For anyone interested in history, the physical traces of the past, especially historical places, hold a special fascination. Whether it is a battlefield or the home of a notable American, there is no question that we understand the past in a different and more immediate way when we encounter it "on the ground."
In American Places, more than two dozen of America's most gifted historians write about their own encounters with historic places, bringing a personal viewpoint to bear on a wide variety of sites, ranging from Monticello to Fenway Park. Here James M. McPherson writes about the battlefield of Gettysburg, and how walking the ground of Pickett's Charge inspired one of his books. Kevin Starr visits the Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood and finds many of the flavors of California history there. Joel Williamson takes a bemused tour of Elvis Presley's Graceland, and David Kennedy tells the story of the "Pig War" of San Juan Island, where a spat between Britain and America over a speck of land in the Pacific helped determine the shape of the U.S. and Canada. William Freehling compares two places, Charleston's Battery and New Orleans' Jackson Square, showing how each reveals the different spirit of the society that created it. And Edward Ayers talks about spending time in Cyberspace, U.S.A., a virtual place that has much in common with the America visited by Alexis de Tocqueville a century and a half ago. Other pieces include Robert Dallek on the FDR Memorial, David Hackett Fischer on the Boston Common, and William Leuchtenburg on his native borough of Queens.
American Places celebrates the career of Sheldon Meyer, who over his years at Oxford University Press has published some of our most distinguished historians, including many Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize winners, virtually all of whom have contributed to this volume.
Several years ago, one of America's most eminent academic historians had an unusual idea: to honor the publisher of the Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer, by assembling a volume of essays written by Meyer's protégées. This would be a frank exercise in mutual adoration, but because nearly all of the contributors were winners of the most prestigious prizes in the profession the book would be certain to draw attention and critical acclaim. Professor Leuchtenburg thereupon invited each historian to choose and describe some particular place where history comes alive to him. The result is a book that is somewhat offbeat, but decidedly interesting. Given their heads, Leuchtenburg's historians responded with a wide spectrum of personal choices, some of them staid and proper, and others quirky. It would hardly be surprising, for example, to find that a scholar would choose Monticello, the Boston Common, or Gettysburg to be living icons of American history. However, there were others, much less respectful of academic tradition, who went for places like Fenway Park, Queens, and even the Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. One maverick soul made a brave, but not quite convincing, pitch for Graceland, and another found his historical locus in cyberspace. Nearly all history professionals have the knack of making just about anything seem interesting, and most of these 29 writers lived up to the challenge. The book certainly has no structure and in places the writing is uneven; a couple of the essays are obsequious, but others are virtual gems. In most of them, the casual reader cannot help but discover numerous fascinating tidbits about his country and its past. History teachers who have imaginationwill be able to use this book with immense profit. Category: History & Geography. KLIATT Codes: SA Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Oxford Univ. Press, 398p. illus. notes., ; Historian, Edwards Air Force Base, CA