Explores problems of community and the search for a national identity. Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize.
Boorstin is a delight to read, a genuine polymath whose wide-ranging interests and love of learning show up on every page. --John J. Miller
History books which have bored me have relied excessively on the indiscriminate accumulation of detail. While this obsessive desire to be thorough might be necessary for the education of students, quantity of detail alone fails to give the complete, balanced view of reality that I look for in all kinds of reading. One reason I like Boorstin is that he writes narrative history, favoring theme over chronology, thus allowing the continuities and significance of history to emerge. His American story comprises many smaller stories. What I thought were signs of the times often turned out to be peculiarly American characteristics.
Boorstin writes, for example, that government paid for railroads and colleges in order to serve the growing community. Spencer's dichotomy of "The Man Versus the State" in 19th century Europe was meaningless in 19th Century America because distinctions such as public and private were often blurred. It is fitting that Boorstin divided his book into "Community" and "Nationality" because community preceded government. Contrary to the myth of the rugged individual explorer, Americans traveled in groups. Settlers who headed west, regardless of motive, wrote their own Mayflower Compact before loading the wagons. Venturing into lawless areas, they formed laws for their protection. Even vigilantism was a way of maintaining order rather than flaunting it.
The second half of the book examines vagueness as a source of strength. The country grew and prospered before its geographical boundaries had been explored. Here are also passages on American ways of talking, the creation of myths and legends, the establishment of the national holiday, and the importance of political parties.
Nearly every page of Boorstin's history contains some nugget of Americana which in isolation appears to be trivial but in historical context emerges to reveal something profound about American life.
I find Boorstin's works very readable, and the style enjoyable. My only concern is that sometimes it seems that some complexities are ignored in favor of developing an overall theme. However, this remains one of very few histories I pick up for fun to read a few chapters.
I also found it amusing when he exploded some common myths concerning our history. You really should read this book.