A powerful reinterpretation of the founding of America, by a Pulitzer Prize -- winning historian "The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years," declares Walter McDougall in his preface to Freedom Just Around the Corner. With this statement begins McDougall''s most ambitious, original, and uncompromising of histories. McDougall marshals the latest scholarship and writes in a style redolent of passion, pathos, and humor in pursuit of truths often obscured in books burdened with political slants.
From the origins of English expansion under Henry VIII to the founding of the United States to the rollicking election of President Andrew Jackson, McDougall rescues from myth or oblivion the brave, brilliant, and flawed people who made America great: women and men, native-born and immigrant; German, Latin, African, and British; as well as farmers, engineers, planters, merchants; Protestants, Freemasons, Catholics, and Jews; and -- last but not least -- the American scofflaws, speculators, rogues, and demagogues.
With an insightful approach to the nearly 250 years spanning America''s beginnings, McDougall offers his readers an understanding of the uniqueness of the "American character" and how it has shaped the wide-ranging course of historical events. McDougall explains that Americans have always been in a unique position of enjoying "more opportunity to pursue their ambitions...than any other people in history." Throughout Freedom Just Around the Corner the character of the American people shines, a character built out of a freedom to indulge in the whole panoply of human behavior. The genius behind the success of the United States is founded on the complex, irrepressible American spirit.
A grand narrative rich with new details and insights about colonial and early national history, Freedom Just Around the Corner is the first installment of a trilogy that will eventually bring the story of America up to the present day -- story as epic, bemusing, and brooding as Bob Dylan''s "Jokerman," the ballad that inspires its titles.
Anyone aspiring to write a multivolume history of the U.S. reckons with illustrious predecessors, especially the histories of Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter (the latter never completed). But those histories were interpretive; they had a particular slant on the past. McDougall''s is more explanatory. It provides up-to-date understanding of much that happened in our early history but without a sharply etched point of view. It''s thus a bit like a textbook, struggling to keep readers'' attention on all it packs in. Fortunately, in this regard it succeeds wonderfully well. Briskly written, deeply researched, fact-filled and satisfyingly wide in its coverage, it''s mainly a history of the public attributes of the colonies and early nationthe ethnic and racial groups (including Native Americans), its states, religious denominations, political parties, wars and institutions. There''s little social history here or the history of ideas and culture, little about subjects like women, gays, historical myths and memory. But no single history, not even in a projected three volumes, can cover everything. McDougall''s particular strength is that he keeps individuals front and center: the work is alive with humans and their struggles and achievements. Pulitzer Prizewinner McDougall (for The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age) says at the start that his theme will be the conditions that made for Americans'' world-known "hustling" behavior and mentality. Fortunately, he quickly drops this line. There''s a better and more fitting word for people''s desire to better their lot: ambition. That''s what this book has in full measure. Maps not seen by PW.
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It might be unfashionable these days to embrace “American exceptionalism.” Yet that’s exactly what McDougall, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of
The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, has done, to great acclaim. In revealing “who and why we are what we are,” he has written an imaginative, evenhanded, and masterful history that shows the freedoms—and high costs—of our hustling nation. His impressive research covers all the major events of our first 200 years, plus some; he entertains with humorous, passionate writing. Only historian Foner—competitive, perhaps?—criticizes
Freedom’s top-heavy approach and inadequate interpretations. The general consensus: Freedom is an important contribution not only to its field, but to all Americans.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter A. McDougall is the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth and Let the Sea Make a Noise. . . . He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children.