American Colossus

SH-American ColossusI suppose that in some alternate universe, there is a 12-step program for people like me who were history majors in college. Along with English literature and philosophy, history is considered by many to be one of the “do you want fries with that?” college majors.

But honestly, I don’t want to be cured, not when there are fascinating books such as American Colossus by H.W. Brands about.

Like every other history buff I know, I have a favorite era. For me, it’s the Gilded Age, a tidy name (from a novel co-authored by Mark Twain) for an era with shifting start and end dates. But most folks accept it as roughly the fifty-year period that begins with the end of the Civil War (1865) and ends with the beginning of World War I (1914).

I think my fascination for this period began with the works of novelist Edit Wharton. She was a prolific author, penning travel books, garden design manuals, tons of short stories (many of them of the ghostly variety), and an array of splendid novels. My favorite was and still is Age of Innocence.

Wharton was born into the upper crust of New York society so it was a world she knew well—and skewered with sometimes acid precision. I was hooked.

So when the adult ed division of Dartmouth College offered a course on the Gilded Age, I was all in. That’s how I met H.W. Brands and his well-written history of the rise of capitalism in the second half of the 19th century.

Have you ever wondered why we are still consumed with racial issues 150 years after the Civil War ended? Does the eternal dance of the two major political parties in the U.S. baffle you?

Bernie Sanders has been speaking out against income inequality since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. His ideas have a much longer history than I’d ever known. In fact, Brands quotes from a speech given by a prominent figure in the 19th century Populist movement that could be given by Bernie today.

Would you like to know why so many New England towns have Grange Halls? The Grange movement was powerful in the late 1800s, and it still exerts a pull on American ideology today.

Why do too many Americans vote against their best self-interests by casting ballots for people and institutions that are wealthy and corrupt? It’s not a new phenomenon.

Brands’ narrative—well-written and meticulously researched—made my jaw drop more than once as I recognized the people and politics of 2017 in 1877. Many of us want to believe that we live in a democracy but Brands illuminates the history of money and the power that accompanies it in American history. I think it’s fair to say that democracy did not get the better of the argument.

Capitalism’s ascendency in the last half of the 19th century shaped the world we live in now with all of its political turmoil. Isn’t it better to try to understand than scream into the darkness?

Believe me, this is an enlightening book but beware, enlightenment can be a dangerous (and delicious) thing.

If you’ve got a history buff on your holiday gift-giving list, I recommend American Colossus highly. But be sure to read it yourself first.


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