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,"" states 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 with passion, pathos, and humour in pursuit of truths often obscured in books burdened with political slants. 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 this character 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 behaviour. 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 instalment of a trilogy that will eventually bring the story of America up to the present day, a story epic, bemusing, and brooding.
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 nation--the 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 Prize-winner 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.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
April 04, 2005
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter A. McDougall
What Some Great Novels
Tell Us About Ourselves
"At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared ... a man in cream colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis. His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger." He and the crowd proceeded to climb the ramp onto the steamboat Fid�le, bound from St. Louis to New Orleans. The stranger, all eyes upon him, paused beneath a "Wanted" poster on deck warning of a "mysterious imposter." Not long before, notorious gangs of cutthroats terrorized travelers on western rivers. But the predators these days were swindlers: "Where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase." The stranger then produced chalk and a slate and wrote for the crowd to read: "Charity thinketh no evil, Charity believeth all things, Charity never faileth." Two doors down, beneath the smoking saloon, a barber hung on his shop door a placard of contrary sentiments: "NO TRUST."
Thus began a great American novel. It described one day -- April Fools' Day -- on board a Mississippi steamboat, and its publisher contrived, for publicity's sake, to release it on April 1, 1857. Reviewers panned the book (one called it nothing but "forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by personages who might pass for the errata of creation"). But some critics think The Confidence-Man to be the greatest novel by Herman Melville.
Melville's satirical allegory holds up a mirror to the American people. They are "natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters." They include fine ladies, philosophers, and land speculators, soldiers, black slaves and quadroons, Mormons, Jews, Papists, and Baptists, jesters, teetotalers, and Yankee peddlers: "in short, a piebald parliament" of "that multiform pilgrim species, man." All seek to hustle each other or, if charity gets the best of them, be hustled in turn. Melville doubtless got the original idea from a story run by the New York Herald in 1849. It told of a respectable-looking fellow who talked people into lending him their pocket watches for some innocent purpose, whereupon neither man nor watch would return. The reporter coined the term "confidence-man" for the rascal, likening him to the brokers downtown who urged passers-by to "take a flyer" touting some hot stock issue. "His genius has been employed on a small scale in Broadway. Theirs has been employed in Wall street. That's all the difference." A friend of Melville even suggested that the con-man's success "speaks well for human nature, that, at this late day, in spite of all the hardening of civilization, and all the warning of newspapers, men can be swindled."
Ever since borrowing money against Moby Dick's royalties, which proved disappointing, Melville was "damned by dollars" and in need of commercial success. At the same time, he was tormented by the disparity between Americans' acquisitiveness and the Calvinist values he acquired in youth. The economy in the 1850s boomed on the strength of the California Gold Rush, land speculation, railroad construction, and the Cotton South, but far from becoming the New Jerusalem of millenarians' dreams, the nation was a sink-hole of corruption. In northern eyes the southern slavocracy was almost Satanic, while Southerners were quick to believe that in the industrial north (as a New Yorker confessed), "public men are all rogues, honest men are driven from the polls -- the ballot boxes are in the hands of ruffians -- the very men who are elected ... are so many swindlers, stock-jobbers, liars, even forgers and robbers." It was a "plundering generation."
So Melville took the risk of telling the truth, as he saw it, about the tricks Americans played on themselves in their effort to worship both God and Mammon. His Confidence-Man, variously likened to a jester, traveling sales-man, "genial misanthrope," P. T. Barnum (who published his scandalous auto-biography in 1855), the Devil, an angel, and the Second Coming of Christ, is a master of disguise and persuasion. Though some passengers prove tougher to gull than others, he eventually employs their own fear, greed, or fancied virtue to pry open their wallets, exposing in the process every conundrum and lie -- about slavery, Indians, business, industry, and frontier religion -- Americans preferred not to acknowledge. In the opening scene the Con-Man is that silent prophet dressed in white and quoting St. Paul. In the next he impersonates a crippled Negro beggar, worse off in freedom than he was under slavery. In the next he gulls a Methodist clergyman into contributing to the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum. "I have not heard of that charity," says the preacher. "But recently founded," the Con-Man replies, and pockets his coins.
As the day progresses the Con-Man appears as a global philanthropist aiming to quicken the missionary impulse "with the Wall street spirit," a director of the Black Rapids Coal Company whose "exclusive" shares passen-gers beg him to sell, an herb-doctor hawking miracle cures, an agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office (an employment bureau), and a wounded veteran of the Mexican War. In each case the Con-Man's glib sophistry strips his victims of the psychological raiment cloaking their vanity, while the victims in turn have occasion to mock Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, abolitionists and slavers, topers and teetotalers, industrialists and agrarians ...