Mental Floss History of the United States, by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur
Despite my own concerns that this book would be a neo-Confederate hack job, the book itself proved to be a reasonably fair, if very candid, book about American history from prehistoric times to 2010, making it both current as well as relatively complete (coming in at just over 400 pages, it does not skimp on size). The book is not organized with a specific aim to narrative, but rather divides American history into ten segments and then reviews each according to a specific format.
The ten segments of American history according to the book are: Prehistory, Puritants, Plantations, and Priates (23,000 BCE – 1715 CE), Don’t Worry Be Scrappy (1715-1815), Drunk and Illiterate (and Not Just a Little Bit) (1815-1850), Time for Your Bloodbath (1850-1880), Empire State of Mind (1880-1910), The United States of Amazing (1910-1930), Superpower Surprise (1930-1955), Sex, Drugs, and Mocking Roles (1955-1975), Morning in America? (1975-1992), and America the Decider (1992-2010). The resulting organization tends to bias the book heavily towards contemporary history, politics, and the culture wars, which is a minor flaw but probably a move to appeal with those who have less interest in 18th and 19th century history (a major interest of mine) and more interest in immediate relevance to the present day. It’s an understandable move.
Each chapter begins with a summary of the major trends and events of the time period, and the book opens with an explanation of the reason why the book focuses on the European colonization period and afterward (namely, the paucity of information about pre-contact North American civilizations), which seeks to defuse criticism on the grounds of political correctness. Then, after the introductory summary there is a time line of major events (or, sometimes not-so-major events, like the Blue Oyster Cult’s release of the single “Don’t Fear The Reaper” in 1976, as the case may be). After this comes a section on “Lies Your Teacher Told You” (presumably a nod to the politically correct history book by James Loewen), “Where My Gods At,” (an examination of important American religious trends–interestingly enough the struggle between premillennialism and postmillenialism is not among them, though the Fundamentalists get tweaked some), Other People’s Stuff (which examines the tendency of Americans to take and defend the territory of others, including Indian Wars, America’s ambivalent response to imperialism, and post-WWII Cold War geopolitics), Trendspotting (which examines tragicomic trends, often relating to debt or bankruptcy or alcohol and drug abuse), Made in America (which looks at America’s contribution to technology or culture in the world, whether television, rum, or rock & roll), Profiles in Scoundrels (a look at noteworthy villains in American history including Nathaniel Bacon and John Wilkes Booth, a section revealingly not included in the most recent aspects of American History), and by the numbers, which looks at intriguing statistics from the period in question.
Among the areas where the book would be expected to be the harshest are not quite so. For example, one would expect a book (given the biased and skewed perspective of the Mental Floss volume on world history), to be rampantly pro-Confederate. Refreshingly, that is not the case, and the book strives to keep a very even-handed approach, showing the three antebellum views to issues ranging from slavery to the legality of secession to tariffs (I come out, unsurprisingly, on the side of the “radical” Northerners in areas except for the tariff, where I come in on the side of “moderate” Northerners (doughfaces) and unionist Southerners. I consider this a fair view.). In addition, the book is not nearly as critical about Lincoln’s handling of civil rights issues as might be assumed from the back cover, and is very wise in separating Lincoln’s moderate approach from the more radical approach of the congressional Republican majority. In addition, the book is deeply critical of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racism in general, which makes its generally politically correct approach more palatable by being nuanced rather than heavy handed. The fact that the book is both comical and filled with interesting and pointed historical insights means that as long as one is a fair-minded reader of history one will find a lot to appreciate and reflect on.
I would like to close this review by giving a humorous commentary on one particular aspect of “cool” versus “square” that examines the whole culture war problem in a very funny nutshell. Cool music: blues, jazz, bebop, rock and roll. Square music: Gospel, patriotic songs, marches. Reviewer’s stance: enjoys both–probably considered square. Cool transportation: trains, planes, and automobiles. Square transportation: horse & buggy, walking. Reviewer’s stance: again, both–probably considered square. Cool art: Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock. Square art: Norman Rockwell. Reviewer: Thomas Kinkade? Hudson River School? Probably very square. Cool literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Jack Karouac, On The Road. Square literature: The Bible. Reviewer: Definitely square. Cool architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater;” William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building. Square architecture: Queen Anne Style, American Foursquare, anything “quaint.” Reviewer: Both again, probably square. Cool design: Art Deco. Square Design: Arts & Crafts. Reviewer: I’m a huge Arts & Crafts fan. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone. Cool work: Artist, musician, author, poet, architect, bartender, unemployed. Square work: Minister, teacher, doctor, banker, accountant, lawyer, maid. Reviewer: surprisingly cool, for the moment. Cool recreation: opium addiction, alcoholism, Russian roulette, swing dancing. Square recreation: sports, crosswords, knitting, square dancing. Reviewer: Square. Verdict on reviewer: Square, but not as much as would be expected by others.