A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse.

THE UPSWING

HOW AMERICA CAME TOGETHER A CENTURY AGO AND HOW WE CAN DO IT AGAIN

A top-notch addition to the why-America-is-in-such-a-mess genre.

Writing with Garrett, Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and winner of the National Humanities Medal, portrays a prosperous nation driven by technological innovation but burdened by massive, concentrated wealth and widespread poverty: Corruption and sex scandals fill the media; politics is gridlocked; xenophobia and white supremacist violence are rising; substance abuse runs rampant. The author then delivers a jolt by revealing that this describes Gilded Age America (1870-1890), a time when “doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties” filled the media. Putnam’s inverted-U graph illustrates what happened since. Four nearly parallel lines rise, tracking economic equality, goodwill in politics, community social bonds, and cultural altruism. All peak during the 1960s when, although far from perfect, “America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” Then all four steadily decline into the present. There follows an insightful history of what Putnam labels an “I-we-I century.” Economic equality rose mostly through the explosion of education, high schools after 1900 and college after World War II and the Progressive movement, which produced government reform, encouraged unions, passed industrial regulation, and created the first social programs (“a veritable boom in association-building”). The first half of the 20th century gave birth to iconic social institutions such as the Rotary Club, NAACP, and the League of Woman Voters. Startlingly, both political parties contributed. About half of Republicans in Congress voted in favor of Progressive and New Deal programs, nearly two-thirds for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The number voting for Obamacare in 2010? Zero. The 1970s saw the steady decline of this so-called affability: “The collective norm that ‘we’re all in this together’ was replaced by a libertarian…norm that we’re not.” The narrative is brilliantly argued throughout, although the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion could use a more specific action plan.

A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-2914-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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A PROMISED LAND

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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