Pocket History of the United States by Henry Steele Commager
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Writing a pocket history of any nation is a tremendous task I’m sure, but I think a better title would involve “brick” and not “pocket.” The only pocket thing about this book is the surface area of the front and back covers. Without including the suggested reading lists and the index, this puppy’s page count is 656. That being said, it is about 50% interesting reading and about 50% grinding out the pages so you can finish it and call it done. But I find this to be true of many large histories that cover large swaths of time and are not as niche-focused.
This book was assigned reading in my college, which I did not even come close to finishing in my school days because of extracurricular activities (preparing for marriage and life after graduation). But I decided recently to pick it up and finish my assignment, albeit 22 years too late. I’m glad I did.
There are numerous nuggets of insight and wisdom scattered throughout, and even though the authors are political liberals and I am not, I did find that I agreed with many of their conclusions.
Near the end of the book is written: “As late as the Progressive Era, most, if not all, leading men in public life could deal with ideas, compose grammatical sentences, and speak articulately. An election such as that in 1912 brought forth as presidential candidates in the general election a leading political scientist and educator (Woodrow Wilson), an able historian and naturalist (Theodore Roosevelt), and a good jurist and first-rate administrator (William Howard Taft). Today elections are characterized by negative advertising and sound bites; the “presidential debates” by the rote recitation of 60-to-120 second memorized statements that don’t always bear a close relation to the question propounded.”
The words were written around 1992, and they are even more true today. It truly is tragic that a nation of such wealth and opportunity is witnessing the extinction of the noble statesman – a creature whose death is perpetrated by a blood-thirsty media, a myopic public, a narcissistic upper class, a desperate right, and a witch-hunting left.
It is dangerous to read history with rose-colored glasses, but it is equally dangerous to cashier the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. It is dangerous to be so focused on the sins of our fathers that we cannot see – will not see – the veritable treasury of virtues and admirable qualities that furnished them the vision and fortitude they needed to found a nation and lead it into better days. We may congratulate ourselves for not having stained our mittens with the moral deficiencies of previous generations, but in reality we have only switched the mittens around. We’ve traded prejudice for pride, bigotry for indulgence, exploitation for entitlement. We are more educated but less enlightened, more blessed but less grateful, and more accoutred but less industrious.
After finishing this tome about American history, I can’t help but think of that slogan made famous by the Virginia Slims cigarette company: “You’ve come a long way, baby!” We have come a long way – in good ways and bad ways. But during this election season, it’s hard not to focus on the bad ways.