James MacGregor Burns’s stunning trilogy of American history, spanning the birth of the Constitution to the final days of the Cold War. In these three volumes, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner James MacGregor Burns chronicles with depth and narrative panache the most significant cultural, economic, and political events of American history. In The Vineyard of Liberty, he combines the color and texture of early American life with meticulous scholarship. Focusing on the tensions leading up to the Civil War, Burns brilliantly shows how Americans became divided over the meaning of Liberty. In The Workshop of Democracy, Burns explores more than a half-century of dramatic growth and transformation of the American landscape, through the addition of dozens of new states, the shattering tragedy of the First World War, the explosion of industry, and, in the end, the emergence of the United States as a new global power. And in The Crosswinds of Freedom, Burns offers an articulate and incisive examination of the US during its rise to become the world’s sole superpower - through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the rapid pace of technological change that gave rise to the “American Century.”
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This is really three quite different books, each with its own tone, outlook, and period, and they don’t quite form a coherent whole (but are a bargain at one credit). I found each book better than the prior book, as the author seems more comfortable with the modern era.
The title is a bit deceptive. I expected “The American Experience” to be about, well, the Experience of the people of the United States. Instead this is a very basic, conventional, history of the United States from the constitutional convention (after the War for Independence) up to 1980. Like many other US Histories, this focuses primarily on the presidents, and only tangentially on the historical issues each president faced, and almost not at all on the broader themes and tides of history or the minutia of real people’s lives. The books do cover all the conventional keynotes of US history very well.
The one overarching theme the books does seem to explore the meaning of Liberty, and it seems to conclude this has never been quite clear. Other than that, there is very little analysis or thematic context. Until the last book, almost all analysis is added by quoting other historians (making some point this author chooses to emphasize). This leads to a somewhat namby-pamby, term paper sounding, narrative.
Sporadically some non-political aspects of experience are mentioned (arts, crafts, technology, business, living conditions, religion, science, education, sports, etc.), but these tellings are generally in alignment with the somewhat mythical conventional US history and don’t provide enough context to provide a true slice of life.
I am always annoyed when historical spending or wages are quoted in a currency with no context or baseline conversion rate. Of course, one can’t convert historical dollars to the current rate of exchange for every reader, but a single benchmark (like 1980 dollars) can be used to place all such values in a single, more understandable, context. Then each reader can look up one exchange rate (1980 to reader-present) and have a better idea what a $1/day wage would really mean.
There are several other lack-of-scaling issues, like discussing the growth of various things in growth-rate or absolute numbers without the context of the size or growth of other related things. Like discussing the growth in the communist party without comparing it to the size or growth of other political parties. There were a few other cases where numbers where presented, but I had to bookmark the passage and later search the web for the context required to fully understand the meaning of the number.
The orthodox retelling in these books leaves out a lot of interesting aspects of US history. This history seems a bit sterile, deemphasizing the nastier bits of US history, leaving out much of the mechanics of real US democracy. The books also don’t explore the various cycles of US history (religiosity, nationalism, conservatism, isolationism, etc.) nor does it closely examine the major slow, yet steady, flows of US history (literacy, voting rights, technology, agriculture, transportation, etc.)
The narration is very good without being especially remarkable. The narrator is very clear and pleasant to listen to and he does his best to add life to somewhat lifeless text.
This book is excellent at being what it is, and is well worth the listen for anyone unfamiliar with the basics of the conventional telling of US history (which every US resident should know). Yet, this book did not deliver what I had hoped, an exploration of “The American Experience”.
The book starts with the constitutional convention, and Burns focuses on describing the framers, and their political motives and ideas. The sections about political theory are very interesting. However, he also analyzes each of the framers as 'leaders'. Unfortunately,his leadership analysis of each is so cursory as to seem superficial.
From 1830-1900 he pretty much ignores presidents and great senators. Instead he focuses heavily on the social woes of the US as well as captains of industry, artists, and especially authors like Whitman and Emerson.
In the 20th century, he covers great liberal leaders like Teddy, Wilson (he loves Professor Wilson), FDR, Kennedy, LBJ and MLK. His analysis of the first three is long enough for him to properly convey his leadership ideas. He also mocks late 20th century society culture - movies, sports, tv, and radio and he mourns the decline of literature, newspapers, liberalism, intellectuals...
Burns has an unusual, interesting take on American history and presidents. I thought that some chapters were too critical of American society to be interesting. But I enjoyed most of it.