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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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Why do I make such a claim? Firstly because it is a superb book for dipping into -- if you just want a 10-minute background on any significant event in America's 20th century, you'll find it here. But you'll probably find yourself intrigued by the surrounding articles and spending much more than the 10 minutes you promised yourself.
Secondly because the photos and cartoons are superbly well-chosen.
And thirdly because the writing is also superb. For example, I've just finished the article on the My Lai massacre, in which Harold Evans describes the killings, the investigations, the cover-ups and the trials in wonderful journalistic prose, with few adjectives. He ends by mentioning that the only soldier found guilty, William Calley, was released after three years and got a job working in his father-in-law's Chicago jewellery shop selling brooches. Such a mundane finale serves as a wondeful contrast to the atrocities he committed earlier in Vietnam.
Modern American history fascinates me. As a former child of the sixties who has visited but never lived in the USA, I guess American products and culture have had a drip-drip effect on my life. I've also spent my entire adult life working for the UK subsidiary of a US corporation, so the differences in the American mentality have had a profound impact on the management style I am subject to. I can't say that I fully understand these differences, but this is the book with the greatest promise to explain their historical origins.
One minor note: this was written in the 1990s, i.e. before the end of the century in question, so don't expect it to make any mention of Dubya or 9/11, or to offer the same degree of hindsight on the Clinton years that it provides on all the earlier presidents.
A fantastic book. If there is any justice, it should never go out of print. But you'll have to buy it to ensure its survival!
Some criticisms leveled at this book are quite off the mark. One reader slammed Evans for imposing his own views and opinions on the past and thus committing a "cardinal sin." Ridiculous. No history is free of judgement or opinions. Whether it is in an overt statement or how the facts are presented, history is never impartial or neutral. Another criticism is that the book is a product of leftist revisionism. Perhaps, but a closer reading reveals otherwise. Evans, for instance, claimed that Ronald Reagan was "no racist" despite the fact he opened his 1980 campaign in the Deep South in the town where the three civil rights workers were murdered. He was also quite easy on Richard Nixon, describing his handling of the Alger Hiss case as "fair" and dismissing any notions that Watergate was part of some Oliver Stone-esqe conspiracy that somehow involved JFK's assassination.
The pictures alone make this book a good buy. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a solid grounding in American history but would like to get a different perspective.