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Here is the story of America in the twentieth century as told through the lives of twenty-six of its most remarkable and historically crucial men and women.
The people Martin Walker has chosen to portray are presidents, industrialists, artists, thinkers, entertainers, soldiers, spies, criminals, and evangelists, among others, and he makes the life of each individual serve as a framework for a discussion of the nation as a whole in a century when it was reinventing itself.
Through Theodore Roosevelt, Walker examines America's ambition; through Woodrow Wilson, our idealism; through FDR, our triumph on the world stage; through Richard Nixon, our retreat into cynicism; through Bill Clinton, globalization and controversy about the right way to use America's unprecedented power.
In Henry Ford he finds the creator of both the mass-market product and the mass-market consumer, and in Walt Disney, the revolutionizer not only of America's entertainment but also of the world's. William Boeing is the innovator who spurs the behemoth of American aviation; Walter Reuther defines labor's struggles; George C. Marshall represents the spread of America's economic genius in a war-ravaged Europe.
In the lives of Duke Ellington, Frank Lloyd Wright, Katharine Hepburn, and John Steinbeck, Walker traces America's far-reaching cultural influences. Babe Ruth leads to a consideration of the role of sports in our society; William F. Buckley, Jr., to a discussion of conservatism; Martin Luther King, Jr., to matters of race; Betty Friedan to the shifting role of women; Billy Graham to an examination of religion; Emma Goldman to minority viewpoints and dissent; Black Jack Pershing to the place of the military; Lucky Luciano to crime and corruption; Albert Einstein to immigration; Richard Bissell to spies and the intelligence network; Alan Greenspan to finance and banking; and Winston Churchill to the American diaspora.
At once intimate and wide-ranging, America Reborn is an altogether engrossing work of narrative history.
As the title suggests, British journalist Walker (The Cold War: A History, etc.) views history through the prism of biography in his engaging, though sometimes superficial, chronicle of the U.S.'s political, social and economic development over the course of the 20th century. Each chapter takes a well-known individual as a paradigm for a larger development ("Emma Goldman and the American Dissident," "Lucky Luciano and the American Criminal," etc.). The early chapters are essentially recapitulations of received wisdom: for instance, Henry Ford invents mass production and realizes he must also create a mass consumer class, hence the five-dollar day for his workers. When the choices are not conventional, they can be arguable: Katharine Hepburn is hardly a typical Hollywood star, and using Winston Churchill (whose mother was American) as a way of examining "the American diaspora" (whose meaning is never satisfactorily clarified) simply doesn't work. As the narrative approaches the 1970s, when Walker began reporting in the U.S., it sharpens considerably. Particularly strong is the chapter on Richard Nixon, in which Walker argues that the most important of the "three strategic disasters that marked his presidency" was neither Watergate nor the fall of Saigon but Nixon's decision to abandon the gold standard and devalue the dollar, which led to the ghastly inflation of the '70s and the resulting triumph of Reaganomics in the '80s. Throughout his accessible text, the author also does a good job of tracing his main theme, the nation's century-long struggle to deal with Americans' ambivalence about international involvement. There's little new here, but Walker's lively popular history is generally informative and appealing. 26 photos.