Letters to the Editor of the New York Times Book Review

Culture Watch

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.

Pauline Maier
Merritt Roe Smith
Alexander Keyssar
Daniel J. Kevles

To the Editor:

Sylvia Nasar’s review of Inventing America misrepresents what others view as a pathbreaking book. It is hard to imagine what book she read. Is it the same book that other historians have praised—precisely for “treating ‘science and technology as integral elements of American history’” as well as for the book’s clarity, insightfulness, originality, and coverage? The misrepresentations in the review are too numerous to detail but several are outright distortions. For example, she states that nowhere in the book do the authors discuss “relevant concepts like productivity” or “the story of technology without highlighting its impact on growth.” A more thorough reading of the book would have noted how frequently the authors discuss productivity. Case in point: the authors discuss productivity on page 987, where they state “industrial productivity, measured as output per man-hour,” and go on to explain what the number means in the paragraph. On technology and growth, see the brilliant discussions of the impact technology had on growth in chapter 18 (“The Rise of Big Business and The Triumph of Industry”), chapter 22 (“The Progressive Era: 1900-1916”), chapter 24 (“The Great Depression and the New Deal: 1929-1940”), and so on. Nasar apparently wanted the authors to write her book, that is, a history text that celebrates “markets” or “profits” as the only elements of the American story that are worthy of serious attention. Readers of Inventing America will find plenty examples of the role of markets and profits in the text. They also will find that the authors do present a “compelling explanation of why America has produced so much innovation and growth since 1870.” Unlike Nasar’s review, the authors of Inventing America make and present compelling arguments.

Louis A. Ferleger Professor of History, Boston University

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hans rieger - 1/11/2004

Dear Editor, the article by Richard Bernstein Jan 4 about "2 families find some wrongs defy fixing" touched a sensitive nerve in me. As an autochtone from Silesia I always questioned the benefits of the Yalta Agreements.
This and previous agreements between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt is the underlying cause of the problem, and is conveniently omitted in Mister Bernsteins report.It perfectly illustrates the shortsightness of some wisdom.

hans rieger - 1/11/2004

Daivd Deas - 9/3/2003

ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! I was outraged when I picked up a copy of the New York Daily News Sept 3, 2003 and turned to page three. There, for the world to see was a photo of a man shot in the head sprawled on the street.Unbelievable! Is this where journalism is heading at the Daily News? When I called the paper to complain, an editor said, "From time to time we show graphic pictures of Palistinians shot or killed." This brings to my my next point. The man was an American. He was 21 and an innocent bystander at a parade in Brooklyn. He's not 10,000 miles away in the Middle East. HE WAS ON EASTERN PARKWAY! Does his family deserve any respect? When pressed, the Daily News editor said he wouldn't like it if his family member was gunned down and photographed for the paper. To me, this is ground breaking! Historical! It jumps the shark! For the first time in probably 50 years, innocent Americans are shown blown away in the NY Daily News! And here's a newsflash: Black Americans are now considered to be Palistinians! Maybe we should start throwing rocks at Daily News photograhers! Or, how about this: Let's declare an infadah on the paper! Does this mean Al Sharpton is our Yassar Afafat? If it does, Rev Al should pay a visit to Mortimer and his "ed-i-hores" and stop the erosion of journalism at the expence of an innocent slain New Yorker. I'm getting my company to cancel our Daily News subscription. And kudos to the Post for handling the story in a dignified manner.

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