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The Empire State: A History of New York

In 2001, The Empire State: A History of New York, edited by Milton M. Klein, was welcomed as the long-anticipated replacement for David Ellis’s A History of New York State, which had been out of print for many years. (In fact, the trustees of the New York State Historical Society inaugurated work on this updated, one-volume history of the state in  the late 1980’s.) The book is divided into seven chronological sections written by six specialist scholars: Oliver A. Rink (“Before the English”), Ronald W. Howard (“The English Province”), Edward Countryman (“From Revolution to Statehood”), Ray Gunn (“Antebellum Society and Politics”), Paula Baker (“The Gilded Age”), and Joel Schwartz (“The Triumph of Liberalism” and “The Empire State in a Changing World”). Initial reviews of the new text spoke glowingly of “a rich resource and reliable guide,” “a stunning achievement in terms of research, coverage, depth of analysis, and the clarity of its writing,” and “a standard reference work for many scholars and teachers.” Yet, according to its forward, one of the purposes of The Empire State is “to satisfy the growing demand from teachers and students for a text at once authoritative and manageable.” How well does the current volume live up its own criteria? Last fall, I decided to test it on the students in my upper-level New York State history course.

A book taking more than a decade to complete and written by six authors might be expected to have something for everyone, and readers can indeed find a wealth of information about state history between its covers. At the same time, a taste from this volume works better than a meal. Each of the seven parts appears to exist as a discrete unit, without the continuity and attempt at an overarching narrative flow one finds in most college texts, even those written by multiple authors. The book often seems uneven and unbalanced—repetitive in some

places, overly detailed in others, and completely neglecting several expected topics. For example, the Constitutional Convention of 1821is described by both Countryman and Gunn in two different sections, seventy pages apart. At times, the reader is overwhelmed by excessively detailed sections on politics; for example, the chapter on “Provincial and Imperial Politics” includes twelve consecutive pages on the career of James DeLancey. In contrast, one is disappointed by only a page and a quarter of text on the War of 1812, a mere page on the Hudson River School of painting, and three single-line mentions of Frederick Douglass on three different pages. Even more surprising, there appears to be no mention at all of either Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman, despite their important associations with New York State.

In terms of teaching, Klein’s  Empire State lacks basic maps (of, say, Native American tribes, areas of French and Dutch settlement, the military campaigns of the French and Indian and Revolutionary campaigns, or major railway lines). Nor is the unique geography of the state—so central to New York history—described or discussed beyond a basic map reproduced inside the covers. Attractive color plates are inserted into the center of the book but never incorporated into the text. For instance, paintings by Charles Burchfield and Reginald Marsh are reproduced, yet their names don’t even appear in the discussion of modern art. Instead, numerous other artists are listed with no illustrations of their work. More coordination between illustrations and text would have made sense.

Overall, the students complained that this text was difficult to absorb. Inundated by detail, they found recognizing the most vital points from the reading a challenge. In addition, students were disappointed that, despite its claim to provide “equal coverage to ‘upstate’ and ‘downstate’ events and people,” the book concentrates largely on New York City and Albany, with some mention of Buffalo and Rochester, and only cursory coverage of the rest of the state. (Of the 30 cities and towns important enough to be marked on the map reproduced across the inside covers, a full third are never mentioned in the text, according to the index.) And, at 734 pages of text plus an additional 100 pages of back matter, The Empire State is hardly compact or indeed manageable for a college text.

It may seem ungracious to criticize this mammoth, ambitious work, and especially the editing of Milton M. Klein, who died last year. Probably no book could fulfill the multiple goals set for this volume. There is also no doubt that Empire State fills a great void by providing an updated reference work on New York State history. The dense chapters offer an excellent resource for preparing lectures in those areas where one’s knowledge of state history is spotty. Unfortunately, as for an informative and engaging text to use in our college courses, teachers and students continue to wait.

—Susan Ingalls Lewis, Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz

 

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