Thursday, May 26, 2011

Recent Reads

As I am devoting maximum labor to finishing my biography of William Temple Hornaday, I am behind in both my blogging and reading. But here are three recent reads:

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.

The Big Burn covers the massive forest fires that struck the northwest in 1910. Prolonged dryness and lightening storms produced several large fires that converged into a single mega-fire that scorched over 3 million acres and several towns. As in his history of the Dust Bowl, Egan does an excellent job of portraying the drama of the moment through the eyes of the common people who lived through it. Without a doubt, that is the strength of the book. He also explains the conservation policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, as well as the attitudes of those powerful western Senators who represented the timber interests. In the end, the arch anti-conservationists were discredited. Egan emphasizes the words of those Forest Service officers who realized that had this fire occurred a few years earlier, the entire conservation program might have been destroyed. Those few years bought the Forest Service some time to win over local populations and prove a valuable asset, even if this was a slow and difficult process. President Taft, as always seems to be the case, comes off as bumbling, indecisive, and on the wrong side of the event. And, yes, his weight is lampooned. If the fire wrecked the lives of thousands of people, it at least saved the conservation movement in Egan's eyes. Even if a stingy Congress would not reimburse the hospital bills for those badly burned Forest Rangers, the lawmakers passed the Weeks Act to acquire forests in the East and generally accepted the utility of what the little GPs (Gifford Pinchots) did.

H.W. Brands, American Colossus.

In American Colossus Brands turns his attention to the Gilded Age where, during a short time, modern, industrial America emerged. It was an ugly birth. The positive is that he paints vivid portraits of many different types of people from immigrants to robber barons in a way that grants insight into their daily lives. He is really very good at this. The negative is that it

seems dated to me. The theses is not particularly new nor is the bibliography. I have no doubt that Wallace Stegner's biography of famed explorer John Wesley Powell was the best ever at one point, but Donald Worster's more sophisticated and detailed work, which has the hindsight of some great environmental historiography, a field that was, at best, vaguely defined when Stegner first put pen to ink in the 1950s, would better serve anyone studying the time period, western development, exploration, or water. There are other examples of this sort of thing. I was also a bit disappointed by Brands's lack of manuscript sources. I have always enjoyed his work and found his use of primary sources, quite frankly, comforting in books written for a larger audience.

John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History.

I know this is out of place in my Gilded Age/Progressive Era blog, but I read this in part as a refresher for a US Survey II class I will teach in the fall. This is a very top level view of the Cold War with a emphasis on ideas, not events. Thus Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan get significant coverage because of their ideas, while Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Bush receive much less attention. In fact, Johnson and Kennedy are mentioned only in passing and

Carter and Bush come off as out-of-touch. Gaddis incorporates the non-aligned powers into the picture. As most of my Cold War reading tends to focus on the USA, this provided me with some excellent perspective on the role of China without overloading my brain with details I really do not need. It may be silly, but I still get chills thinking back to 1989. I was in college and, as a young cold warrior, quite absorbed with the downfall of Eastern Europe. Gaddis's handling of that event certainly bought back memories.

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