Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945, Geoffrey Perrett (University of Wisconsin: $13.95). The author looks at the triumph--World War II unified the nation and bolstered our belief in democracy--without becoming wistful: This isn't another study contrasting the unity and high morale during war with the fragmentation and uncertainty of the present. We might envision a time of domestic tranquillity, writes Geoffrey Perrett, a social historian, but, in fact, public debate over social, political and economic issues actually intensified during the war; debate in the early 1940s, Perrett says, even laid the groundwork for major social and political revolutions in the next two decades. By boosting the faith of Americans in their nation, Hitler's challenge encouraged public control over domestic policy, thus strengthening democracy. Perrett doesn't clearly point out that this message is as disturbing as it is encouraging: Are there no other ways to strengthen our sense of national community? More sober realizations, however, are explored in the author's 1979 book, "A Dream of Greatness: The American People 1945-1963," which, in part, looks at crises such as McCarthyism to show that the American people can indeed lose consciousness of their own history.
Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, Dwight MacDonald (De Capo: $9.95). Defining the purpose behind his work as a cultural critic for the New Yorker, the Partisan Review and other eclectic magazines, Dwight MacDonald was characteristically direct: There are two cultures in the United States, he writes in this 1962 collection, "one for the masses and the other for the classes. I am for the latter." Yet MacDonald, as John Simon writes in the introduction, was not an elitist "of the lazy sort who content themselves with basking in the highness of their brows." Even when defending "high culture," MacDonald's writing remained accessible to the masses. Instead of branding popular thought muddled, intransigent and simple-minded (adjectives he believed to be accurate), MacDonald patiently pointed out the dangers in a society in which facts crowd out arguments, the Bible gets updated to reflect contemporary ideals and the English language is adulterated.