Essays on historic and ever-changing American locations, celebrating the career of an innovative Oxford University Press editor, Sheldon Meyer.
The festschrift, an anthology compiled in honor of a particular scholar, is an awkward format, and despite the conscientious efforts of Leuchtenburg (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; The Supreme Court in the Age of Roosevelt, 1995, etc.), this assortment shows some of the predictable problems of the genre. Although Leuchtenburg confides that some authors found the personal essays challenging after decades of rigorous scholarly objectivity, others apparently had no trouble indulging in evidently self-centered or frankly self-indulgent writing, rambling on about their careers or their reminiscences of Meyer in pieces resembling the transcripts of speeches at a retirement party. The volume also includes a few of those wistful first-person meditations in which the author returns to his boyhood home after many decades and finds that it has changed in the interim, inspiring the usual reflections on transience and memory. A gratifying number of pieces, however, transcend the unpromising format to offer substantial information and fresh insights into the history implicit in the American landscape. In “Greensboro, North Carolina: A Window on Race in the American South,” William H. Chafe provides context for the famous 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in. “Illinois’s Old State Capitol: A Tale of Two Speeches,” by Robert Johannsen, brings the Douglas-Lincoln campaign of 1860 to life. Donald Worster makes a powerful case in “The Grand Canyon” for the inclusion of geography and ecology in the study of human history. “A Fan’s Homage to Fenway (Or, Why We Love It When They Always Break Our Hearts),” by John Demos, and “The Polo Grounds,” by Jules Tygiel, are zestful tributes to both baseball and place. The finest essay here, Kenneth T. Jackson’s “Memphis, Tennessee: The Rise and Fall of Main Street,” presents a stirring defense of urbanism and a gentle, hilarious tribute to the pleasures the city offered a teenager in the 1950s.
Despite its flaws, a lively and enjoyable collection.