Book review: A Little History Of The United States

A map of the US drawn in the 19th century that charts the north-south divide during the civil war. Picture: Ian Rutherford

A map of the US drawn in the 19th century that charts the north-south divide during the civil war. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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IS IT possible to write an entirely apolitical history of a nation? Even if you were to avoid all the potential pitfalls inherent in writing prose and simply come up with a list of key dates, wouldn’t your choices and omissions inevitably betray your political beliefs and prejudices?

A Little History Of The United States | James West Davidson | Yale University Press, £14.99

James West Davidson never claims that his Little History Of The United States is intended as an impartial account, but for the most part it is scrupulously inoffensive. That’s not to say that it’s bland, however. In common with all the best historians, Davidson has a keen eye for telling details and anecdotes, and – as you’d expect of an attempt to cram 500 years of history into 300 pages – his account rattles along at a breathless pace.

Blasting through time at such speed leaves little room for nuance, but it does have its advantages in terms of understanding how momentous events are often the product of very gradual processes. For example, Davidson is careful to emphasise the pronounced social and economic differences between northern and southern states early on in his narrative, and returns to this theme often, so by the time we arrive at the Civil War it feels like the almost inevitable consequence of everything that has come before.

Some readers may feel that women or African-Americans are under-represented, and perhaps they are, but given the space restrictions Davidson has to contend with it seems a little churlish to criticise him for failing to explore certain things in enough depth. You could equally say that the Cuban Missile Crisis deserves more than the five pages it gets, that the New Deal deserves more than four, or that the discovery of man-made climate change deserves more than one.

Plenty of far more challenging histories of America have been written – former Edinburgh University professor Victor Kiernan’s 1978 analysis of American imperialism, re-issued earlier this month by Zed Books, is just one example. As a very readable rattle through the basic facts of a remarkable story, though, this Little History is hard to beat. n

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