Traxel - 1898

March 29, 2006

David Traxel
Alfred A. Kopf, New York, 1998

This is about as good as popular history gets, which is pretty darn good indeed.

Traxel takes a single, important year and tells its story chronologically. He is more interested in telling a story than in engaging other historians. He does cite other people in the text from time to time - he is no David McCullogh that way - but his primary purpose is synthesis and narrative. The narrative that he tells is one of a nation becoming modern, a coming of age story for a large, complex body of people.

The cover does an absolutely brilliant job of depicting the way that the events inside have been framed. The front cover is the famous picture of Cuba reconciling the North and the South, a staged picture with two old men in Civil War uniforms shaking hands under the blessing of a girl in a white dress wearing a tiara marked "Cuba." The back is the National Biscuit Company's iconic advertisement of a boy in a yellow slicker holding an equally waterproof box of Uneeda Biscuits. Empire, reunification, and the second industrial revolution all combined in a single powerful year.

Traxel puts most of his attention on the United States' emergence as an imperial power, first with the Spanish American War and then with the decision to annex the Philippines after that war. The second large story that he tells is of the rise of Theodore Roosevelt from hyper-energetic assistant secretary of the navy to war hero to Governor of New York and future vice president. Both of these stories are told against the backdrop of the second industrial revolution - we see violent labor strikes, crippling industrial accidents, and the emergence of the National Biscuit Company and its antidote to the old-fashioned cracker barrel. The final part of the story is that of race in the United States, for 1898 saw both the Wilmington NC race riot and the charge of the 9th and 10th Cavalry up San Juan Hill. The Progressive Era marked the nadir of race relations in the modern United States, and 1898 is after Plessy v. Ferguson but before Woodrow Wilson would segregate the federal government.

The prose is simple and powerful, the events compelling the coverage complete. Traxel accommodates his tight chronological focus by letting his story break free of the 1898 at the point where he introduces and says farewell to each character. So when we meet Teddy Roosevelt we get his backstory, we then follow Roosevelt through a chronological narrative of the year, and it is only after his last moment on the stage that Traxel tells us the trajectory of Roosevelt's later political career. He follows the same pattern for other people, other institutions, and the net effect emphasizes his contention that 1898 was the crucial year that the universe changed.

There are a few places where the narrative falters - we learn about the murder of President McKinley's brother in law in the month when McKinley found out about it, and we learn how that murder altered his campaign plans during the mid-term Congressional elections, but after that we never go back to the small town in Ohio. Events appear and disappear from the narrative, just as they would have from the perspective of someone who lived through the year, but many of the threads feel unwoven and unresolved. That may have been intentional - we don't learn the answers to many stories - but it leads to a few jarring transitions. In addition, it emphasizes the extent to which this is popular and not analytical history. Traxel tells us what happens, and he tells us what happened next, but he does not spend a lot of foreground time and energy explaining why most of the events he chronicles actually matter. The reader is left to speculate about the importance of a storm off the coast of New England, because that storm does not really connect to either the growth of big business or the expansion of empire. Still, it happened and so we are told about it.

Those are quibbles. This was a great book great fun to read, and heartily recommended!

Posted by Red Ted at March 29, 2006 09:51 PM | TrackBack
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