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What to Read Next (No. 177): visions of empire
This week it’s my pleasure to tell you about a couple of very good history books that relate to America’s imperialistic history. The first was actually one of my favorite reads of 2020; it covers the first couple decades of the 20th century, which was the heyday of America’s overseas occupations. The second was a relatively quick and certainly enjoyable read about the history of America’s territories, all the way up to the present day.
One last thing before jumping in: last week I had the pleasure of appearing on Simon Owens’ podcast, The Business of Content. I promise it’s a more exciting interview than the title would suggest. Check it out!
P.S. Don’t forget to email me back and let me know what you’re reading! I love to hear.
A Few Bookish Questions With Daniel James Brown
It’s fair to say that Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above changed my relationship to reading for all time. I was in college and the cover caught my eye at the library. I had always been a reader, but mostly novels, memoirs, and self-help. I was sucked in Brown’s narrative about the Donner party from page one and didn’t look back until I flipped the final page. I had no idea that a history book could be so engaging. I then read Under a Flaming Sky, followed by The Boys in the Boat as soon as it came out. To say I’m excited to have been able to ask Daniel some questions about his reading is an understatement.
I didn’t want to make this email crazy long, so check out that interview here.
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Published: 2013 | Pages: 751
“It was very hard for anybody to be near him without loving him.” —Horace Taft, speaking about his brother, William Howard Taft
As I was making my way through POTUS biographies in the last few years, one of the toughest to find a good book for was William Howard Taft. It was a little surprising, given how dramatic and eventful his life was, not to mention his intense friendship with always-interesting Theodore Roosevelt. But at that point in my reading project it wasn’t entirely unexpected. The number of forgotten presidents is higher than you might expect. So I landed on Doris Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit. I read it nearly a year ago and just recently realized I hadn’t given you the lowdown on one of my favorite reads of 2020.
Though this book functions as a biography of both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, it’s much broader in scope than that. Classic Goodwin move. By weaving in the story of the prominent journalists of the era—Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, etc.—Goodwin ultimately tells the story of the first decade or so of the twentieth century.
The Gilded Age was turning into the Progressive Era, a period of time at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s which shares much in common with today. Goodwin made it clear right in the beginning how relevant this story was: “an immense gulf had opened between the rich and the poor,” the nation “faced a pernicious underlying crisis,” and there was growing distrust between the press and our government’s leaders.
First up in the book is a mini biography of Roosevelt—that dynamic, energizer bunny of a politician. There won’t be much new info for avid armchair historians. Then we encounter Will Taft, the big, likable judge who desired above all else a place on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt and Taft became the closest of friends and confidantes. This was where the narrative really captured my interest—Taft is nearly impossible to dislike.
Along the way, Roosevelt also formed relationships with the investigative journalists of the era—particularly the crew at McClure’s who worked so diligently in bringing down big oil, the meatpacking industry, railroad consolidation, and more. It was the most explicit example of a president and the press working together towards mostly common ends. (And as a writer, it was quite inspiring to read about these reporters who imbued their work with moral purpose and energy.)
But then Roosevelt passes the torch and Taft becomes president. He doesn’t do so hot, to say the least. The big guy just was not suited for the job. His relationship with TR fizzled, the press wasn’t nearly as cozy with him, and the two men lost the 1912 election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Though I’ve read a lot of bits and pieces of Doris Goodwin’s work, this was, believe it or not, the first big book of hers that I read from beginning to end. As I knew I would, I devoured it. The Bully Pulpit is long and the pages are dense with words, but I loved the storytelling. I couldn’t get enough of it. There’s more of this book underlined and notated than anything else I read in 2020—notes which provided inspiration for an article about finding and pursuing what you like.
It takes some endurance and a real love of the subject, but The Bully Pulpit is as rewarding and inspiring as history can get.
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
Published: 2019 | Pages: 401
You’re surely familiar with the basic outline of the United States of America. That classic two-page spread in every atlas stretches from California to New York and includes insets of Hawaii and Alaska. But there are other territories in America’s domain—people our government decides the fate of, but who have no congressional representation, no power to vote, etc. You’ll find millions of people in this category, in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and hundreds of military base installations across the world, which are technically little islands of US territory as well.
It’s a fascinating tidbit of American geography that few people know much about. Why do we have these territories? What’s the history of their relationship to the US government?
Immerwahr tackles that subject in this readable, wide-ranging text that’s not only astonishingly informative, but often sarcastic and amusing too.
He starts at the beginning: from the get-go, the United States had visions of empire, taking and/or warring for land from Native Americans, Great Britain, Spain, and others. We always badly wanted real estate. Once the nation stretched from coast to coast, we didn’t stop. Ultimately, the United States occupied not only the territories mentioned above, but also the Philippines and even Japan for a number of years after World War II. Our national dominion has stretched across the entire world.
Given Theodore Roosevelt’s dreams of empire, he and Taft are given a lot of pages—Taft was even the Governor of the Philippines at one point. FDR features prominently as well; during WWII, the US occupied islands across the world as naval and air bases from which to spring military attacks from.
I can pretty much guarantee you’ll learn something new on every info-packed page. And for being a history book, it’s amazingly readable. I got through its ~350 pages at a much quicker pace than normal for the genre. Immerwahr’s entertaining and style surely helps. How to Hide an Empire is a really fun book for anyone with even a passing interest in US history.
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