Sunday, May 8, 2011

Founding Gardeners, Noah Webster, Anticommunism on Trial, and more in the book pages

FOUNDING GARDENERS: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf is an "illuminating and engrossing new book," Paula Dietz writes in the New York Times.  Wulf shows that "the first four presidents were passionate botanists whose country seats became laboratories for their grander vision of an independent agrarian republic in the New World."  The book is "an ecological and historical narrative, revisionist in the best sense, combining the suspense of war and political debate with an intimate view of private lives devoted to the natural sciences and reinforced by long-distance friendships."
Wulf begins with Benjamin Franklin, in London on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly at the time of the much reviled Stamp Act. Even as catastrophe loomed, he was urgently sending seeds back home to his wife, not just for the enhancement of his own garden but to be distributed to other Philadelphia plantsmen. Agricultural self-sufficiency was, he believed, vital for the increasingly rebellious colonies.

Read the rest here.

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by  Joshua Kendall is a "smart new biography" writes
Born in West Hartford, Conn., the son of a poor farmer, Webster was able to attend Yale College through great family sacrifice. A teacher and lecturer early in his career, he found his true calling with words. "I wish to enjoy life, but books and writing will ever be my principal pleasure," he confided to Washington....

But Webster's accomplishments went well beyond the making of books. He was variously a lawyer, patriot, amateur epidemiologist, statistician, pamphleteer, co-founder of Amherst College, and at Washington's urging, editor of New York City's first daily newspaper, the American Minerva. As Washington's confidant at the Constitutional Convention, he had a voice in the proceedings, including his strong advocacy of several key principles, the need for "a supreme power at the head of the union" most notable among them. But his most enduring triumph was his relentless mission to get Americans to actually think of themselves as Americans.
Read the rest here.

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial by Scott Martelle is lauded by
In his cogent, nuanced account of the 1949 prosecution of American communists under the Smith Act, former Los Angeles Times staff writer Scott Martelle sees this case fitting into a troubling pattern. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Patriot Act of 2001, he writes, "The United States has a habit of convulsing with fear during times of stress, and in the process undercutting the very freedoms of speech, political belief and religious expression that Americans profess to hold dear."

It is difficult to tell from the review, however, whether this book adds anything to the extensive pre-existing literature.  If you've read it and you can speak to that, please post a comment.  The full review is here.

Also reviewed this week:
Francis Fukuyama reviews THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY: The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume XVII) by F. A. Hayek, edited by Ronald Hamowy, in the New York Times.

THE IMMORTALIZATION COMMISSION: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray, in the New York Times.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World by James Carroll in The New Republic/The Book.


Scott Martelle said...

I can address the Martelle book since, well, I'm him. ;-) There is no significant new ground broken here, but likely a lot more detail than most people who have studied the era have encountered (most treatments look at the trial as part of an overview of Cold War-era anti-communism; I break out the trial as a stand-alone story). The intent is to bring broader public attention to the case, much as I did with my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers, 2007). My approach in both books is that of a journalist narrating a (relatively) forgotten story from the nation's past. As I state in the introduction, the Dennis trial is well-known to scholars of the era, but unknown to general readers.

Hope that helps frame the book for you.

Scott Martelle

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks, Scott, and congratulations on your new book!

I think of Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, as the leading work on the McCarthy era, but as you suggest, she does not focus on the trial. Michal Belknap, Cold War Political Justice, is most directly on point, but Michal's book appeared in 1977. So the Dennis case is certainly worth another look.

From the review, the book appears to work within the conventional framework regarding the impact of war/crisis/"times of stress" on the courts. For that reason, I will be looking for a copy soon, and you may find yourself included among the works I criticize here. Hope you won't mind too much.


Scott Martelle said...

Thanks, Mary. :-)

I agree on Schrecker and Belknap, both fine works, but that also used Dennis as part of a whole. The drama of that trial struck me as a compelling narrative in and of itself. One of the broader elements that jumped out at me is how, like the Patriot Act, it falls in the line Geoffrey Stone detailed in his Perilous Times.

And yes, my approach is within the conventional framework As I mentioned, my motive as a journalist, not an academic, was to bring fresh attention to this story, and through it remind that we have a harsh legacy of clamping down on civil rights during times of national stress.

Any and all criticisms/discussions are welcome. To paraphrase a line from an old John Hiatt song, that's what I came here for. ;-) And while I'm at it, should any teachers wish to use the book (or portions of it) in classes, I'm available via Skype for virtual visits and discussions. This tends to work better for history classes, where I can talk about process, but it's an open invitation to anyone who might find it useful.