David Traxel
1898: The Birth of the American Century.
Knopf, 365 pages, $28.95

David Traxel is an avid reader of century-old newsprint, a man of infectious enthusiasms, and an engaging storyteller, but none of this makes him an especially good historian. He has dropped his bucket down the well of time and hauled up 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, “twelve months of rich confusion, wild contradiction, and violent change” during which the United States “would turn from a long history of isolation and preoccupation with its own affairs to active foreign involvement and the challenges of being a world power.” The bucket brims with rich material—T. R. and McKinley, Pulitzer and Hearst, the sinking of the Maine, and the Battle of Manila Bay—and Traxel ladles it out in sparkling cupfuls. But the book is all sparkle, all anecdote, in love with facts and people and events but wary of...


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