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A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (The Penguin History of the United States) Hardcover – November 1, 2016
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“A massive and masterly account of America’s political and economic transformation between 1830 and 1910 . . . Hahn describes his book as telling ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way.’ It is much more than that. Attempting a synthesis of a century’s worth of American history is a daunting task. Writing one as provocative and learned . . . as this one is a triumph, nothing less.”—David Oshinsky, The Washington Post
“Rarely has there been a more forthright challenge to old stereotypes than in Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders, his distinguished volume in the Penguin History of the United States on the period 1830-1910 . . . rich in insight on the making of the US during a crucial period.”—Peter Clarke, Financial Times
“Vivid detail . . . A Nation Without Borders is a detailed, dense . . . His chronicle is breathtaking in its scope and brilliant in its subtle and original conceptualization of the nation during this period. It is often affecting, too, especially in its descriptions of labor activism . . . There is a cautionary tale here for our own time.”—John Stauffer, The Wall Street Journal
“In his comprehensive A Nation Without Borders, Hahn . . . provides the most sweeping indictment to date of the American appetite for conquest.”— The New York Times Book Review
"Capacious [and] buzzing with ideas."—The Boston Globe
“Brisk and thought-provoking . . . Readable and illuminating, and Hahn's thesis will lead many writers, students, and history buffs to rethink what they have learned from a new perspective.”—The Weekly Standard
“This breathtakingly original ‘history of the United States’—which begins and ends in Mexico, naturally—strikes like lightning. It illuminates the complex sweep of forces that came together in the decades surrounding the Civil War to forge the American nation. Only Hahn could have written such a revelatory book.” —Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
"This magisterial and authoritative monograph is a must-read for anyone interested in U.S. history." —Library Journal (starred review)
"A compelling examination of the long, divisive road to America's emergence, in 1919, as 'the most formidable power in the world.'" —Kirkus
“Given Hahn’s unimpeachable body of knowledge, readers can be confident that they’re getting the most current understanding of the history of the U.S….bears reading by all serious students of the American past.” —Publishers Weekly
“A bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century, this tour de force bristles with fresh insights gained from often surprising vantage points... It confirms Hahn’s position as one of the most important interpreters of the American experience. A must read for anyone interested in the history of the United States.” —Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton
“Steven Hahn has given us an ambitious and marvelously grounded rethinking of our history during eighty of its most turbulent, violent and creative years. It challenges some of our most fundamental predilections and reimagines how the nation we know came to be. It is guaranteed to rearrange your mental furniture.” —Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains
About the Author
Steven Hahn is a professor of history at New York University. His previous work of history, A Nation Under Our Feet, received the Pulitzer Prize in History (2004), the Bancroft Prize in History (2004), and the Merle Curti Prize in Social History (2004), and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize and Frederick Douglass Prize. His other books include The Political Roots of Slavery and Freedom and The Roots of Southern Populism. He formerly taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
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Many of the individual chapters and sections are very good. Much of the second half of the book, Hahn's area of expertise, is particularly good. The sections dealing with industrialization, the changes in the US political system, and the diverse and often contradictory nature of reform movements are excellent. These sections are really the best overviews of these complex subjects that I've read.
This book, however, falls between two stools. As a survey, it is a failure. Because of the long period covered, it simply doesn't have the necessary narrative to be an adequate basic introduction. As a more analytic book focused on major themes, it is more successful but suffers from including too much narrative. A more successful analytic book would have to be shorter and more focused on major themes. A lot of Hahn's discussions are well worth reading but will only be really intelligible to individuals with a good background knowledge of American history.
There are other defects. Hahn (and the reviewers' quotes on the dust jacket) tout this as a new interpretation. Its not. Hahn's emphasis on "empire" is hardly novel, as can be seen by looking at the list of books (some published decades ago) in the excellent bibliography. In addition, and as is unfortunately common, the term empire is used in such a general way as to be useless as an analytic category. The book promises some kind of broad comparative perspective, but other than short and actually superfluous introductory and epilogue sections dealing with Mexico, there is little comparative analysis in this book. If, for example, you were taking the idea of empire seriously in comparative perspective, you'd have to discuss what made the expansion of the American herrenvolk republic different compared to, say, imperial Russia or the Argentine expansion into the Pampas. As is common among historians, there is little use of quantitative data. A few charts on population growth, economic statistics, etc., would be very useful and markedly enhance the discussions in the text.
To be fair, writing a major survey is very difficult and I suspect that Hahn was not responsible for the excessively ambitious choice of period. For individuals looking for strong major surveys, I can't recommend this book. I think readers' time would be better spent on the relevant books in the outstanding Oxford History of the US series. The Oxford series, however, hasn't issued the volumes dealing the aftermath of the Civil War and the ensuing decades. For that period, I would read an introductory text such as Alan Brinkley's fine book and then the relevant chapters of this book.