In John Mulaney’s 2018 stand-up special, Kid Gorgeous, he tells the story of a discussion he had with his mother about a ghost in his childhood home. All of a sudden, though, his dad interrupted and said, “Let’s change the subject!”
“I think he was just doing that dad thing where like, ‘This is a weird topic, and I want to talk about a book I read about World War II,’” Mulaney jokes.
It’s a particularly hilarious bit to me because it very much aligns with my experience at the bookstore I used to work at. Specifically around Father’s Day every year, exasperated customers would stand around the front table, seeking guidance on which book to buy their dads. They knew that he liked to read about history, but they often didn’t know exactly what historical subject interested him (beyond World War II, of course).
The major publishers clearly did, however. Over the last several years, coasting off the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, some of the most popular writers of books on historical subjects (e.g., David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph J. Ellis) have taken it upon themselves to write broad, ankle-deep books about U.S. history as a means of soothing the current American psyche.
These new books — from McCullough’s The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, to Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, to Goodwin’s Leadership: In Turbulent Times, to Ellis’ American Dialogue: The Founders and Us — share a number of superficial traits. Three of them have America in the title. All four have an American flag on the cover. And while only McCullough is modest enough not to have the phrase “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” on the cover, that might be because “winner of two Pulitzer Prizes” wouldn’t quite fit, and so, he saved it for his bio.
Basically, they’re all red, white and blue, through and through.
All of which makes them seem like safe and good books for dad. A key piece of Dad History is that it rarely touches anything that might have happened in his adulthood. And even if he were a Trump supporter, the rebukes contained in these books are so obligatory and unforceful you can hear the page sighing as you read it. Besides, that’s not what they’re here for. These books exist as a masseuse for the tight and knotty American brain, offering momentary relief for readers who need it while doing nothing to stop the pain from returning. Just by reading them, the books tell you, you’re part of the solution. History is important, and those who dare to forget history are bad. So if you’re reading history, you can’t be bad. And who could argue, really, that people can’t gain a better understanding of today by learning about how we got here?
“History,” McCullough writes, “is a source of strength, of inspiration.” Goodwin adds that it “is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and inspiring.” A “self-evident truth” that Ellis nonetheless spends a long time unpacking in his introduction, “history is an ongoing conversation between past and present, from which we all have much to learn.” Meacham, the least history-drunk of the bunch, writes that it “shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before.”
Books with such sentiments have an exceptional skill for performing complication and insight without actually saying anything insightful (or complicated). The American Spirit, a collection of predictable, repetitive speeches, ends with one McCullough gave at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in May 2016. The speech, delivered to members of Congress, consultants and whoever else, is mostly a nicely written Wikipedia entry read aloud by its author. McCullough lists a bunch of things that happened in the Capitol Building to make his point that the Capitol Building is a place where a bunch of things have happened. From the middle of the speech, where he’d already been talking about it for a while:
“This is historic ground if ever there was. Congress passed the Land Grant College Act here, established the Smithsonian Institution, voted for war on Mexico, a decision strongly opposed by many, including a congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Here, by acts of Congress, eight states became part of the Union — Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin and California — states that in area, nearly doubled the size of the country.”
It’s not clear what understanding one is supposed to gain from this list, but as Mulaney pointed out, it will give your dad something to talk about at dinner. McCullough then contrasts the majesty of the Building Where All These Things Happened by also talking about how “acoustics in the hall were erratic, mainly terrible,” and begrudgingly, obligatorily mentioning that “yes, there were the African-American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol.” It feels as though McCullough considers the real shame as letting people who were enslaved participate in such a magisterial process and not their enslavement itself.
It’s an apt observation for how others handle the issue of slavery as well. Ellis spends an unreadably long time puzzling over whether slavery was a “Greek tragedy” (“inherently unsolvable for reasons beyond human control”) or a “Shakespearean tragedy” (“susceptible to solution with the right kind of leadership”). Aside from this question being evidence that Ellis wants a fictionalized narrative rather than historical understanding, it’s simply stupid. Nonetheless, he’s sure to conclude that it was a Greek tragedy and that he can’t really blame his beloved founders for anything. The argument elides the obvious fact that the only reason it was “beyond human control” was because so many people involved in the country’s founding were, like, slave owners. But I guess Ellis thinks they couldn’t help it.
Goodwin does nothing quite this lazy, but her vision of the presidency of James Buchanan is characterized by a failure of leadership somehow independent from his belief in the rights of states to allow their citizens to own slaves. In fairness, this never feels like genuine belief so much as an attempt to force the narrative of Leadership — the most inherently daddy book of the bunch — into shape with a sledgehammer. Buchanan’s failures only pave the road for Lincoln’s greatness, and the issue of the Civil War or slavery itself is much the same. In Leadership, the idea of “politics” disappears so that Goodwin can explore “fundamental questions” like, “Are leaders born or made?” (you won’t believe it, but the answer is both!).
Meacham, once again performing sobriety in a quintessential dad way, somewhat smugly scolds those who “feel superior to the past… for when we condemn posterity for slavery, or for Native American removal, or denying women their full role in the life of the nation, we ought to pause and think: What injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us? One of the points of reflecting on the past is to prepare for action in the present.”
Though this sentiment seeks to polish the brutality of chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, it’s certainly true that people should think proactively about these issues. I’m not sure, however, that Meacham — who praises Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric but doesn’t mention Iran-Contra, or his handling of the AIDS crisis, and who praises George W. Bush’s post-9/11 calls for tolerance but doesn’t mention the Iraq War — would much like the conclusion this thinking leads to. (FWIW: He doesn’t mention climate change in his book, but he does seem engaged in the discussion elsewhere.)
Meacham ends The Soul of America with an unfortunate list of answers to the overwrought question of how “those with deep concerns about the nation’s future enlist on the side of the angels.” Namely…
- “Enter the Arena”
- “Resist Tribalism”
- “Respect Facts and Deploy Reason”
- “Find a Critical Balance”
- “Keep History in Mind” (per usual)
These are either neutral tools that can be just as well used for good or bad, or nothing more than cartoonish verbiage (the Facts Respecter, reporting for duty). But if your dad wanted to claim that telling you to stop calling your aunt “a capitalist shill” or whatever was praxis, here’s his reference point.
Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on Meacham, who is the only one of these authors to not have been embroiled in a scandal regarding their behavior or work. In 2001, a Harper’s review of McCullough biography, John Adams, quoted Thomas Jefferson as calling Adams a “colossus of independence” though Jefferson never said that. His newest book, The Pioneers, has also been subject to a great deal of criticism for what it chooses to exclude. Goodwin, for her part, is perhaps the country’s most successful plagiarist. Ellis’ scandals are slightly weirder: He was caught by the Boston Globe lying to his students about both fighting in Vietnam and participating in the anti-war movement. I guess what I’m saying is that McCullough, Goodwin and Ellis aren’t the people best suited to be defending the idea of understanding history.
More generally, your dad and mine deserve a better class of author writing a better class of book. And though I have no doubt that you’d receive a nice “Thank you” text as a reply, I don’t know if the Dads of America really like these books very much, anyway. The idea that America has done bad things but is overall good to its core is about the most boring thing someone could write about the country. Perhaps instead learn what era of history your dad actually cares about, or get him a sprawling book that has interesting things to say, like These Truths by Jill Lepore, or get him a book from the Object Lessons series.
Or something else. Anything else.