.S. debate about whether to support Britain against the onslaught of Nazi Germany or remain aloof from the European conflict, epitomized by the two prominent personalities of the respective camps, President Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh. The author clarifies “those angry days,” so-called by Arthur Schlesinger, and the deep, searing divisions within the country: from FDR, his hands tied to aid Britain materially by Senate Midwestern leaders like Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye, who deeply resented the growing power of the presidency; to pro-German, frankly racist Lindbergh, whose trips to Germany and radio broadcasts helped sharpen the public outcry, gave fodder to prescient journalists like Dorothy Thompson and alienated his own long-suffering wife, Anne Morrow. Once viewed as America’s great hero for his solo trans-Atlantic flight, Lindbergh spiraled into controversy with his public argument against aiding the English, his rationalization of German aggression and espousal of racial purity. Ostracized by the Europeans, who had not long before sheltered him and his wife after the kidnapping of his son, and excoriated by the press and the East Coast moneyed establishment, Lindbergh took up with the reactionary American First campaign and was increasingly regarded as traitorous. Roosevelt, in turn, warned the country about the “perils of complacency” in his State of the Union speech of 1940 as events in Europe heated up, and he was not averse to stoking fears of “Fifth column” infiltration and restricting civil liberties in garnering support for his policies. Throughout, Olson adroitly sifts through the many conflicting currents.

A vivid, colorful evocation of a charged era.

Pub Date: March 26, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6974-3

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2012

A rewarding approach to a well-worn subject, rich in anecdotes, opinion, bloodshed and Byzantine political maneuvering.

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BUNKER HILL

A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION

National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Philbrick (Why Read Moby-Dick, 2011, etc.) will be a candidate for another award with this ingenious, bottom-up look at Boston from the time of the December 1773 Tea Party to the iconic June 1775 battle.

Independence Day rhetoric extols our forefathers’ battle for freedom against tyranny and unfair taxation, but the author points out that American colonists were the freest, most-prosperous and least-taxed subjects of the British Empire and perhaps the world. A century and a half of London’s salutary neglect had resulted in 13 nearly independent colonies. Trouble began in the 1760s when Parliament attempted to tax them to help pay for the ruinously expensive victory in the French and Indian War. Unexpected opposition handled with spectacular clumsiness by Britain guaranteed trouble. Among Massachusetts’ resistance leaders, most readers know John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but Philbrick concentrates on Joseph Warren, a charismatic young physician, unjustly neglected today since he died at Bunker Hill. His opposite number, British Gen. Thomas Gage, behaved with remarkable restraint. Despite warnings that it would take massive reinforcements to keep the peace, superiors in London goaded him into action, resulting in the disastrous April 1775 expedition to Lexington and Concord. They also sent a more pugnacious general, William Howe, who decided to expel colonial militias, now besieging Boston, by an uphill frontal attack on their entrenched lines, a foolish tactic. British forces succeeded but suffered massive casualties. It was the first and bloodiest engagement of the eight years of fighting that followed.

A rewarding approach to a well-worn subject, rich in anecdotes, opinion, bloodshed and Byzantine political maneuvering.

Pub Date: April 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-670-02544-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

Fine social history humanized with a sort of paradise-lost wistfulness.

THE VILLAGE

400 YEARS OF BEATS AND BOHEMIANS, RADICALS AND ROGUES, A HISTORY OF GREENWICH VILLAGE

The author of Sissy Nation: How America Became a Nation of Wimps and Stoopits (2008) and other cultural criticisms and histories returns with a long, loving and thoroughly researched look at what he calls “a zone of rogues and outcasts from the start.”

Strausbaugh begins his chronological Village tour in the 17th century, when the Indians, Dutch and English were contesting for Manhattan. But once might prevailed, the area—which was indeed once a separate village—evolved initially in the post-Revolutionary era as something fairly upscale: summer retreats for the wealthy. Later, Paine and Poe were there, as was Walt Whitman, who took Emerson for a drink at Pfaff’s. As the decades proceeded, the author necessarily focuses on key individuals, events and places. The many African-Americans who once lived there emigrated to Harlem; the 1911 Triangle fire propelled social change; liberals and radicals arrived, including Lincoln Steffens and Emma Goldman. Writers and artists proliferated, and soon it was a hotbed for small theater productions. Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill mounted early shows there; later came Albee and Shepard. Publications and publishers came, too—The Little ReviewVillage VoiceEvergreen Review, Grove Press. Strausbaugh charts the music history of the area, from jazz to folk (Bob Dylan will not like his portrait here) to rock. Early and/or sordid death is a theme—from Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk to Lenny Bruce. The author spends a lot of time on the emergence of the Village as a battleground for the LGBT communities—from actual clashes (Stonewall) to the desperation of AIDS. He seems saddened by the gentrification of the Village—at the impossible prices and rents that exclude the creative and contentious bohemians of yesteryear.

Fine social history humanized with a sort of paradise-lost wistfulness.

Pub Date: April 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-207819-3

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at “the peculiar institution” in a particular time...

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THE INTERNAL ENEMY

SLAVERY AND WAR IN VIRGINIA, 1772-1832

Exemplary work of history by Pulitzer and Bancroft winner Taylor (History/Univ. of Virginia; Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction, 2012, etc.), who continues his deep-searching studies of American society on either side of the Revolution.

The world the slaves made was one of fear and loathing—on the part of the masters, that is, who indeed waited in a “cocoon of dread” for the day when their “internal enemy” would finally pounce. That day first came with a series of events that form the heart of the book: namely, the arrival of the War of 1812 in Virginia, a conflict that itself was a source of conflict, inasmuch as most Virginians were sooner inclined to fight New Englanders than Englanders. When the British arrived, though, they recruited male slaves to join their army and navy as free men, and they relied on them for their “intimate, nocturnal knowledge of the byways and waterways of Virginia.” The keyword is “nocturnal,” for the conflict between master and slave was so great, Taylor asserts, that they contested ownership of the night, when slaves would travel more or less freely to attend dances and other social events, sleeping it off during the day, even as the masters demanded ever more work from them precisely in order to tire them enough to keep them from going abroad at night. One of the great ironies of Jefferson's ideal of white liberty, notes Taylor, was that as it expanded the middle class and with it the number of Tidewater slaveholders, it also broadened support for slavery itself. One of the ironies of the war, which would eventually produce just the uprising of the internal enemy the Virginians dreaded, was that, so inept was the federal response, it advanced the cause of states’ rights, which would lead to the broader Civil War two decades after Nat Turner’s revolt.

Full of implication, an expertly woven narrative that forces a new look at “the peculiar institution” in a particular time and place.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-07371-3

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

History on the grand scale, orchestrated by a virtuoso.

ECSTATIC NATION

CONFIDENCE, CRISIS, AND COMPROMISE, 1848-1877

A sweeping look at the Civil War in the context of its social, cultural and intellectual climate.

Wineapple (Modern Literary and Historical Studies/Union Coll.; White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 2008) begins with a bang: the death of John Quincy Adams on the House floor, after decades of fighting to end slavery. From there, she takes up the narrative of some 50 years of turbulent American history, full of grand schemes, bitter conflicts, brilliant characters and unforgettable stories. Among the plotlines are the effort by Southern slaveholders to find new territories to expand into, so as to preserve the balance between slave and free states in the Senate; the abolitionists’ appeal to higher laws; the rise of transcendentalism, spiritualism and other quasi-religious philosophies; and the settlement of the West. It would be hard for a master novelist to top the cast of characters, who run the gamut from politicians to writers, soldiers, ministers, nurses, journalists and outright frauds. Wineapple covers the grand sweep of history, from the run-up to secession and the war itself to the Reconstruction era and its ultimate betrayal. Secondary plots abound, from plans to annex Cuba to the Indian Wars. Throw in all the quips, slogans, insults and grand sentiments of an age when educated men and women prided themselves on their eloquence, and you’ve got the recipe for a wonderful saga. Wineapple gives all the major players a turn in the spotlight and, in the case of the true giants of the era, Abraham Lincoln especially, their full due. The author effectively draws in all the currents of the time, from popular culture and polemical journalism to the grand literary monuments. Best of all, she brings it together in a compelling narrative that will enlighten readers new to the material and thoroughly entertain those familiar with it.

History on the grand scale, orchestrated by a virtuoso.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-123457-6

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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