Great fun, despite some unnecessary argumentativeness.


Vivid, opinionated overview of 16th-century Britain by prolific novelist/historian/biographer Wilson (Dante in Love, 2011, etc.).

“[M]odern history began with the Elizabethans,” writes the author, “not simply modern English history, but the modern world as we know it today.” This is rather overstated: While their accomplishments are indeed remarkable, from Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe to the glories of English poetry and prose in the age of Spenser and Shakespeare, they were rooted in the Renaissance cultural explosion across Europe, as Wilson acknowledges. His readable, well-informed survey is strikingly ambivalent. On one hand, he depicts Queen Elizabeth as a political genius who transformed a weak, religiously divided nation into a world power; on the other, he dwells obsessively on her parsimony and indecisiveness. Similarly, Wilson spends inordinate amounts of time arguing with contemporary historians whom he claims have lost sight of the era’s magnificent achievements as they berate the Elizabethans for racism, imperialism, cruelty and oppression of Ireland. General readers are unlikely to know what Wilson is talking about, particularly since he gives few specific examples to justify his sweeping generalizations about political correctness. Fortunately, as has been the case in some of his earlier nonfiction works, the gratuitous editorializing doesn’t really detract from a colorful narrative packed with great stories and shrewd insights. Wilson’s examination of the Elizabethan religious compromise sympathetically depicts a national church trying to make room for everyone from covert Catholics to extreme Puritans. He also does well in reminding us that Elizabethan humanists believed they were rediscovering the wisdom of antiquity, not inventing something new. Nonetheless, his vigorous chronicle shows new energies erupting everywhere. Wilson makes a strong case for his underlying principle: that the English national identity, notable for its paradoxical blend of proud insularity and globetrotting adventurism, was formed by the Elizabethans.

Great fun, despite some unnecessary argumentativeness.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-14744-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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