18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Given a chance to let their imaginations round out their expertise, these historians and writers flesh out the incidents in American history that most fascinate them. This is an inviting and intriguing premise for those of us who like our history served up in short dramatic narratives. And it's mostly successful, although, as with any anthology, some writers are better than others, and some pivotal events are more riveting or moving or impressive than others.
Arranged chronologically, the anthology begins with the elaborate funeral of a chieftain in 1030 Cahokia, a metropolis on the Mississippi, as witnessed by Biloine Young. It concludes with William Leuchtenburg's discussion of Lyndon Johnson's heated confrontation with George Wallace before the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
In between we see the Lewis and Clark expedition crossing the Continental Divide with the help of the Shoshone Indians, George Washington in a post-revolutionary moment of diplomatic eloquence, the shooting of Abraham Lincoln, the Salem witch trials, the Amistad trial, singer Jenny Lind's American debut, John Brown's strange and reckless stand at Harper's Ferry, the surrender of the Nez Perce Indians in 1877, the Scopes trial, FDR's turn for the worse before his fourth-term election, JFK and the Vietnam war, the civil rights struggle, and more.
Though each writer focuses on a particular moment in time, they bring their considerable knowledge of the background and subsequent results to bear, fixing the moment in context. Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton explains that when she was writing her book on the Salem witch trials, "In the Devil's Snare," she became so obsessed that she "thought it perfectly logical" to compose a weekly message on her answering machine detailing the events of the corresponding week in 1692 Salem.
She, like most of the other historians, would use her time machine to go back and get the real truth - to hear testimony that was never written down, to discover how the villagers reacted to the convictions of well-liked and respected citizens, to find out why the trials ended so abruptly and mysteriously. Few historians want to imagine themselves as part of the events themselves, but rather prefer to satisfy their curiosity as scholars with first-hand knowledge.
This is less true for those who are not professional historians. Novelist Jonathan Rabb ("Rosa," "The Overseer") de-mythologizes the Scopes trial for those of us reliant on the Hollywood version. But his main interest in being there is to share the unrecordable experience - the cadence of rousing speeches meant to be heard, not read, the mood of the crowd outside in the square, the scuttlebutt at the principal unofficial gathering place, Robinson's Drugstore.
In his stirring essay, writer and TV producer Philip B. Kunhardt III would like to have been swept up by the voice of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and have encountered the two strong personalities involved in her US debut - the famous, independent and principled singer and the flamboyant new convert to temperance and respectability, P.T. Barnum.
Some historians allow a hint of wonder at how things might have been different if the moment had not gone as it did. Carol Berkin admires the adroit eloquence of Washington in knowing just what little to say to calm his mutinous officers in 1783, when the new country was set so precariously on a path to republican democracy. Jay Winik wonders if he would have attempted to stop Lincoln going to the theater or wrestled Booth to the floor. "Even to ask these questions is to ponder the potentially terrifying consequences of meddling with the ebb and flow of the mysteries of history."
Other events seem all but inevitable. Journalist Mark Stevens writes a painterly, dignified and tragic view of the surrender of the Nez Perce after the failure of their last desperate push to keep their freedom by escaping to Canada to join Sitting Bull and the Sioux.
And in Clayborne Carson's thoughtful essay on the 1963 March on Washington, the historian who actually WAS there wishes he could go back and experience it all again, "knowing what I know now."
This is a lively, thought-provoking collection, which should be of interest to just about anyone and is particularly recommended for those who avoid reading history for fear of being bored. Black and white photos accompany many of the essays.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Just imagine the kind of performances you might see if renowned actors and actresses such as Nicholson, Pacino, Hepburn, Streep, Duvall, DeNiro and a cast of others were given the chance to stand up on stage and portray their favorite characters and performances. That's precisely what we have presented here with a talented cast of historians lending their personal renditions to historical accounts they are most fascinated with. Noted historians such as Remini and Ellis are joined by a cast of writers from various backgrounds that give a wealth of variety to this presentation.
Their imaginations will take the reader through an incredible journey of historical events, presented chronologically from the ancient metropolis that is now the Cahokia mounds along the Mississippi River in the year 1030 to the turmoil of the Civil Rights marches of Alabama in 1965. There is certainly something here for every historical taste. The writing, for the most part, is superb, though a few stand out above the others. I wont disclose my personal favorites as that should be left to each reader to discern for themselves, but suffice it to say, if you love history, you will not be disappointed here.
You will likely find events you are quite familiar with, such as Lewis and Clark on the Great Divide, as well as others you may know little or nothing about. Such was the case for me with the opening narrative of Cahokia.
If you like your history reading varied and in rather small doses, this is a must read. I believe this would also be of great benefit for students wanting to explore a variety of essays to lead them towards further studies of specific events. I would have liked a more indepth bibliography, but we cant have everything.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2007
Twenty historians and writers of historical fiction were asked to pick a defining event in American history and write an account of it. Given the sheer number of significant events in American history and the various lenses one could use to view history, picking a single event (or compiling twenty events) becomes a daunting task. The selection is a reflection of the authors' personal choices. One willl remember endeavors like this one for their omissions-rather than their accomplishments.
Arranged chronologically, this work begins with the funeral of a chieftain in Cahokia and ends with Lyndon Johnson's conversation with George Wallace in regard to civil rights. It also includes Washington's treaty with the Creek Nation Indians, Lincoln's assassination, the Salem witchcraft trial, the Amistad trial, the Scopes trial, Lewis and Clark expedition, Jenny Lind's debut in New York, Chief Joseph's surrender at Bear Paw Mountains, John Brown's stand at Harper's Ferry, John and Robert Kennedy discussing the Vietnam war, and others.
The contributors were given liberties to hear testimonies that were not written down, witness reactions which are not recorded, listen to thoughts that are only imagined, and experience conditions that are conjured up for that time period. As with works like this one, readers would find certain chapters more appealing than others, certain events more interesting than others and certain writing styles more provocative than others.
We engage in role play everyday. Our moments of empathy bear witness to such role play. Hence the idea of compiling a book where the author is free to role play is a good one. The "short story" format of the book allows the reader to take in history in small doses. While this works for those of us who only have a limited duration of reading time, it does not allow for in-depth historical analysis and insight. Permitting the authors to embellish what is known through historical records humanizes the historical events. However in some cases, the authors go a little too far. There are some really good chapters and some that need refinement - overall a mixed bag.
Armchair Interviews says: Unique look at history--what was chosen and what was omitted.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2006
When the authors of the various chapters in this book stick to the first person, this book is very compelling. Unfortunately, several authors instead write in the beginning of their stories that 'I wish I'd been there', and then go straight into a narrative told in the third person. The problem of course is that professional historians have a difficult time at story telling, which is why a novelist's story is probably one of the highlights of this book. (See the chapter on the Scopes Monkey Trial).
Most of the chapters concern social history (Early Native American culture, Jenny Lind's debut, the Black Civil Rights movement) which is important, but nevertheless tends more towards political correctness. I must agree with the below reviewer who contended that Dallek got the facts wrong with his imagined conversation between RFK and JFK about Vietnam. Our involvement in Vietnam was inevitable and JFK, no matter his personal philosophy, could have never stopped our intervention there. JFK orchestrating the murder of Diem in the Fall of 1963 was not exactly a step back from involvement. Johnson merely continued our stepped up presence, and if Kennedy had lived, Vietnam would have destroyed his administration as well. Overall, this book presents a even handed approach to many areas of U.S. history and can be read in a couple days.
12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2006
It was a clever idea to ask prominent writers to imagine historical moments, but like most compilations of various authors, this book has some great articles and a few real duds.
My favorite is William Leuchtenberg's recreation of a confrontation about civil rights between George Wallace and LBJ, two men who rose from the same poverty, one of whom transcended his past and one who was mired in it. It is a sensitive portrait of both men and so real that you believe you're in the room with them.
The worst by far is Robert Dallek's imagining a conversation between JFK and Bobby Kennedy in which they decide that they won't escalate in Vietnam, only to have the blinkered Johnson overriding this decision after JFK's assasination. And lest you disagree with this fiction, Dallek informs you that it is based on five years study (so take THAT, stupid reader!).
Unfortunately, you do not need much background to realize what a crock this is. For one thing, Bobby asked LBJ to send him to Vietnam as ambassador in early 1964, hardly the request of someone who didn't believe in what we were doing there. Also, after the US complicity in the assasination of Diem and the resulting chaos in Vietnam, there was no more room for maneuver.
Everyone knew we were behind the coup (just read the articles of the great underrated Marguerite Higgins immediately following the coup), so how would we expect to keep any third world allies in the middle of the Cold War if we killed the leader of a friendly nation, welcomed the collapse of government authority and walked away to turn the place over to its enemies. Even before JFK was murdered, Southeast Asia began to fall apart as a result of the coup: Cambodia, hitherto an ally, terminated all American assistance programs and became "non-aligned," specifically citing the US sponsored coup as its reason for abandoning the US. LBJ was forced into a war he never wanted thanks to his arrogant predecessor.
The sad thing about Dallek is that he is a good writer, but is unable to discern the difference between what really happened and what he would have liked to have happened and that makes him an unreliable historian.
So, this is a very enjoyable collection, but be careful.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
First, it should be noted that the title oversells the book: few of the historical moments depicted in this chronologically ordered collection of essays "changed America." Actually, the essays reflect the particular areas of interest of the authors and are invariably used to clarify, expand, or correct the historical record. The "wishing to be there" sentiment carries different meanings in the essays. In some cases, the interest is primarily to have observed or experienced the event, while others attempt to reconstruct events, including injecting possible speech and actions of key participants.
The essays really are a mixed bag in terms of the approach, the importance of the event, and the recognition factor. They mostly seem like chapters from biographies.
The subtle diffusing of an officer revolt by George Washington in 1783, the so-called corrupt bargain that elevated John Quincy Adams to the presidency in 1825, and details of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are already well known. Some of the essays concentrate on the personal: the debut of the "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind, on Sept 11, 1850, the illness of FDR in 1944-45, and the psychological distress of Meriwether Lewis in his explorations in the 1800s.
A number of the essays are obscure and not particularly compelling: the last day of WWI in Butgneville, France (Nov 11, 1918), Sen. LaFollette's speech on US entry into WWI, the last meeting of Nation of Islam founders, and the machinations surrounding the Democracy's nomination of James K. Polk in 1844. Others are obscure but more interesting: the funeral of a chieftain in 1030 in the Mississippi River city of Cahokia and the last gasp of Indians led by Chief Joseph in 1877.
The two essays on the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s involving the march on Washington and LBJ confronting segregationist governor George Wallace are powerful. The speculation on the wisdom of the Kennedy brothers keeping the US out of Vietnam seems more than a little self-serving. An essay on the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry serves as a corrective to his sanctification by abolitionists. Four essays have not been mentioned here.
The appeal of this collection may be similar to that of a collection of diverse short stories versus a novel. Some will not like the unevenness, fragmentation, and many personages introduced. These essays are probably best seen as supplementary to full length treatments of the various events, although the intrusion of the authors into the events may be bothersome. The claim of bringing events to life with such intrusion is a bit overstated.
on April 30, 2008
I found this collection of essays to be very enjoyable. They are based on factual events, but it is admittedly fun to speculate also, to imagine what might have been. I appreciate the broad scope of topics, but that does have limitations. Some of these choices seem too personal in nature, driven by personal, even political agendas. The choice of each historian of what event to speculate on, of course, is a personal decision. While these essays are well-written throughout, I wouldn't have chosen some of these topics.
I enjoyed the chapter on John Brown at Harper's Ferry in contrast to the treatment Brown receives in "Lies My Teacher Told Me." Thomas Fleming successfully debunks the notion of Brown as a "moral visionary" and "serious political thinker." Also, I admired some of the chapters on lesser-known incidents. This collection includes a wide range of topics, for example the Alexander McGillavary story, the significance of Jenny Lind's American debut, and a little known 1965 meeting between Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace. I don't mean to suggest that all the chapters concerned unknown events; much light is shed on greater-known historical events also.
In conclusion, I recommend this collection as an intriguing, easy read for history buffs or novices. Also, while not definitive nor comprehensive as a source, (the essays are comparatively brief) it could be used as an excellent starting resource for history students. I would use it as a teaching tool.
on March 6, 2014
The concept of this book is spectacular. Twenty well known historians choose the moment in history they'd love to have shared. I bought it since one of the stories is one that I'm writing about right now (The McGillivray Moment) and this book gave me great detail on an event in 1790 America almost all other books just mention. But after reading the one I bought it for, I read others, and enjoyed them even more! Have you ever heard of Cahokia? It's about an actual ancient city in the US that was 500 years earlier than the Aztec Empire, and far and away the biggest ancient culture on the No. American continent. Where was it? Ever heard of it? I hadn't. And it's still there! You can visit it! All twenty stories are like this....some about well-known events or places, but these writers wrote these out of more than interest---these stories are their personal passions. Order this book. Every short chapter by each author is well written, and absolutely fascinating!
on March 29, 2014
Since these dramatizations are short -- roughly 15 pages each -- they are easy to digest at the end of a day. They need no continuity, and you don't have a story line to follow.
Well-written; many of these authors see America as a problematic place, rather than a great nation. Understanding that will help you navigate through accounts that gloss over human sacrifice in pursuit of the Greater Truth, or take an unheroic view of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or consider the Nation of Islam to be a giant scam, or long for the quaint old days when a president's decision to make war required congressional approval.
Entertaining reading -- a little something for everyone in this anthology.
on September 9, 2013
I majored in history, so I am somewhat biased. I told several people about it and many people seemed interested in the concept. Some of the chapter I found fascinating and others I was yawning (particularly the first one, so if you read it and can't get past the first few pages, skip to something more your appetite). I particularly liked the Salem chapter, MLK chapter, George Washington gives the speech chapter and the Corrupt Bargain chapter. Other people who I lent it to were less excited about it. Overall, an enjoyable read.