A Companion to the Reconstruction Presidents, 1865-1881. Edited by Edward O. Frantz. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014. 654 pp.
The purpose of the Wiley Blackwell Companions to American History has always hovered in a scholarly limbo, between summing up the historical consensus about what happened in the past and providing historiographical overviews of the field; some contributors do it one way, some another, with a choice few using their essay to provide new insights and a fresh interpretation. A Companion to the Reconstruction Presidents is one more useful, if mystifying, addition to a somewhat mixed series.
Within limits, the book has its uses. As a reference tool, libraries will find it a ready source to identify the literature on various postwar aspects. Anyone seeking to learn more deeply about Andrew Johnson's career should rush to the bibliographies at the end of the five chapters devoted to him. Researchers can find no better or more concise summary of his foreign policy than Richard Zuczek's essay, though they might feel dismayed that Indian policy would be included there, rather than given a separate chapter of its own.
The books cited in the essays are usually described in ways that their authors would recognize, although, at times, the essays completely miss the main points of those books; occasionally, one feels as if the chapter's authors are trying to name drop every pertinent book without actually having read them. In many cases, the essays provide no historiographical material and simply tell the story that can be found elsewhere. One can read a synthesis of the conventional wisdom about foreign affairs, or a quick and desultory listing of some of the high points of national corruption scandals during the age, though it has nothing to say below the federal level and makes the questionable conflation of patronage and corruption. Still, having it all in one volume--one that only libraries could afford to buy--has considerable utility.
But anyone reading this book cover to cover will puzzle over why some subjects got such extensive coverage and others so little or why some essays were historical and others historiographical. Take the 13 chapters devoted to Ulysses S. Grant. Six cover his life before and after the presidency; two deal with his character and reputation, largely based on his wartime preeminence; and one, "Looking for the Popular Culture of Grant's America," is not only Grant free, but only peripherally...