James MacGregor Burns’s stunning trilogy of American history, spanning the birth of the Constitution to the final days of the Cold War. In these three volumes, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner James MacGregor Burns chronicles with depth and narrative panache the most significant cultural, economic, and political events of American history.
In The Vineyard of Liberty, he combines the color and texture of early American life with meticulous scholarship. Focusing on the tensions leading up to the Civil War, Burns brilliantly shows how Americans became divided over the meaning of Liberty.
In The Workshop of Democracy, Burns explores more than a half-century of dramatic growth and transformation of the American landscape, through the addition of dozens of new states, the shattering tragedy of the First World War, the explosion of industry, and, in the end, the emergence of the United States as a new global power.
And in The Crosswinds of Freedom, Burns offers an articulate and incisive examination of the US during its rise to become the world’s sole superpower - through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the rapid pace of technological change that gave rise to the “American Century.”
©1982 The Vineyard of Liberty copyright 1982 by James MacGregor Burns, The Workshop of Democracy copyright 1985 by James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom copyright 1989 by James MacGregor Burns (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.
American History ABCs
This is really three quite different books, each with its own tone, outlook, and period, and they don’t quite form a coherent whole (but are a bargain at one credit). I found each book better than the prior book, as the author seems more comfortable with the modern era.
The title is a bit deceptive. I expected “The American Experience” to be about, well, the Experience of the people of the United States. Instead this is a very basic, conventional, history of the United States from the constitutional convention (after the War for Independence) up to 1980. Like many other US Histories, this focuses primarily on the presidents, and only tangentially on the historical issues each president faced, and almost not at all on the broader themes and tides of history or the minutia of real people’s lives. The books do cover all the conventional keynotes of US history very well.
The one overarching theme the books does seem to explore the meaning of Liberty, and it seems to conclude this has never been quite clear. Other than that, there is very little analysis or thematic context. Until the last book, almost all analysis is added by quoting other historians (making some point this author chooses to emphasize). This leads to a somewhat namby-pamby, term paper sounding, narrative.
Sporadically some non-political aspects of experience are mentioned (arts, crafts, technology, business, living conditions, religion, science, education, sports, etc.), but these tellings are generally in alignment with the somewhat mythical conventional US history and don’t provide enough context to provide a true slice of life.
I am always annoyed when historical spending or wages are quoted in a currency with no context or baseline conversion rate. Of course, one can’t convert historical dollars to the current rate of exchange for every reader, but a single benchmark (like 1980 dollars) can be used to place all such values in a single, more understandable, context. Then each reader can look up one exchange rate (1980 to reader-present) and have a better idea what a $1/day wage would really mean.
There are several other lack-of-scaling issues, like discussing the growth of various things in growth-rate or absolute numbers without the context of the size or growth of other related things. Like discussing the growth in the communist party without comparing it to the size or growth of other political parties. There were a few other cases where numbers where presented, but I had to bookmark the passage and later search the web for the context required to fully understand the meaning of the number.
The orthodox retelling in these books leaves out a lot of interesting aspects of US history. This history seems a bit sterile, deemphasizing the nastier bits of US history, leaving out much of the mechanics of real US democracy. The books also don’t explore the various cycles of US history (religiosity, nationalism, conservatism, isolationism, etc.) nor does it closely examine the major slow, yet steady, flows of US history (literacy, voting rights, technology, agriculture, transportation, etc.)
The narration is very good without being especially remarkable. The narrator is very clear and pleasant to listen to and he does his best to add life to somewhat lifeless text.
This book is excellent at being what it is, and is well worth the listen for anyone unfamiliar with the basics of the conventional telling of US history (which every US resident should know). Yet, this book did not deliver what I had hoped, an exploration of “The American Experience”.
The book starts with the constitutional convention, and Burns focuses on describing the framers, and their political motives and ideas. The sections about political theory are very interesting. However, he also analyzes each of the framers as 'leaders'. Unfortunately,his leadership analysis of each is so cursory as to seem superficial.
From 1830-1900 he pretty much ignores presidents and great senators. Instead he focuses heavily on the social woes of the US as well as captains of industry, artists, and especially authors like Whitman and Emerson.
In the 20th century, he covers great liberal leaders like Teddy, Wilson (he loves Professor Wilson), FDR, Kennedy, LBJ and MLK. His analysis of the first three is long enough for him to properly convey his leadership ideas. He also mocks late 20th century society culture - movies, sports, tv, and radio and he mourns the decline of literature, newspapers, liberalism, intellectuals...
Burns has an unusual, interesting take on American history and presidents. I thought that some chapters were too critical of American society to be interesting. But I enjoyed most of it.
James MacGregor Burns (1918-2014) was one of the greatest American historians of the last hundred years. He earned his BA from Williams and his Ph.D. at Harvard, and in between those two degrees served in the Pacific theater during World War II. As an undergrad long ago I read his Pulitzer-Prize wining biography of FDR, which is still a classic deserving of audio book treatment. This three volume history of the US, published during the 1980s, is truly massive in scope and impressive in terms of its insights. Burns is an expert on presidential history and leadership, and that's fully on display here, but he also explores well economic, cultural, technological, as well as other aspects of American history. The reading by Mark Ashby is effective and quite pleasant. In fact, given the length of this history of the US I'd call it heroic. Mr. Ashby sets a very nice pace, neither too fast nor too slow, and is well matched to this wonderful author imho. For those who love US history, this set is highly recommended.
Frankly, I never heard of James MacGregor Burns or this book before I saw it available on Audible. I decided to take a chance on it and am glad I did.
It's a political history but with a difference. Burns really gives a sense of the drama of the actors and events. The politics comes alive because he recreates the social and cultural context by picking out the illuminating detail as opposed to just piling on lots of dry facts.
An American history written by one author is inevitably going to have its flaws, biases or omissions. I gave it 5 stars because given the impossibility of the task, it is extraordinarily well done.
Mark Ashby gives an intelligent, easy to follow reading.
Judith H. Taylor
Well written and performed. Interesting and thought provoking extremely detailed history of the U.S. Keep asking myself why I was never taught much of this history either in public schools or university. I am preparing to write a family history to flesh out dry ancestry data and this book is a tremendous help.
Not sure I have listened to any other Ashby performances but will look for others. Pleasant voice that supports the narrative but doesn't "grandstand" as some do.
I have purchased dozens of books from Audible. This is definitely in my top 5.
Well researched, written and performed. It's only serious flaw is the author's inability to present the other side of the great debate fairly. Nonetheless, there is no better presentation of a pre-Clinton or Obama Democrat view of American history available.
If Cicero were a Republican who wanted to understand Democrats, this is the book he would read.
This is a look back at most of American history (from after the founding) up until about 1989...because it the last part of the trilogy was written that year...so no end of the Cold War or anything...That added a nice end on it.
His JFK and FDR accents. That's about it. That isn't bad, though.
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