In this series we ask some of our friends what they’re reading to discover what the teachers want to learn, and what we can learn from their choices. This week we hear from Dr. Richard Rabinowitz, curator of Revolution! and Founder and President of the American History Workshop. He’ll also be discussing the transitional history of the Atlantic world at The Age of Revolution: A Whole History.
For four years and more, preparing for the New-York Historical Society’s Revolution! exhibition, my reading has been mostly a voyage in the 18th-century Atlantic — reading up on the American and French revolutions and embarking on my first real discoveries of the history of the Caribbean and particularly of the amazing, world-transforming revolution in Haiti. It’s been dizzying, and fun, but I love the idea of “coming home.”
So not surprisingly, as the exhibition prep comes to a close, I’ve picked up three terrific books on the history of our own time. Daniel Rogers’ Age of Fracture is a brilliant, astonishingly comprehensive intellectual history of the political rhetoric of the last half-century. Wonderfully free of a pundit’s jaundiced view of political opponents, Rogers dispassionately dissects the concepts that have underpinned the output of presidential speechmakers, think tankers, and policy wonks. How does the monetarist’s faith in the magic of the market relate to third-wave feminism, the social construction of reality, color-blind America, school vouchers, constitutional originalism, and the shock therapy applied to post-communist societies? It’s all in here, and much more. Rogers’ basic point, though he doesn’t care to over-theorize, is that we have culturally disassembled the structuring ideas that used to anchor, in the good/bad old days of the 1950s, our understanding of individual behavior. We are, consequently, much less sure of our connections to the society, the nation, and to the people around us.
Rogers attributes this intellectual upheaval, at times, to nostalgia for those simpler days. But after reading American Oracle, my friend David Blight’s penetrating new history of how four American writers rendered the Civil War during the era of the Civil Rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, no one should want to return to that stiff-white-shirted, buttoned-down world. What ties together the first three of Blight’s subjects — Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, and Edmund Wilson — is that none of them could truly imagine paying serious attention to the words and thoughts of black Americans. Wilson’s huge Patriotic Gore serenaded the earnest scribbling of dozens of Union generals and southern ladies, but he could not afford a single page for Frederick Douglass. The responsibility to respond, Blight notes, fell to James Baldwin – probably the least likely spokesman for any cause. And Baldwin did respond, in terms that are still searing. Attention must be paid.
Finally, I’m now making my way through a history of my own little world. Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn feels like the best booth at a street fair, full of stories about how middle-class, information-age uplifters (like me?!@#) appropriated this broken-down slice of Brooklyn Victoriana in the last half-century, pushing aside the modernizing Manhattanizers and the old ethnic working class that had lived here to create a “middle cityscape” of bike lanes and bookstore cafés and all the best cheeses in the world.
Reading like this is like stumbling into a CSI episode and finding one’s own fingerprints all over the crime scene.
So, have you read any of these books? What are you reading to get your history fix?