An intelligent and imaginative historical essay with a few pieces missing.




A history of one year in the United States.

In 1831 the republic was going through a rather difficult adolescence. A remnant of the old guard of founders and framers watched as a new generation of leaders took charge of the nation (and took aim at each other). Even as the country expanded and thrived under technological advances in transport and agriculture, cracks in the democratic ideal kept surfacing, widening into fissures that threatened to dissolve the Union. Nat Turner’s quixotic rebellion and the publication of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator raised the problem of slavery to a new level of public consciousness; the expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia and the defeat of Black Hawk and the Sauk in Illinois belied the democratic system’s claim to fairness and benevolence; the Jackson administration was riven by the issue of states’ rights; and new evangelical sects emphasizing the moral will of the individual over divine directives (and new labor movements stressing the tensions between the powerful elite and the worker) undermined habits and ideas on which the national identity had appeared to depend. Visiting observers from the Old World (de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope) were fascinated, appalled, and bemused by what they saw. Eschewing a fully expounded argument, Masur (History/CUNY) arranges his slices of historical narrative thematically, the better to illustrate the moral, political, economic, and cultural forces at work in the moment. For the most part the strategy works, but some topics need more background explanation (the connection between the policy issues that divided the Jackson administration and the private scandal that prompted so many resignations from his cabinet is not clear), while others are sometimes forced into juxtapositions that don’t really make sense (from Audubon’s vision to the cholera epidemic). Despite the aptness of his idea and the economy of his style, the author has bitten off just a little more than his 200 pages can chew.

An intelligent and imaginative historical essay with a few pieces missing.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-8090-4118-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2000

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

  • National Book Award Winner

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist



The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

Did you like this book?