The Oxford History of the United States series (to which magna opera such as McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty belong) marks its latest installment, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford, $35). The volume begins with the funeral of Lincoln—compared to whom the presidents that follow are disappointing in all but their facial hair—and continues through the 1876 election. A Stanford historian of Native Americans and the American West, Richard White deftly dismantles the stock cutouts of lone robber barons that have long populated this “historical flyover country.” With lively prose, ambitious scope, and an all-too keen sense of irony, he gives us a vivid depiction of an age of contradictions. White considers Reconstruction and the Gilded Age to have “gestated together” on sublime post-Civil War ideals, both quickly scaled back “to the unforgiving metrics of recalcitrant reality.” With balanced, tenderly evoked portraits of the “uncommon men and women,” the dizzying spin of technological progress, political corruption, immigration, urbanization, Westward expansion, crusading causes, economic inequality, and high-minded hope, are brought to a pace at which we can make out the foundations of the similarly complex epoch we now inhabit.
A rightfully monumental biography, Ron Chernow‘s Grant (Penguin Press, $40) is a finely crafted portrait of a complex man. Chernow, awarded the Pulitzer for his life of George Washington, details the life of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant by exploring the underbelly of military success. He starts by exposing Grant’s vulnerabilities, which figured in the future commander-in-chief’s memoirs as the modest ambitions of a young soldier at West Point. Suspecting he lacked the skill to succeed as a warrior, Grant was nonetheless determined to lead and command. He studied hard. Became a skilled equestrian, developed strong mapping skills, and eventually proved himself on the battlefield, despite skepticism from journalists and fellow soldiers who were aware of Grant’s struggle with alcoholism. Chernow also illuminates much about Grant’s staunch criticism of slavery, his resignation from the army, his newly formed political awakenings, and infamous financial problems. Later, as the eighteenth president, Grant emerges from the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination and his own scandals as “America’s most famous man” who, as Mark Twain notes, “saved the country from destruction.” Prepare to be deeply immersed in this account of an immortal American life.
Editor, biographer, and storyteller Michael Korda has a very particular set of skills, and they are all masterfully employed in Alone: Britain, Churchill and Dunkirk, Defeat into Victory (Liveright, $29.95). Merging history with memoir, Korda expertly weaves the events of May 1940 with the dramatic effect they had on his family. The rise of Winston Churchill, the German war machine marching across Europe, and the unprecedented, inspiring rescue of allied soldiers at Dunkirk are all here, humanized by the author’s own memories of his famous movie-industry family and his escape from London as a child. Compellingly and comprehensively written, peppered with pictures and maps, Korda’s book takes an immense, seminal, and now mythic event and makes it live again from both a global and a personal perspective.