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Mason B. Williams

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“Today, many New Yorkers take the FDR to get to La Guardia,” Mason B. Williams jokes in the opening line of his new book City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (W.W. Norton, 2013) . And, depending on where they start, they pass any number of vital, iconic features in Gotham’s landscape that were built thanks to both men: Carl Schurz Park, the Triborough Bridge, Randall Island’s Stadium, the Astoria Pool, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, William Cullen Bryant High School, the Queensbridge Houses, etc. These public works are the physical legacy of the New Deal, and the legendary partnership between the city’s famous mayor, Fiorella La Guardia, and the state’s former Governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the latter’s presidency. That heritage stands everywhere around us, not just in New York but all over the country. Yet, as Williams notes, the history of this paradoxically productive era in America’s past (a stark contrast to politics in the Great Recession) has been “obscured in turns by ideology and neglect.”

City of Ambition tells that story with sophistication and verve. It is difficult for any scholar, particularly a junior one, to say something interesting about the New Deal, the Big Bang in modern American political history. But Williams uses this quasi dual-biographical approach to make a point we sometimes forget: that federalism, so often the Achilles heel of reform in the United States, actually lay at the heart of this seminal moment. Washington lacked the operational capacity to administer large-scale programs, and so relied heavily upon municipal governments. Far from a zero-sum game, the growth of federal power “enabled local action.”

Heavily researched, ambitiously broad, and finely written, Williams’s book explores a number of other local and national themes, as well. Read and enjoy.


Melvin ElyIsrael on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

October 21, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Law] In Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage Books, 2004), Melvin Ely uses a trove of documents primarily found in the county court records of Prince Edward County, Virginia to unravel a rich story about the free blacks who inhabited “the gentle slope of [...]

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Thomas KohutA German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century

October 6, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Psychoanalysis] Germans belonging to the generation born at the turn of the twentieth century endured staggering losses, many of which became difficult to mourn or even acknowledge: their parents in World War I, financial and physical security during the Weimar Republic, the racially pure utopian promise of the Third Reich, and likely [...]

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Robert StolzBad Water: Nature, Pollution & Politics in Japan, 1870-1950

October 2, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] Robert Stolz’s new book explores the emergence of an environmental turn in modern Japan. Bad Water: Nature, Pollution & Politics in Japan, 1870-1950 (Duke University Press, 2014) guides readers through the unfolding of successive eco-historical periods in Japan. Stolz charts the transformations of an “environmental unconscious” lying at the foundation of [...]

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Kwasi KonaduTransatlantic Africa, 1440-1888

September 30, 2014

Most of what we know about the trans-Atlantic slave trade–particularly before the nineteenth century–comes from documents produced by slavers and those Europeans and euro-Americans who interacted with them. Most, but, as Kwasi Konadu points out in Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888 (Oxford University Press, 2014), not all. It is possible, Konadu shows, to construct a narrative of the slave experience [...]

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David WrightDowns: The History of a Disability

September 30, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Medicine] David Wright‘s 2011 book Downs: The History of a Disability (Oxford University Press, 2011), offers readers a history that stretches far beyond the strictly defined genetic disorder that is its namesake. Wright shows us how the condition that came to be known as Down’s syndrome has as much to do with the [...]

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Todd A. HenryAssimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945

September 21, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] Todd Henry’s new book is a wonderful study of public space as a laboratory for producing the experiences and engines of colonial society. Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 (University of California Press, 2014) explores the forms of spatialization of colonial Keij? as a [...]

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Edward E. BaptistThe Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

September 8, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in American Studies] An unflinching examination of the trauma, violence, opportunism, and vision that combined to create the empire for slavery that was the Old South, Ed Baptist‘s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) challenges popular conceptions of that region that imagine it as [...]

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John TreschThe Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

September 5, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society] John Tresch’s beautiful new book charts a series of transformations that collectively ushered in a new cosmology in the Paris of the early-mid nineteenth century. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon  (University of Chicago Press, 2012) narrates the emergence of a new image of the machine, a [...]

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Ovamir AnjumPolitics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment

August 22, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Islamic Studies] In Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Ovamir Anjum explores a timely topic, even though his focus is hundreds of years in the past. In order to present his topic Professor Anjum asks a series of foundational questions, such as: How have Muslims understood ideal government [...]

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