Book Review: Mapping America’s Past: A Historical Atlas

Mapping America’s Past:  A Historical Atlas, by Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty with Patrick Williams

Every story, including a historical atlas, by selecting some events must omit other worthy events from consideration.  The true question of the value of such a work depends on the objective handling of such material as well as the subjective determination of whether their selection was reasonable.  This historical atlas is a very good one on a relative scale (compared to other historical atlases that I have read on America’s history) and a moderately good one overall.  It has flaws, but the flaws do not negate its worth.

Where the atlas succeeds very well is in breaking down the usual state-by-state election results into county-by-county levels, which shows the greater regional divides within states, including in such aspects as the votes for and against secession in the Civil War.  Another strength is the book’s attention to even neighborhood level grids in examining politics (this book focuses a great deal, perhaps too much, on political history, to the exclusion of other historical interests) as well as the expansion of Black Harlem, the rise of prostitution in New York City in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition of Cleveland’s wards, to give but a few examples.  This sort of scale allows for relationships to be seen more clearly than the usual broad brush painted in most atlases.

Compared to other historical atlases about American history that I have read, this book succeeds at providing more maps and less (often bogus) text.  The purpose of an atlas is to show maps and graphs and images that allow the reader to make judgments and conclusions, and in cases where the explanations are often inconsistent or just plain wrong, they can obscure from the information the map is providing, as is the case with the discussion of the Yukon-Alaska boundary dispute in the 1890’s.  At other times, the discussion clearly has a political edge to it, as the comments on the Guilded Age and the US Army’s WWI intelligence testing are concerned.

There are some failings in the book.  For one, about 1/4 of the maps are related specifically to race and ethnicity.  At least another fifth of the book is devoted to the votes of state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives on various matters of varying importance (including pay raises for the governor of South Carolina, the Ludlow Amendment before WWII, and the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia in 1850).  It seems as if the true passion of these geographers is politics, as military history is given a rather short shift in these maps, except for the Vietnam War, which has a disproportionate share all out of context to its importance and worth as a historical subject.

These flaws and quibbles aside, the book is a good one assuming that one is able to overcome the occasionally moralistic tone of the text and focus on the often worthwhile and usually intriguing data included in this book’s many and fascinating maps.  Overall, it is a job well done.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Mapping America’s Past: A Historical Atlas

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