A sharp, lucid, entertaining view of the “bad” American past.



Sure, you’ve got your Honest Abe and your steadfast Molly Pitcher, your Daniel Boone and Dale Evans. But how do the vice-ridden rest of us fit into American history?

As Russell (History and Cultural Studies/Occidental Coll.; Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Re-Making of the American Working Class, 2001) writes, this lively, contrarian work concentrates on the “drunkards, prostitutes, ‘shiftless’ slaves and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society.” Such people seldom figure in standard histories, and one of the things in which they engaged and still engage, namely sex, seldom turns up in the pages of earnest monographs. Russell examines the constant tension between preservers of order, such as John Adams, and those who extolled unrestrained personal freedom, such as—well, if not Sam Adams, then perhaps topers such as he, for drinking also figures heavily in these pages. In New York at the time of the Revolution, “there were enough taverns to allow every resident of the city to drink in a bar at the same time,” a feat never reached since. In the Virginia of the Founding Fathers, no public business was conducted without a large drink somewhere within easy reach. Taverns, often havens of the lower class, were “the first racially integrated public spaces in America,” a democracy of vice. They gave members of different races and ethnicities the chance to study and imitate one another and to indulge in what Russell terms “informal renegade behaviors.” The author links advances in personal freedom to these unbridled working-class heroes—and to a few other surprising figures as well, including the mobsters who owned New York’s gay nightclubs, the hippies of yore, the “tango boys” and other juvenile delinquents who, by Russell’s fruitful formulation, won the Cold War for the West.

A sharp, lucid, entertaining view of the “bad” American past.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4165-7106-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2010

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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

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

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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

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