Book Review: The Past We Share

The Past We Share:  An Illustrated History Of The British And American Peoples, edited by Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge

This book is so obscure it doesn’t have an ISBN number.  In fact, I can say with some degree of confidence that I may be one of the few people ever to read this book, and certainly to write about it.  About the best way to characterize this book is that it’s a poor man’s History Of The English Speaking Peoples.  The editors of this book are certainly no Winston Churchills and they get a fair amount wrong in their textual backup to the many photos and paintings that are included in this illustrated history.  To give a short review, they claim that the South rebelled due to State’s Rights, showing an ignorance of the facts and a desire to pander to the myth of the lost cause.  They also spell honor in the English fashion and misspell Pittsburgh, which was particularly irksome as I born just outside of that city.  There are a few other errors as well, suggesting this work was somewhat rushed and could have used a bit more attention from the editor at Prometheus Press who published this large hardcover book in 1960.  It is pretty likely that this book went out of print and that there has never been any reason for anyone to reprint either.  That said, there is something to enjoy in this book despite its errors.

This book is organized in a fashion that demonstrates the clear interest of its editors in promoting elite history, which is perhaps the reason why it panders to the ideological descendants of Southern planters.  The titles of the chapters of this book give a great deal of detail about its contents:  the Norman Kingdom (there is no discussion of the shared Anglo-Saxon history–it begins in 1066), the age of Chivalry, the end of feudalism, the new monarchy, the age of Elizabeth, king and Parliament, the thirteen colonies, the restoration, William of Orange and Anne, the House of Hanover, American Independence, Georgian Apogee, the New Republic, the Victorian age, from Civil War to world power, Edward VII and George V, from World War to World War, the present day.  The contents of these chapters are text, mostly about the behavior of political and cultural elites, along with photographs of palaces and castles and country houses, reproductions of paintings and photographs, and general fawning over the lives of politicians and poets, composers and those wealthy enough to commission paintings for themselves and their families.  In light of contemporary concern for subaltern groups and even just ordinary commoners even where one has no particularly socialist bent, it is clear to see why this book is so completely out of touch, and was likely already out of touch with the time when it was published.

When one reads as many books as I do, including books that deal with the complexities of American and British history [1], one is left with an obvious question.  Why does this book exist, and who does it exist for?  This book is not a labor of love from someone passionately interested in some obscure subject that no one else may care about.  To this reader, this book seems like a glossy vanity project from British elites who are seeking to make a strong appeal to Anglo-American harmony in the midst of the Cold War, a way of reducing tension in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis (which is not mentioned in this book) by appealing to a shared history among these transatlantic wealthy and important people.  I am certainly not nearly important enough to be a part of this audience, and the fact that so much of the effort is spent into looking at high culture and high politics suggests that this author has no interest in mind with regards to the common person of either the United States or Great Britain, but is making a book from one group of important people to another, with a wink and a nod that the class structure has been leveled in both countries while the writers and the readers know better.  If it is a rare book with a small print run, it certainly makes even now for an interesting read to see just how clueless and biased its editors are, and that is always good for a few laughs.

[1] See, for example:


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 Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review: The Past We Share

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Anglo Files | Edge Induced Cohesion

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