cover image Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism

Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism

Bhu Srinivasan. Penguin Press, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-0-399-56379-9

Media entrepreneur Srinivasan sweeps through American history using “a series of breakthroughs, innovations, and ideas” to trace the development of American capitalism. He frames each of the book’s 35 chapters around what he dubs “next big things,” which serve as narrative lenses. For example, tobacco and cotton exemplify the plantation system; canals and railroads illustrate American expansionism; and computing and the internet spotlight the information age. It’s a lively narrative of ingenuity and achievement; Srinivasan’s scope is broad and he finds intriguing points of entry for each topic. Yet there are major problems with his account. Srinivasan immigrated to the U.S. at age eight and finds much to admire about America, but his work is partly premised on the unsupportable assertion that “most immigrants come here first to participate in its capitalism.” He is also open about his desire to divorce economic history from political history even as he offers such insights as “the cold economics of one man’s rationality reinforced his neighbor’s racism.” His slight chapters on slavery and the labor movement are underwhelming, and he occasionally gets wrong basic facts (conflating anarchists with Marxists, for example). Despite its novel approach and accessibility, Srinivasan’s book comes across as an uncritical hagiography of a system that has worked to his benefit. (Oct.)