Sunday, November 08, 2009

American History

History was always a bit of a boring subject when I went to school. Lots of dates and incidents to memorise, list of kings and queens to be learnt by heart and names of lots of people to remember.
Then in my final year I had a teacher who broke the mould and began to tell us about what caused those date/incidents to happen, what actually happened and what the result(s) of all that was immediately and into the future. And suddenly for me history became a less of a chore. It was Samuel Eliot Morison who said that history could be read for pleasure, James Parton who argued that historical writing need not be encyclopedic and A.J. Langguth who considered it high praise when his historical non fiction was said ‘to read like a novel’.
So what is all this about?
I had been a regular visitor to the USA since 1969 but mainly as a tourist. In the greater part of the last decade however, I have spent longer periods of time there and lived like a resident. Living a day to day life in one place is certainly much different from just passing through seeking out tourist icons. And when you have time on your hands, as a househusband does (foreigners are not allowed to work), you tend to be more observant of what is going on around you and you begin to wonder why things are the way they are.
At school, American history was limited to a cursory look at Columbus, the Pilgrims, War of Independence, Civil War and the expansion westward (the latter aided and abetted by Hollywood during Saturday afternoon matinees). British and European history, even at the expense of Australian, was considered more important. The fact that the American War of Independence was a major factor in the settlement of Australia was never fully appreciated. Where else was England to send her unwanted felons after losing her North American colonies? If it were not for that event, we might all be speaking French in Australia right now.
But I digress.

So I was on the look out for books that would not only describe and explain American historical events but would be entertaining as well. Certainly there are multiple shelves of American history books at places like Barnes & Noble, Borders etc. so it made choosing a little difficult. As with most things now, information on the Internet proved invaluable. Sifting through numerous book reviews narrowed down the field considerably.
So starting with the War of Independence I can pass on a few of the books that I have enjoyed and recommend not only as historically interesting but also as "a good read".
Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth. This looks at the Revolution through the eyes of the major players who took part in it and approaches the subject as a story. It finishes in 1783 with George Washington returning to Mt. Vernon in the hope of a peaceful retirement.
Union 1812 by the same author continues that story with Washington’s return to public life and the events that lead to America’s second war of independence, the War of 1812. Again it is a story of all the major players; Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Madison et al. plus those who fought the battles. Mrs. Madison also scores a chapter.

This period produced a significant event in American history, the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson’s Great Gamble by Charles A. Cerami is an entertaining story of 30 months of "high drama, blandishment, posturing and secret manoeuvres of some of the most powerful and crafty men of their time" involved in the Purchase. One million square miles for four cents an acre must be one of the best real estate deals of all time.
Another fascinating story of the time is the exploration of the Louisiana Territory via the Missouri River, Rocky Mountains to the west coast by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark under instructions from Thomas Jefferson.
The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Volumes 1-3) edited by Elliot Coues is a detailed account. This may be a bit hard going for all but the affectionado but there is an excellent abridged version of their diaries, The Journals of Lewis & Clark by Bernard DeVoto.
Add to this the PBS DVD of Ken Burn’s Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and you’ll have more information about this epic journey than you know what to do with. And some of the photography in the DVD is stunning. You can tell I am a fan of this particular story!

Apparently the American Civil War has had more books written about it than any other subject in the English speaking world. This is again clear from the amount of work on the bookshelves. Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative seemed an obvious choice but three volumes with a million and a half words on three thousand pages was a bit daunting.
I chose Battle Cry of Freedom by James A. McPherson. This Pulitzer Prize winner not only covers the military aspects of the war in enough detail, but also describes the complex economic, political, and social forces behind the conflict. And in only 900 pages!
Look Away! By William C. Davis is a fascinating insight into the social, political and military aspects of the Confederacy before, during and after the conflict.
And finally, following on from that, is The State of Jones by Sally Henkins and John Stauffer, a story of Union resistance in the State of Mississippi during the war. This is a controversial book that has some debating whether it is fact or fiction. But the main character aside, it does give a picture of what the deep south was like particularly post war during Reconstruction, the reasons for it and maybe why some attitudes exist there even to this day.
So we are slowing working our way up through the decades. Still a long way to go but it is sure to be worth while persevering.

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