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America’s Past in War and Literature (and on Horseback)

New books recount the fight against Japan, the birth of modern news and the profile of our nation’s father

Aug. 4, 2017
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Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific 1944-1945 (Oxford University Press), by Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio

Hovering over Implacable Foes like memories of an unpleasant dream is the question: Why did the U.S. drop the bomb on Japan? One answer provided by the authors, history professors at San Diego and Villanova universities, is that the other options were even worse. With incredibly fierce Japanese resistance on Okinawa fresh in mind, an invasion of Japan might have cost millions of lives. Starving the island empire through blockade might have worked but would have cost time. The American public wanted normalcy, corporate leaders eagerly prepared for postwar consumerism and the Soviets might have launched their own invasion, diminishing American power in the region. With lucid prose, Implacable Foes accounts not only for military strategy but the contingencies of industrial production and politics on the home front.

A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor (University Press of Kentucky), edited by Henry T. Edmondson III

Flannery O’Connor wrote some of the most memorable stories of the American South during the 1950s and early ‘60s, endowing her occasional African-American characters with dignity and skewering white Southern chauvinism while never fully addressing the civil rights movement. Different explanations of her seemingly willful neglect emerge in the essays collected in A Political Companion, including partial blindness to the society at her doorstep and a disinterest in writing didactic fiction. As a Roman Catholic in the Protestant South, O’Connor viewed her setting as an outsider; her literary vocation was religious but non-polemical; short-circuiting the cerebral through addressing experience, she sought to make the transcendent visible in the lives of her characters. The political implications of O’Connor’s work concern the necessity of the common good, a good conservative value jeopardized nowadays in the land of Trump. 

Riding with George: Sportsmanship & Chivalry in the Making of America’s First President (Chicago Review Press), by Philip G. Smucker

George Washington was frequently pictured on a white steed, tipping his hat to adoring crowds. His descendant, Philip G. Smucker, retraces (sometimes on horseback) the journeys of our nation’s Father in his highly personal account, Riding with George. What emerges is a description of Washington as a misplaced English country squire, defined by the sportsmanship of British aristocracy. “Virginians, who saw themselves as Englishmen living abroad, liked to refer to themselves as Cavaliers in the Old Dominion,” Smucker writes. A man who wasted to words and maintained a dignified mien, Washington was the antithesis of a fiery revolutionary, yet led a successful revolution with a steady hand and a temperament that rejected any temptation to set himself up as a tyrant. 

The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism (St. Martin’s Press), by Mitchell Stephens

Lowell Thomas was one of America’s best-known journalists—and one of the best-known Americans—but nowadays hardly anyone knows his name. This is unfortunate, writes New York University journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, because Thomas set a tone for his profession that still resonates today. He was the first TV news anchor (1940) and had a hand in every news-delivering medium of his era, even journalism as multi-media performance. While guilty of making every good story sound even better in the retelling, and masterful in shaping his image, he actually did exciting things such as overflying wars in a rickety biplane, meeting Lawrence of Arabia in Jerusalem and reaching the Dalai Lama by horseback in the Himalayas. Thomas died in 1981, having outlived most of the newsmakers he covered, and receded into history. Stephens’ is the first full biography.


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