American Places: Encounters with History, A Celebration of Sheldon Meyer

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American Places: Encounters with History, A Celebration of Sheldon Meyer. Edited by WILLIAM E. LEUCHTENBURG. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xviii, 398 pp. $18.95.

I opened the book with a shock; it was a physical sensation, stunning. This doesn't happen with many books I review. In fact, it's never happened before. But William Leuchtenburg's new edited volume, American Places: Encounters with History, brought back the past with startling clarity.

A few weeks before the book was published in 2000, a friend sent me the paperbound galley proof, expecting I would be interested in it. I was, and for the next month I carried the book around, dipping into it whenever I had some spare time, usually reading it as I exercised at the Sewanee gym. Perched on a stationary bike, I moved through Leuchtenburg's engaging preface and the twenty-nine essays that followed. Most were just the right length for an exercise session, and if a chapter was longer or proved particularly engrossing, I might peddle for an extra ten or fifteen minutes. Not many books can actually make me sweat out an extended read, but these pieces were well worth the time and effort. Now, as I opened the review copy of American Places, I found myself recalling my introduction to the essays within and remembered the happy moments of enlightening diversion they afforded.

Anyone who reads much history knows that Oxford University Press offers an excellent list of books on the American past. The authors contributing to this volume have written many of the press's better works, and they are further united by having been recruited and encouraged by Oxford's legendary editor, Sheldon Meyer. With understandable enthusiasm, Leuchtenburg's preface announces "[i]t is doubtful that any other editor in the long history of publishing in the United States has had so large an impact on a field as has Sheldon Meyer on American studies, or so distinguished an array of authors" (p. ix). Six of the books Meyer edited won the Pulitzer Prize, seventeen captured the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history, and most of the authors and many of their titles are as well known and highly regarded by the reading public as they are by professional prize committees. In this spirit of excellence and accessibility, authors who have written for Sheldon Meyer were invited to offer an essay on an American place that captured and held their attention, imagination, or memory, and to explore their own interaction with the site.

Their interpretations of the phrase "American places" turned out to be as various as the authors themselves. …