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The US Across the Centuries

New books on the meaning of America

Aug. 28, 2013
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Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America
(W.W. Norton), by Terry Eagleton

An Oxford scholar with a hilarious sense of humor, Terry Eagleton is self-deprecating while alert to the preposterous mores and habits of mind around him. In Across the Pond, he turns his wit to the vexed question of the U.S. and the U.K., two nations famously divided by one language. The laughter isn’t one sided. Eagleton finds plenty of humor in his own people, yet his focus is on the Yanks—a nation given to impossible dreams that sometimes come true, hard of eloquence and hollow in grandiosity, distrustful of irony yet exceptionally personable. He finds many misunderstandings in the spoken language: to many English ears, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” sounded like “war on tourism.”


Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants; (University of Minnesota Press), by Joanna Brooks

The assumption that America’s original Anglo-Saxon settlers came seeking opportunity is wrong. In her path-finding cultural history, Joanna Brooks discovers that some working-class settlers were sentenced to exile for vagrancy, some were kidnapped as cheap labor and others arrived as indentured servants with few prospects. Most had been driven from their ancestral homes by the cruel birth pains of modernity as old obligations between social classes were supplanted by naked greed. Brooks searches the often grim, fatalistic ballads carried across the Atlantic for clues into the lives of often-illiterate people who left few traces behind. The new land eventually provided many of their descendants with opportunities they never imagined.


Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It (Hill

and Wang), by James Ciment

Africa’s first republic was established in 1847 by freed American slaves who lorded over the native Africans until their regime was overthrown in 1980 in the prelude to one of the continent’s bloodiest civil wars. Journalist James Ciment interviewed scores of Liberians and read widely among documents that survived the conflagration. What he found was a strange, true story: an African-American ruling class that recreated Tara on the Windward Coast but with themselves as the masters. Their regime finally collapsed when a century of resentment and unmet expectations from native blacks could no longer be contained.


Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934 (University of Illinois Press), by Thomas Leslie

In a book as handsomely designed as many of the buildings it describes, architecture professor Thomas Leslie examines how the City of Big Shoulders became the City of Tall Buildings. Leslie explodes many received ideas about Chicago’s skyscrapers: they were not entirely unprecedented and did not spring up rapidly in response to the Chicago Fire (1871). The spur to the city’s high skyline cannot be reduced to one factor or another: the skyscrapers weren’t simply a response to climbing real estate costs or the rise of American capitalism, new building materials or better elevators. It was all of the above—and much more.


The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World

War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Richard Rubin

As the 21st century began, talk of the Greatest Generation made Richard Rubin wonder: what about the generation before the Greatest, the one that marched into the trenches of World War I? Setting out to find survivors, he received no help from the American Legion or the VA but much assistance from France, which decided to award its highest honor to all remaining Americans who had served on French soil in the war. The Last of the Doughboys documents Rubin’s rambling quest to speak to those final survivors, whose memories are often idiosyncratic but revealing, and becomes a sprawling meditation on the significance of remembering.


Southern Soul-Blues (University of Illinois Press), by David Whiteis

Denise LaSalle, J. Blackfoot and Willie Clayton might not be household names to the general public, but they are stars among fans of Southern soul-blues. David Whiteis writes with a fan’s insistent devotion and a scholar’s dedication to checking facts about a genre that coalesced in the early ’80s among “grown folks” from ’60s soul and blues roots and continues to find an adult, often African-American audience with a slight Southern accent. He also writes about larger questions, including the post-Napster music giveaway with its “faux-anarchistic manifesto [of free music] that virtually guarantees prolonged ‘heroic poverty’ status for musicians if they can’t sustain perennial tours.” Soul-blues musicians don’t want to give their music away. They’d rather earn a living.


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