CRB: Land of the free

The Claremont Review of Books has just published its new (Fall) issue. The magazine has moved to a new site with a new URL ( Celebrating its twentieth year of publication in its second life, the editors have made the new issue freely accessible for the next few days. They hope to entice readers to become subscribers (subscribe here). This week I am previewing a few reviews and essays from the new issue; they will remain accessible after the issue is placed behind a paywall next week or soon thereafter.

When David McCullough graduated from Yale with a degree in English in 1955, someone thought to give him Bruce Catton’s recently published A Stillness at Appomattox for a graduation present. In the course of a long interview with the great Brian Lamb on C-SPAN, McCullough traced his interest in writing history to reading that book. McCullough walks in Catton’s footsteps. He is a master of popular narrative history and biography with a deep love of the United States and profound appreciation of the heroes who have gone before us.

McCullough’s new book is The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. Christopher Flannery reviews it in “Land of the free.” Chris writes:

For half a century, McCullough has won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards by turning out bestsellers about famous Americans like John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the Wright Brothers. So much is he identified with America’s story that he was the natural pick to narrate Ken Burns’s acclaimed documentary, The Civil War (1990). Now he has written a book “about a cast of real-life characters of historic accomplishment who were entirely unknown to most Americans,” as he puts it. He had wanted to write such a book since he first saw Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, as a young man. “I always thought it would be wonderful to write a book like Our Town,” he says, “but I would write about real people instead.”

Toward the end of the review Chris observes:

America today is deeply divided into two parties: those who celebrate this American spirit [of liberty for all] and those who condemn it. The former would embrace McCullough’s title and everything it implies; the latter would make it impossible to grant a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award to anyone using it. It is a fair barometer of our current politics that this book would simultaneously leap to the bestseller lists and be morally condemned by Harvard and Columbia University professors on social media and in the New York Times and Washington Post. Too much white perspective, old stereotypes, an outdated narrative of American progress and exceptionalism; it should have focused on “indigenous” peoples and been told from their perspective, and so on and tediously and insidiously on.

You will want to read Chris’s review in its entirety. After reading the review, you will likely also want to read the book. At least I do.