Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review: What Hath God Wrought (5/5)

Daniel Howe's Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of antebellum America (pre-Civil War) is a massive read (850 pages) which took me three months of periodic reading to complete. I started off strong, pushing through 300 pages in a couple weeks, but then took time off as my interests turned to other books. However, each time I came back, I immediately jumped back in to the story line and got lost in the history.

Howe's work is so helpful and impressive for three different reasons.

First, this work is one of the best researched history books I have ever read available for a popular audience. Each page is meticulously footnoted to show Howe's sources, and the book ends (after 850 pages) with another 50 page bibliographical essay where he interacts with sources at a critical level. This may be one reason that this book took me so long to read - every page has three or four footnotes with insight from Howe into their usefulness in studying that topic. In topics that especially interested me, I found myself looking through Amazon for his footnoted resources. The span of this book is massive (covering 1815 to 1848), and the amount of research available on this period is overwhelming. If you want to get your arms around this little-known period of American history, start with Howe's book.

Second, and seemingly contradictory to my first point, Howe's book is extremely readable. I have read many history books over the years and while some have mastered the facts of their era, they have obviously not mastered the English language. Howe's book is unique in his ability to not only master the relevant information (see point 1), but his ability to make the history come alive on paper. I appreciated that Howe's was not uncritical in his approach to the period, giving his opinions along the way. I know that historians are supposed to just give the facts and not share their personal views, but in reality this is impossible to do and makes history extremely boring to read. Howe walks the line well between telling the story and analyzing the story. With so much up-heaval during this period, he has plenty of material to work with.

Finally, I appreciated Howe's work because of the significant space he committed to discuss the impact of and changes in the religious fabric of American life. I have rarely interacted with a scholar of Howe's pedigree who is so conversant in religious history. He gives several chapters to looking at the impact of the Second Great Awakening (occurred during these years) and the impact of religious creativity (Mormonism and other sects were born during these years) on American culture. It would have been easy to write about this period simply from a political perspective, covering the great expansion of the United States, the interesting presidential elections, and American involvement in war. Instead, Howe gives us the street-level view of life and especially of religious life.

In closing, please note that this book is one volume in a series of American history books called The Oxford History of the United States, where each volume is written by a different author. The only other work in the series that I have read is James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, the history of the Civil-War (the book picks up right after Howe's ends). McPherson's work is also amazing in it scope, though the number of years it covers is less because the details of the Civil War take up so much space. I currently have another volume from this series on my nightstand called Freedom from Fear, the story of America in depression and war (1929-1945). I really want to read it (to see the parallels with our economy today), but I'm working myself up to starting another 800+ page book on American history.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Sounds very interesting, but I'm still trying to figure out when you sleep...ha. Save this one for Dad and me. Maybe we can get through it if we take turns reading it.
Love, Mom