A history of American colonialism, broadly defined.
The history of Colonial America used to be much shorter; it started with the Mayflower and ended with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Freedom and progress were the main themes of the narrative, and the lesson was clear: the values of that time produced a successful nation. That approach has long since been scraped as overly simplistic, and since the 1960s, historians have attempted to address the various paradoxes of American history, the stories of the unfree (or less-free)—in particular blacks, Indians, and women. Pulitzer-winner Taylor (History/Univ. of California, Davis; William Cooper’s Town, 1999, etc.) sets out to construct a truer history by righting the wrongs of exclusion. Indians arrived in the continent over 12,000 years ago, so their story is given greater length. Spanish explorers occupied the Americas 100 years before any other group of Europeans, so their story is included in greater detail as well. The French and Russians tried to colonize parts of America, might as well throw them in. And the British get a broader look, too, since independence from England did not mean that the Indians waved the white flag. Lest the story be too limited in scope, Taylor uses a variety of historical tools to investigate the centuries of evidence, “an Atlantic perspective, environmental history, and the history of colonial and native peoples.” A noble intention that renders this a laundry-list of facts and theories that fail to form a whole. Worse, there’s nothing new here: Historians since Edmund Morgan have examined the implications of the cultural mix in the New World, and the environmental history (which Taylor seems most interested by, but least dedicated to) reads like an homage to Jared Diamond.
There are many good histories of Colonial America. This isn’t one of them.