Review of Behold America

Behold America by Sarah Churchwell, Published by Perseus Books on 9 October 2018

I received a free egalley of this title for review via NetGalley.

This book is so my jam. I have a Master’s in History. At my first committee meeting, one of the members asked for a list of every history class I had taken. Upon furnishing the list, he told me I needed to venture out of the 20th century. I sadly did so in my remaining semesters. BUT I love 20th century American history. I keep returning to it. I think the century is rich in topics to study. I think that this is a great topic because of how timely it is.

The subtitle of this book is “The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream.'” Two phrases that are thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras nowadays. Churchwell examines the origins of these phrases and how they have changed meaning over time as different groups have adopted them and used them. Spoiler–today their usage bears little resemblance to their initial meaning. The concept of “America first” has historically been tied to white nationalist groups. The “American dream” initially had little to do with personal, individual prosperity, but focused on the ability to live a more generous life. Churchwell traces these changes in meaning from their earliest usages in the Gilded Age up through today.

Churchwell takes the perfect approach in her study. She uses the words of ordinary people as opposed to the words of politicians or writers, which better highlights the widespread understanding and meaning of these phrases over time. Their meaning for ordinary people shows why they are used by politicians. Politicians use phrases that either prey on the fears of their followers or inspire them to action. For me, this approach helps make the connection of why politicians keep turning to these phrases. This use of primary source material creates a much stronger basis for her arguments.

Her writing is extremely accessible. I hate wading through incredibly dense histories. Fortunately, though a heavy topic, Churchwell wrote about it in an engaging way. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history or likes reading about current events. I appreciate how she kept tying together the parallels between the past and current events. In order to create a better future for the country, we have to know where we came from.

Bottom line–I really enjoyed this book. It’s the kind of history book I enjoy reading. It’s the kind of history book I went to grad school to write. It’s very informative and it’s very timely. Read it.

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