AMERICAN PLACES by William Zinsser


A Writer's Pilgrimage to 15 of This Country's Most Visited and Cherished Sites
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 Zinsser (Spring Training, 1988, etc.), who last year edited They Went, a collection of essays about travel writing, now offers a lively though not profound travelogue on 15 of America's geographic icons. This ``reporter's book about the ideas that shaped America'' takes in some of our most treasured sites, emblematic of America's impulse toward independence (Lexington and Concord) and resolve during war and peace (Appomattox, Pearl Harbor); its emphasis on self-improvement (Chautauqua); small-town nostalgia (Hannibal and Abilene); civil rights (Montgomery); and natural beauty (Niagara Falls and Yellowstone Park). Zinsser employs the same method in each profile: He offers a brief background history of the place, while eliciting from custodians of each site--curators, park rangers, librarians, town historians, and the like--their impressions of why people are drawn so insistently to these secular shrines. The author freely admits to being ``history-illiterate'' for too long, so his account has all the vices and virtues of innocence. On the one hand, he often notices the fresh and unusual detail, such as a letter at Mount Vernon that reveals George Washington's obsessive attention to household matters, even while leading the Continental Army. On the other hand, Zinsser lamentably fails to note that among the freedoms fought for at the Alamo was the ``right'' of the Texans to own slaves. The author is most intriguing when he snaps out of his dewy-eyed wonder, as in noting that Disneyland offers ``no shocks of nonrecognition'' or in passing on the stories told by the sites' custodians (at Concord, we learn, visitor-interest in Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott is rising, while the stocks of Hawthorne and Emerson are plummeting). A little heavy on the reverence, but, still, a fascinating take on ``the search for memory'' and how certain places have come to symbolize deep American principles.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1992
ISBN: 0-06-016638-X
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1992