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1898: The Birth of the American Century.

David Traxel 1898: The Birth of the American Century. Knopf, 365 pages, $28.95

David Traxel is an avid reader of century-old newsprint, a man of infectious enthusiasms, and an engaging storyteller, but none of this makes him an especially good historian. He has dropped his bucket down the well of time and hauled up 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, "twelve months of rich confusion, wild contradiction, and violent change" during which the United States "would turn from a long history of isolation and preoccupation with its own affairs to active foreign involvement and the challenges of being a world power." The bucket brims with rich material -- T. R. and McKinley, Pulitzer and Hearst, the sinking of the Maine, and the Battle of Manila Bay -- and Traxel ladles it out in sparkling cupfuls. But the book is all sparkle, all anecdote, in love with facts and people and events but wary of interpreting them; it brings us vivid pictures of the year as it unfolded but never in the context of the years that will follow. When, for example, McKinley chooses to acquire the Philippines from Spain, we learn how he struggled to make that decision and how Kipling applauded it, Mark Twain deplored it, and Mr. Dooley found the joke in it. What we don't learn, what we get no inkling of, is why the decision mattered, and what our sudden imperial relationship with the Philippines will mean in the decades to come -- for America, for the Filipinos, for democracy, trade, and United States military strategy. The author's reluctance to shoulder the historian's burden is almost fatal to the book when it deals with matters of lasting consequence.

Luckily, this account of the "Birth of the American Century" does not always concern itself with the epochal. Traxel, whose previous book was a life of Rockwell Kent, is more at home with minor topics, with fads, trends, and the trivial-but-telling -- with the personal rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse, the ethos of Omaha businessmen's clubs, the baking and marketing of the Uneeda Biscuit, and magazine pieces addressing such questions as "What becomes of the gentleman in the age of democratic equality?" Consistently amusing, maddeningly myopic, as busy, bright, and inconclusive as a year-end issue of Time, 1898 isn't new light on history, it's history lite.

Christopher Carduff reviews books regularly for The New Criterion.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Carduff, Christopher
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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