Calhoun, Charles W., ed. The Human Tradition in America: 1865 to the Present
Calhoun, Charles W., ed. The Human Tradition in America: 1865 to the Present. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003. 354 pp. Cloth, $65; paper, $22.95.
This is the seventeenth installment in The Human Tradition in America series. The series is based on the idea that human history is made up of a mosaic of many people’s lives, each of whom makes some contribution to how the human tradition develops. Each volume focuses on one particular period or topic (e.g., urban America, the Gilded Age, labor history), and consists of small biographical essays about people whose lives illustrate or provide insight into that particular era or topic. Most of the biographies in this book are derived from the other Human Tradition books.
This particular book focuses on three themes: the profound diversity of the American experience; the fact that this diversity is based on the “tremendous heterogeneity of the groups that have constituted the nation’s population” (p. xii); and, the continuous need to balance liberty and community. The editor writes that the latter two themes became especially complex after 1865 because of many factors, including increasing modernity, the transformation of the American economy due to the Industrial Revolution, increased immigration, and the rise of the United States as a world power.
The book does a good job of showing the diversity of the United States. The biographical essays describe a wide variety of people such as Daisy Bates, a civil-fights leader; the Hara family, a Nisei couple detained in an internment camp during World War II; Walter Reuther, a labor leader; Cesar Chavez, the farm worker organizer; Mary Crow Dog, a participant in the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee; William O. Douglas, a Supreme Court justice and environmentalist; and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected municipal official (member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors). Perhaps, though, a few other biographies might have been chosen. For example, the book has only one biography on Hispanics, only one on Asians (Japanese), and no biographies on people with disabilities.
Many of the biographies also focus on liberty. A number of the aforementioned individuals are activists who pursued liberty for a group of people. It is a little more difficult to clearly identify those biographies that focus on community and the need to balance liberty with community. For example, Calhoun writes that the quest for liberty in the United States, “is limited by the rights of other individuals and the larger community” (p. xii). There are many stories that describe resistance to the pursuit of liberty, but it is not clear that the resistance is related to preserving the “rights” of other individuals or of the community. Rather, the resistance is often due to refusing rights to others–i.e., keeping certain groups out of local schools and preventing them from voting. Perhaps the editor might have more clearly discussed those instances that involve rights of individuals versus fights of the community.
This book would be useful for teaching undergraduate history, where textbooks might not include all of the issues dealt with in this book or may deal with them on a larger scale. For example, this book can help students become familiar with new topics, or make the topics more humanly meaningful, by telling the stories of how the events affected individuals. This book would also be a useful supplement for introductory sociology classes, as it brings social processes down to the personal level.
However, this book is somewhat disappointing in that it does not live up to its title, The Human Tradition. While all of the stories focus to some degree on one or two individuals, only two of these biographies are very personal. The story of the Hara couple is written by their son, and most of it consists of narratives by the couple themselves about their experience and their lives. Another story is written by the sister of a soldier killed in the Vietnam War which focuses on her brother, her reaction to his death, and, finally, her reaction to learning that, after her brother’s death, members of his company killed everyone–men, women and children–in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
Most of the other stories are less personal, and combine biography with descriptions of the historical time period or context. The least personal story is the chapter on Mary Crow Dog, which is largely about the American Indian Movement and the history of the relationship between Native Americans and the rest of society.
There are advantages and disadvantages to the approach taken in this book. Because the book includes descriptions of historical time periods or contexts, students can learn more about such subjects than they might from purely personal stories. Yet, by including the contextual detail, the stories become less personal. In order to make history more human or more personal, it may have been better to include more autobiographical stories, or stories written by the child, sibling, or parent of the main subject.
One last note to be made concerns the series title. The titles of many of the books start with The Human Tradition in America. These books, however, are limited to stories of people in the United States of America. People living in Canada, Mexico, as well as in Central and South America are, of course, all “Americans.” The term “America,” as used in this series, in a sense excludes all of these people from being “American.” Perhaps a better title, although less vibrant, might be The Human Tradition in the United States.
Overall, this book offers insight into topics that students might not otherwise obtain from more general history textbooks. To truly see a more human tradition, however, it may be helpful for this book to be read along with other autobiographical readings.
Gene Shackman, Ph.D.
Global Social Change Research Project
Albany, New York
COPYRIGHT 2004 Pi Gamma Mu
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group