From Publishers Weekly
The subtitle's overextended claim that the Civil War era started in 1829 sets the tone for this hulking second volume (after Freedom Just Around the Corner
) of Pulitzer-winner McDougall's projected multivolume history of the U.S. The author tries both to deflate national pride and celebrate national progress in the era in which the nation spread across the continent, shattered in a war and came back together. He does so in an opinionated, breezy narrative that focuses on individuals—lesser known as well as famous, writers and thinkers as well as political and military leaders. But McDougall's history is basically a traditional one about party conflicts, the westward course of empire, war, the Transcendentalists, frontier tensions, railroads, slavery, religious tensions and robber barons. You'd never know that a huge body of history on the real lives of 19th-century Americans had been produced in recent decades. Not many women appear, or Indians, slaves and freedmen, or working people, many of whom helped make the young democracy vital and tumultuous. McDougall's strength lies in deflating cherished reputations, like de Tocqueville's, and restoring others', like pastor and intellectual Orestes Brownson's. A pleasing romp through a critical period in the nation's history, it sticks to the tried and true. 19 maps. (Mar. 11)
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*Starred Review* Esteemed among critics, historian McDougall doesn’t have the popular cachet of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, but history buffs will definitely gravitate to this thick book. The second in a projected multivolume history of the U.S., it proves as boisterous as the busy, mid-nineteenth-century Americans whose expanding, industrializing, and warring McDougall chronicles. McDougall is neither shy in offering opinions nor prone to systematize the welter of economic, political, cultural, and religious activity from the presidencies of Jackson to Hayes, except to this extent: he argues for the ironic benefits of “creative corruption” and, in tandem, for the costs of a national penchant for “pretense.” Nicking nearly every topic or individual with those words, McDougall rhetorically deploys boodle’s service in greasing political parties that kept the Union functioning. As to pretentiousness, McDougall recounts the chasm between the ideals of liberty and the realities of slavery, followed by the muddle of Reconstruction, yet all is not an indictment. McDougall emerges impressed by the dynamism of Americans’ chest-thumping republican democracy and by contemporaries who puzzled over where America was headed in those stormy decades. A provocative survey from a premier historian. --Gilbert Taylor