The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 was just one big party.
Age is relative. To a ten year old, a twenty-five year old is impossibly aged; to a seventy-five year old, that twenty-five year old is impossibly young. And while 233 may seem like many years when so many of the things we see and own have been around a few decades at most, it is an incredibly small amount of time for a nation to have been around. When you go to Europe, and find yourself standing next to eight hundred year old buildings, you realize how little time we have had.
In Waking Giant, David S. Reynolds writes about the United States from 1815 to 1848, the "Age of Jackson," if you like. Reynolds's point, it seems, is that this was a particularly important time period in American history (though as I note above, when you've been around as little time as we have, you can make a case for any year or decade's importance; every year counts for a four year old). For at least part of this era, you could talk to people who had been born when the US was just a group of colonies, yet at the same time life was changing rapidly, and America was moving closer to the place we recognize now, with qualities that became known as "American," while the world of the 18th century and England was receding rapidly (did that sentence make sense? I'm tired; the show just closed last night. I have a point, I promise).
In 1840, phrenology seemed to explain everything.
During this time period, the executive branch of the government began to exert its strength; the two-party system became entrenched; campaigning for office began in earnest; the number of states almost doubled; the economy crashed and rose again. In literature, art, and theater, a distinct American style began to come clear. Visitors from other countries noted a distinct American character, one filled with optimism, acquisitiveness, energy, and informality--qualities that were both admired and frowned upon. People began to believe in the power of science and technology, embracing new inventions and ideas, even when they made little sense and turned out to be wrong. They embraced new religions just as eagerly, with an endless number of sects, cults, and utopian communities springing to life and then failing, when their extremism proved unsustainable.
This is an extremely informative, easy to read book. It's filled with entertaining little facts (my favorite--did you know that Amana, the appliance manufacturer, rose from the very industrious Community of Inspirationists, a religous group that settled in Amana, Iowa? They believed in celibacy, which helped them get a lot of work done, but isn't a recipe for the long-term). Therefore, I feel it's deeply unfair of me to criticize a book for only being what it is intended to be, and that is an overview. Nevertheless, as I read, I couldn't help but wish that even as this book so admirably fulfills its intent, that it had dared to do a little more.
Now this is truly a terrible, mean wish to have of such an admirably neat book (just an aside on the subject of neat--there are a few weird instances of repeated information, for example, a story about American women representatives being kept away from the main events a London abolition conference is repeated almost verbatim three times. Editors? Anyone? Anyone?). Within 385 pages or so, Reynolds covers the politics, the arts, religion, science, and technology of a 33 year period, and anyone of those subjects would more than fill its own 385 page book (I will mention that there are almost another hundred pages of notes and sources--a list which had me writing down many titles for future reading). This means that the book skims over most topics and summing up very eventful times in a few sentences. However, that means that the topics rarely come to life. As I read, I wished that every so often there would be some primary source material--just a few quotes from eyewitnesses, or people who experienced the events themselves. That's not to say that there aren't any, but the ones that are in there tend to be from the Very Important Person side of things--we hear from Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, even John Tyler (whose presidency seems to be quite underrated, at least in terms of intrigue, infighting, and fun). Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are also quoted extensively. But I would rather have heard from a follower of one of the religious leaders whose practices would have gotten him arrested in just about any time period (really, someone in one of those groups must have written some kind of memoir, testament, or letters). I would have liked to read about someone's experience going to a mesmerist or phrenologist, or about a visit to Barnum's American Museum (if you needed a big name, Henry James actually wrote about going there as a child). The murder of Helen Jewett led to a highly sensational murder trial that transformed newspapers--couldn't there have been a little more from one of these accounts than the one sentence I believe is in the book (apologies if there is more--had to return the book to the library)? Wouldn't it have been nice to have heard about women's rights from someone other than Elizabeth Cady Stanton? I'm not asking the book to expand to 800 pages, but I would have liked to have seen it bring a little more life and experience of the time period into the narrative.
I love reading history books. A good history book tells what happened and what it means; a great one tells those things plus what it was like to be there. Waking Giant falls into the former category, and there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you need to know the what happened and what it means before you can take in any more information. So it's a fine, worthy book, but not a thrilling one, and I always hope for thrilling.
The thing I find most fascinating when I read about history is the idea that the people who were going through that time had no idea whether any moment of their lives would have any future significance, or what would be the eventual meaning of any actions they took. They were just living and there is a certain excitement in knowing that even now, as I sit here writing this and watching the Super Bowl (and apparently in no danger of winning any money from the pool I'm in), whether this moment will be part of history, part of something greater, whether it will acquire meaning. It's unlikely, but a girl can hope, can't she?
I'm telling you, Morse had almost nothing to do with the telegraph. This is a disgrace.