If there was a subject I loved in school as much as literature, it was history. I had good teachers for both subjects, but one history teacher really stood out – my high school American history teacher. A graduate of Purdue, she faced down her classes in an all-boys public high school with wit and iron. All American history classes were required to spend six weeks on communism (this was the Cold war period), and the text most history teachers used was Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and Hot to Fight It by none other than J. Edgar Hoover. It was the strongly suggested but not mandatory text.
My teacher said if we wanted to understand communism, we had to go to the source. Our class used Das Kapital by Karl Marx. After the first few pages, we understood that before it did anything else, communism was likely to bore you to death, or at least reading about it would. But the teacher supplemented our readings with lectures that explained the differences between capitalism, communism and socialism. It may not have been as exciting as the Hoover book, but we learned what the systems were and why they clashed.
In college, I took the two required semesters of American history. We had large lecture classes, with the professor utilizing several graduate students as graders and essay readers. Our textbook was the two-volume History of the United States edited by T. Harry Williams (1909-1979), the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Huey Long, chairman of my university’s history department, a renowned Civil War historian, and the professor who taught the most highly sought after course on the entire campus – “The History of the Civil War.” During my four years there, the university was known for its football team and its history department.
In 1980, Howard Zinn (1922-2010) published A People’s History of the United States, likely the most influential history textbook of the part 40 years. A young people’s version was published in 2007. Forty years after publication, it remains a bestseller, used in many universities and high schools. It is also a Marxist interpretation of American history. More recently, The New York Times began to promote another alternative (and controversial) view of American history, the 1619 Project. (It should be noted that both the Times and the project’s author have dialed back some of the earlier statements they made about it.)
More than a few of us are wondering what happened to American history. And some are asking, is it possible to write and publish an American history textbook that addresses controversial aspects of U.S. history yet still retains a sense of why and how this country was founded?
Wilfred McClay, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, has answered that question in the affirmative. His Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story shows that it is indeed possible to tell the remarkable story of the United States and fairly address the failures, shortcomings, and tragedies that people experienced during the colonial period, the founding of the new republic, and the history of the country since that founding as a federal republic in 1787.
McClay doesn’t gloss over the “difficult subjects.” He’s telling a story, perhaps the story, of the United States, and that story includes barbaric treatment of native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and an often-rapacious capitalist economy whose excesses had (and have) to reined in. His point is that, with all of its failures and shortcomings, the United States has remained a “land of hope” for the world at large. He doesn’t paint a rose-colored view; instead, he tells a story that is both familiar and scrupulously fair.
As he says in the boo’s epilogue, McClay sees this history as “a contribution to the making of American citizens. As such, it is a patriotic endeavor as well as a scholarly one.” There is much to cherish and celebrate in American history, he says, but that doesn’t mean it’s an uncritical celebration of the good and the best and the ignoring of the bad and the worst. Both conditions exist in U.S. history and America today; to ignore either is to fall prey to a false, shallow patriotism or a destructive (and unfounded) Jacobin sentiment to “tear it all down.”
Land of Hope is a much-needed book at a time when reasoned thought and understanding have been reduced to caricatures at the extremes. My high school American history teacher would have liked it.