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American History Through Literature 1870-1920 Hardcover – December 16, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* If the thought of purchasing yet another multivolume set dealing with American history or American literature gives one pause, the fact that these volumes intertwine both disciplines in a series of well-edited, expertly written, and highly readable essays should allay any concerns. Any work dealing with either discipline cannot avoid the other (the preface of the second set notes "the study of literature and the study of history have always been mutually complementary endeavors"), and this set provides the reader with a unique perspective on the cultural milieu of a growing nation.

American History through Literature, 1870-1920 has been published with a companion set, American History through Literature, 1820-1870. The former features 247 articles by 182 academically affiliated contributors, while the latter presents 245 articles by 213 contributors. Seventeen scholars contributed to both sets. Most contributors come from the field of literature rather than history, which is entirely appropriate, since the title indicates this is history through literature. Both sets have 1,500- to 6,000-word entries on specific works (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl); genres (Captivity narratives, Nautical literature, Science fiction); places (Baltimore, Chicago); groups (Catholics, Chinese, Publishers); themes (Death, Science and technology, Slavery); and events (Trail of Tears, World's Columbian Exposition), to name just a few. There are no biographical entries. Each set includes about 200 illustrations, photos, and maps, and concludes with a thematic outline, a list of entries in the companion set, a short list of primary material available through Primary Source Microfilm (like Scribner, a part of Thomson Gale), and an index. There is no reason given for the specific date spans covered, though it is pointed out several times in the first set that it was in 1820 that British critic Sydney Smith asked, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?"

The sets give balanced viewpoints and devote a considerable number of entries to works by or about women (The Awakening, Poems of Emily Dickinson); African Americans (Blake; or, The Huts of America; The Two Offers); and Indians (American Indian stories, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man) in addition to the requisite entries dealing with works by Hawthorne, Irving, Melville, Twain, and Whitman. All entries end with an up-to-date bibliography--most listing both primary and secondary works--plus cross-references to other entries within the set.

The only criticism is the decision to make these two separate sets--though to be fair, the publisher offers a discount when both are purchased together. A case in point is each set's entry on Mormons. The entry in the 1820-1870 set points out the anti-Mormon literature that was prevalent, including Arthur Conan Doyle's Study in Scarlet, written in 1888; the entry in the 1870-1920 set notes the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, which is not even mentioned in the first set. This is indicative of the difficulty of dividing a set like this. More troubling is although there are cross-references within each set, there are no cross-references between each set other than the previously noted list of entries in the final volume of each. A reader could, for example, read the entry Satire, burlesque, and parody in the 1820-1870 set and be completely unaware that there is an entry of the same title in the 1870-1920 set. Indeed, there are 48 entries with the same titles between each set, plus another eight that are very similar. The reader must consult both to get a complete historical survey of the topic. Unless the publisher is planning on similar titles in the future, why not have just one set? Regardless, both American History through Literature, 1820-1870 and American History through Literature, 1870-1920 are highly recommended for academic and large public libraries. Ken Black
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


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