Notable Winter Books

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Between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, a perennial and widespread topic was territorial expansion, which was hampered by Indian occupancy of fertile territories coveted by the more lately arrived Americans. A. J. Langguth builds the case that skirmishes in the South over the contested ownership of Indian lands in the 1820s led to arguments about states’ rights and federal authority, which smoldered in defiant hotbeds and exploded into malignant fireworks in places such as Bleeding Kansas and Fort Sumter. In part, the author’s argument is a study in the wages of sectional and parochial interests; he shows that politicians’ taking the narrow view led to shortsighted goals and deplorable achievements.
He chronicles the events that eventually led to the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the death march in which the Cherokee Nation was driven at bayonet point from their homes in the verdant South to exile in prairie Oklahoma. It was an abuse of human rights as horrific as many that we lament in distant parts of the world today. (Simon & Schuster, 466 pages, $30)
 
The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood
By Jane Leavy
An uncommonly handsome kid with an infectious grin, Mickey Mantle was idolized by baseball fans of every age and gender for his good looks, his stellar performances, and dogged heroics in playing hurt. A fixture in baseball’s “cathedral,” the original Yankee Stadium, from 1951 to 1968, he accomplished great feats: 536 home runs (18 of them in World Series games), three Most Valuable Player awards, one Triple Crown—all wearing the pinstripes, leading or limping the way to 12 pennants and seven World Championships. But for a knee injury occurring in his rookie year during a centerfield collision with Joe DiMaggio, there’s no telling how great a player this Hall of Famer could have become. But a decent man? Not likely.
As Jane Leavy reveals in this huge historical biography, he was a cripple from birth. Raised in a dying mining town, he was born to a family given to both cancer and drink. His father spotted his athletic potential, before dying young, and “drove him like a nail,” a friend said. When a Yankee scout signed him at $140 a month, “It was New York’s biggest steal since Peter Minuit paid the Indians $24 for Manhattan.”
Given his genes, personality, and the worship America gave jock heroes, it seems inevitable that he would become a spendthrift, drunkard, tomcat, and a vulgar bully. That Leavy makes this course seem inevitable and Mantle seem pitiably human is a credit to her deft writing and dogged research.
“The transformation of The Mick over the course of eighteen years in the majors and 44 years in the public eye parallels the transformation of American culture from willing innocence to knowing cynicism,” she writes. “To tell his story is to tell ours.” (Harper, 456 pages, $27.99)
 
Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory
By Edward G. Lengel
Most of the stories you’ve heard about George Washington and the wisdom laid at his feet are bogus, argues Edward G. Lengel, the editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project at the University of Virginia. This is true partly because the father of our country would have it that way.
“Washington is an elusive quarry,” Lengel writes. “Conscious of his role as an actor on the public stage, he crafted an outward persona that obscured his private being. He deliberately hid certain elements of his inner life and carried them with him to the grave. He preserved the bulk of his correspondence and records, public and private, for posterity, and he fretted endlessly about how his countrymen would remember him after he was gone.”
Sadly for us, those records were horribly abused. Many of his official papers were literally cut to pieces by a sham editor who thought his own views and creativity more important than the raw material. Of his surviving personal papers, his wife, Martha, burned their letters, perhaps to assure her privacy and to save them from literary vultures and souvenir dealers. Another heir sold genuine autographs piecemeal, while so-called free-market demands fueled a huge counterfeit industry that continues today.
“Washington writing became a free-for-all business,” Lengel asserts, “just as wild and zany as any other capitalist venture in that [19th-century] laissez-faire society.” Washington Irving joined the legion of historians, revisionists, hagiographers, and hack writers looking for an easy way to make a serial living. All did their part in obscuring the real man. Some of their charlatan feats were better than Barnum and as enduring—none more so then the story and famous painting of the general kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge, an event that Lengel shows was as fictional as the perfect boy confessing to felling his father’s cherry tree. In fact Washington was mute about his spiritual beliefs.
Lengel implicitly honors the truism that every generation rewrites history to suit itself. Yet a more interesting cautionary point shines through this effort to debunk the fictions; it is the thesis that while separating fact from fancy can be difficult—even impossible in some instances—writing sound history based on the realities of the past is as challenging as it is important. (Harper, 272 pages, $25.99)
 
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788
By Pauline Maier