Chockablock with fact and figure, an intelligent, informed treatment showing the United States as a great laboratory of...



Generally brisk but occasionally dense summary of American intellectual history from the Founding Fathers to the eve of the 20th century.

Proceeding chronologically from Thomas Paine, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Goetzmann (History and American Studies/Univ. of Texas; Explorations and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the West, 1965, etc.) covers both the familiar and the arcane. Into the former category fall analyses of the Stamp Act, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Lewis and Clark, Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln and the Civil War, among many other well-known events and personalities. These are supplemented by, for example, illuminating commentary on The Impending Crisis in the South (1857), a now-obscure tract by North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper that attacked the plantation class and sold more than 150,000 copies, though it was banned in the South. Goetzmann does not slight literary history either, offering substantial sections on Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville and other giants. The lack of endnotes can be frustrating, as when he contends that the teenaged Poe seduced a school friend’s mother, who became the subject of his lovely poem, “To Helen.” Readers cannot evaluate the plausibility of this encounter, which is not noted in standard biographies, since Goetzmann does not specify the source for his version. He does highlight some significant movements and moments in American cultural history, including the utopian efforts of the Shakers and the much lesser-known Modern Times settlement on Long Island. He also discusses the emergence of black intellectuals—Frederick Douglass, no surprise, receives major treatment—the rise of the women’s-rights movement, abolition and the post–Civil War realists in American fiction, with Twain and James representing the movement’s poles. Goetzmann ends with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, noting that “America had reached a plateau of self-definition.”

Chockablock with fact and figure, an intelligent, informed treatment showing the United States as a great laboratory of cultural innovation.

Pub Date: March 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-465-00495-9

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2008

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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