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Official History

October 29, 2007, 2:23 am

So, Oxford UP has finally published Dan Howe’s opus, on the years 1815-1848, in its quasi-definitive “History of the United States” series. And the luminaries are already lining up to review the massive thing. Although “What Hath God Wrought” is pretty darn good, at least the first 200ish pages I read last night, the best part about the book is its own literary history. Howe took so long filling this gap in the Oxford series because he wasn’t supposed to in the first place. Charles Sellers originally had the commission. But when Sellers submitted “The Market Revolution” to C. Vann Woodward, then the series editor, Vann Woodward rejected it because it offended his delicate sensibilities (too many pages devoted to masturbation). Oxford published “Market Revolution” anyway, and it became a runaway hit — though many readers (okay, maybe just me) clamored for more not less sex.

Howe, meanwhile, has written a book short on onanism — though it’s length suggests self-love — but long on everything else. It is yet another magisterial history of the period, and it fits nicely with the other huge Oxford histories. It is also remarkably contentious, though always in a mannered sort of way. Howe never uses the phrase “market revolution,” a rather pointed ommission, and suggests that capitalism’s spread did much good along with the harm Sellers documented more than a decade ago. Most informed readers will greet such arguments with a “duh.” Which raises a question: when do we have enough histories of a period? When is it time to stop? The answer, I guess, is when we get it right. But with the publication of “What Hath God Wrought,” hot on the heels of Sean Wilentz’s “Rise of American Democracy,” I have to say that I’ve read enough about Andy Jackson for a lifetime. I’m not sure either Wilentz or Howe have got it right. But I do think it’s time to stop. At least for now.

Update: And here’s another question: can you think of anything that would suck worse than working on a book, say “What Hath God Wrought,” for, um, a really really long time, and then, just as you’re about to publish your masterpiece, having another author scoop you? I’m not saying that Wilentz pwned Howe. They wrote very different books. But probably not different enough to satisfy the Bancroft committee. Maybe Howe will win a Pulitzer. That would show Wilentz.

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