ONE NIGHT STANDS WITH AMERICAN HISTORY
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
One-Night Stands with American History is a revision of a book published in 1980 by Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger. In the updated volume, the two compilers have an additional twenty-three years of history to play with and explore. In some ways, however, this works against the two editors since it is the more recent entries that they allow the appearance of political bias to creep into their selections.
The book is broken up into ten chronological sections, beginning with the colonial period and ending with the administration of George W. Bush. Each sections opens with brief facts about the period and then is a collection of short items of interest, mostly involving politicians, but occasionally dealing with military men or business tycoons. Interestingly, for a book with the subtitle “Odd, Amusing, and Little-Known Incidents,” the compilers are unaware of few such incidents which involve the common man, women, or any group considered “fringe” to the great events of American history.
One of the areas where One-Night Stands with American History is particularly strong is the inclusion of citations for the sources Shenkman and Reiger have used. Despite this inclusion, many of the related anecdotes make the reader wonder about the veracity of the reporting. Some have the feel of urban legends or jokes. In other cases, the authors’ selection of source material seems to place secondary sources over primary ones. However, the average reader is probably looking for quick notes about history and will ignore the citations, certainly not reading them more fully to determine the reliability of those sources.
At the same time, when Shenkman and Reiger relate a famous tale which has a dubious pedigree, they point out the reality. In this, however, they have avoided some of the more famous tall tales, such as Washington and the cherry tree. It does demonstrate, however, they good faith in included anecdotes (as does their support with source material).
In many cases, it appears that Shenkman and Reiger simply allow their sources to speak for themselves, serving as editors, not authors. While not all of the entries appear to be taken verbatim from earlier accounts, a significant number have been (apparently) written by the authors and in a few cases, they even rely on multiple sources for a single anecdote.
Certain periods of history are better represented than others, which is hardly surprising. More people are interested in the Civil War than the Gilded Age, and because the personalities of the former are better known, Shenkman and Reiger don’t have to explain who the characters in the anecdotes are as much. In many cases, they just assume the reader knows who a person is, and in most of those cases, they are correct. There are a few individuals mentioned, however, whose fame in this age should not be counted upon.A basic knowledge of the background of American history is necessary to fully appreciate the stories which appear in One-Night Stands with American History. In many cases, lack of knowledge of the reputation of the principals will lead to the stories not working entirely or losing much of their humor. With that basic background, however, One-Night Stands with American History becomes more than a jokebook and a humanizing influence on the political figures of American history.
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