Author: Greg Grandin
Summary: This felt light and anecdotal, which was a disappointing approach to this timely topic.
This book is based on the premise that “ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation–democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America has a new symbol: the border wall.” (source) The author suggests that this focus on expansion made it possible for Americans to get away with ignoring domestic issues related to class and race. Then stalled expansion led to a lot of energy and aggression being channeled into issues that are closer to home.
This was by the far the most disappointing of the National Book Award nominees from this year. The premise had a lot of potential. I was interested in the idea that there had been this shift in people’s thinking that led us to where we are today. Unfortunately, I don’t think the author actually made a terribly strong case for this being true. He devotes at least half the book to talking about the different ways politicians and historians have used the idea of a frontier, both real and figurative. This part wasn’t particularly interesting to me, since as an American, it feels self-evident to me that the frontier myth is a part of American identity. I didn’t need convincing.
Even though I was generally in agreement with the author about the frontier, the specific claims he made sometimes seemed like a stretch. He frequently quoted two or three people and then drew sweeping conclusions about how Americans view the frontier or the wall. Granted, many of the people he quoted were presidents, other politicians, or influential historians. This was certainly better than when he cited random people. Even so, I felt he was making broad claims about how people thought based on an extremely small sample. He also gave few examples of events that fit his theory.
The writing felt light, not particularly incisive. I can only think of two or three times the author drew conclusions that were both convincing and non-obvious to me. Despite tackling a challenging topic, this book lacked the thoughtful, informative approach I look for in National Book Award nominees. I would happily have read a denser book, several times longer than this one, that gave this subject the thorough treatment it deserves.