Sunday, February 01, 2009

The American Patriot's Almanac [Review]

Title: The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America
Author: William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb
Copyright: 2008, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee
Length: 515 pages
Genre: Reference (U.S. History)

Summary: This is a useful single-volume reference, created with the intent of fostering awareness of and pride in the historical heritage of the United States. Each day of the year (with the exception of leap years, there being no entry for Feb 29) has a primary entry running about 4-5 paragraphs in length and a series of bulleted items (American History on Parade) that are single sentence entries of other events associated with the date. In between the pages for a specific month may be inserted full text primary documents (the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.) or lighter offerings such as 100 All-American Movies. In the same vein, the text of patriotic poems and songs, including works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohen and Walt Whitman punctuate the volume. (I missed the inclusion of Whittier's patriotic - albeit sentimental - poem about Barbara Frietchie, but as it turns out, there is no historical basis for that particular incident.) The seven pages following the month of November contain a section entitled Prayers for the American People, including one credited as being said daily by Harry S. Truman. Except for the afore-mentioned primary historical documents, vocabulary is not particularly challenging and sentence structure tends to be relatively simple. The target audience for this book (based on the reading level of the material offered) would appear to be students third-grade and up. Certainly, the book might readily sit on a classroom or family library shelf and get significant use.

Extract: At the beginning of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, at age eighty-one the oldest delegate, had noticed that the back of George Washington's chair was decorated with the image of a sun. At the convention's end, Franklin commented, " I have often and often in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

Also Relevant: I spent some time with this book, knowing that one of the authors, William J. Bennett, tends to the conservative end of politics and fearing that it would reflect exclusionary attitudes in terms of gender, creed, etc. There was less of a problem than I had anticipated, but the presentation is not without its bias. My particular examination focused on the inclusion of notable women (where I might personally claim some better-than-average expertise). Obvious historical female entities were included: Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Helen Keller. Such women are safe role models. Abigail was mother of a large family, kept the home farm operating while her spouse was politically active in public service, and remained devoted to her husband during those long absences. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born saint and founder of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female to receive a medical degree in the U.S. is also allowed her place as is educator and civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune . My difficulty is that, as near as I can determine, no achievements of women past 1960 are cited in the text. One does wonder about the missing Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, or about the missing Sally Ride, first American woman in space. Teacher Christa McAuliffe gets a brief mention in the context of the Challenger space shuttle accident, but otherwise references to modern women are few if not entirely missing from this text.

Similarly, my other nitpicking criticism of the text has to do with what may or may not be included in each of the bulleted items in the "American History on Parade" feature. Some percentage of these were simply included for their peculiarity or oddity. For example, the Almanac notes that on November 21, 1984, "millions of TV viewers" tuned in to learn who shot J.R. Similarly, the feature for May 20 notes the name of the first cab driver ticketed for speeding in the city of New York. In both instances, one has to wonder how such inclusion furthers the author's intent of instilling pride in the country. Television and speeding can't be considered worthy cultural hallmarks, can they?

But I admit that this is the kind of generally educational book that would have entertained me at the age of nine or ten. Just enough of a good story to stick in the memory, delivered without too many caveats or specificity. One can only hope that parents and teachers who purchase it don't allow it to be the *only* historical reference made available.