Letters to the Editor of the New York Times Book Review
Following are two letters sent to the New York Times in response to Sylvia Nasar's negative review of the new textbook, Inventing America (Norton), written by Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar and Daniel J. Kevles.
The first letter was written by the authors. The second by Louis Ferleger, Professor of History, Boston University.
To the Editor, Times Sunday Book Review:
We scarcely recognize our book, Inventing America, in Sylvia Nasar's ideologically
driven review. The book is a comprehensive, synthetic history of the United
States, distinguished in part by the attention it gives to science and technology
in American history. Nasar, who is not a historian, does not address the ways
in which it builds upon and in some measure revises current scholarship. Instead,
after essentially skipping the first half of the book (through Reconstruction),
she attacks the rest for not explaining how private enterprise and the profit
motive account for America's "technological fecundity," explosive
growth, and vastly improved standard of living.
Her specific allegations are sharply at odds with the book, which makes no claim that inventiveness is exclusively American. It carefully describes the nuts and bolts of business history, the impact of technology on economic growth, and the transformations in ordinary life over previous centuries (not just the past 130 years). More important, a book written from her uncritically pro-business stance would be neither a balanced textbook nor good history. The state has been a more significant player in the American economy than Nasar suggests, and the impact of private enterprise more complex than she seems willing to admit, even in this post-Enron era. Emphasizing the United States' material superiority to the rest of the world, Nasar would have us pay less attention to social and economic inequality, especially among women, minorities, and immigrants. Such a history would be incomplete and disregard the substantial scholarship of the past generation. We trust that our fellow historians and other readers recognize the shortcomings of Nasar's review.
Merritt Roe Smith
Daniel J. Kevles