MixedNew York Review of BooksYacovone examined hundreds of texts held in the library of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, published from the early nineteenth century to the 1980s—a heroic effort that few historians are likely to wish to emulate ... For those who have studied the evolution of American historical writing, Yacovone’s account will not be unfamiliar ... . But there are surprises as well ... Yacovone deserves thanks for undertaking the task of reading through all these textbooks. Unfortunately, he does not really subject the idea of white supremacy, so crucial to his narrative, to careful examination. He fails to make clear what exactly it means, whom it benefits, and how it may have changed over time ... The distinction between slavery and freedom sometimes fades into the background. They become simply different manifestations of an ideology equally dominant in the North and South. Indeed, a number of times Yacovone asserts that racism was more extreme and more deeply rooted in the pre–Civil War North than the slave South, where, he claims, without elaborating, white supremacy had a \'patchwork quality\' and Blacks enjoyed \'more freedom\' than in the \'nominally\' free states.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewA vast literature exists on nearly every aspect of the Civil War. But Roger Lowenstein’s Ways and Means, an account of the Union’s financial policies, examines a subject long overshadowed by military narratives ... In the hands of a less skilled author, the litany of bonds, notes, loans and forms of currency that he discusses could become mind-numbing. But Lowenstein is a lucid stylist, able to explain financial matters to readers who lack specialized knowledge. Perhaps he can write a book that helps laypersons like me understand recent innovations such as cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens ... Lowenstein devotes considerably less attention to Southern fiscal policy, but what he does say is scathing.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... long, elegantly written ... appears at precisely the right moment ... certainly among the most impressive contributions to this minor genre ... Obama comes across as literary, tolerant and dignified. A gifted writer, he maintains the reader’s interest for over 700 pages ... alternates between long discussions of public policy, foreign and domestic, and revealing descriptions of family life in the White House. On the latter subject Obama is quite candid ... Obama does not try to sugar-coat the toll his political career exacted on his wife ... contains many small but touching private moments ... Each discussion opens with a lucid, well-informed history lesson establishing the context and then proceeds to a detailed account of how decisions were made. Obama frequently adopts a self-deprecating tone but he is not given to introspection. Rather than view past events from the vantage point of the present, the book keeps the reader firmly in the moments it is describing ... In one of the rare instances of the author questioning his original policy decisions, he now wonders about the wisdom of his emphasis on restoring the pre-crisis system without tackling many of its structural flaws, about whether he should have been \'bolder\'. He does not provide an answer.
PositiveLondon Review of Books (UK)... comprehensive and full of historical insight. Even specialists in political and constitutional history will encounter surprises. But in telling this story it’s impossible to avoid repetition. Madison described the debates about the presidency at the constitutional convention as ‘tedious and reiterated’, a comment that can be applied to the entire history of efforts at reform. The problem is exacerbated by the book’s partly chronological, partly thematic structure.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... hagiographic ... Meacham wants to show that despite evidence all around us of injustices committed in the name of religion, faith-based activism can produce a better society ... Meacham tells this story with his customary eloquence. And by decentering Martin Luther King Jr. in favor of SNCC, he allows less famous activists to come to the fore ... Compared with Meacham’s earlier works, this book, published only a few months after his most recent one, gives the impression of having been written in haste. Much of it relies on Lewis’s 1998 memoir, Walking With the Wind. The emphasis on the spiritual origins of Lewis’s commitment to social change leads to slighting the movement’s more secular catalysts ... Meacham’s book is a welcome reminder of the heroic sacrifices and remarkable achievements of...young radicals—20th-century America’s greatest generation.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewEngrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature ... Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book ... The most fascinating parts of Gordon-Reed’s book deal not with Sally Hemings herself but with other all but unknown members of her extended family ... Gordon-Reed sensitively traces the career of this restless, solitary man [Sally Hemings\'s brother James] ... Unfortunately, when it comes to the core of the book, the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, she is less circumspect ... Madison Hemings’s use of the words \'concubine\' and \'treaty\' hardly suggests a romance. But Gordon-Reed is determined to prove that theirs was a consensual relationship based on love ... She sets up a series of straw men and proceeds to demolish them—those who believe that in the context of slavery, love between black and white people was impossible ... Gordon-Reed even suggests that \'opponents of racism\' who emphasize the prevalence of rape in the Old South occupy \'common ground\' with racists ... This, quite simply, is outrageous.
MixedThe Washington PostLuxenberg is a fine writer who tells this story in an engaging manner. To be sure, his apparent desire for novelistic effects sometimes gives the prose a purplish hue ... A more serious problem is the book’s structure, which undermines its narrative coherence. Most of Separate consists of alternating biographical chapters about Tourgée, Brown, Harlan and members of the Citizens’ Committee. This produces chronological confusion ... The biographical focus, moreover, leads to a relative neglect of the broader historical context. There is little discussion, for example, of the debates over the 14th Amendment when Congress approved it in 1866 or what exactly it was meant to accomplish ... The long biographical excursions are not only unnecessary but often of questionable relevance. They produce significant delay in getting to the actual case.
David W. Blight
PositiveThe Nation...Blight has been able to delve more deeply than previous scholars into a period that many have depicted as an anticlimax, when the fiery moral crusader became a Republican Party functionary and government bureaucrat. Overall, the result is a consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come ... Blight quotes extensively from and offers astute analyses of Douglass’s remarkable speeches, including great set pieces ... Blight places more emphasis than previous biographers on the importance of the Bible to Douglass’s rhetorical style and political outlook ... Blight frequently invokes the analogy between Douglass and the \'old prophets\'—perhaps too frequently, as this leads to a relative neglect of the secular foundations of Douglass’s vision ... One of the more startling themes of Blight’s book is the candid portrait he offers of Douglass’s \'dysfunctional\' family life ... Douglass left behind an enormous public record, but as Blight readily acknowledges, the private man remains frustratingly elusive.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksThere is much to praise in Goddess of Anarchy, including Jones’s thorough research, which has laid to rest uncertainty about Parsons’s origins, and the ways the book illuminates the rapidly changing economic and political circumstances in which Parsons operated. A work that could easily have descended into a confusing litany of tiny organizations, short-lived publications, and endless speaking tours retains clarity and coherence throughout. Lucy Parsons finally receives her due as a pioneering radical … Jones, however, sometimes seems to measure both Parsonses against an ahistorical ideal—the radical attuned to the intersections of race and class, the nuances of political strategy, and the impact of language, whose private life reflected his or her political principles. Not surprisingly, by this standard Lucy is found wanting. So would almost any human being.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewKaplan is at his best with his brief portraits of a diverse cast of characters...These vignettes succeed in highlighting the wide array of responses to the slavery issue in Lincoln’s America. However, Lincoln and the Abolitionists never quite gels. As the bifurcated title and subtitle suggest, it lacks a clear focus. In addition, there are numerous historical errors, some trivial, but many egregious ... as a full portrait of Lincoln’s views on slavery and race, the account is, to say the least, one-dimensional ... When it comes to the fraught question of Lincoln’s views on race, Kaplan again oversimplifies a complex situation ... Kaplan, in other words, employs racism as a deus ex machina — something that exists outside of history but that can be invoked as the ultimate explanation for historical events. Yet if racism is constant and immutable, how did millions of Northerners come to embrace emancipation and the laws and constitutional amendments of Reconstruction? A better approach is to see racism as part of history. Racism, like anything else, rises and falls over time. And sometimes people change.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewHis account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to On the Origin of Species usually (but not always) at the center ... Fuller’s most surprising revelation is the profound impact Darwin’s portrait of a 'teeming, pulsating natural world' exerted on Thoreau ... Fuller is a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details. His subjects wrote copious letters, kept diaries, gave speeches and recorded their conversations with one another. Fuller has mined this rich material with care and insight. Sometimes, to be sure, the desire to tell a good story leads him down detours that have little apparent connection to Darwin and his reception ... Fuller’s rather grandiose title promises more than a study of a few New England intellectuals can reasonably deliver.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewGuyatt’s juxtaposition of attitudes and policies relating to Indians and blacks yields important insights. But the book is not entirely persuasive. For one thing, its structure seems at odds with its argument. Chapters on Native Americans alternate with those on blacks, creating a disjointed narrative that makes it difficult to find the links between the two stories. Like many writers with a bold thesis, Guyatt is prone to exaggeration...Viewing the story fundamentally as a problem of race relations obscures the crucial difference between the place of Native Americans and blacks in the emerging national economy.