Friday, January 1, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read so many good books this past year. Here are some of my favorite reads from 2015. 

Best book: 

James Morton Turner, The Promise of American Wilderness (2012). This is my kind of book! Turner does not give an intellectual discussion of wilderness. Instead, he examines how political process of the 1964 Wilderness Act shaped the definition and concept of wilderness. From this angle, wilderness has had many diverse and varied meanings over the last fifty years. Coming from an urban/suburban environment, I have always had great difficulty identifying with very precise meanings of wilderness. As a kid growing up in Queens, Forest Park felt as much like wilderness to me as Hetch-Hetchy Valley did to John Muir. The fact that the Act left some wiggle room in a definition of wilderness, essentially putting it in the eye of the beholder, gave it great strength and flexibility. This, however, created some conflict, which is at the heart of The Promise of American Wilderness. Turner chronicles not only the debate between those who wanted to protect wilderness and those who did not, but also the complex disagreements among different environmental groups and as well as between national and local organizations. There needs to be more work like this. The Promise of American Wilderness was my best read of 2015.  

Honorable mentions:

Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age (2015). So much for Rebecca Edwards etal. and the Long Progressive Era. Fink reminds us that the economic system of the Gilded Age was hotly contested ground between labor and management. Their struggles shaped the socio-economic system as it emerged. He makes a case for contingency in that outcomes could have varied. In my humble opinion, Fink's workers had much more of a fighting chance than say those that Steven Fraser depicts in The Age of Acquiescence (2015). Fink also shines an international perspective on the era, and makes the case that labor would have benefited from doing so as well. For example, he argues that during the Homestead strike, American workers should have sought allies with British unions. Denying Andrew Carnegie his respectable safe haven in Skibbo Castle and applying public pressure on him in Great Britain could have yielded positive results. This is just one example of Fink's use of contingency that will surely generate thought.  

Elizabeth Sanders, The Roots of Reform (1999). I see this as something of a complement to David Sarasohn's The Party of Reform (1989). Both seek to turn the Progressive Era on its head. In the latter case, the author roots the reform spirit of the era in the Democratic Party, not the Republicans. Sanders further roots the reform movement in the agrarian/populist tradition, not the urban middle class. It was the farmers, she argues, who drove the Progressive movement. They had a broad vision for a democratic society, which was at odds with the much more narrow, restrictive, and conservative scope of the Gompers labor movement. 

Richard White, Railroaded (2011). Long ago I read an essay by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) that argued that among the transcontinental railroads, only the Great Northern was a success because it did not accept any subsidies from the Federal government. The other railroads were corrupt, poorly managed boondoggles that survived only because the government propped them up. Rand was making a libertarian case against state interference in business. White likewise argues that the railroads were nothing more than a fraudulent scheme, although he comes at it from the left with a strong post-2008 perspective. Playing with house money and supported by public bailouts, White argues that the transcontinental railroad system was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme to route money from the public treasury into the pockets of select investors. And they were select investors who conned others (including their former pals) when it suited them. The amoral, apolitical railroads backed whatever best served the financial interests of their investors. As where previous generations of historians saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad as a triumph of American progress, White sees a complicated, bloated, unnecessary, and unsustainable system that sapped the treasury for decades. It was, in short, a national tragedy in his telling.     

Mark W. Summers, Ordeal of the Reunion (2015). Summers is one of my favorite historians. He is a master dealing with sources and he has a great sense of humor. Summers is one of the few historians who really does make me chuckle out loud.  Summers makes a case that Reconstruction was more of a success than we tend to view it. He argues that the primary purpose of Reconstruction was to bring the union back together after the war without slavery or a slave power. In this, he stresses, it succeeded. There really was little political will even at the height of Radical Reconstruction to completely re-make southern society. Ordeal of Reunion examines the importance of the west (as a source of conflict and investment that drained the north of political and economic will), the economy (especially the Panic of 1873 which devastated the south, especially freedmen), and corruption (which was a real problem in some Reconstruction governments). This will give me a new perspective for when we get to Reconstruction in class much later this spring. 

Lastly, non-History:

Thomas Merton, The Seeds of Contemplation (1962). I picked this up in September after seeing Pope Francis's speech before Congress. As a Catholic I had some passing knowledge of Merton, but I had not read anything he had written. Seeds is a powerful book. It is not something one reads start to finish. Instead, one reads it slowly a paragraph at a time. I have spent weeks contemplating a single paragraph in this remarkable book. 

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