Book Reviews


How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher. Penguin, 2016. 336 pages. $28.00 (cloth). ISBN 9781594205002.

Spoiler alert: Despite the title of Winifred Gallagher’s new book, the post office did not “create America.”  Nevertheless, Gallagher’s efforts to prove her thesis highlight important historical themes, not least of which is the public’s shifting attitudes toward the federal government’s efforts to transport mail from one place to another.

Post OfficeThe initial purpose of America’s mail system, known simply as the “post” throughout much of its history, was to disseminate information and educate the country’s growing population.  The nation’s first leaders felt that this was imperative if the struggling republic was to survive; to wit, a poorly or misinformed public—not to mention an illiterate one—cannot make wise decisions.  Because of this ambitious mission, as well as the United States’ enormous expanse, post offices (and later mail carriers) were often the only contact most Americans had with the federal government.

By contrast, size and cost considerations prompted advocates of small government (then and now) to argue that mail service should not receive public subsidies, but should operate within the competitive marketplace in order to maximize efficiency and lower costs, even if this entailed partial or even complete privatization.  As Gallagher indicates, this is perhaps the central tension that has characterized the often-beleaguered U.S. Postal Service.  (To give but one example, prior to 1971 the price of a stamp covered only part of the cost to mail a letter; after that date, a stamp was supposed to cover the entire expense.)

Gallagher points out the post’s major accomplishments, including Rural Free Delivery, Parcel Post, Railway Mail Service (mail was sorted on moving trains), and Postal Savings Accounts (these accounts were federally insured, which meant that deposits remained safe even when other banks failed during the Great Depression).  Moreover, despite the vagaries of the spoils system (thousands of postal positions were political appointments), the post was consistently one of the leaders in providing African Americans with some of the most secure and remunerative jobs they could obtain in a society plagued by racial discrimination.

Regrettably, Gallagher’s upbeat narrative tends to gloss over certain subjects, most notably the anti-vice campaigner Anthony Comstock and the 1873 Postal Obscenity Act (popularly known as the “Comstock Act”), which criminalized use of the postal service to send erotica, sex toys, contraceptives, abortifacients, or written materials about any of those items.  While Gallagher is technically correct when she states that “the law ultimately helped to cast the hush-hush subject of contraception as a legitimate medical and social issue (p. 211),” it actually had the opposite effect for several decades, which was the more important historical consequence of the legislation.

The book’s biggest weakness is Gallagher’s attempt to identify causation where is doesn’t exist—or at least not to the extent that she claims it does.  Though it is true, for instance, that the Post Office Act of 1792 was a boon to newspapers—they were classified as official mail and thus eligible for low postage rates—it was as much the content of those publications as their dissemination that created a common American culture.  (A wonderful evocation of that print-fueled culture can be found in the novel News of the World by Paulette Jiles [Morrow, 2016]).  The same is true for railroads: they certainly benefitted financially from government mail contracts, but such contracts paled in comparison to the other public subsidies provided for the construction of the nation’s iron highways.  Gallagher also asserts that the Air Mail Act of 1934 played a significant (if indirect) role in the expansion of passenger service in the nascent airline industry, but she doesn’t clarify that link either.  In short, the book would have been more aptly titled, “How the Post Office Helped Create America,” even if that phrasing wouldn’t have been as provocatively eye-catching.

Flaws notwithstanding, Gallagher’s book is a much-needed account of a venerable and often (though unnecessarily) maligned American institution.  Her page-turning, kaleidoscopic narrative is similar to the equally entertaining historical works by the late Daniel Boorstin, which also had broad appeal.  That another study of the postal system, Devin Leonard’s Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service (Grove, 2016), has recently appeared suggests that the public has a growing appetite for historic information about how we mailed things, even if that same public typically prefers to do its own mailing by pressing computer keys instead of licking postage stamps.


American Eclipse: A Nation’s Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. David Baron. Liveright, 2017. 330 pages. $27.95 (cloth). ISBN 9781631490163.

An astronomical event doesn’t usually merit an entire book.  However, exceptions exist.  The total solar eclipse of 1878 is one of them, as the science journalist David Baron makes clear in his lively account of that otherworldly, if not entirely unearthly, event.  (A total solar eclipse is when the sun is completely occluded by the moon.)

Readers leery of abstruse discussions of physics and/or astronomy can save their apprehension for another book.  Baron’s narrative is more about Gilded Age America than celestial mechanics.  To be sure, Baron’s primary interest is the 1878 eclipse (the author is an admitted umbraphile), American Eclipsebut he spends most of the time following three individuals who traveled to various locations in the western United States to view that event.

The first traveler was the now largely forgotten (but then well-known) University of Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson.  A ceaseless self-promoter with an oversized ego, Watson believed that he would be able to detect an otherwise invisible planet between Mercury and the Sun during the eclipse.  Astronomers hypothesized that this planet, popularly dubbed “Vulcan,” could account for certain irregularities (“perturbations”) in Mercury’s orbit.  Despite Watson’s eventual assertion that he had detected two undiscovered planets during the eclipse, those claims were soon debunked.  The search for Vulcan would continue for another four decades until none other than Albert Einstein was able to explain Mercury’s quirky orbit without recourse to an unseen planet.

Baron also allows the reader to tag along with Thomas Edison, whose fame had already been established when he decided to test one of his new inventions during the eclipse.  Edison boasted that the invention—a tasimeter—would be able to measure minute amounts of heat from far-distant objects; nevertheless, history’s verdict is that the tasimeter was an “obscure flop (p. 233).”  Given this failure, it might seem as if Baron’s inclusion of Edison was merely an attempt to give the story some celebrity window dressing.  It wasn’t.  Baron rightly highlights the fact that Edison’s insistent promotion of the tasimeter (without any real evidence that it would or could work) made the wizard of Menlo Park similar, at least in this instance, to the Gilded Age’s many other showmen, if not its actual hucksters.  On the other hand, Baron is also right in noting Edison’s unfailing intuitive genius: the tasimeter (admittedly flawed) foreshadowed the advent of infrared astronomy.

The third and perhaps most intriguing protagonist in the great race to view the eclipse was Maria Mitchell, who was Vassar College’s inaugural professor of astronomy and the first American woman to discover a comet.  Baron deftly interweaves Mitchell’s career with the vicissitudes (to put it very mildly) that women faced in their quest for equality, including their desire to be accorded the same educational/intellectual opportunities as men.  Mitchell’s accomplishments came in the wake of continuing opposition to higher education for women, with the most notorious example being Dr. Edward H. Clarke’s 1873 book Sex in Education.  Clarke warned that a college education could cause a woman’s reproductive organs to atrophy, which would lead to “Amazonian coarseness and force (p. 39).”  Like the planet Vulcan, Clarke’s fears would prove illusory.

The only flaw in Baron’s book is his ambivalence over how much impact the eclipse had on future events, particularly the development of American science.  Baron initially posits more than seems warranted, stating that the eclipse’s “influence was far reaching and multifaceted,” further arguing that it “suggested a higher calling” in a “nation of strivers (p. 208).”  Maybe.  But Baron seems on safer ground when he subsequently concludes, “Even before the eclipse, the United States was fast on its way to becoming a formidable scientific power.  It is fair to say, however, that the celestial event helped push the country toward that destination … (p. 234).”

As noted above, this is a not a book for specialists only.  It would make an ideal pairing with Dava Sobel’s recent work on female astronomers (The Glass Universe), which is also intended for general readers.  In short, Baron’s tale of eclipse hunters will appeal to a wide readership, especially those who are interested in learning how the fits and starts of scientific understanding can lead to phenomena such as black holes—or, almost as often, to rabbit holes.


Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. Mitch Prinstein. Viking, 2017. 273 pages. $27.00 (cloth). ISBN 9780399563737.

In the musical Wicked (2003), one of the most popular numbers is aptly titled, “Popular.”  Glinda (destined to become Glinda the Good) comforts Elphaba (fated to become the Wicked Witch of the West) by singing, “I’ll teach you the proper poise when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce.  I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair—everything that really counts.”  popularAudiences laugh appreciatively at this humorous irony: the “good” witch hungers for superficial status, while the “bad” witch (as demonstrated in earlier scenes) strives to be kind, cooperative, and honest.

Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, uses a similar dichotomy to frame the arguments in his important (if not revolutionary) new book.  In brief, Prinstein asserts that there are two different types of popularity.  The first is associated with high status, which in modern American culture is primarily denoted by wealth, power, beauty, and youth.  The second is connected to the (even) more amorphous notion of likability, a set of characteristics that includes empathy, flexibility, the ability to listen and collaborate, a sense of humor, competency, and integrity.  One of Prinstein’s key insights is to underscore the fact that we desire status, but need likability, at least if we want to attain long-term success and happiness.

Prinstein graciously acknowledges and builds upon the work of John Coie’s research at Duke University in the early 1980s.  Coie and his colleagues formulated five “sociometric [personality] groups” in their attempt to understand popularity (broadly construed).  These groups are “Accepted,” “Neglected,” “Controversial,” “Rejected,” and “Average.”  Doubtless, a guilty pleasure of Prinstein’s book is the irresistible temptation for the reader to try to figure out which label applies to himself/herself, even if most people (40 percent) are “Average,” a descriptor that is neither particularly revealing nor especially flattering.  More important, Prinstein adduces research that suggests (rather strongly) that these labels have a relatively long half-life—in other words, a child’s popularity, or lack thereof, can become a reinforcing feedback loop throughout the rest of his/her life.

Thankfully, Prinstein isn’t a determinist.  And this is where likability can serve as an anodyne.  Even if we aren’t conventionally popular (that is, have high status) as children or adolescents, we can nonetheless cultivate likability, a preferable and more enduring personality trait.  Indeed, the last third of the book offers how-to advice to parents and teachers (and the reader) on ways to increase likability.  The only challenge here—and Prinstein doesn’t fully address this—is that we live in a society that overwhelmingly promotes (and thus seems to overwhelmingly prefer) status.  The maxim “Nice guys finish last” seems truer now than ever before.  We need only look at our current president to see the triumph of status over likability (perhaps the result, in part, of the extensive media coverage that the chief executive continues to receive, even if he himself denigrates it).

Prinstein’s book is informative and provocative, but readers interested in the topics he discusses would likely profit from consulting other works as well—for example, Daniel Goleman’s studies of emotional/social intelligence and Daniel Gilbert’s investigations of the factors that produce/sustain happiness.  Prinstein’s work is not meant to be an anti-bullying guide, but his suggestions might just lead to a little less strife or loneliness on the playground—or around the Monday morning water cooler at work.


High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Glenn Frankel. Bloomsbury, 2017. 377 pages. $27.00 (cloth). ISBN 9781620409480.

Westerns are a staple of American popular culture, just as blacklists are a mainstay of American political culture.  Glenn Frankel, a retired Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, has produced a scholarly and imminently readable account of how these two phenomena intersected in the aftermath of the Second World War.

High NoonAs Frankel notes in the introduction, “when faced with what they perceive to be an existential threat to their security, western democracies have often responded by repressing human rights with alarming energy and self-righteous rhetoric (p. xi).”  Such was the case with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which investigated the motion picture industry on two highly publicized occasions.  The first time (in 1947) resulted in virtually no evidence of any communist influence in the production of American movies, though several of the witnesses—quickly dubbed the “Hollywood Ten”—refused to cooperate with HUAC; they were cited for contempt of Congress, fired from their jobs, served time in prison, and blacklisted from subsequent employment.

Most of Frankel’s narrative focuses on events that led up to (and occurred during) HUAC’s second investigation of Hollywood in 1951.  Central to Frankel’s story is the screenwriter Carl Foreman, one of the people called to testify before HUAC during that second set of hearings.  HUAC’s summons arrived when Foreman was in the midst of working on a film called High Noon.  As he anguished over whether to testify and, if so, whether he would name names (that is, identify others in the film industry who might be communists), he began to shape High Noon into an allegory to mirror his own struggle, which encapsulated one of the era’s central moral dilemmas: whether to cooperate with the government’s witch hunt for subversives.

Frankel skillfully weaves the accounts of political actors with those of actual actors, particularly the star of High Noon, Gary Cooper.  (Cooper comes off sympathetically, even if his fidelity to friends was in contrast to his marital infidelity—he had a notorious affair with the actress Patricia Neal, among others.)  Frankel also focuses on four other individuals whose efforts were responsible for the creation of High Noon: director Fred Zinnemann, producer Stanley Kramer, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby.  This part of the narrative—the way in which talented artists bicker, negotiate, inspire, and perspire—suggests just how messy filmmaking can be—and, on a more positive note, how aesthetic concerns can sometimes trump both economic and political considerations.

Frankel’s analysis of High Noon is informed by (and necessarily interspersed with) interesting discussions of other relevant films (Mission to Moscow [1943], Tender Comrade [1943], Song of Russia [1944]) and by excellent observations about the influence that Hollywood’s two best known gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons) wielded during the McCarthy Era.  Furthermore, Frankel shares enough wry tidbits to keep the anti-communist crusading from becoming too depressing.  (Readers learn that Ginger Rogers’s mother claimed that her daughter had refused to speak the line, “Share and share alike—that’s democracy” during the filming of Tender Comrade, a risible enough anecdote even if Roger’s mother had been accurate (Ginger did utter the line, apparently confident that it was not an endorsement of communism [p. 74]).

The only drawback is that Frankel sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees (or the leaves).  This is apparent in the digressions about individuals or films that aren’t really pertinent, and in the book’s closing pages, which Frankel uses as an opportunity to provide final remarks about the protagonists, though not about the book’s overarching theme (political repression and its impact on creative artists).  Frankel notes that, in the decade or so following McCarthyism, the “blacklisters had been sorely missed” (p. 304), but fails to say a whole lot more than that, giving the book a needlessly flat ending.

Frankel is conversant with the scholarly and popular literature regarding Hollywood and McCarthyism.  His book adds to both older works (for example, Victor Navasky’s Naming Names [1980] and Nora Sayre’s Running Time: Films of the Cold War [1982]) and newer ones (for instance, Jennifer Frost’s Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism [2011] and Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe [2014]).  A wide audience should read—and will definitely enjoy—Frankel’s study, especially film buffs and scholars of McCarthyism.


Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics. Marjorie J. Spruill. Bloomsbury, 2017. 436 pages. $33.00 (cloth). ISBN 9781632863140. 

Perhaps the most turbulent decade in modern American history was the 1960s.  But according to Marjorie Spruill, an historian at the University of South Carolina, the 1970s were no picnic either, at least in terms of the political and social transformations connected to the women’s rights movement.

SpruillThe title of Spruill’s books summarizes her thesis.  She argues that support for women’s rights grew so steadily throughout the late 1960s that by the early 1970s there was bipartisan (or near-bipartisan) consensus over the need to support additional measures to effect full equality for women.  However, only a few years later (1977 is the pivotal year for Spruill—more on that below), America’s women, as well as the two major political parties, had become “polarized” by emergent issues—namely, attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.  Opponents of the ERA and the Roe decision—as per the book’s title—exchanged the banner of women’s rights for that of “family values.”  We are, according to Spruill, still living amid that polarization.

There are three protagonists in Spruill’s narrative: two are people, one is an institution.  Bela Abzug, the indomitable (or insufferable, if you disagreed with her) two-term congresswoman from New York City (1972-1976) and a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, represented the most liberal views of the women’s rights movement.  As Spruill indicates, Abzug was a formidable standard bearer for the cause of equal rights (she introduced the first federal gay rights bill), but also a dyspeptically divisive figure, even among her allies.  If Abzug was the villain whom conservatives loved to hate, the reverse was true for her foil, Phyllis Schlafly.  A stalwart in right-wing politics for more than six decades, Schlafly gained national prominence as the nation’s most vocal (and effective) opponent of the ERA.  More than any other individual, it was she who incessantly claimed that passage of the ERA would have dire social consequences.  For Spruill, this threat (real and/or imagined) was at the core of the polarization that would come to characterize modern political discourse.

The positions and actions taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)—that is, the Mormon Church—also play a critical role in the argument that Spruill advances.  In 1976, the LDS stated that the ERA was a “moral issue”; in other words, it was a religious issue on which there could be no equivocation.  As Spruill astutely notes, “[This declaration] meant full institutional involvement: all church members—not just legislators—were expected not only to oppose the ERA but also to do all in their power to secure its defeat (p. 89).”  According to Spruill, this battle cry helped doom the ERA.  Although much as been written about the reconnection of religion and politics in the 1970s and 1980s (for the most recent treatment, see Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelists: The Struggle to Shape America [Simon & Schuster, 2017]), Spruill’s analysis is a necessary reminder that the LDS (not just Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority) was critical in effecting that reconnection.

Spruill identifies the National Women’s Conference, held on November 18-21 in Houston, as the great watershed event between the women’s rights (liberal) versus the family values (conservative) camps.  The national conference was preceded by federally sponsored state conventions, during which women were invited to articulate their concerns to Congress and the president.  Spruill concludes that “American politics would never be the same” after these conferences (including the one in Houston).  Nevertheless, by the time the reader reaches the end of Spruill’s account, cause and effect are somewhat muddled: the conventions were, it seems, as much as a symptom as a precipitant of the polarization that Spruill documents.

And this raises a final question.  Was the fracturing of the women’s movement the only (or even the main) cause of the acrimony that still characterizes contemporary politics, if such a link hasn’t been subsequently attenuated beyond all recognition?  At least three other crusades for social justice—the civil rights, gay rights, and anti-war movements—suffered from internecine conflicts and eventually splintered into various factions in the 1970s.  Thus, while the era’s mass movements caused a certain amount of political and social upheaval, they themselves were affected by upheaval.  To mention only one possibility, Rick Perlstein has argued in Nixonland (Sribner, 2008) that Richard Nixon’s rhetoric and policies (focusing mostly on socio-economic and cultural resentments) created a deep rift in the American polity.  If so, then the Houston convention could have been a manifestation of that rift, not its genesis.

Spruill has produced a compelling, meticulously researched account of an important moment in American history.  It will supplement existing accounts of the women’s rights movement (particularly post-mortems of the ERA), as well as complement less directly related works such as Linda Hirshman’s Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (Harper, 2015).  Spruill’s book will be of interest to specialists, students of American history, and the well-read public.