‘Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism’

Bhu Srinivasan, Penguin Press, 576 pages, $30.

“Americana” is a delightful tour through the businesses and industries that turned America into the biggest economy in the world. Not only is the book written in a light and informative style, it is cleverly constructed. Each chapter has a theme — tobacco, cotton, steam, oil, bootlegging, mobile telephones and so on — and these themes are organized to lead the reader through a chronological history of the U.S. economy. Along the way, there is plenty of surprising detail. By 1860, auction prices suggested that the collective value of American slaves was $4 billion at a time when the federal budget was around $69 million. Until World War I, the Busch family (who produced Budweiser beer) held a big annual celebration for the Kaiser’s birthday. Bill Levitt, the builder who pioneered the post-1945 shift to suburban living, was one of many who refused to sell homes to black Americans. To finance their new company, Apple Computer, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak respectively sold a VW minibus and a Hewlett-Packard calculator. Author Bhu Srinivasan, himself an immigrant who became an entrepreneur, never lets the detail interfere with the bigger picture. As he notes, European settlement in the United States was originally driven by commercial imperative. A complicated web of individual vs. state vs. national interests evolved. Commerce played a decisive part in setting the course of American history. In short, American economic history is more complex than some ideologues seek to portray it; this excellent book gives readers a fully rounded picture.