Nick’s Picks: History at Its Best

History in the grand tradition--including one new edition of a classic written 2,500 years ago--comprise my choices for this current batch of new releases, each one worthy of your attention.

emplib.JPGEmpire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, by Gordon S. Wood; New  York, Oxford University Press, 778 pages, $35.

Gordon S. Wood, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, here offers a painstaking account of the United States of America during its first quarter-century, a continuum that takes in the formation of the Republic and the beginning of nationhood under the Constitution, and follows through to the War of 1812. It is a period, as David M. Kennedy, general editor of the Oxford History of the United States--of which this is the latest installment (three earlier titles in the series have also won Putlizers)--was an “astonishingly volatile, protean movement that lay between the achievement of national independence and the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy and modern economy in the Jacksonian era.” Wood’s approach takes in politics, law, the economy and popular culture, and anticipates the great battle that will divide the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. One ominous note at book’s end is the realization that despite Northern opposition, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Wood’s effort--30 years in the making--has all the earmarks of being a standard work.

Keegan.JPGThe American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 396 pages,$35.

In more than twenty books over the past half-century, the British scholar John Keegan has established himself as the outstanding military historian of his generation, with several of his works, most notably The Face of Battle, The Second World War, The Mask of Command,  The Price of Admiralty and A History of Warfare, acclaimed as classics in their own time. In his last book, Keegan offered a cogent analysis of the Iraq War; now, he applies his outstanding grasp on the nature of human conflict to offer a fresh evaluation of the American Civil War. He opens thusly: “I began an earlier book with the sentence ‘The First World War was a cruel and unnecessary war.’ The American Civil War, with which it stands comparison, was also certainly cruel, both in the suffering it inflicted on the participants and the anguish it caused to the bereaved at home. But it was not unnecessary.” Among the numerous areas he explores are psychology, ideology, and demographics, but most tellingly, the role of geography in the unfolding course of the war. One of the more astonishing findings: “about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war. Americans fought as frequently as they did in the Civil War because they could find no other way to prosecute the conflict. Economic warfare, excepting blockage, was not an option.”

Dickstein.JPGDancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein; New York, W. W. Norton, 598 pages, $29.95.

A great deal has been written about the long national nightmare of the Great Depression, with numerous interpretations offered as to its causes, concerns made especially relevant by the recent downturn in the economy that has had many people recalling the bad old days. But none, to my knowledge, have taken on the subject in a true cultural sense--the films, the novels, the architecture, the music, the photography, the penetrating images that continue to resonate of those dark days. Morris Dickstein, professor of English and theater at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and author previously of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple has fashioned a remarkable narrative of the times that is a model of interdisciplinary technique, and a true joy to read. The Empire State Building, Citizen Kane, the Yellow Brick Road, Scarlett O’Hara, the Rockettes, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Wright, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas--it all fits in, and is all handled seamlessly. Dip into this, and you will quickly appreciate why Norman Mailer called Dickstein “one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature.”

redflag.jpgThe Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; New York, Grove Press, 676 pages, $30.

The official publication date for this big book is Nov. 9, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall began to come down, the first vital sign that the twentieth century’s thunderous experience with Communism was entering its final stages. David Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, offers a sweeping overview of the phenomenon, tracing its roots to the  French Revolution, and carrying it forward into its continuing applications today in China, Cuba, and Korea. All the big names are here--Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara--and many others who are lesser known, but just as compelling. Drawing generously on the wealth of archival materials that have become available in recent years, he is able to offer fresh insights that do not rely entirely on the published works of others. Just as important, he writes in a lively, accessible style that never loses sight of the continuing drama. A massive, admirable effort.


Xenophon.JPGThe Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, translated by John Marincola, edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York, Pantheon, 579 pages, $40.

This new translation of the ancient historian Xenophon’s Hellenika joins earlier editions in the Landmark series of Greek histories by Thucydides and Herodotus, and includes a fabulous selection of maps, annotations, photographs, illustrations and sixteen appendices written by notable classical scholars. This work covers the years between 411 and 362 B.C., a time when relations between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Persia were extremely volatile. A student of Socrates, Xenophon was an Athenian who first served in the expedition against the Persian King Artaxerxes II, and later joined the Spartan army.
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