Sunday, June 25, 2006

Book Review: "Dark Bargain"

Lawrence Goldstone is perhaps better known for his excellent literary memoirs, cowritten with his wife Nancy (Used and Rare, Slightly Chipped, Warmly Inscribed), than he is for his historical writing; his latest book, Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Constitution is a perfect example of why Mr. Goldstone should stick to writing about books.

Between the generalizations and oversimplifications ("to a significant and disquieting degree, America's most sacred document was molded and shaped by the most notorious institution in its history"; "only twenty-two years old, George Washington had helped ignite the first world war") and the anachronistic judgmental pronouncements that he slathers on throughout the book, Goldstone's work in Dark Bargain is, as the Publisher's Weekly review put it, the type of "book that gives 'popular history' a bad name."

The major theme - that self-interest, parochialism, and slavery played a role (if not a preeminent one) at the Constitutional Convention - is neither new nor augmented here; it is handled far better by more serious writers: Gordon Wood, Forrest McDonald, Jack Rakove, Bernard Bailyn and Eugene Genovese, among others. Goldstone's work seems overly deriative from that of Paul Finkelman, another writer who writes obsessively of the impact of slavery on the formation of the American government.

All in all, an eminently forgettable book which I cannot recommend.