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The American Century Hardcover – September 22, 1998
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Although most of this sprawling book is set in the 20th century, it begins on April 29, 1889, when Benjamin Harrison commemorated the first centennial of American government. This 11-year jump-start allows Harold Evans to write about the last major push to settle the Western territories, the gradual dwindling of Native American societies, the rise to prominence of William Jennings Bryan, and other quintessentially American moments of the 19th century.
But make no mistake about it--The American Century is very much rooted in the modern world. Evans's tight, journalistic prose marks the significant events and personages in America's rise to superpower status and offers several educational surprises, such as a two-page spread on too-little-known naval historian Alfred Mahan, whose The Influence of Sea Power upon History shaped foreign policy in America and several European nations. His treatments of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Watergate crisis are substantial highlights. Juxtapositions such as Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson or Jimmy Hoffa and Cesar Chavez make for a lively overview. The book essentially ends with the inauguration of George Bush in 1989, although brief mention is made to some of what has happened since then. Filled with photographs and contemporary editorial cartoons, The American Century is an excellent one-volume chronicle of a rather momentous 100 years.
From Publishers Weekly
The principal author of this very fine and handsome popular history is the editorial director of the New York Daily News, Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News & World Report, and former president and publisher of the Random House Trade Group. Evans was born in Britain and moved to America only in 1984, so his retelling of the American story from 1889 to 1989 bears the refreshing stamp of a non-American sensibility, with some surprising focuses among the hundreds found in the textAEisenhower's engineering of coups in Guatemala and Iran, for example. Evans employs a tolerant, skeptical, dispassionate tone that makes for consistently absorbing reading, but what elevates his book above the (also laudable) The Century, by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster (reviewed above) is Evans's intellectual acuity, as exemplified in his strong thesis, which views the century as one concerned with, primarily, the struggle for democracy, both within the country and without. Evans's treatment of relations among the American racesAnot just black/white but all racesAand of the labor movement is particularly impressive, full and candid. The organization of the book is user-friendly. Each chapter begins with a commentary that sets out the theme of the chapter and is followed by a series of two-page spreads touching on different aspects of the era. The photosA900, but none in color as in the Jennings/BrewsterAare evocative and telling, and there are some seldom-seen gems among them, such as a photo of Ho Chi Minh at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Like the Jennings/Brewster, this is a book more for browsing than for serious study, reminiscent of, though less weighty than, Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Both this book and the Jennings/Brewster are admirable productions, but readers looking for the deeper, more unexpected text will find it here, while for pure visual splendor the Jennings takes the prize. First serial to U.S News & World Report; BOMC alternate; History Book Club main selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Even better than its structure, though, is its author's clear and easy prose style, and even better than that is his general refusal to write an ideological tome like, say, Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States." Harold Evans doesn't buy all the conventional wisdom of the left or the right. When writing about the labor movement, for instance, he shows the excesses and the violence of the "company goon" days of the early 1900s, but he also looks favorably on Reagan's decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Or when looking at anti-communism in the 1950s, he decries the excesses of McCarthyism but also says that Nixon was fair in his prosecution of Alger Hiss, and that Julius Rosenberg (cause celebre of the American Left) was, in fact, a Soviet spy.
Evans intersperses the book with great little character sketches about the Presidents who served during these years. F.D.R and T.R., Wilson and Nixon: all come to life with brief vignettes and quotes describing their personalities and their various paths to power.
It's not a perfect book--Evans buys too many of the standard journalistic mantras about, say, the Reagan tax cuts, and his coverage of corporate America slacks towards the end of the book, and he completely neglects to mention the Challenger explosion, one of the landmark events of the 1980s. But it is a great book, an intellectual swimming pool of sorts--you can hop in for a quick dip or dive in for hours of mental exercise. If you're anything like me, you'll find yourself reading and re-reading it, getting a great overview of a century of American successes and excesses--and enjoying yourself all the while.
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