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New studies on subjects as broad as the course of American history need a combination of an unusual viewpoint, new material or striking prose to succeed. Bums (political science/Williams College and biographer of FDR and JFK) provides precious little of these elements in this second volume of his three-part series, ""The American Experience."" The Workshop of Democracy, covering the period from the Civil War to the beginning of the Great Depression, has the feel of a school textbook updated for the 1980's. For one, Bums' thesis is the not very courageous assertion that the ideals of the American revolution--liberty, freedom--have been interpreted differently by different Americans. (For businessmen, liberty means freedom to conduct their affairs as they please; for their employees, the freedom to better their lot.) Because Bums doesn't take sides (and finds not one villain in 70 years of American history), this theme bores. Robber barons may have crushed competition and cruelly exploited workers, but they helped build the US into an industrial giant. Woodrow Wilson may have repressed dissent at home during WW I, but he sought to expand American ideals abroad. Burns sets himself firmly in the center of American historicism, which on the whole celebrates rather than criticizes. Although he quotes Karl Marx relatively frequently and Charles Beard less so, the exercise appears to be mainly to show that neither man's analyses truly apply here at home. Typical is Bums' assertion that labor did not organize like its European counterparts because of cultural and ethnic differences among immigrants, without mentioning government and business's often violent suppression of working-class radicalism. Burns pays great attention to the varied and changing status of women, blacks, and Indians, but this, too, is not satisfying, again because of Burns' mushy approach. The occasional surveys of technological and cultural changes are familiar (""Watson, come here!"") and repeat popular misconceptions (for example, that Sinclair's The Jungle is an expos‚ of the Chicago stockyards--not a political novel advocating socialism). And the language is clich‚d and pedestrian. (Blacks migrating from the rural South to Northern cities ""store up social dynamite for the future."" Bernard Baruch's War Industries Board ""rides herd"" over other WW I-era agencies. ""Machines, like men, need one another."") In sum, disappointingly bland.

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf