Award-winning historian Reynolds (English, American Studies/City Univ. of New York; John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, 2005, etc.) charts the political, cultural, economic, artistic, scientific and religious currents roiling America from the Era of Good Feelings to the verge of the Civil War.
Covering precisely the same slice of American history in half as many pages as Daniel Walker Howe’s recent and celebrated What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), Reynolds applies his vast erudition to a period too often treated as mere prelude to the country’s most destructive war, the era that derives its name from the only figure between Monroe and Lincoln sufficiently charismatic to have been twice elected president. If the author’s storytelling falls short of his usual smooth standard, he may be forgiven for accomplishing what amounts to, even at this length, a remarkable feat of distillation. The political story features a familiar cast of sectional heroes—Clay, Calhoun and Webster—and Presidents Adams, Jackson, Van Buren and Polk dealing (or not dealing) with issues like slavery, Indian removal, tariffs, the Bank of the United States, nullification, war and the annexation of Texas. Reynolds is most adept handling the period’s art and literature—he is remarkably clear-eyed about the Transcendentalists—and he brilliantly explores the religious scene’s variety, tumult and frequent humbuggery. More than anything, he conveys the era’s sheer weirdness: where the self-made Van Buren could be successfully characterized as the out-of-touch aristocrat against the genuinely privileged Harrison; where real scientific achievement (the steamboat, telegraph and railroad) competed for legitimacy with the pseudo-scientific mesmerism, spiritualism and phrenology; where the Antimasons could be a national political force; where the Petticoat Affair could undo a presidential cabinet; where the common man president could be credibly lampooned as King Andrew; where the high art of Hawthorne and Melville competed for public favor with minstrel shows and the freakish attractions of P.T. Barnum. Abolitionism and prison reform and movements on behalf of sexual liberation, women’s rights, temperance and vegetarianism all flowered in this strange time, which gave us enduring phrases like “O.K.,” “Jim Crow” and “Manifest Destiny.”
A remarkable synthesis, impressive on many levels.