Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"Poisonous cynicism has supplanted naïve bluster..."

I received Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope today and will soon dive in. Reviews like this one are very encouraging:
.... When I was asked to review it, I put myself on guard. I was skeptical that I would find a new and “fair” American history text. Instead, I expected to find yet another work with a political angle, whether sharp or hidden.

Experience has taught me that bias more often enters history textbooks through what their authors omit from the standard account, rather than through any new topics they might add. So, I immediately turned to the chapters that would be most vulnerable to revision.

What I encountered was a rich account of American history that had me rethinking historical events from new perspectives. My skepticism soon gave way to curiosity. As I began to race through the pages, I felt that I was learning much of the material for the first time.

Land of Hope showcases a nuanced approach that presents the American story as a series of difficult choices. It promotes critical thinking as well as anything I have read. McClay invites the reader to assess carefully what leaders and average Americans thought at the most important junctures of change and continuity in American history. Material is deftly woven into a chronological narrative that helps one understand events in context and keeps the reader yearning to learn more.

In a chapter entitled “Becoming a World Power,” for instance, Land of Hope provides an insightful look into America’s drift away from traditional isolationism and toward imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The narrative context highlights the complexities of the topic. McClay effectively places American motives and actions in a global setting while showing their continuity with the ideas and values of the Founding.

Multiple works that I have encountered present this shift as either a haphazard, racially insensitive venture or a calculated power grab aimed at economic exploitation. McClay does not hide the controversy that surrounded the change and diligently examines the arguments that ensued. But more importantly, the chapter casts new light on the situations in Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War―a critical point on which most texts remain silent. McClay uses primary sources to show how a commitment to principles guided much of the nation’s thinking, and the reader comes away without an overwhelming sense of national shame. .... (more)
Amazon offers the book (a hefty volume) for about $20.

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