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About the Author
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A Herculean treatise is made readable by American Heritage in its presentation of a detailed, accurate, and fascinating account of five hundred years of American history. Professor Brinkley's lucid writing and wit make this an outstanding publication for botht the history buff and the scholar alike. This worthwhile volume will be a welcome edition to all the bookshelves of all Americans fascinated with history or simply interested into how we evolved in to the society we are today.
Douglas Brinkley has turned out the best of the recent decades' one - volume histories of the United States. His keen eye and facile pen paint with a lucid narrative style a stunning portrait of our country. This is a history that captures and holds the attention with engrossing detail. Thus it is not only a fascinating volume but an important educational edition to the American chronicle.
On Tuesday, December 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Douglas Brinkley to discuss AMERICAN HERITAGE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.
Moderator: Welcome, Douglas Brinkley! We are honored you could join us tonight to discuss your stunning new book, AMERICAN HERITAGE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. Do you have any opening comments for our online audience tonight?
Douglas Brinkley: Good evening.
Steven from Denver, CO: Can you pinpoint when your own passion for American history began?
Douglas Brinkley: Yes. My mother and father were both high school teachers. My mom taught English and my father social studies. They were off three months each summer, and we would take our 24-foot couchment trailer and hitch it to our station wagon and visit our great national parks and historic sights, ranging from Jefferson's Monticello to Twain's Hannibal to Steinbeck's Salinas. By traveling across the country, I got the history bug and started reading biographies of American figures and taking the study of our nation's past seriously. I was one of those people that when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, I was a history major, and knew I wanted to make a career of studying American history. I never had, thank God, career anxiety!
Seth from Austin, TX: What key aspects of our nation's history shaped your argument that economic dynamism is the engine driving our political and social lives in the U.S.? Thanks, Mr. Brinkley. Really enjoying your book.
Douglas Brinkley: It is difficult putting the whole history of the U.S. between two covers. I had to ask myself what is the motor that makes America run, and the answer, after much pondering, was really a quotation from the Dutch historian Hendrik Van Loon, who once observed that "the history of the world is the record of a man in quest of his daily bread and butter." The history of our country is one of people moving here to try to have a better life, and the negative aspects I deal with -- for example, slavery -- were a direct result of perceived economic necessity, in this case by the planters of the Deep South. Likewise, the extermination of many indigenous peoples for the building of the railroads was all economically motivated. This economic dynamism I talk about in my book is often uplifting, but often at times it leaves a corrosive legacy, such as the institution of slavery.
Bruce from Columbus, OH: Did you envision your book being used as a school textbook? I am a teacher and would like to check it out.
Douglas Brinkley: I think it would be a wonderful book to use in classrooms, anywhere between, say seventh grade to freshman in college. It is an adult book, but yet, due to the number of illustrations and my attempts at making my prose very readable, it is a good way to make young people very excited about studying our nation's past.
Reed from Wilmington, DE: Just curious: How does one approach writing a book of this magnitude? Did you first outline all the events and people you would include? Did you need to do much original research to put this together? Thanks.
Douglas Brinkley: I teach American history at the University of New Orleans, and over the years I have tried to write good, solid lectures for my survey classes of U.S. history. The building blocks of this book were the lectures I have delivered over the last ten years, but I had to do all sorts of original research, and I had to really get acquainted with some decades in U.S. history that I was not so knowledgeable about. For example, I am proudest of Chapters 4 and 5 because they deal with the making of the U.S. Constitution. I wanted to write it in an exciting, dramatic, and readable fashion. I remember as a schoolboy I used to be bored by THE FEDERALIST PAPERS and Alexander Hamilton, but I think I was able in those chapters to make that period come alive.
Vernon from Blacksburg, VA: With the Clinton impeachment trial looming -- what do you think the Founding Fathers would think? Have we gone too far, and do you think we will need to amend the Constitution after this?
Douglas Brinkley: There is no need to amend the Constitution, but I do think that the impeachment crisis that our country is in is quite problematic. "Impeachment" is a political word. It is up to the politicians of any era to determine what is "high crimes and misdemeanors." In this conservative decade, many congressmen have a puritanical view of sex and promote their own moral agenda at the expense of others. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, lied repeatedly to the American people. This may not be impeachable -- but it is reprehensible and wrong. The good news is that the 1990s has been a marvelous decade for many Americans. Beginning in 1989, the U.S. stopped making nuclear weapons. Democracy is on the rise globally, and the U.S. economy is perhaps the strongest it has ever been. Although we still have many social ills -- AIDS, high crimes, racism -- we can be proud that in this century America has beaten back kaiserism, communism, fascism, and Jim Crow.
Janet from Chicago, IL: How are the descendants of some of our nation's prominent families measuring up (such as the Kennedys, Rockefellers, Jacksons, and Fords)?
Douglas Brinkley: I write in my book a great deal about certain U.S. families that have had a profound impact on our society. In particular the Adams family, which produced John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, and Henry Adams. I urge everybody out there to read THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS. It is a true American classic and the perfect book to read as we approach the next millennium. The other family I write a great deal about are the Roosevelts. Theodore Roosevelt in particular is an extraordinary fellow. He was a brilliant writer, naturalist, explorer, and Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Our entire national park system and the notion of modern conservation is a direct legacy of his efforts. Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president of this century. Elected four times by the people, he combated the Great Depression with his various New Deal Programs and served as commander-in-chief in the Second World War. Eleanor Roosevelt was the greatest First Lady in U.S. history. This month, December 1998, marks the 50th anniversary of her United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. She taught an entire generation the importance of global democracy and social justice.
Rachel from San Francisco, CA: What is the most exciting decade of U.S. history to you and why? What is your current academic speciality?
Douglas Brinkley: I am by training a cold war historian, which is U.S. history since 1945. I have written biographies of President Jimmy Carter, Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, and others. I am currently editing Jack Kerouac's diaries for Viking Press, and I have edited the letters of Hunter S. Thompson. My mission as a scholar is to understand all aspects of American life in the 20th century. Therefore, when I lecture on the 1950s, I take Dwight Eisenhower as seriously as Elvis Presley, Joseph McCarthy as seriously as Rosa Parks. I have a very American studies-like approach to teaching. My favorite decade is probably the 1920s and 1930s, probably because I love the fiction of that era. My favorite novelists are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. My candidate for the most significant poem in the 20th century is not T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" but Hart Crane's "Brooklyn Bridge." Eliot spoke of the destruction, nihilism, and despair of the modern condition. Crane spoke in more optimistic terms about our journey through a consumer-oriented age. If you haven't read Hart Crane, you really should.
Jennifer from San Francisco, CA: How can we get kids in high school or on an introductory college level excited about U.S. history? Why is history important for them? Or is history important at all?
Douglas Brinkley: Every year I take high school and college students on my "Magic Bus." We travel the country, reading classic history texts and novels, camp in our great parks, like Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains, meet with writers like Toni Morrison and Arthur Miller. We build a Habitat for Humanity house with President Jimmy Carter and spend evenings with music legends like Chuck Berry, Waylon Jennings, and Bob Dylan. this is my attempt as a lone professor to get students interested in the joyous aspects of history. Somehow teachers have to learn to make the teaching of history exciting and fun -- not mundane drudgery. There is no easy formula, but for my money, a teacher's enthusiasm will be contagious.
Ned Deary from Pittsburgh, PA: Who would you say would be three of the most influential people in American history in the last century?
Douglas Brinkley: Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Roosevelt, and Henry Ford. I must add a fourth -- Thomas Edison. I have learned that industrialists and novelists are sometimes more important than Presidents.
Paul from New York: How long does this type of textbook take to write and publish? Did it seem an endless project?
Douglas Brinkley: Yes, Paul! It seemed endless. I prayed for the day I would be finished. In the process I have developed acute sinus infections and severe fatigue, but I am glad I went through the experience. I am very proud of this book. Now it is your turn to go shell out 50 bucks for it! Just kidding! It took me three years of monkish solitude to finish this opus.
Ken Marshall from Baltimore, MD: What has been your most rewarding experiencing working as the biographer for President Carter? Will you be writing another book on him after he has passed away that contains any new information on his Presidency? I really enjoyed your book THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY.
Douglas Brinkley: Thank you for the kind words about THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY. I will be writing a full-length biography of Carter in the near future. My most memorable experience with President Carter was our journey to Haiti. I went with President Carter, Colin Powell, and Sam Nunn in 1994. I was with President Carter in a village in Haiti where everyone had AIDS. I watched him hold, kiss, and nurture people with this fatal disease, and it left an indelible impression on me. At times, President Carter behaves in a sanctimonious fashion, but that afternoon in Haiti, I saw him as a Christian missionary in the best sense of the phrase. He is different than other politicians. He truly cares about the poorest people on the planet.
Dale from Boston, MA: The Founding Fathers of our country -- including Washington and Jefferson -- were not necessarily strong orators. Today, because of the influence of television, there is no chance someone could be elected to public office without strong public speaking skills. When do you see public speaking as taking a crucial role in elections, and what effect has this had?
Douglas Brinkley: That is a very good question, Dale. I think that the turning point occurred with Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, when he used his Fireside Chats to communicate with the public. Ever since then, mastering radio and television has been the key aspect to winning the White House. Ronald Reagan proved how important communicating through television was for getting elected. Keep this statistic in mind -- that by 1965, 90 percent of the American people had televisions.
Patrick from Columbus,OH: What would you say was the most defining moment in this century for our country?
Douglas Brinkley: The election of Franklin Roosevelt to the White House in 1932. Roosevelt was an optimist whose leadership saved this country through the harrowing Great Depression years. He beat back any number of demagogues and charlatans to keep our democratic/capitalist system together.
Emily from Atlanta, GA: What are a few events that you couldn't cover in your book that you wished you could have included? People you missed? I thumbed through it last weekend in a bookstore and think you did an excellent job at hitting the most important points. I really admire your work as a historian. Thanks.
Douglas Brinkley: I would have liked to have the opportunity to have written more about American writers like William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. I also wish I could have written about the history of American painting. But by sticking to my general premise of economic dynamism, I was forced to forgo such delightful artistic eddies in favor of bigger events and crises. I also love the history of American folk figures and wish I could have told you about the real Johnny Appleseed, Mike Fink, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone. As corny as it might seem, all four of those men were boyhood heroes of mine.
Toni W. from St. Louis, MO: How does it feel to get such a great recommendation from the likes of a talented newsman like Walter Cronkite?
Douglas Brinkley: Toni -- stop reading the dust jacket and start reading the text! In truth, it was a great honor to have Walter Cronkite call this the best of the recent one-volume histories of the United States.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Douglas Brinkley. Do you have any final words you'd like to leave your online audience with?
Douglas Brinkley: I hope that you find my HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES an enjoyable read and have a wonderful holiday season. If any of you are ever down in New Orleans, give me a call and we will have a cup of coffee. I am Director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, and if you want to hear a perfect song which captures the lonely essence of America, listen to Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A well-illustrated and readable history of the United States, largely organized around Presidential politics. There were few revelations in the standard account, but it was interesting to read all the way through the history, and to pick up a few facts about obscure areas of history, like the Gilded Age and the robber barons.