“Dr. Asimov has a genius for taking familiar events and putting them together in a new context, for fresh and fascinating looks at history.” So says Elizabeth Coolidge of the Boston Globe about THE SHAPING OF NORTH AMERICA, the first of Asimov’s American histories.
Picking up where that book left off, Dr. Asimov now goes on to discuss that period when America’s destiny was most closely intertwined with the British. It is the period beginning with the aftermath of the Treaty of Paris, when England gained control of the area east of the Mississippi, encompassing the American Revolution, when America fought for and won her independence, and concluding with the War of 1912, which was the last time that Americans and British took up arms against one another.
Most of us are familiar with the events of these years, but with Dr. Asimov as a genial, insightful guide, new perspectives emerge. For here, as always, he brings to his subject his remarkable lucidity, his ability to clarify without over-simplification, and his rich store of anecdotes that renders human beings of the fuzzy figures of history.
In this sequel to The Shaping of North America, Asimov covers the period 1763-1816 in US history—that is, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812.
This is the first of Asimov’s histories which I have not given the highest possible rating. Although it’s good and serviceable, the fact is that as Asimov approaches the present, a strange thing happens—he becomes bogged down in detail, and his ordinarily crystal-clear, unadorned style is awash in a sea of trivia. For example, he tends to give the full name and full birthplace of Americans he mentions. This may or may not be interesting to the reader—but situated as it is in the middle of the story, it tends to be jarring. Asimov also stops every ten years to give statistics from the census and every four years to provide detailed information on the electoral college—also interesting, perhaps, but also jarring in the midst of the story Asimov is telling. Such information might be better banished to appendices.
The cumulative effect is rather unpleasant, and so although I do enjoy Asimov’s last three books on US history, I don’t like them nearly as much as the earlier volumes starting with The Greeks.