Most Americans, even if you exclude those who don’t read at all, don’t read American history. It’s a result of their upbringing. They were subjected to enforced exposure to some of the dullest, ugliest, least imaginative textbooks in existence. James Loewen has written a detailed account about just how bad our history texts are (Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong).
Despite having a Master’s Degree in History, I’m no exception to that. Through six years of college as a history major I largely avoided American history, taking European and Latin American classes instead.
But every now and then a book comes along that reminds it doesn’t have to be that way. I read two of them recently. Both are well-written, can’t put it down stories that you probably haven’t heard.
Destiny of the Republic is about James Garfield. Garfield was elected president in 1880 and was assassinated during his first year in office. Two things stand out about Garfield’s story.
First of all he never positioned himself to be a candidate and never acted in a self-promotional manner. Freed from that kind of egotistical bent, he was likewise free to do what he thought was best, not what was best for his career, his image or his legacy. And he was beholden to no one. We may never have another president like that. Garfield was a smart, thoughtful and compassionate man who I am convinced would have been a brilliant president had an assassin’s bullet not put an end to his term after 200 days.
The other thing that is remarkable about this story is that in the author’s view the best medical care available at the time was probably responsible for his death. The medical establishment of that era thumbed their noses at the relatively new theories about germs and infection. So they plundered his body in search of the bullet and were likely more responsible than the bullet for his demise.
One Summer America 1927 recounts a fascinating few months in 20th century America. That summer, Lindbergh made the first cross-Atlantic flight, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed and “The Jazz Singer” made its debut. As a social history Bryson portrays the American public in the 20’s as obsessed with celebrities, lurid murder trials, the Red Scare and almost unthinkable bigotry.
Whether it’s truth or just cynicism, I enjoyed Bryson’s alternate view of some of the big personalities of the time.
Calvin Coolidge — “no one has ever more successfully made a virtue out of doing little.”
Henry Ford — “defiantly narrow- minded, barely educated and at least close to functionally illiterate.”
Lou Gehrig – “suffering from an almost total absence of personality.”
Herbert Hoover — “there was no matter too small to escape his numbing pomposity.”
Not the kind of stuff you found in your high school textbooks.