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Land of Hope: book review

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Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story 
by Wilfred M. McClay

. . . [McClay] begins at the beginning—the archaeological evidence of our aboriginal inhabitants—and like most American histories, McClay’s tends to pass a little quickly over the first century-and-a-half of European settlement. But this is a minor complaint. His description of America on the eve of revolution is perceptive and succinct, and capacious as well. The reader never doubts the author’s perspective on the colonists’ revolt, or British government in America, but he tells the story with illuminating clarity and, above all, fair-mindedness. The answer to ignorance is not indoctrination but knowledge.

This virtue in the writing of history is not necessarily self-evident. The American Revolution, like any such episode, was a complicated matter, reaching back in history and forward in effect; and both sides—one is tempted to say all sides—were benighted and heroic, generous and arbitrary, products of their various places and time. George Washington was not without his flaws, and the Loyalists were not without their reasons. McClay sets all this out in crisp detail, balancing his judgment in conjunction with the evidence, flattering his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Which is what distinguishes this from other history texts. The present sits not in judgment but inquiry. And to the extent that we can understand people and events in circumstances far removed from our own experience, the past is revealed in Land of Hope to the present, without prejudice. The dramas and their actors—the drafting of the Constitution, Andrew Jackson, westward expansion, John C. Calhoun, the Mexican War, Samuel Gompers, women’s suffrage, Woodrow Wilson, the Great Crash, Ronald Reagan—are given the chance to speak for themselves in explaining themselves to modern sensibilities.

This is especially useful in contending with subjects—slavery and its relative significance in national life, the Civil War and its aftermath, the condition of African Americans in their own country—that routinely disrupt the historical profession, and are just as routinely distorted by ideology. This is no small matter, and no small achievement. McClay’s skill in furnishing context to emotion, in introducing modern presumption to past evidence, puts the history of the American republic in a new light by revealing its inward and outward complexity. This makes Land of Hope important, compelling, essential reading.

“Nothing about America better defines its distinctive character than the ubiquity of hope,” he writes, “a sense that the way things are initially given to us cannot be the final word about them, that we can never settle for that.” I hope he’s right.

Land of Hope sounds like a must-read. Full review is here. Amazon listing is here.

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