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All About America

New books examine who we are, how we got here

Dec. 15, 2015
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America was once a nation of joiners, and one thing many Americans joined was a network of fraternal organizations. The Freemasons, the best known among those lodges, provided the inspiration for a plethora of Odd Fellows, Modern Woodmen, Grangers, Knights of Pythias and others. A little-known aspect of the phenomenon, fraternal folk art, took the form of costumes, banners, paintings and memento mori.

Those objects are the focus of Lynne Adele and Bruce Lee Webb’s As Above So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 (University of Texas Press). It’s a book so beautifully designed and illustrated that one is tempted to don a fez and make a secret sign. Adele is an art historian, Webb is an initiate (like many Americans a century ago, he never passed a lodge he wouldn’t join), and together they have composed an enjoyable overview of those societies as well as a catalogue of artifacts. The Masons aspired to build a better world, but most lodges contented themselves with providing fellowship and charity. The authors attribute the proliferation of Masonic and quasi-Masonic orders to the changes sweeping across the U.S., especially the anonymity of an increasingly urbanized industrial society.

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York (Da Capo), by Gerard Koeppel

A state commission imposed the rigid right angles of Manhattan’s streets in 1811 and the numbered grid has been controversial ever since. The plan was condemned by Walt Whitman and Henry James as “unimaginative” and “dead,” but embraced by others for channeling and ordering the city’s energy and progress. New York historian Gerard Koeppel brings poetry to a seemingly prosaic topic, rejoicing over every numbered avenue that gained a name and wondering whether the city’s spirit of rationalism will gradually make way for a more organic way of life.

The End of the Cold War 1985-1991 (PublicAffairs), by Robert Service

The Cold War was a decades-long standoff between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. with no end in sight when Ronald Reagan became president. No responsible party on either side wanted a shooting war, yet no one understood how to achieve peace. Oxford University historian Robert Service poured over a wealth of documents to find what world leaders were thinking at the time rather than what they said after the fact. He finds that Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev ignored the skepticism of experts and relied on intuition. The astonishing changes that swept across the globe from 1985-1991 resulted from many factors, but the personalities of Reagan and Gorbachev were crucial to the outcome.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939 (University of Illinois Press), by Roger Daniels

With Road to the New Deal, Roger Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Cincinnati, has written a political biography. The personal details of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life are lightly sketched. The focus is on policy. Despite a lifetime of research into his subject, Daniels confesses, “I have not the slightest notion of what his inner essence was like.” He stresses FDR’s accomplishments, presenting him as an improviser, a man of many public faces who guided America through some of its rockiest years.

The Miracle of American Independence: Twenty Ways Things Could Have Turned Out Differently (Potomac Books), by Jonathan R. Dull

Small things can have large outcomes. What if the ship carrying Benjamin Franklin to France, where he charmed the court and gained crucial aid for the American Revolution, had sunk? Jonathan R. Dull also writes of George Washington’s “miraculous escape” from a debacle in an earlier frontier war, leading him to wonder where a less able commander (and a more vicious politician) might have taken the new nation.

Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (Louisiana State University Press), by Jeff Forret

The Gone With the Wind impression of happy bondage eventually gave way to the ideal of a resilient “slave community” supporting its members and, at least passively, resisting oppression. Jeff Forret’s close examination of the records in his fascinating Slave Against Slave reveals a more complicated picture. Rather than a “community” stretching across the South, he finds “neighborhoods” where slaves displayed kindness and cruelty to one another. They grouped themselves into hierarchies based on employment and complexion; envy existed between the have-nots and the have-even-lesses. The condition of slavery bred violence, but the condition of human nature also allowed for altruism and selfishness, compassion and jealousy.

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