A Work of Godly Ambition; Death or Glory: The American Civil War, the First Modern, Industrialised Conflict, Killed More Americans Than Both World Wars Combined

Article excerpt

Byline: DOMINIC SANDBROOK

AMERICA, EMPIRE OF LIBERTY: A NEW HISTORY by David Reynolds (Allen Lane, [pounds sterling]30)

WITH the canonisation sorry, inauguration of St Barack just a week away, media interest in all things American has rarely been greater. The Cambridge professor David Reynolds's new history of the United States, based on his gargantuan 90-part series for Radio 4, therefore seems perfectly timed although whether it can overcome British readers' famous reluctance to spend their cash on American history is another matter.

As a reading nation, we can never get enough of the Tudors and the Nazis.

But the colourful stories of the American Revolution, the conquest of the West, the Civil War and Prohibition tend to leave us cold, a fact often forgotten by BBC programmers who imagine that other people are as obsessed with America as they are.

For people who know little about the history of the Great Republic, Reynolds's vast survey, which stretches from Christopher Columbus to Barack Obama and John McCain, makes a very decent introduction. All the familiar and dramatic moments are there, from the Pilgrim Fathers and Wolfe at Quebec to the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate scandal, but Reynolds also explores territory less well known to British readers: the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Civil War era, the vicious battles between capital and labour at the end of the 19th century, the national paranoia about the Sputnik satellite in the 1950s.

At the very least, the book is a gigantic refutation of the old canard that Americans have no history, and Reynolds's narratives of major events such as the Civil War the first modern, industrialised conflict, and one that killed more Americans than both world wars combined are briskly and judiciously handled. And no matter how much you already know about such characters as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, they remain some of modern history's most compelling historical personalities. …