The complex, irrepressible American spirit

Gordon S. Wood has written a perceptive review of Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 by Walter A. McDougall. Wood begins:

This unusual book by Walter A. McDougall is the first of what will be a three-volume history of America. If this volume, which covers the period 1585 to 1828, is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves.

Wood’s review discusses McDougall’s thesis: “We Americans, he claims, are a nation of people on the make.” McDougall does this without celebration or condemnation according to Wood, but rather as simply the truth.

Wood praises McDougall’s style and research:

Despite his emphasis on greed, trickery and hustling, however, McDougall aims to write a comprehensive history of early America, and he succeeds to a remarkable extent. All the major events are covered and many minor events as well. In fact, he seems to have missed nothing of importance; he even takes the time to describe the ways wool was woven, leather was tanned, tobacco was produced and cotton was processed. Because he wants to ensure that his ”new history” will give to every region and state the attention it deserves, he has included four- or five-page descriptions of states admitted to the union after the original 13, each set apart in a highlighted portion of text. But naturally much of his narrative focuses on individuals, and he demonstrates an unusual ability to sum them up in a few well-chosen sentences. His beautifully produced vignettes include not only the major figures like Hamilton and Jefferson, but also lesser ones like Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Eli Whitney and ”a true American hustler,” Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Together with the prose, which is fast-paced and full of shrewd judgments, what is most impressive about McDougall’s narrative is the range of sources he has used. …

The title is from Bob Dylan’s Jokerman, of course.