U.S. history a hot topic for publishers

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Barack Obama's eloquence is not entirely his own. Some of the country's greatest past politicians and thinkers are contributors to the president-elect's speeches.

By design, of course. To quote Abraham Lincoln, there's nothing like the "mystic chords of memory" to reach the voters.

We are now in a time of a kind of publishers' "Great Awakening" to America's history, powered largely by the coming bicentennial of Lincoln's birth next year.

Always a popular choice for historians, Lincoln is being considered from every angle in a flood of works that will flow into next year.

To provide a context for this Lincoln immersion is a collection of new books on these United States, tapping into the patriotic impulse of a presidential election year and the dismal results of occasional surveys finding that most Americans are growing more ignorant by the year.

These new titles, some of which are to appear early next year, should provide a corrective. Let's launch our correspondence course with a skim-the-surface chronicle, Robert V. Remini's "A Short History of the United States (Harper, $27.95). Remini is history professor emeritus of the University of Illinois, and he roars through the years in 336 pages, concluding in his wrap-up of the George W. Bush administration:

"... America's large consumer society, technological superiority and creative genius remained viable and gave hope that its people could find the leadership that would bring the country through this trying period of their history."

That upbeat passage was no doubt written before his retirement account nose-dived.

Bringing a bigger (964 pages) overview of the nation's international history is George C. Herring's "From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776" (Oxford University Press, $35).

Herring is another retired academic (University of Kentucky) who concludes his massive study with a brief chapter on the Iraq-Afghanistan hostilities and the call for Americans to "think anew and act anew."

Modern America is sometimes too close for comfort, so historians can always call on the "Founding Fathers" era for a steady supply of incidents and characters.

One of those figures was a proto-community organizer named Sam Adams, a cousin of John Adams, the subject of David McCullough's amazingly successful biography. Despite his efforts in the early days of the Revolution, the "other Adams" has faded into the woodwork -- until now.

Sam was a Boston firebrand and thorn in the side of the British (but not a beer-maker, despite the eponymous brew) who attracted the attention of Ira Stoll, author of "Samuel Adams: A Life" (Free Press, $28). Stoll is an editor at the New York Sun, the recently closed weekly.

Adams eschewed participation in the writing of the Constitution. Those who did are profiled in "Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution" by Richard Beeman (Random House, $28. March). He's a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and serves at the National Constitutional Center.

Alexander Hamilton did take part and for his efforts, became the country's first secretary of the treasury. James D. DiLorenzo, a rightward leaning economist, believes Hamilton "betrayed the American Revolution" with his big-government economic policies.

His book, "Hamilton's Curse" (Crown Forum, $25.95) is a libertarian lament for the false promises of a Jeffersonian "yeoman farmer" society.

We move up to the 19th century with Jon Meacham's "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" (Random House, $30).

Meacham an editor at Newsweek who follows in the heavily trod path of many fine Jackson scholars including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and the above-mentioned Remini, author of 12 Jackson books.

While never challenging Lincoln as history's favorite, Old Hickory has long fascinated the historian community and will continue to do so.

As economic concerns mount these days, the history of poverty in America seems a good subject to examine right now.

That's what Stephen Pimpare does in "A People's History of Poverty in America" (The New Press, $27.95).

A scholar at Yeshiva College in social welfare policy, Pimpare offers a left-wing take on suffering and deprivation in the Land of Plenty.

Jacob Riis documented the life of the poor firsthand in his journalism and photography in the New York slums of the late 19th century.

Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom report on his efforts in "Rediscovering Jacob Riis" (The New Press, $35), which contains and explains the work of Riis with his photos and commentary.

Finally, as the voters indicated last week, they are developing amnesia about the current Republican Party icon, Ronald Reagan. Now, two writers are daring to question the Emperor of the Right and his transparent wardrobe.

"Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" by Will Bunch (Free Press, $24. February.) argues that the Gipper was always ready to compromise and bend his principles in making pragmatic decisions.

Bunch is a political journalist with the Philadelphia Daily News.

Another reporter, William Kleinknecht, brands Reagan "The Man Who Sold the World" (Nation Books, $26.95. February). Its subtitle explains it: "Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America."

Kleinknecht claims that the deregulation and merger fervor of the Reagan years is a direct cause of today's financial collapse.

But, before you're ready to stop watching reruns of "Death Valley Days," consider James Mann's "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of Cold War" (Viking, $27.95. March).

Mann, a former Los Angeles Times reporter covering national security, contends that Reagan's resolve to disarm the nuclear powers played a major role in ending the Cold War.

Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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