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Editors’ Bookshelf

June 2024
4min read


David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 724 pages, $35.00) has accomplished the rarest of feats for a history book: becoming a bestseller without help from either a revisionist agenda or a juicy personal scandal. The reason is simple: writing that is as solid, straightforward, honest, and intelligent as Adams himself. McCullough captures the flavor of Adams’s life and times in a way few biographers can. His book will satisfy the most demanding scholar, and it may even convert those with a casual interest into history fans—something we at American Heritage are very much in favor of.

With global affairs dominating today’s news, it is instructive to recall the first time America considered joining a world government. In Breaking the Heart of the World (Cambridge University Press, 440 pages, $34.95), John Milton Cooper, Jr., details how Woodrow Wilson’s greatest hope for peace, American membership in the League of Nations, was rejected by the Senate in 1919 and 1920, done in by partisanship, stubbornness, and the stroke that felled Wilson in October 1919. While Cooper shows great sensitivity to the many disparate views of the proposed treaty, in the end, he writes (quoting Wilson), its rejection served to “break the heart of the world.”

In 1945, with the guns barely cooled, the great historian Henry Steele Commager wrote a fast-paced, close-in history of World War II, built on eyewitness accounts. Coming upon the book half a century later, Donald Miller was enthralled and felt it deserved the attention of a new generation of Americans. He began to bolster Commager’s work with sources that had not been available to his predecessor, and by the end he had incorporated 80 percent new material. The result is The Story of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 704 pages, $35.00), a book just as engrossing as Commager’s, but fuller and, given that wartime censorship strictures have long vanished, more honest.

Of course, kids have been part of our national story from the beginning. On Columbus’s fourth and final voyage, 56 of the 99 members of his crew were 18 or younger. Thirteen-year-old Caroline Pickersgill helped stitch the broad stripes and bright stars that flew over Fort McHenry through the perilous fight. During the Civil War, Southern schoolchildren worked through this problem in their math books: “If one Confederate soldier kills ninety Yankees, how many Yankee soldiers can ten Confederate soldiers kill?” These and hundreds of other young witnesses give their testament in the engaging new book We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00), by Phillip Hoose, who writes in his introduction, “All the people you’ll meet here deserve attention not simply because they are ‘real people’ close to your age. They are important because through their sweat, bravery, luck, talent, imagination, and sacrifice—sometimes of their lives—they helped shape our nation.”

At a time when we are very much aware of Old Glory, Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag , by Kit Hinrichs and Delphine Hirasuna (Ten Speed Press, 223 pages, $60.00), is a wonderfully handsome compilation of her in every conceivable manifestation: on quilts; on postcards; carried by toy soldiers; cut into weathervanes and painted on skateboards; and as the banner that flew from Capt. John Rodgers’s ironclad when his crew suffered 70 percent casualties in a fierce engagement with shore-based Confederate artillery in May 1862.

During the age of chronnolithography, which peaked in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Boston publisher Louis Prang commissioned a set of prints of the Civil War that were so bright, vivid, and lively that they sold for years. They were also authoritative—their artists got their information from men who had been there—and the entire set has just been published for the first time as Prang’s Civil War Pictures , edited with an introduction by Harold Holzer (Fordham University Press, 184 pages, $50.00), with the original “descriptive texts” Prang used to boost sales. “In painting the Monitor and Merrimac ,” writes the artist J. O. Davidson, “I obtained valuable and authentic information from Commander, then Lieutenant, S. Dana Greene, who fought the Monitor ’s guns….”

To Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Roosevelt writes: “I have always favored allowing women to vote, but I will say frankly, that I do not attach the importance to it that you do. I want to fight for what there is the most need of and the most chance of getting, at the moment. I think that, under the present laws, women can get all the rights she will take; while she is in many cases oppressed, the trouble is in her own attitude, which laws cannot alter.”

To the naturalist Clinton H. Merriam he writes, “Is there any kind of air gun which you would recommend which I could use for killing English sparrows around my Long Island place? I would like to do as little damage as possible to our other birds, and so I suppose the less noise I make the better.”

To William Howard Taft he writes, “One closing legacy. Under no circumstances divide the battleship fleet between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans prior to the finishing of the Panama Canal.”

And to his son Kermit, soon to die fighting in France, he writes on the subject of the girl he left behind, “If you wish to lose her, continue to be an infrequent correspondent. If however you wish to keep her write her letters—interesting letters and love letters—at least three times a week. Write no matter how tired you are: no matter how inconvenient it is, write if you’re smashed up in a hospital; write when you are doing your most dangerous stunts; write when your work is most irksome and disheartening; write all the time!”

These and other highlights of Roosevelt’s voluminous and candid correspondence, which perfectly reflect the high-hearted combativeness of his spirit, appear in The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt , edited by H. W. Brands (Cooper Square Press, $29.95).

For a long time now, Steven Lubar, chair of the division of history and technology at the National Museum of American History in Washington, has—along with all the institution’s curators—been seeking ways to add context to the museum’s endlessly fascinating collections. Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian , by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick (Smithsonian Institution Press, 256 pages, $39.95), is a big, good-looking book that both describes the process by which one draws history from an object and shows hundreds of the objects themselves, from a bugle salvaged from the Maine to Thomas Jefferson’s desk to a slice of the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter occupied by the students during their 1960 sit-in.

Beginning on Inauguration Day in 1961 and ending with the sad chore of packing up, The Kennedy White House: Life & Pictures, 1961-1963 , by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (Touchstone, 304 pages, $32.00), charts the life of the first family with the greatest intimacy. This comes from the illustrations—hundreds of family snapshots, most of them never before published (or, for that matter, seen by non-Kennedys). Among them is a picture of JFK listening to his brother-in-law Peter Lawford aboard a yacht (which is amusing because of Kennedy’s tremendous solemnity, as if the movie actor were offering advice on missile throw-weight), Caroline in a JFK mask alongside the real thing, and the children during their last White House Christmas amid a sea of presents sent them by Americans; they were allowed to choose one each.

The Saturday Kid , by Cheryl Carlesimo, illustrated by Edward Sorel (Simon & Schuster, 32 pages, $18.00), is a children’s book, with a satisfying tale of a young boy who becomes a hero. But it has great charm and appeal for anyone of any age who is interested in history because of Edward Sorel’s illustrations, which capture with both imagination and accuracy the New York City of the 1930s, especially its movie palaces (which also give the artist a chance to present some bravura caricatures of the stars of the era: James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson).

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