THE NATION COMES OF AGE: A People's History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Vol. IV by Page Smith

THE NATION COMES OF AGE: A People's History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Vol. IV

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The third of Smith's narrative meditations on our national roots, following A New Age Begins (1976) and The Shaping of America (K. 1979, p. 1474): again crowded with particulars, this time virtually unstructured. As the story advances from the 1820s, full of optimism and hope, through the 1850s, clouded by war and rumors of war, Smith slips in old-fashioned yarns about everything under the sun: cabinet intrigues and Indian chiefs, locomotives and poets and housework, fire-eaters and abolitionism, cities and schools and fashion, even other historians. But apart from a few platitudes about democracy, industrialization, individualism, etc., he offers nothing to help us make sense of it all: no careful, coherent explanations or persuasive reasons why, more than a century later, we should really care. This, he avers, is deliberate: he wishes to plunge us headlong into the past and spare us the empty theorizing and haggling of today's professional historians. The result is supposed to be a ""people's history,"" preserving the flesh-and-blood realities of the period. But in the absence of a single dominating event (as in A New Age Begins) or commanding personalities (as in The Shaping of America), the individual stories--well told though they are--pass by like a happenstance evening of television; and to hardly more purpose. In terms of its sources, the book is definitely not ""people's history,"" for Smith makes very heavy use of the diaries and memoirs of a very few exceptional members of the ante-bellum upper classes. The unsurprising result is an occasional coolness toward popular aspirations and popular causes. And one wonders, too, whether Smith thinks that people in general have no interest in the whys and wherefores. There is much color, in any case, and precious little light.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: McGraw-Hill