Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Notes: Grand Expectations (4/5)

I just finished the next book in the Oxford History of the US series that I have been enjoying so much recently. This one covers 1945 to 1974 and is written by James T. Patterson. The history picks up after the end of WWII and caries the reader through the amazing time of progress for American society during the postwar years. This 30 year period included amazing economic prosperity for our country and with it, a challenging of "traditional" cultural values on everything from racial roles to sexual identity to gender relationships.

Patterson's approach to covering these years is different from the other books in the series that I have read. While covering the important details, he seems to be concerned with explaining all the various historical views of those events rather than clearly articulating his own view. While this "fair-minded" approach helps the reader to see all sides of the history, it can become laborious over 800 pages. When I read history, I understand that I am seeing through the eyes of the historian, not completely objectively. Total objectivity is impossible. That being said, I have enjoyed other books in the series that seem to be more "lop-sided" because they passionately present their perspective on the historical events.

The early parts of Patterson's political narrative were not new to me because I have read two fascinating presidential biographies on Truman and Eisenhower. I would recommend them both - David McCullough's Truman is an awesome book (winner of the Pulitzer for history) and Stephen Ambrose's book on Eisenhower (Soldier and President) is one of my favorite biographies of all time (mostly because Eisenhower's life is so interesting). However, I did learn a ton from Patterson's description of everyday life in the late 40s and 50s. Suburban American was exploding, technological changes were advancing, and families were becoming wealthier. TV was expanding into homes for the first time and media was starting to reflect a more diverse culture to more people. I really enjoyed learning about this era when my parents were coming of age.

The politics of the 60s and 70s, though closer to me chronologically, was new to me. I haven't really read much on LBJ's historically significant presidency (though I have visited his presidential library here in Austin) or the troubled presidency of Richard Nixon. Both men had huge impacts long after they left office (not necessarily the kinds they wanted to, but important nonetheless). I also gained a new perspective on the escalation and pitfalls of the war in Vietnam, obviously one that had a huge impact on my parents' generation, but has been forgotten by many in my generation.

Life in the 60s and 70s was a time of greater turmoil as the civil-rights movement exploded in America and student-led opposition to the war in Vietnam increased. Political parties were upended, leaders were voted in, then out, and long-held cultural expectations were challenged. Patterson's best work is done in these chapters, where he recounts the life of the normal American during these years.

Overall, a fascinating work that helps me understand the period before my birth in new light.

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