“Albion’s Seed” is a classic work of ethnography. It is refreshing to read because a book like it could not be written today (it was published in 1989). It’s not that the book has any political angle. Rather, it’s that it totally fails to acknowledge today’s left-liberal preoccupations, in particular the fictive primacy of “identity” and “inclusion” (used, of course, either as a political tool to demand unearned and undeserved benefits, or as a masochistic whip to indulge one’s own irrational self-hatred). In fact, “Albion’s Seed” offers no focus on identity other than ethnic identity as derived from Britain. And there is no effort at inclusion at all, only an effort at truth. Nor does it suggest there is anything evil about America, another necessary abasement for a history to be accepted by the Left. What the book does provide is a huge range of facts, carefully parsed and clearly communicated to the non-specialist reader, in service of explaining why America is what it is today.
St. Paul says in Second Thessalonians (or as Donald Trump would have it, “Two Thessalonians”), “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” This seems old-fashioned, even unfair to some. But not so long ago, what St. Paul said was literally true for most Americans, and merely an accepted fact of life, not an imposition by society. “Trials Of The Earth” is a vivid reminder of that time, and a chronicle of human strength and self-reliance in response.
This book has a not-new thesis, beloved by Marxists and Charles Beard: that economic reasons were the real driver behind the Civil War. Actually, Charles Adams tells us that only one economic reason was the sole driver—increased tariffs dictated by the North. As with all ideologically driven analysis, this ignores that all complex happenings have complex causes. Compounded with Adams’ numerous gross falsehoods, obvious ignorance, and bad writing, the result is Not Fresh.
“Liberal Fascism” is really a history book, not the book of political analysis I expected it to be. I didn’t love this book (written in 2007—apparently a 2009 version is updated to include talk about Obama), even though it’s famous among conservatives. I’m not sure why I didn’t love this book. Maybe it’s because despite the book’s aggressive thesis, it is over-careful not to give offense. Maybe I think its thesis is overstated. Maybe it’s because the strain of combining a complete history, intellectual analysis, and polemic regarding the American Left for the past century shows, in lacunae in the book. Or maybe it’s because the style of writing, which I would call “unflashy expository,” just isn’t compelling to me. Nonetheless, I still think the book is very much worth reading, because the history it relates is valuable to know.
“The Fractured Republic” is a fantastically original book. It is very optimistic, yet clear-eyed, which is a rare combination. Most optimistic books about modern politics are also simplistic. They typically consist of vague and belligerent paeans demanding the recapture of America’s past. Yuval Levin’s book, on the other hand, is the very opposite. It is precise and even-handed. And far from demanding recapture of the past, Levin explicitly rejects any such attempt. At the same time, Levin believes that we as Americans, liberal and conservative, can jointly renew our society without retreading the past, and in this age, such optimism is no small thing.
“The Turmoil” is a book little read nowadays, and would probably be a book never read except for Orson Welles. Its author, Booth Tarkington, was a famous Indiana writer of the early 20th Century. Nowadays, when literary life is dominated by coastal authors, or those who want to move to the coasts, and the ecosystem around them, and the Midwest is merely “flyover country,” to be ignored or denigrated, this seems odd. But it wasn’t that long ago that in all aspects of life, from literature to politics, the United States had much more diversity—that is, diversity in its real, non-bastardized, sense, of an organic system of differing people making different actual contributions to society. And in “The Turmoil,” the geographic and philosophical diversity of the author and the novel’s setting adds greatly to its interest to the modern reader.
“Team Of Rivals” is, of course, an excellent biography of Abraham Lincoln. It is readable, compelling, and original. I have no new praises to add. So, instead, I’m writing this review to compare the philosophy and politics of the Civil War era to our philosophy and politics today, on the topic of abortion.
“Appetite For America” is that rare book that combines the best of a history book and a business book. It’s the story of Fred Harvey, a sickly but iron-willed Englishman who built the first retail empire in America, and the story of the company he founded, also called Fred Harvey (not Fred Harvey, Inc.—just plain Fred Harvey). It’s all fascinating, and offers the reader many accurate business insights as well (although they are not billed as business insights—this is not a navel-gazing self-help “business book”).
“Miles Gone By” is a good, but somewhat disorienting, book. It’s disorienting, first, because it’s disjointed—while divided into chapters covering different topics, it’s actually composed entirely of previously published pieces, without any attempt to knit them together coherently, in time or theme, as would be usual in an autobiography. The result isn’t bad, it’s just different, and that’s disorienting.
“The Forgotten Man” is both history and warning. It’s a great social/political history of the Depression. Rather than a recitation of economic facts, it emphasizes the personalities of relevant leaders in many fields and views the Depression through their interactions, with particular focus on the inability of the government to actually fix the Depression, despite their best (and not-so-best) efforts. The “forgotten man” of the title, in its usual historical frame, refers to Franklin Roosevelt’s use of the term—the politically weak voters on whom Roosevelt focused to get their votes, and supposedly rescued from economic despair. Shlaes resurrects in parallel the original and alternate meaning, of the man who bears the costs of government schemes directed at others.