three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
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How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea

A-Seizing DestinyQuick, name the secretary of state who brokered an unpopular deal with Russia to buy Alaska. Or clarify how the wars against Mexico and Spain resulted in the growth of America; name the year France handed over the Louisiana Purchase; and explain why President James Polk was called the "expansionist extraordinaire." America’s unprecedented growth lies at the heart of Seizing Destiny, which explores the driving forces behind that expansion—Manifest Destiny, certainly, but also many other ideological and material forces, some of them unsavory. The history, Richard Kluger points out, is never as tidy as popular accounts would suggest, particularly when influenced by a contradictory, uniquely American spirit that combined "ingenuity and energy" with "blind chauvinism."
Knopf. 649 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375413413

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Kluger paints a detailed and compelling portrait of how the Colonies became a country, settled their differences over various borders, and positioned themselves in a world hostile to their ideas and skeptical of their survival. He lingers on the disputes among the Colonies and states on their borders, many of which conflicted, none of which were acknowledged by the great powers of Europe, and explains how Great Britain, in defeat in America, came to try to win the affection of the onetime Colonists with whom they shared language and outlook." David M. Shribman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"In its excellence, Seizing Destiny reminds us to avoid ‘confusing opportunity with entitlement’ or power with virtue. Kluger’s conclusion that ‘Destiny has never been fond of lingering in one place, or favoring one people, forever’ might make some readers uncomfortable." Alan Cate

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How the country expanded geographically is the subject of Kluger’s comprehensive and sweeping book. … Seizing Destiny combines a modest appreciation of Americans’ restless spirit—their ‘vibrancy and resilience,’ ‘ingenuity and energy’—with a sustained critique of their ‘blind chauvinism,’ self-serving belief in Providence’s favor as a ‘license to have their way’ and the often-ignoble methods used to take possession of their continent-spanning domain." Eric Arnesen

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kluger’s text is the beneficiary of his painstaking research into primary sources, public documents, academic scholarship and popular screeds; from this archival devotion emerges a well-reasoned examination of ‘How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea.’ Equally worthy is his book’s unstated purpose: while Seizing Destiny never mentions Iraq, its backdrop is the war’s ghastly carnage and, in turn, it provides context for America’s latest misadventure abroad." Char Miller

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Each of Kluger’s chapters is a precise synthesis of how an important chunk of land was added to the United States, building from the Revolutionary War, through outfoxing the empires that would have kept the country a plaything of kings after independence, and to the Louisiana Purchase, the Texas rebellion, the U.S.-Mexico War, purchasing Alaska from Russia, and annexing Hawaii, along with assorted other bargain acquisitions and forceful imperial ventures. The problem is it doesn’t all add up." Jon Christensen

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Seizing Destiny is a well-crafted and readable narrative of this often sordid, sometimes forgotten side of the American past. … But this good book would have been better had Kluger seriously analyzed the legacy of America’s historic aggressiveness." John Ferling

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Kluger breathes new life into an oft-told tale by offering sharp and shrewd judgments of the movers and shakers in America’s surge to dominion. … Though generally sensible and sure-footed, Kluger makes a few errors and questionable judgments." Glenn C. Altschuler

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Kluger writes with great verve and knows how to turn a phrase, as well as mangle a metaphor, but a certain air of pointlessness hovers over the book. The story he tells is a familiar one, and he has no new thesis to present." William Grimes

Critical Summary

In Seizing Destiny, Richard Kluger, author of the Supreme Court study Simple Justice (1977) and Ashes to Ashes (1997), a Pulitzer Prize–winning look at the tobacco industry, takes as his subject America’s expansion "from sea to shining sea." Critics are generally positive in their assessment of the book, and applaud Kluger’s willingness to deal with the less-heroic details of American expansion. Some, however, question the author’s thesis and its execution. That the motives for land acquisition were not as pure as earlier generations were led to believe is now orthodoxy, and Kluger’s argument tends to reiterate this once-revisionist history. Still, the author’s voluminous research and intricate analysis of the important events are sound, and his presentation is engaging.