Friday, May 22, 2009

The Significance of Sections in American History - Winner, Non-Fiction, 1933

The Significance of Sections in American History
By: Frederick J. Turner
Henry Holt & Co., 1932

The Significance of Sections in American History is a collection of essays written by Frederick J. Turner concerning just that - the significance of different sections of the country on the history of the United States. It seems that Turner is trying to convince his audience that there are more sections in America than just North and South, but it appears that the only other sections he could name were East and West. While I found this philosophical work to be tedious and nothing new, there are some interesting things about it. First, it is a collection of works that Turner wrote between 1895 and 1926. I am guessing that the essays were put together in book form in 1932, several years after the last was written, because this was the year in which Turner died. This seems to explain why his ideas feel dated (for the 1930s) - they were probably current or even new when originally written. The other thing that I found interesting was the fact that the Pulitzer was awarded to him posthumously. Posthumous awards always grab my attention because I wonder if there is really a point since the author is not there to see their work being honored. I guess one could argue that it is better than no recognition at all (especially for surviving family members). Just my thoughts on the matter...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage - Winner, Biography, 1933

Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage
By: Allan Nevins
Dodd Mead, 1932

"Tell the truth."
-Grover Cleveland, 1884

When I picked up this book I had no idea what to expect. I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing I knew about Grover Cleveland was that he was our president (and I had a vague image in my mind of a large guy with a bushy mustache). That's it! I didn't know when he was president (accept that it was when pictures would have been in black and white) or anything about what he did during his presidency or that he was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. So, my thinking was that if I didn't know anything about him it meant that we didn't study him much in all of my history classes over the years which means he probably didn't do anything that exciting which means this book will be BO-RING. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case.

Several things drew me into the story of Grover Cleveland. To begin with, I would not have been drawn in if it hadn't been for the excellent story telling of Allan Nevins. I have read many biographies of political figures and found them to be monotonous and dull. He managed to make Cleveland's political life just as interesting to me as his personal life (a great feat in itself!).

Another thing that helped me to enjoy this book is that it takes place in a time in history that I really enjoy learning about. This was a time in American history when political corruption was rampant and actually accepted as the way things were done. These were the days of bosses and political machines, like Tammany Hall, who controlled the political leanings of large portions of the population of several of our urban centers. Cleveland entered politics at a time when Americans were becoming weary of the corruption. They sought an honest man who simply wanted to do what was best for the people. Cleveland advanced rapidly through the political ranks because he was not only an upright man, but he had the courage (hence the book's subtitle, A Study in Courage) to put a stop to as many of the corrupting influences in government as he could. This aspect of Cleveland's career is what Nevins chooses to focus on and I found it very refreshing. It is not often that we see a politician who is willing to not only stand up and say, "We will not do things this way anymore!" but also to actually put that into action.

For those interested in biographies of politicians or leaders, this is a great read, and there is probably a lesson or two to be learned in our own political environment today.