January 2023

Myth America

edited by Julian E. Zelizer & Kevin M. Kruse
Review by
In Myth America, prominent historians challenge strongly held myths about our country’s history and reveal the more complex truth.
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As George Orwell observed, “Who controls the past controls the future.” And without a proper understanding of the events that make up the past, we may be easily misled. In Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, prominent historians offer keenly insightful essays that reveal the true and often complex history of America. Edited by Princeton University historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, the book’s chapters range from “American Exceptionalism” and “Vanishing Indians” to “Confederate Monuments” and “Voter Fraud.”

Contributor David A. Bell points out that “the stories that nations tell themselves . . . change over time, and America has had a bewildering and contradictory plethora of them.” For example, Erika Lee discusses the complex realities and deep roots of the “they keep coming” immigration myth, which asserts that the federal government won’t stop the supposed millions of people who enter the country without documentation. Sarah Churchwell shows how “America First has never been—and was never intended to be—a simple statement of patriotic self-interest.” Glenda Gilmore challenges the myth that the civil rights demonstrations from 1955 to 1968 were significantly different from those that took place during the 1890s through the 1950s.

Michael Kazin relates the 1825 visit of Robert Owen, a rich manufacturer from Wales, who delivered two addresses to joint sessions of Congress. The audience included several Supreme Court justices, as well as outgoing president James Monroe and incoming president John Quincy Adams. Owen proposed the establishment of a system of society based on justice and kindness. He condemned America’s economic system as selfish and inhumane, and he and his ideas were treated with great respect. Owen called his proposal “socialism.” As Kazin writes, “Their curiosity was a sign that the market system, for all its promise of plenty, was not yet a settled reality defended by all men of wealth and standing.”

The book’s editors are aware that they haven’t covered every myth in U.S. history, but these essays still succeed in bringing important facts to our current historical debates. The footnotes alone make great reading. Myth America is an important step toward a better understanding of our history.

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Myth America

Myth America

edited by Julian E. Zelizer & Kevin M. Kruse
ISBN 9781541601390

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