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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thinking about America

New books on our country and its ideals

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Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution
(Viking), by Nathaniel Philbrick

The signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia was the culmination of events that had occurred in Boston—the site of the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. National Book Award-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick examines the revolutionary stresses that convulsed Massachusetts. As the unrest began, the revolutionaries and the loyalists constituted noisy minorities; most citizens were in the middle, drawn gradually into the conflict once neutrality became untenable. Philbrick busts an enduring myth: despite all the fulminating of the Founding Fathers, American colonists paid some of the lowest taxes in what was then the developed world.

 

The Civil War in 50 Objects (Viking), by Harold Holzer

Museums have always understood the value of artifacts in teaching about the past, but history books have seldom followed suit. The Civil War in 50 Objects examines that epochal conflict through artifacts. Of course, there are the expected woodcuts calling patriots to arms and the tattered battle flags, but also many surprises. The New York World (the Fox News of its day) commissioned a lithograph of a “scandalous” racially mixed dance party patronized by Lincoln supporters to stir up racist resentment against the Great Emancipator. 50 Objects (actually, many more are displayed in these pages) includes oddities such as Confederate newspapers printed on wallpaper for lack of newsprint. The book is a beautiful object in its own right, with superb design and typography.

 

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (Penguin

Press), by Ernest Freeberg

Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison isn’t a biography of the great inventor but a study of how his greatest invention, the light bulb, changed the world. Electric light was a metaphor of progress—crowds gathered to watch electric signs being switched on—but controversies erupted. Some physicians declared that light bulbs harmed the eye, and maybe they did for early customers who stared at them without shades. Some denounced the riot of electric signage as the ugly intrusion of corporate America into public space and demanded neatly planned systems of street lamps. Both sides won the argument. The Age of Edison is a reminder of how dramatic changes can soon become accepted facts of life.

 

Lynching Beyond Dixie (University of Illinois Press), edited by Michael J. Pfeifer

Lynching has become synonymous with white-on-black violence in the South. As the essays collected in this volume remind us, no region of the country—and no ethnic group—was spared the spectacle of lynch mobs in the 19th and early-20th centuries. American Indians, Mexicans, whites and others were lynched in California, the West, the Midwest and New England. Racial animosity was often but not always at the root of the problem; in many cases, distrust in the justice system prompted the mob to take the law in their own hands.

 

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (Liveright), by Ira Katznelson

Like any successful politician, Franklin D. Roosevelt had to be a dealmaker, a “compromiser” in the unfortunate language of now. And since the stakes were high—nothing less than economic recovery from utter worldwide collapse and the survival of liberal democracy against rampant totalitarianism—the deals involved horse trade with core values. In Fear Itself, Columbia University’s Ira Katznelson addresses the wartime alliance of convenience with Stalin, one of the most illiberal rulers on Earth, to defeat Hitler. However, much of the book focuses on another, less acknowledged alliance of compromise—with the Southern Democrats in Congress whose acquiescence was necessary for the New Deal, but whose segregationist policies had to be appeased. Ironically, as Katznelson observes in his lucid and voluminous account, the New Deal helped set conditions that ultimately undermined the Southern, whites-only system.