Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kevin Baker Offers a History Text For Visual Learners

Novelist Kevin Baker brings his flair for storytelling as well as his renowned research skills to bear in America: The Story of Us, the companion book to the HISTORY series of the same name. (HISTORY is now the name, of course, of what was The History Channel). Baker, a longtime columnist for American Heritage magazine, gives readers a visually-driven journey through American history. While some tradition-minded folks may object to what they perceive as the superficiality of the work, Baker's efforts will probably draw more interest in American history than what other more traditionally-crafted history texts might.

The publisher was kind enough to send me a copy for review, and I found it to be an easy read. It's not the kind of text that a scholar or hardcore researcher would use, but it provides a good overview of our nation's history.

Baker paints a generally positive picture of the American nation, though he doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of its history. He places the birth of America in the desire of white immigrants to escape European feudalism and establish a "New World" that would allow them to "rise as high as their talents and tenacity might lift them." This noble enterprise, of course, was tragically marred by the, at times, brutal repression of Native Americans and the barbaric exploitation of African slaves. Yet, for all its weaknesses, flaws, and struggles over how to properly treat people of various races, both genders, and the like, the American Dream remains a cherished ideal. Baker approvingly quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote of "the last and greatest of all human dreams."

Baker's coverage of the American Revolutionary period is fair, albeit somewhat shallow. This is understandable for a survey of American history, yet America: The Story of Us still leaves readers with the popular (but mistaken) impression that the American Revolution was mostly about taxes. That is simply not the case.

America: The Story of Us does an excellent job of pointing out that the infamous Dred Scott decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roger Taney, was completely inconsistent with the vision and spirit of the Founding Fathers. In that decision, which Baker calls "the most disruptive decision in Supreme Court history," Taney wrote that people of African descent were "beings of an inferior order" who "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This staggering decree was, as Baker correctly points out, a "willful misreading of history" on the part of Taney and the racist Supreme Court.

As Baker writes, free African Americans in the original United States "had the right to vote in ten of the 13 states, owned property, spoke in public meetings, and sued in court." This explains why Abraham Lincoln so forcefully (and correctly) declared that the Founding Fathers put slavery on "the course of ultimate extinction," never intending to endorse or preserve in the long term what they all regarded as evil.

For those interested in a broad overview of American history, Kevin Baker's America: The Story of Us is a good investment. If you're looking for something scholarly and in-depth, you may wish to look elsewhere.

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