by Page Smith ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 12, 1984
In the latest, gargantuan (900 pp.) volume of his topical American history, Smith's desire ""to 'untidy' our past"" conjoins with a vividly peopled period of social turmoil--where indeed, traditional American political history has tended to thin out. (There are those who'll rejoice to see hard-money/soft-money and the tariff issue quickly dispatched.) So the colorful detail and interesting excerpts, hallmarks of the series, comprise some rich material--loosely structured, moreover, around the two themes of Social Darwinism and the war between capital and labor. For the lay reader, in addition, Smith spreads out the fruits of 1970s scholarship (minority history, urban studies, investigations of the nonrational, etc.). The first five chapters cover Indian resettlement, the Indian wars, and Indian policy--noting that both sides committed outrages, distinguishing among tribes and among Indian-fighters, concluding (controversially) that, even without ""bad faith and broken treaties,"" the outcome would have been the same. The Indians lead, not unnaturally, to the railroads, the new technology, the rise of the trusts, the Darwinians (a rudimentary contrast between William Grant Sumner and Lester Ward), and the Great Strikes of 1877--where the war between labor and capital breaks out, and news to most readers. There then follows the book's backbone narrative--Henry George, labor conditions, unions, Haymarket--through ""free love"" and ""free thought."" (Later will come the Populist upsurge, the Pullman strike, etc.) ""Perhaps,"" Smith observes saliently, ""America has been wilder and freer than historians have informed us."" Attached to this spine are chapters on: the James and Adams families (""sentient individuals,"" representing ""the inner spirit of the age""); on immigrants in general and Jews in particular; on religion and education, blacks and women, ""the new journalists"" and ""the new empire."" Some of it is higgledy-piggledy--without the coherence or reference-worthiness of, for instance, a J. C. Furnas social history. But the quotations are a running commentary (by the obscure, this time, as well as the famous); the topics are not patchworks (""the new journalists,"" for example, focuses on Riis and McClure); and Smith, if opinionated, has some worthwhile ideas to offer--on, centrally, the transmission of social courage in abolitionist families. For dipping and pondering, the ordinary reader could do much worse.
Pub Date: March 12, 1984
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1984
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