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Bruce Kuklick

Territorial Ambitions

A geographical history of America.

Around the turn of the 20th century, when the American university was in its most creative period of growth, geography was an important discipline in the new studies of man. It combined natural science, the generalizing propensities of the social sciences, and history. Offering a synthetic account of human development that located cultures in the physical order, geography had some notable practitioners and institutional strongholds. But by World War II it was in decline, and has now virtually disappeared as an autonomous area of study in the United States. Its nearest equivalent is sociology. If this is so, we are all the poorer for it, as Donald Meinig's enormous history shows.

Meinig is emeritus professor of geography at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University (a geographical holdout). These volumes are not really Meinig's life project, for he did not take them up until well into middle-age, and he has several other outstanding publications. Nonetheless, the book is surely his magnum opus. In the twenty years since reviewers started to shower the first installment with praise, the author has kept at it, and the four parts announced in 1986 are now completed. There are few encomia to add, and in this review I intend, not so much to criticize The Shaping of America as to introduce interested readers to what they will find in this very impressive effort.

Meinig first tips his hat to the some of the great textbooks in U.S. history that students are asked to read in introductory courses. These texts are extraordinary productions, synthesizing all the professional literature in an easily available format, and Meinig has rightly used them to outline his own version of the American story. The first volume treats the age of exploration and of Revolution; the second scouts the context of the Civil War; the third deals with continental expansion and the first chapter of empire in the Caribbean and the Far East; the last volume is about capitalist industrial life and global responsibility. ...

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