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I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life the Dramatic Events That Changed America (Vintage) Paperback – September 4, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
If she could be a fly on the wall at a pivotal moment in American history, Mary Beth Norton would have witnessed the Salem witch trials. These were driven not by greed or, as Arthur Miller would have it, by adultery, she writes, but by Massachusetts colonists' overwhelming fears about the frontier war with the Wabanaki Indians. Gathered by Hollinshead, former president of Oxford University Press and publisher of the military history journal MHQ, the best pieces in this uniformly perceptive and provocative volume dispel popular myths and serve up familiar events and heroes from fresh vantage points. According to Joseph Ellis, George Washington spent most of his first term trying to find a just solution to the Native American sovereignty problem and bribed a Creek chief to achieve his goals. Geoffrey Ward wonders if FDR's physicians gave him the lowdown on his failing health before he decided to run for a fourth term, and William Leuchtenburg reimagines the tongue-lashing LBJ gave fellow "good ole boy" George Wallace before the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Personal essays on the Scopes "monkey" trial, the day Lincoln was shot and the flourishing Indian metropolis of Cahokia (in present-day Illinois) circa 1030 round out this tantalizing collection. B&w illus. (Oct. 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Countless historians and lay thinkers have expressed their fantasy of being a "fly on the wall," able to view and listen in as a particular moment in history unfolded. Hollinshead has assembled an anthology of these participatory fantasies, written by 20 prominent historians. Through the imagined experiences of these historians, we can spend a day in -eleventh-century Cahokia, the Native American metropolis on the Great Plains; we can join Meriwether Lewis as he straddles the Continential Divide and puts to rest the dream of the Northwest Passage; we can sit in the sweltering courtroom as Bryan and Darrow joust over evolution. Although the various descriptions are well grounded in historical fact, they are inevitably filtered through the biases of the individual historians, and some will dispute their interpretations of reality. So this may not be strictly data-driven history, but it is provocative and should be a fun read for both historians and general readers. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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.
I highly recommend it!
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