Jim Cullen: Review of Owen J. Hurd's "After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History's Heroes, Villains, and Supporting Characters" (Perigee, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
A good idea will take you a long way in the publishing business, and Owen J. Hurd has got one here: compiling a list of epilogues to some of the best-known stories in American history. Pocohantas going to London after her marriage to John Rolfe. Paul Revere flubbing an amphibious campaign in Maine during the American Revolution. A drunken Elliot Ness guilty of a hit-and-run in his post-Untouchables career.
Hurd, a freelance corporate writer who produces breezy prose, takes a workaday approach to the subject. Each chapter in this loosely chronological book consists of three stories from a particular period or covering a particular theme American history, from Columbus's voyages to Watergate. Hurd typically read two or three books on a given subject, as indicated in his bibliography, and has synthesized them into pithy episodes that begin by reminding the reader why a particular person was famous, the sometimes amusing aftermath to his or her story, and then some "loose ends" involving secondary figures in the tale. Many of these stories will be familiar to historians, but any given reader will be glad to reminded of some details and will surely not know of others. Chapters are cleverly batched to cover literary figures, athletes, gangsters and cowboys. Occasionally Hurd will dovetail stories, as in his account of the post of Harry Truman's amusing (and impressively modest) retirement and its parallel with his nemesis, Douglas MacArthur. He's also attentive to the personal foibles of reputed giants (Alexander Graham Bell gets taken down a peg here), and will occasionally express admiration for those, like Salem witch judge Samuel Sewall, who redeem their sins.
As reading fare goes, After the Fact is light to the point of evaporation (you could knock off this paperback original poolside). At the same time, it may well find a reasonably long shelf life in its back-cover category designation of "popular reference." Books like these are a good reminder to historians that a concept and a structure can be half the battle in executing a book.
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