A Student’s Guide To U.S. History, by Wilfred M. McClay
Three times in my grade school experiences I had year-long courses devoted to U.S. History, and in many ways they were done according to the way discussed in this book, with talks of names and dates and trying to memorize laws and government policies. Many people, as a result of experiences similar to my own, view American history as boring or provincial when one compares it with the histories of Europe or East and South Asia or the Middle East, to give but a few examples. The author gives a compelling reason why American history is worth studying, though , and in doing so makes this little book a compelling one that admits its short size and that triumphs because it opens a window to a field that is too often neglected or underappreciated. All too often people study American History only because they have to, but this book encourages its readers to study American History because they want to, and that makes a big difference. When we want to study something, we will seek out sources far more interesting and worthwhile than the textbooks that are foisted upon us.
The book is a short one at about 100 pages but it manages to effectively ground American history on a solid foundation and then open a window into some genuinely interested aspects of American history that are well worth reading more about for the reader. The author begins with a discussion of what this book is and isn’t, properly framing expectations for the reader. After that he discusses history as laboratory and as memory, pointing to the limitations of history as a science but the importance of history as a repository of memory and as a genre of literature. The author then spends some time rethinking American history as well as addressing the multitude of myths that exist about American history largely because the mythic nature of American history (whether for good or ill) is nearly universal even if the meaning and content of that mythic nature is difficult to agree about. After a discussion of the relationship between micro and macro historical concerns, the author opens up some brief but fascinating windows on the relationships of America to Europe, capitalism, the city, equality, the founding, the frontier, immigration, liberty, nationalism and federalism, nature, pluralism, redemption, religion, revolution, self-making, and the South. This fascinating and provocative look at different matters ends with some caveats and a lengthy and worthwhile glimpse at a canon of American history and literature worth reading and appreciating.
As someone who greatly loves American history as a field to study and who regularly looks at both detailed and broadly conceived accounts of various aspects of that history, I found this book to be a very worthwhile one for helping readers in self-education. Whether one wishes to read great American novels (like the Great Gatsby) as a way of finding more about America, or whether one is interested in regional history or the deeply ambivalent to hostile view of Americans towards concentration in the city or America’s notoriously ambivalent attitudes towards immigration and liberty/equality, this book has something worthwhile and colorful to say. Not only does the author have some striking insights to make about American history and its relevance for contemporary social and political issues, but the author manages to say it in a colorful and memorable way, such as the author’s memorable quip about how Americans are like a man in love with two women named liberty and equality and often not recognizing that his heart is divided or that liberty and equality are rivals, or the author’s humorous way of pointing out that the South is becoming Americanized as it is simultaneously Southernizing the rest of the United States, which is also something significant. This book is short but packs some heat, which is just what I like in my books.
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