A history book that wants to be Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire but comes off more like Larry Gonick’s...

A MOST IMPERFECT UNION

A CONTRARIAN HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Prolific intellectual Stavans and collaborative artist Alcaraz follow up and expand their first exploration of American culture (Latino USA: A Cartoon History, 2000, etc.) to examine the secret history of the United States of America.

Stavans and Alcaraz offer an opposing view to the sanitized history most of us were taught in elementary school classrooms. As a Mexican-born Jewish immigrant who moved to the United States in the 1980s, Stavans has a passionate response to the erroneousness of American history. “The past is elastic,” he writes. “Its parts shrink and expand depending on who is looking at them and when. Because of this, it’s important to take a contrarian’s viewpoint, to be wary of what the French call idées fixes—lazy unquestioned truths.” From this ambitious beginning, Stavans and Alcaraz track the arc of history, from Christopher Columbus’ unlikely enterprise to find the new world (he didn’t) to the acrimonious relationship between the pilgrims and Native peoples all the way through to our messy, dangerous post-9/11 world. Stavans and Alcaraz examine social movements, pop culture, politics, crime, war and economics, with pithy side comments from the aforementioned peanut gallery. Since it casts its net so wide, it can feel very out of tune from time to time, although Alcaraz’s amusing pen-and-ink style ably captures most of the book’s famous subjects. Stavans and Alcaraz also aren’t afraid to poke a little fun at themselves: “You interject too much out-of-place information! The readers are all confused now,” cracks Alcaraz. Nonetheless, well-read students are unlikely to find too many surprises here. While it makes for an entertaining afternoon, it’s still mostly a surface-level history lesson with a few iconoclastic opinions added in for spice.

A history book that wants to be Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire but comes off more like Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the United States with more savvy jokes.

Pub Date: June 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-465-03669-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

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.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

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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