Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Pg. 69: "Blessed Among Nations"

Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America and, more recently, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America.

Among the considerable praise Blessed Among Nations has attracted, two endorsements stood out for me:
Written by an accomplished, imaginative historian who well understands those beginnings of modern America -- the years of the Progressive Era -- this book on one level suggests why socialism never took root in the United States, and why the supposed melting pot and the early Federal Reserve System worked as they did, but on quite another level develops a highly revealing argument how Americans' faith in their "empire" and their exceptionalism shaped in often unexpected ways what we now call globalization and their part in it. —Walter LaFeber, Tisch University Professor, Cornell University
American ‘exceptionalism’ is one of those things often asserted, seldom convincingly proved. By setting the history of the United States in the context of the history of the first age of globalization, Eric Rauchway has come up with a powerful new argument about what exactly made the American experience different. Blessed Among Nations is both brilliant and convincing. For the breadth of his vision, the author deserves to be blessed among U.S. historians” —Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
I asked Eric to apply the "page 69 test" to his book. Here is what he reported:
Blessed Among Nations is a book about how globalization has made America exceptional in specific and enduring ways, and page 69 provides a good example of how it works. It's part of a discussion of immigration to the US in the decades around 1900. It begins by noting the volume of immigration, which was "enough to make any paymaster cheerful on seeing the shiploads of people sail past the Statue of Liberty": more immigrants meant more laborers, and a lower price for labor. But, as page 69 goes on to explain, what made immigration to the US look different from immigration to other New World nations was not volume, but variety: there were more different kinds of people going to the US than to anywhere else. Employers loved this diversity: they could hire a workforce split between Polish Catholics and German Protestants, or some other selection of ethnic antagonists that would tend to dampen any feeling of worker solidarity. For the same reasons, union leaders hated ethnic diversity, and as page 69 goes on to note, the American Federation of Labor became in the late 1890s an avid advocate of the literacy test to restrict the immigration of unskilled workers.

So page 69 advances the book's story substantially: this is a story about how international factors affected America, and here we find some examples. Which is good: it is by intention a short book, briskly told, and it would be a shame if any given page did not obviously move the ball downfield.

The page also provides a good example of the book's method. It moves from a trend you can see in the data (the previous page has a chart) but, because that's very impersonal, the discussion moves from the abstract trend to specific examples, and culminates with some actual historical people responding to this trend -- page 69 mentions of Samuel Gompers's pamphlet, "Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism," and has a quotation from Henry George about how laborers are "imported ... for the express purpose of reducing wages and making employers independent of their men." Moving from data to examples and vivid historical language is, I think and hope, the best way to tell a big story.
Many thanks to Eric Rauchway for the input on his book.

Click here to read an excerpt from Blessed Among Nations.

Joshua Zeitz, a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine, wrote an enthusiastic review of the book; read it here.

Read an interview with the author by Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed here, and click here to listen to an interview with KQED's Michael Krasny.

Want to know "What's the difference between a progressive and a liberal?" Rauchway provides one answer here, with a follow-up here.

And the good professor offers some advice here for students on "How Not to Get an A."

Previous "page 69 tests":
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue