Book Review: Land of Hope

McClay, Wilfred M. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (New York: Encounter Books, 2019) $35.00 US (hardback).

Land of Hope is a refreshing, narrative history of the United States, from the time of Columbus to around 2010. Wilfred McClay argues that one, the time has come for a new overview volume of US history, and two, that for all of its flaws, the United States was and is still a land of promise and of hope, a place that is far better than many have recently claimed. In this respect at least, it is a counter-argument to Howard Zinn and his followers, as well as taking on some of Charles Beard’s economic-centered ideas about US history.

The book is lightly written but not lightly researched. By that, I mean that the style is a bit breezier than I had anticipated, but is academically sound. I found one error of fact in the first 200 or so pages, and that only because I’d just taught the material. The error itself is very minor, and does not apply to the topic at hand, so it didn’t bother me. Complaints that the book overlooks certain things (“whitewashes” history) and that it is too broad are complaints that would apply to any single-volume textbook. The book is aimed at the modern high school or college reader, and I would have no qualms about using this as a classroom text, with additional primary source material.

McClay wrote a very readable survey history of the US. He points out the flaws and places where people failed to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also points out why, and how others did manage to rise to and above the moment. I thought his discussions about slavery and the Constitution, and the sectional tensions before the Civil War were quite even handed. I’d have liked a little more about problems in the North, but the book doesn’t hit the reader with what I have occasionally called “the blessed Saint Yankee.” McClay spends less time in the American West than I would have, but that’s my specialty, so I’m biased.

He includes an essay after the main text, looking at patriotism and the arguments against and for it. He comes down on the side of “for.” I don’t agree with all of his points, but firmly agree with his conclusions.

The book is probably best for those over age 15, just because of the lack of illustrations. It has them, and they are good, but it not lavishly decorated the way many modern textbooks are. McClay expects the reader to pay attention and to remember some major points, although he does recap things from time to time. As I said above, I would use this for a US history text for advanced US (sophomore-junior years in TX), or for a college survey. The lighter writing style will appeal to younger readers. Those of us who think academic history should read like academic history probably won’t be as enthused, but we’re not McClay’s target audience.

If I were to use this in class, I’d select a number of primary-source documents to have the students read or look at as well. McClay mentions a lot of things, and it would be easy to pull together a reader.

The book’s bibliography is excellent. All the major works I’d hope to see were included, as well as some very recent additions that I’ve added to my ToBeILLed list.

Short version – an excellent, highly-readable summary history of the US that is positive and encouraging without glossing over the ugly bits. Highly recommend. The list price is a tad high, but for a good quality textbook? It’s really, really cheap, and used volumes are available. Amazon lists it for $26 new.

FTC Notice: I purchased this with my own funds, for my own use, and received no compensation from the author or publisher.


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