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LEGENDS, LIES & CHERISHED MYTHS OF AMERICAN HISTORY by Richard Shenkman (Harper & Row: $7.95)

October 22, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

Richard Shenkman is so eager to debunk popular beliefs, he wastes a great deal of effort setting up straw men, just so he can knock them down. His research is derived entirely from secondary sources, and his "revelations" often amount to restatements of the obvious, e.g., machines credited to single inventors are actually refined versions of earlier prototypes. He also fails to consider the significance of the myths he discredits. Andrew Johnson may have been the only President born into poverty (a term Shenkman fails to define adequately), but why do Americans like to think of their leaders as men who rose from rags to riches? The chapter deriding popular nostalgia for the pre-World War I era contains outrageous, unsupported pronouncements about pollution and poverty. Shenkman's assertion, "Nothing we have today compares with the horrible conditions of tenement life in the Gilded Age," might come as a revelation to thousands of families living in slums, cars and cardboard boxes.

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