The Oxford Companion to United States History (Oxford Companions) Hardcover – 28 Jun 2001
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About the Author
Paul S. Boyer is Merle Curti Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has made it a professional priority to bring knowledge of the field of history to an audience of interested nonspecialists. Recently, he appeared as one of the commentators on the PBS Frontline special "Apocalypse!".
Top Customer Reviews
And the final straw? The essay on baseball is longer [sic] than that on the entire gay and lesbian rights' movement. You ask, am I prepared to damn the book on this one egregious example? Damn right I am.
I began my investigation of the book by checking out every military history question I could ever remember having had for my writing. Sure enough, this volume contained enough information to have answered each and every one of my questions more than adquately. That was very impressive to me, and it made me decide to add this volume to my reference library. One of the many nice features of this book is that each listing also refers to the best full-length works on that subject, for those who want to get a lot of detail.
The book has more than 1300 entries, written by more than 150 specialists in these military subjects. The subjects are elaborated on by more than 70 detailed maps and 15 pages of diagrams. Each entry is in alphabetical order, with cross-references to more general and more specific topics.
The book focuses on land warfare, so air and naval warfare are in the book primarily to round out the picture on land. So you will find Billy Mitchell, but not the air raids on Ploesti during World War II.
As the editor points out, "There are dictionaries of battles, of military leaders, and even of military history. This is none of those things, although, in its way, it subsumes them all.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Companion tries to cover too many aspects of cultural history and its icons. As a result it sacrifices information on many important political and public figures. We get biographies of Michael Jordan and Marilyn Monroe but no separate bios of George Mason, William Borah, Hiram Johnson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Tom Watson, Joseph Cannon, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Clarence Darrow, Sam Rayburn, Jesse Jackson -- and the list goes on and on. When they are covered it is often in snipets in subject area articles, which does not give a complete overview of their public careers.
What it does cover in cultural and intellectual history is often incomplete. The Companion has separate artices on the history of the blues, jazz and a weak article on rural country and folk music, but absolutely nothing on bluegrass or commercial country music and its pioneers. The index doesn't even mention the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe or Hank Williams. Yet country music far exceeds both the blues and jazz in popularity in terms of its fan base and are certainly deserving popular art forms for inclusion.
The selection of significant figures for separate biographies is often strange and arbitrary. The Companion offers a bio of physicist Eugene Wigner but not of Hans Bethe or Richard Feynman, like Wigner both Nobel Prize winners. Feynman is considered by many to be the most important theoretical physicist of the second half of the 20th century. This arbitrariness in selecting subjects for biographies can be repeated in many different subject areas.
The Companion contains 26 black and white maps, often of poor resolution, and follows the same arbitrary editing in terms of subject matter. You get a map of the properties of U.S. Steel, but no map on how the United States looked at the end of the Revolution or after the Louisiana Purchase, though there is a barely readable map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. No reference tables and charts are included to tell the reader Presidential election results, who were the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, or who occupied important positions in Congress or the military over the course of American history.
On the positive side there are many good articles here on political and social history. However the reader must use this book carefully and supplement it with other Oxford Companions and reference books. At $... I would examine this book in a library before considering a purchase.
The articles tend to be long involved essays. I'm in no position to argue their validity, as scholarship, but I want short, to the point articles. I tend to use a book like this for reference when reading popular writing by established scholars, and I'll leave the ruminations to my current author; it's not the place of a single-volume handbook. Rather like the New York Times exceeding its bounds with its long "in-depth" articles when I just want the facts of the matter, in so far as they can be ascertained and presented. This has nothing to do with ideology; a newspaper is something different from a specialist magazine, or even a news magazine. The same goes for a handbook of history.
Remedy might be sought in the Index. Alas, the Index enumerates mentions, but offers no guidance as to where the bulk of the info may be found, unless there's actually a headworded article for the matter. Sometimes there *isn't* anything substantial.
Garraty and Foner's Readers Guide to US History frequently offered convenient articles that told me what I wanted to know. This work has taken some hits for "bias", and there are some passages where the tone, selection of emphasis, or, occasionally, judgments might seem to justify this, but I think a lot of the shouting is just because of Foner's association with the book; he's currently a demon among right-wingers. I'm sensitive to this sort of thing, even when I completely agree with the opinions that seem to be expressed, but I really think that G & F is reasonably useful all aside from anyone's beliefs.
Here are a couple of concepts from a couple of days' reading on which Oxford fell through, but Garraty and Foner were helpful.
There is no article (or see-ref) on Tammany Hall. Garrarty & Foner have a good one.
There is no article on Thomas Hutchinson (Gov of Mass, perhaps the fellow American most detested by the "patriot" hotheads). G & F have a good one.
One would expect an article on the "Coercive Acts". One finds it in Foner, but not in Oxford. The latter buries this and much other salient stuff in "Revolution and Constitution, Era of", several pages of close print.
G & F leave a lot to be desired as well; e.g. no article in either book on Newport, Rhode Island, a place of great notoriety and importance in the colonial and "revolutionary" period. Both books are generally poor in Colonial, Revolutionary War and later (but not modern) biography.
And the usual complaint: print finer and smaller than I would prefer. If the book got to the point quickly, it wouldn't be so bad. Here as well Foner and Garraty are to be preferred; the print is quite a bit better.
***Postscript of a few minutes later: I see that several of those who have posted reviews of this book subject it to certain ideological litmus tests, even more asinine than the those used against Garraty & Foner. I didn't notice anything untoward in this vein in the Oxford Companion, aside from the selection of articles; e.g. I couldn't help speculating that current gender politics has something to do with Anne, but not her grandson Thomas Hutchinson, getting an article in the Oxford Companion. This sort of thing is found in both Oxford and G & F, but I'm afraid it's unavoidable; all polemics about "re-writing history" aside, there has to be some selection, and just about everybody will get it wrong in somebody's view. My own procedure, if I were doing this sort of thing, would be to avoid articles on anything in the last lifetime, and cultural stuff. I use this sort of book for politics and historical happenings, but my preference is less catered to than formally; I like John Coltrane, too, but I wouldn't have expected to see an article on him in a book like this. But people will go wild over a mis-nuance in antebellum politics as well, so what can even serious writers and editors do?***
I suggest, for books approximating the usefulness of the Oxford Companion to BRITISH History which I mentioned at the outset, trying:
1) the earlier edition of this title, under the charge of Johnson, from 1966, or
2) "A Dictionary of American History", by Thomas L. Purvis, from Blackwell.
Both offer succinct explanations of persons, places and things that readers of American history are likely to ask, and are fairly complete, without the wandering essays of Boyer or the rather trendily selected entries found in Foner.
While there are some questionable individuals and subjects inserted, others just as noteworthy are forgotten. It is of course a monumental undertaking; data will come up short periodically; should be complemented with other sources, such as "A Patriots Guide to US History". This treasure is in dictionary form: fairly written, convenient to use, and not dry. A reference that should be in all households.
Wish you well