A thematically linked series of insightful essays that will delight students of cultural Americana and fans of the history...

A IS FOR AMERICAN

LETTERS AND OTHER CHARACTERS IN THE NEWLY UNITED STATES

From innovative, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, 1998), a group portrait of seven 19th-century Americans whose efforts in the development of language paralleled and contributed to the growth of our national identity.

Lepore (History/Boston Univ.) relates here the stories of Noah Webster, who sought to standardize American spelling; William Thornton, designer of an international alphabet; Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah, inventor of a written language meant to help his tribesmen avoid assimilation; Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who brought the French idea of sign language for the deaf to the New World; the Mississippi cotton plantation slave Abd al-Rahman, who used his knowledge of Arabic to prove his royal heritage and win his freedom and repatriation to Africa; the frustrated artist Samuel Morse, creator of a telegraph language he believed might promote peace and human understanding; and Alexander Graham Bell, whose efforts to teach the deaf to speak led to his development of the telephone. The seven mini-biographies weave in and around and give new shading to many recognizable aspects of US history: the development of the Constitution and emerging ideas of nationhood, the “back to Africa” movement of the 1820s, the laying of the Atlantic cable in 1858, the advent of an era of American technological enthusiasm in the 1870s. The author’s thesis—that her protagonists’ strong ideas about language and communication are integral to the nation-building that occupied 19th-century America—seems indisputable, although she herself concedes that grouping these particular stories together is something of a contrivance. Indeed, at times Lepore seems to struggle with sustaining a coherent booklength narrative, but she nonetheless elucidates important back-currents of America’s cultural history with splendid erudition.

A thematically linked series of insightful essays that will delight students of cultural Americana and fans of the history of language.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2002

ISBN: 0-375-40449-X

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2001

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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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