RaveThe New York Times Book Review... builds on strengths long evident in Brands’s books, combining expert storytelling with thoughtful interpretation vividly to render major events through the lives of the chief participants. Apart from a biography of U. S. Grant, Brands has until now had surprisingly little to say about the Civil War era, but this book presents a gripping account of the politics that led to Southern secession, war and the abolition of slavery ... In line with recent writings by, among others, James Oakes and Sidney Blumenthal, Brands refuses to diminish Lincoln’s antislavery moral commitment because of his politics, any more than he absolves Brown’s uncompromising higher judgments of their untethered recklessness.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksThe struggle that American Carnage covers in fact may well be over, won by Trump and his loyalists—who are now drawn from both the establishment and the hard right—and leaving supposed moderates like Romney on the fringe. Alberta’s guarded optimism about the party’s future, projected upon the once-and-future Romney, reflects a major limitation in his densely reported book: its paucity of historical background ... starting an account of the GOP’s civil war in 2008 is a bit like starting a history of the American Civil War after Gettysburg. By the time Alberta’s account gets underway, most of the political dynamics behind the events he describes were long established and extremely powerful ... While American Carnage describes the outcome of the party’s radicalization, it completely misses—indeed, fundamentally misunderstands—a major impetus behind Trump’s ascendancy: the destructive presidency of George W. Bush ... Alberta...is a demon researcher. He has also mastered the knack of culling juicy quotations and narrating colorful vignettes that seem to jump off the page, part scoop and part gossip. They confirm that Alberta has amassed a fortune in the debased coin of the realm of modern journalism, which is access; but they also display his genuine gift for fly-on-the-wall storytelling from certain Republican walls ... Alberta...has an irritating habit of reviving hackneyed Republican platitudes and talking points, and of blaming Democrats for Republicans’ partisan excesses ... Alberta is more convincing and even entertaining when he sticks to narrating his book’s three main storylines: the battles between the GOP’s congressional leadership and its caucus’s strident right wing; Trump’s emergence in 2015 and triumph a year later; and the tumults that rattled the first two years of his presidency. Alberta has a sharp eye for folly, and it serves him well in covering some of the escapades of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus troublemakers ... Alberta is unsparing about the Republicans’ desertion of the party’s professed principles—including its devotion to free trade, small government, and fiscal responsibility—in succumbing to Trump. Yet he flounders when it comes to explaining their willingness to support a man they held in contempt ... Any number of historians, political scientists, and journalists have chronicled the long history of the Republican Party’s decay, but you won’t find it in Alberta. He would prefer that Trumpism be something other than Republicanism, not its culmination.
PanThe New Republic... a prudent but deeply admiring study of an enormously talented and remarkable patriot who was also one of the most suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed conservatives of the early American republic. In conveying so much about Adams’s goodness, in vivid and smooth prose, McCullough slights Adams’s intellectual ambitions, his brilliance and his ponderousness...McCullough scants, in other words, everything that went into rendering Adams the paradox that he was: a great American who would prove virtually irrelevant to his nation’s subsequent political development. And in its very smoothness and vividness, McCullough’s life of Adams is useful also in another way. It gives a measure of the current condition of popular history in America, in its strengths but also--rather grievously--in its weaknesses ... McCullough barely mentions Adams’s political writings; and what he has to say about the two major works consists of brief quotations surrounded by utterly conventional plot summary and commentary ... McCullough’s approach still falls flat as a historical method. For finally men such as Jefferson and Adams need to be judged not for who they were but for what they thought and what they did ... The result is a biography that fails to ask many difficult questions about its subject, and thereby makes him less interesting than he actually was.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksTomasky sometimes offers a version of today’s blander political punditry, which holds that we have become polarized because the middle has fallen out of American politics ... The conventions of faux objectivity demand finding fault with both sides for today’s polarization, if only to avoid being dismissed as partisan, and when Tomasky pays lip service to those conventions, even faintly, it weakens his analysis ... The best parts of If We Can Keep It offer a fresh and original version of the larger history their studies relate, informed by the firsthand knowledge of a veteran Washington reporter ... [Tomasky] at times adopts, not always successfully, a brisk, even light-hearted style...After a while, this jokiness begins to distract. Mostly, though, Tomasky writes seriously, with his usual blend of precise detail and analytic clarity, leavened with an undogmatic, self-critical liberalism. His historical perspective, if not always his conclusions, helps make sense of our situation today ... While Tomasky is strong on major patterns and periods, his command of some of the historical details is shaky.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"A traditional critic in the historicist mode, Delbanco has always thoughtfully rendered the contexts in which his writers wrote. He has offered fresh interpretations not only of how national politics shaped the writing of, say, Moby-Dick, but also of what Melville’s tragic awareness and moral ambiguities tell us about the temper of a nation hurtling toward civil war ... Delbanco’s incisive analyses of [several authors\'] observations — and, just as important, of their failure to observe — form one of his book’s running themes. Delbanco’s skills as a literary critic also illuminate the contributions fugitive slaves made to the growing antislavery movement ... Delbanco’s literary judgments aside, The War Before the War is mainly a straightforward account of events that, although familiar to professional historians, ought to be known by anyone who claims to know anything about American history ... Over all, Delbanco’s account is accurate as well as vivid (although I wish he hadn’t garbled the details of the adoption of the fugitive slave clause in 1787, the book’s most serious lapse). He makes a strong case for the centrality of the fugitive slaves to the sectional crisis; indeed, by emphasizing the symbolism of the issue, he may have slighted the importance of its political and legal aspects. Without question, he has once again written a valuable book, reflective as well as jarring, concerning the most violent and enduring conflict in American history.\
MixedThe New York Review of Books\"... Some shakiness about elementary facts, especially on politics, recurs in later chapters ... [In its exploration of Andrew Jackson\'s politics, the book] signals Lepore’s interest in showing how some of Trumpism’s origins emerged long before Trump’s presidency, a course she pursues with uneven success ... Lepore’s interpretation focuses on the intersection of culture and politics, but overall, while persuasive on culture, it is much less so on politics. Although politics remains at the core of her book, Lepore is most at home discussing cultural artifacts and trends ... Lepore gets back on track when she shifts to the history of the mass media and political polling, and their undermining of deliberative democracy ... Lepore does not offer a final verdict on America and its truths, but her concluding lines are anguished, depicting a ship of state being torched by those newly in charge and the craven opposition huddled clueless below decks, with a new generation of Americans called upon \'to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals,\' yet in need of \'an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.\'\
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...engaging and troubling ... Meacham widens the field of historical influence to include activists and intellectuals usually deemed outside the mainstream, above all W. E. B. Du Bois ... What’s troubling is the continuing history, amply if less fully documented in the book, of another abiding element of the American \'soul,\' an authoritarian politics that is absolutist, oligarchic, anti-egalitarian, demagogic and almost always racist ... He is effective as ever at writing history for a broad readership. A journalist and presidential biographer who won a Pulitzer for his life of Andrew Jackson, he has seen how American politics works close up, as most academic historians have not, yet he has remained uncynical. He is an adroit and appealing storyteller ... Unfortunately ... there is virtually nothing about how the well-documented right-wing radicalization of the Republican Party paved the way for Donald Trump ... The book concludes with some worthy injunctions about getting active in politics, rejecting tribalism and respecting facts. But these fail to convey the profound depth of the crisis.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIt is a quality of perception that distinguished Schlesinger’s best historical writing, and it helps Aldous illuminate that writing as well as Schlesinger’s political forays. Aldous clearly respects Schlesinger’s politics, but his detachment gives him room to criticize without sanctimony and to empathize without evasion. His book helps reveal why Schlesinger mattered so much to the history of modern American liberalism, a history and a politics now badly in need of rescue and repair ... Aldous effectively describes the turf-war intrigue and the ricochet of egos among Kennedy’s aides and appointees, intramural struggles in which Schlesinger, with all his cleverness, did not always prevail ... Liberals are left to pick up that challenge as best they can. It is well to remember that Schlesinger never renounced the label of “liberal” or lost his tough-minded and undogmatic fighting spirit. Because he so deeply grasped liberalism’s history, he was able to make a good deal of it himself.
PositiveThe National Book ReviewAndersen persuasively shows that America is exceptional in the way fantasy overcomes reality for the rising majority. He also occasionally hints at, but does not fully develop, the other significant way America is exceptional: it is aggressively capitalist and entrepreneurial, far more economically libertarian than anyplace else on earth ... one has to worry that in some future moment in time, perhaps not far off, the forces of unreason will finally recognize what they have in common, will find each other and will seize full power in their own name and with their own agenda. Fantasyland has a true warning, even presented with Andersen’s deep thoughtfulness and (mostly) gentle humor: it could happen here.