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The Glory and the Dream

After what feels like ages, I’ve finished my audiobook of William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream.  Manchester, for those of you living under a history rock, is the author of a terrific two part biography of Winston Churchill.  The Glory and the Dream details a subject closer to Manchester’s experience; the social history of America from 1932 to 1972.  So here’s a review.

This book contains a simply gargantuan amount of information.  Too much, almost.  And while the audio-book, significant glitches aside, was wonderfully read, I sort of wish I’d bought a hard copy.  I won’t remember even a tenth of the information he sought to convey.  Still, Manchester has a unique knack of leaving us with vivid impressions.  Twice now, I’ve read his descriptions of the bonus marchers (in this, and in American Caesar) and each time I felt something new.  It’s these years- those immediately preceding the war- that Manchester knows best and they leave the greatest impression.  His depiction of depression era life, the fragility of it contrasted with the sturdiness and determination of its people, is breathtaking.  I feel like I know its children and, when they went off to and returned from war, to a country prosperous and whole, I felt I knew their pride.  In terms of creating a vivid sense of a snapshot in time, Manchester is virtually flawless through the 50’s.

The first 2/3’s of The Glory and the Dream are unsurpassed for vision.  And yet…he doesn’t seem as comfortable in the 60’s or, rather, he seems too comfortable.  The big moments don’t seem quite as big, and the small moments- the little narrative vignettes he inserts- seem less emblematic of an era.  He sometimes loses the thread.  Structurally, this is problematic.  The great strength of the Glory and the Dream is in the method of telling.  Rather than proceeding on a straight chronology, Manchester chooses to give a broad survey of political events, and then loop back to zoom in on particular cultural phenomenons.  Davy Crocket and hula hoops make an appearance.  Because of this method, we build our own narrative about the culture without having us drummed into us.  Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, when these vignettes make an appearance, they’re either exclusively political, or they don’t seem to produce any consistent narrative.  Maybe this is what he was driving at, as a way to highlight the muddle of the age.  But, intentional or not, I don’t have any clear sense of how the mass of ordinary Americans behaved during those turbulent times.

And here’s where Manchester’s politics intrude a bit.  It’s strange to note that the biographer of two great conservative heroes, Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur, was a New Deal era Democrat pretty much all his life.  Sometimes this doesn’t matter.  The story of the early civil rights movement sparkles and I can’t help but believe that Manchester’s obvious leanings give the tale some of its sheen.  He’s less persuasive on the development of black militants and upper-class, young hippies.   Now Manchester’s too honest of a historian to leave out the ugly moments, but his focus and occasional commentary is sometimes incredible.  Cops are properly castigated for their occasional abuses, but their sometimes foes are usually let off scotch free.  They’re expressing a fundamental “right to protest”, or they’re reacting somewhat reasonably to centuries of abuse.  Whatever the legitimate grievances- and they were many- of blacks and youth in the late 60s, surely their actual actions deserve a better microscope than that.

We’re treated to, probably in a 50 page span, to a noncommittal description of two random youths copulating in a field without exchanging a word, and then a glorious appraisal of success of the sex education movement.  Manchester says, tellingly, “finally sanity prevailed”.  It never occurs to him that there might some connection between the two incidents.  He’s altogether too inclined to trust liberal ideals.  When Barry Goldwater comes around, all Manchester can manage, in praise, is something like “he was right about farm subsidies”.  Some of this is not his fault.  Conservatism, as a force, was still 5-6 years off when this volume hit stores.  Most of its criticisms of the New Deal and the Great Society had yet to bear fruit.  Indeed, one of the remarkable bits about this volume is its failure to anticipate some later developments.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned just 3 times, and his Time for Choosing speech is ignored entirely.  But, this seems like a somewhat understandable oversight  compared to the evaluation of the Cold War.  After recounting the Brezhnev summit in 72′ Manchester says, flatly, “The Cold War was over”.  Well….

Still, despite these flaws, this remains the single best broadly focused history book I’ve read.  Even at its worst, Manchester’s writing scales small mountains.  And he’s preternaturally optimistic and, as far as he can see it, fair.  It’s no small thing for a book published in 1974 to treat Richard Nixon with relative equanimity.  We aren’t given to a rousing psychological analysis designed to prove that, really, he’d been rotten from the start.  Instead, we can rejoice in his successes and mourn and scorn his downfall.  Properly Shakespearean.  Where the book goes wrong, it does so honestly and without malice.  As it should be.

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Categories: Books and a Dream
  1. mac
    October 15, 2009 at 12:56 am

    I’m intrigued; I’ll give it a look. I read The Penguin History of the United States of America by Hugh Brogan this summer and really enjoyed it. Brogan is a predictably liberal Englishman, but like Manchester he is, as far as he can see it, fair.

  2. October 15, 2009 at 10:43 am

    mac,

    If you’re in the mood to read another history of the US anytime soon (hah!), I’d recommend Paul Johnson’s the history of the American People. Johnson’s a kind of conservative.

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