cover image The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness America: The History of the World's Most Powerful Nation

The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness America: The History of the World's Most Powerful Nation

. Carroll & Graf Publishers, $12.95 (517pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-1167-3

This superb anthology of first-hand narratives spans American history from Columbus's voyages to the September 11th attacks. The variety of voices, culled from published and unpublished memoirs, newspapers, letters, oral histories and even NASA transcripts, is remarkable. Some pieces are by literary notables: there is Frederick Douglass's account of his frustrated ambitions under slavery, a Western picaresque by Mark Twain, a D-Day dispatch from Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman's recollection of her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Major historical junctures often appear at offbeat angles, as in John Adams's gossipy account of the committee work that went into the Declaration of Independence. Just as engaging are the stories of unsung people in prosaic settings: Jamestown settlers scrabbling for food, a new immigrant agog at the bounty and informality of 19th-century America, a war-time""Rosie the Riveter"" fighting for equality in a sexist workplace, retailers hawking Star Wars memorabilia after the Phantom Menace opening. Lewis, a historian and author of The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness History, has arranged the material in chronological order and provides a timeline and brief historical overviews. There is the occasional sloppy bit, such as when he writes that 8,000 soldiers died in Pickett's Charge, when most historians put confirmed deaths for the entire Battle of Gettysburg at a similar number (many more, of course, were wounded or missing). But his wide-ranging selection of vivid and insightful testimonies makes a wonderful reference work for students and an absorbing browse for everyone else.