Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Meaty Little Tidbits of American History 1001

I'm a particular fan of American history in that I'm particular about the parts I like. It isn't an ideological divide as much as it is that there are certain periods that appeal to me for some reason. I'm fond of the colonialists and the American Revolution, but for the stories of the smaller moments and not the battles. I also have a soft spot for the socialist movement of the 1930's and anything that sheds light on the deceptive prosperity of post-war American in the 1950's and 60's. In a lot of cases, the history I'm attracted to are the stories of people who left a lasting impression.

I'll be frank: what originally drew me to these books by Alan Axelrod -- 1001 People Who Made America and 1001 Events That Made America -- was the subtitle on 1001 Events -- "A Patriot's Handbook." Indeed! 1001 events to serve as a handbook for patriots? Now I'm curious.

1001 Events proved to be exactly the book I expected, a collection of short paragraphs that chronicle the history of the country from the original Asian migration 40,000 years ago to Hurricane Katrina. Though presented chronologically, Axelrod suggests (and I agree) that the book should be perused for areas of preference. Using the index in the back one could look up a topic of interest -- like Manifest Destiny -- and read a quick summary to sate one's curiosity before glancing at the entries to either side for a little historical context. In this instance there is a paragraph immediately preceding about the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club formalizing the rules for baseball, disputed by the suggestion that the game had been invented in Philadelphia 12 years earlier. The entry following manifest Destiny informs us that Texas was admitted into the Union, "vitually ensuring a war with Mexico." Why is that? Well, you'll have to read back a few pages to find out what's been going on in that part of the country.

That, for me, is the joy of this sort of collection, being able to jump around at will. The actual content is fairly safe -- no mention of the Chinese perhaps discovering America, but also no mention of when the Russians first occupied Alaska -- and the brevity of the information given ensures that the curious will need to seek detailed information elsewhere. I was surprised to see that a certain Volney Palmer of Philadelphia becomes the first ad agent and coins the term "advertising agency" in 1841. Not very long after that we get our first "modern" presidential campaigns full of slogans, songs, and negative attack ads. God Bless America!

Which leads me to Axelrod's other book, which in some ways s more satisfying. It would seem a daunting task to believe that the number of people it took to "make" American can be reduced to 1001, but this alphabetical listing of noted Americans does a fine job.

In addition to the usual suspects -- the presidents, the rich and famous -- are the names of those readers might know but never considered the person behind the name. The Armour behind the meat packing business, the Colt behind the gun, the Henry McCarty who was Billy the Kid. I'm pleased to see a fair number of players in the Watergate saga are here: Woodward and Bernstein, of course, but Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Hunt, Dean, and Sam Ervin all make an appearance. The last time I saw a high school history textbook the Watergate scandal was given cursory coverage, and certainly less than what there is here. Usually we get that Nixon was involved in a break-in and cover-up and that's about it. These entries won't fill in all the 18-minute gaps but it's a start.

Artists, musicians and writers are also represented (though not as well represented as I'd like) as are some whose distinction in "making" this country can be seen as dubious. The Reverend Jim Jones and the cuddly Charles Manson are here, but so is Monica Lewinsky. That these people had an effect on events in our nation cannot be ignored, but to say their actions "made" this country what it is strikes me as a bit much. This is where the limitation of 1001 entries is perhaps the book's weakness. I find myself wishing there were more artists mentioned, more women... but to the exclusion of whom?

I suppose questions like that cannot be helped. Recently I was asked to name my top three films of all times and found myself stumbling. For every title I could come up with there were easily three more that sprang to mind, and suddenly I was trying to find some way to winnow down a couple dozen into just three. I suspect it's no less difficult narrowing a list of noted Americans down to 1001 as well.

I found little in 1001 Events to support the claim toward being a patriot's handbook -- unless the implication is that it contains all the information one might need to know to pass a citizenship exam -- and noticed that in the paperback edition National Geographic has left the subtitle off the cover. It's easy to tout patriotism and another to define it. Leave the fuzzy work to politicians and give me raw bits of history to gnaw on instead.

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