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Review: Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies: The Settling of North America.”

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America, published by Penguin Books in 2002, presents to the reader an important interpretation of the early history of the United States that expands upon the traditional Anglocentric narrative.  Taylor’s work of historical synthesis takes in a broad sweep of history, looking back to the earliest peopling of the North American continent by Asiatic hunter/gather groups circa 13,000 BCE to the early national period c.1820 CE.  Taylor argues that the many different waves of colonization originating in diverse regions of the globe have had a lasting and profound impact on the history of the nation helping shape a unique American identity.[1]  In presenting this argument, Taylor moves the narrative away from the Anglocentric point-of-view that dominates the historiography of the period replacing it with a more dynamic, diverse, and holistic account.

By including the histories of the many different peoples who have inhabited the North American continent form the earliest Asiatic peoples who would become the forebears of today’s native peoples to the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russians, and English who freely choose to settle the “New World”, to the forced migrations of African peoples from a wide variety of nations, Taylor successfully forces the reader into thinking about American history differently through the use of a compelling narrative and a thematic approach to history.  By breaking history into small geographic and temporal segments, Taylor provides a framework that allows the narrative to explore individual groups and time-periods, while keeping the intercultural narrative of the text at the forefront of the reader’s attention.

Taylor’s work is an important text that should be at the top of any history buffs to-read list.  Those interested in colonial America, Native American history, the histories of non-Anglo colonial powers will find this large but eminently readable tome of great value while giving them a much more nuanced vision of the colonial period.


[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume 1) (Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002). xii.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction

 

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“The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.

Susan Jacoby’s 2008 “The Age of American Unreason” is a book in two parts. The first part is a highly readable history of the development of contemporary anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; the second is largely a polemic against what could very well be seen as Jacoby’s personal pet peeves.

In the first part of the text Jacoby outlines the causes of American unreason arguing that the modern condition is a result of a multitude of factors that include the rise of Christian Fundamentalism, the ubiquity of television, the move away from a classical liberal education at universities, the right-wing attack on the intellectual as a “fellow-traveler” and the reaction of the New Left to the role that intellectuals played in the crises of the Sixties, the rise of infotainment, and the subsequent dumbing-down of mass culture. Jacoby does a decent job creating a coherent argument from these strands but there is nothing really original or ground-breaking about her analysis. In addition, the author makes questionable assertions, such as the claim that the USA is the only developed nation where Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity is on the rise (she has conveniently overlooked South Korea where the growth of these Christian movements is accelerating, and Australia where churches that preach a charismatic form of Christianity, i.e. Hillsong Church, are rapidly gaining members) and tracing the origin of fundamentalism and biblical literalism to the Second Great Awakening.

The second part, an exposition of the symptoms of American unreason, is disappointing. Jacoby’s analysis of the culture of distraction reads as an anti-modernist screed that highlights many of the problems with a world filled with gadgets but like much of the rest of the book, is largely unoriginal. Jacoby fails to tackle the serious issues in junk thought; those issues that should be addressed, and instead takes aim at soft targets. Is a tirade against the Baby Einstein series of children’s videos really the best way to highlight America’s dissent into anti-intellectualism and belief in pseudo-science?

If Jacoby’s aim was to produce a scholarly “high-brow” treatise on the demise of thinking in contemporary America then she has missed the mark, and has instead written a text that takes the path of least resistance and lands squarely in lower middle-brow territory. Jacoby argues that much scholarship in the age of Google is a mere re-mixing of ideas, yet this is exactly what the author has done with this text; originality is not this book’s strength.

While Jacoby’s prose is mostly engaging and well-written, at times Jacob revels in self-aggrandizement making it seem that she is looking down her long, cultured nose at the hoi-polloi.  Although Jacoby calls herself a “cultural conservationist” one is left with an impression that “cultural conservative” would be a more apt moniker. To her credit, the author does take both right and left to task for their role in the creation of the modern age of unreason but this is not enough to make up for the many shortcomings of “The Age of American Unreason.”

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2010 in History, non-fiction

 

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Review of Frank Welsh’s “Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land”

Taking in a huge expanse of time, from the peopling of the Australian continent by the First Australians through to the Howard government, “Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land” is well written tome that reflects Frank Welsh’s thorough and extensive historical research.  However, the thematic scope of the text is not as broad as the title implies. This is not so much a general history of Australia and its people as it is a political history of Australia, a fact that becomes apparent after the first few chapters.  As a political history, Welsh does an excellent job explicating the role that the world-at-large has played in the extraordinarily rapid development of the modern nation from an isolated penal colony to “an exemplar of what might be called Western, or liberal democratic values”, and the role that Australia has played in global events (Introduction, xxxii)  Welsh describes in great detail the founding of the colonies, the subsequent battle for colonial self-rule, the in-fighting between the colonies (which could have easily devolved into civil conflict), the path to Federation, and Australia’s role in the conflicts of the Twentieth Century, all the while tracing the development of Australia’s unique political system.  While other histories of Australia are heavily Anglo-centric, Welsh does an excellent job in explicating the role that not only Britain, but France, the United States, Canada and other colonial powers played in the evolution of  modern Australia.

While Welsh touches upon Australian cultural and social history, the events, people, and institutions that define the “Australian Character” (and are therefore essential to understanding Australia and Australians) are given short-shrift at best, and at worst, derided as the mere “myth-making” of a people searching for a national identity.  This is unfortunate for two reasons; trying to understand a nation and its history without some knowledge of its people’s cultural and social milieu is somewhat futile, it reduces Australian history to a catalog of facts and personages but provides no sense of identity.  Secondly, this unsympathetic reading of Australia’s cultural history, when taken in concert with the author’s somewhat condescending tone gives the reader a sense that Mr. Welsh buys into the idea of British cultural superiority that at times makes for difficult reading.  

 As an analysis of the development of Australia’s political institutions seen from a global perspective, “Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land” is an informative read.  Given the breadth of the subject matter it is easy to understand why Welsh’s text lacks a focused and engaging thesis; however, at times this lack of focus makes what is actually a good read seem like a compendium of facts, people and places.  If you are looking for a book that gives an account of Australia’s often turbulent political history, look no further. This book would prove invaluable to the student of Australian politics, providing an excellent starting point for one’s research.  If you are looking for a history that will help you understand Australians and Australian culture then keep looking.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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