Top critical review
Indisputable whopper errors of fact, arguable whopper errors of interpretation
Reviewed in the United States on October 14, 2018
A nightmare of whopper errors of fact plus errors of interpretation
This book has been heavily touted.
That makes it all the more disconcerting to see an error as early as page 8 and a whopper to boot.
(Update, Feb. 17, 2020: I appear to have picked up a Junebug in comments, who, despite having only reviewed one nonfiction book in their last 50 or so reviews over the last 3-4 years, is apparently buns-hurt or something that I don't like this book as story.
The bad pun of "story" inside the word "history" aside, history as a story, if it's done right, starts with proven facts in evidence. When an empirical item has more than one interpretation [such as whether or not a paleoastronomy pictograph at Chaco represents the Crab Nebula supernova] history done right works with the most reasonable interpretation of said item. In linking empirical items, plus a priori items like correct dates, together, it then when done right works to offer the most reasonable interpretation of why events happened. Junebug, when asked, has not demonstrated where my demonstration of Lepore getting empirical evidence and a priori data like calendar dates incorrect is wrong. Nor other things.
Other than his buns-hurt-ness over me not liking this as a story, comparable to the novels he likes, he may have some desire for having the last word. Well ... )
Indeed, beyond that as representative of numerous errors of fact, there’s numerous arguable errors of interpretation, and dubious decisions what to contain and what to omit.
Behind THAT, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, as far as I can tell, there’s no “there” there.
With that, let’s dig in.
Page 8: No, pre-Columbian American Indians did NOT herd pigs because there were none in the New World!
18: Contra Lepore, plenty of plants went from New World to Old, and quickly became common parts of Old World diets. Tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and chiles are the obvious ones.
33: Kind-of sort-of on the Virginia Colony. Its original grant went to today’s Canadian border on the coast; a reformulation in 1609 changed that. Hence the worries of the Separtists fears of settling in Plimouth in 1620, even though they had no charter from the crown for anywhere.
By page 45 or so, I realized that I would find little to nothing in the book in the way of facts that were new to me.
So, I started skipping and grokking. (Flame me, those who will.)
116ff. Ignores larger background of Shays Rebellion, and issues related to this in the Washington Administration, ie, the promissory notes for land offered to veterans, speculation on them and repurchase, etc.
145: America had political factions, and alliances, of various sorts long before federalists and anti-federalists. And the Founders knew that. 1790s newspapers did not spring parties into being, and the Founders should have known that.
World War I take? Wasting pages on Germany being criticized by fundamentalists for higher criticism, and making that the intro to Bryan and Scopes, with almost zero coverage of the controversy over entry into the war itself, and Bryan’s time as Secretary of State? Horrible. As for Wilson’s health, he arguably had at least one mild-moderate stroke, and more than one mini-strokes or TIAs, a few years before the War.
242: Polk couldn’t have “wanted to acquire Florida,” as the U.S. had acquired it all by 1821
242: Russia had renounced its Oregon claims by the time Polk became President. Spain had in the Adams-Onis treaty sidebars, and thus, any later Mexican claims (contra Lepore, there surely weren’t) would be rejected by the US anyway.
250: No, the Mexican War boundary line did NOT end up at the 36th parallel of latitude after Polk allegedly gave up on seeking the 26th parallel. El Paso is at the 32nd parallel. The Mexico-California border is approximately 32°30’. Also, I’ve never seen claims that Polk wanted Mexico down to the 26th parallel. Indeed, Polk even specifically mentions the 32nd parallel in his December, 1847 State of the Union. (I'll put a URL in comments, because AMAZON!)
(I jumped back here after moving ahead to WWI, as she said little about Spanish settlement in today’s Southwest. She had little more on New Mexico of wartime Mexico’s possession.)
Even worse, on her Polk land-seeking claims, this heavily footnoted book had NO footnotes.
406: No, most the world did NOT support “free trade” before WWI.
408: No, the 1924 immigration bill did not make immigrant proportional to current (of that time) population. It went back to the ethnic numbers of the 1890 Census.
410: I see no need to put “illegal alien” in scare quotes after first reference.
450: Doesn’t mention FDR playing a behind-the-scenes role in the defeat of Upton Sinclair. Doesn’t even mention that he refused to publicly endorse him. Doesn’t mention that he tried to get Sinclair to drop out and that support was offered to GOP incumbent Merriam when he refused.
452: No, the American PR factory was not democracy’s answer to fascism. In the US, it goes back at least as far as Teddy Roosevelt. And LePore even mentions Emil Hurja’s pre-1933 work. David Greenberg has the correct answers on all of this in “Republic of Spin." (I'll put a URL in comments, because AMAZON!)
548: AFL-CIO (and big biz) opposed Truman’s national health care plan, not just AMA. The unions saw health insurance as a recruiting tool.
717: Given that Bush v Gore was the apotheosis of a further rightward shift of the Supreme Court, it gets short shrift.
Basically, after I got a little way into the book, I began wondering what her intended audience was, and what her angle was. I had in mind something like Howard Zinn’s book. Zinn had several errors of interpretation, but he had an interpretive focus.
With LePore, as noted, it seems to be no “there” there, per Gertrude Stein. Yes, she goes intellectual with the extended references to John Locke. Yes, she goes deep history with several pages about Magna Carta (without telling you it was honored by English kings more in the breach than the observance up to the time of Charles I).
Then I realized: Her target audience is readers of the New Yorker plus non-social science batchelor’s level Harvard grads or something like that. Socially liberal — the repeated las Casas references as an example — but not economically leftist or close.
Wikipedia says: She has said, "History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence".
I’m still not sure what argument she was trying to make in the whole book. I eventually grew tired of trying to figure it out.
I did learn tidbits and things, and learn enough about Lepore's writing, not to one-star it. Plus, I thought a two-star review would be less easily dismissed. That is, until Amazon being Amazon refused to accept the initial review because it had URLs in the body of the review.
So, Amazon, one-starred it here because of THAT!