The writings of  Richard Kluger

Seizing Destiny

How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea


The Critical Response


KIRKUS SERVICE [starred review]:  “A Pulitzer Prize winner comprehensively documents America’s expansion – one audacious land swindle, one gunboat accession, one bloody conquest after another….  [B]y dint of his impeccable scholarship, Kluger has earned his virtuous tone.  A brilliant book, likely to be for some time the last word on how the American map evolved.”


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Each chapter of this long, absorbing book is rewarding as Kluger meets the high standard set by his earlier work.”


AMERICAN HERITAGE:  “Kluger’s writing exhibits the clarity that won him a Pulitzer Prize for Ashes to Ashes, his 1997 book about the cigarette industry…. Kluger’s unconventional focus …will teach readers [to] see many familiar events in new ways.”


BOSTON GLOBE: “Kluger paints a detailed and compelling portrait….  [I]t was the land that made the difference, and in this case it was the land that made the country.  It is in his passages about the land that Kluger is at his most eloquent….  [Seizing Destiny] will force you to think how America was made and why.”


“This is a magisterial account of a monumental subject, nothing less than the acquisition and occupation of America.  In Kluger’s capable hands, it is a story of courage and cunning, destiny and depravity, bravado and brutality, the defining themes of America’s history.”

   – JOSEPH J. ELLIS, author of Founding Brothers


NEWSDAY:  “[Kluger] is master of a kind of sweeping but detailed historical synthesis that is held together through the force of a lively but unobtrusive prose style…. Kluger avoids the temptation – all too contemporary and American, perhaps – to reduce everything to the level of a personality profile.  His canvas is huge (you need a while to take it all in) and even the grandest architects of the nation’s growth never quite loom  over the whole scene…  Wisdom often comes from discovering the limits of your own experience – recognizing, for example that your habits and expectations have left you somewhat obtuse.  Seizing Destiny is a reminder, from one American to his fellow citizens, that it might be time for us to wise up.”


CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER:  “Richard Kluger does full justice to the epic he subtitles ‘How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea’….  [Kluger] recounts tales of individual daring and endurance and duly acknowledges how literally millions of people built better lives for themselves and their descendants forging west….  In its excellence, Seizing Destiny reminds us to avoid ‘confusing opportunity with entitlement’ or power with virtue.  Kluger’s conclusion that ‘Destiny has never been fond of lingering in one place, or favoring one people, forever’ might make some readers uncomfortable.  Then again – as the author implies – if our future lies not in the stars but within ourselves, plenty of opportunity remains.”


SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE:  “Kluger…. does a terrific job of conveying step by step how and why the American nation acquired its territorial domain.  He is particularly adept at concise characterizations that bring a multitude of characters alive for their brief stints on this historical stage.  And his writing really comes alive during wars, when he can ride a narrative hard.”


CHICAGO TRIBUNE:  “How the country expanded geographically is the subject of Kluger’s comprehensive and sweeping book….  [T]he nation’s boundaries expanded not only by negotiation but by the use of threat and force as well.  That story, which Kluger tells in dramatic detail, is largely a sordid one…. But Kluger’s main point is to challenge the ‘incurable’ sense of ‘triumphalism’ that surrounds the mythology of America’s destiny – the assumption that ‘our singular success as a nation was not only foreordained but deserved.’  In that task he succeeds.


“Writing with uncommon brio and without illusions, Richard Kluger brilliantly tells the epic tale of how the United States came to be.”

   – DAVID M. KENNEDY, author of Freedom from Fear, winner of the Pulitzer Prize


WASHINGTON POST:  “Seizing Destiny is a well-crafted and readable narrative… [it] features a rich narrative that includes wonderful vignettes about Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson.”


THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:  “Seizing Destiny raises some questions that are worth pondering, even by readers who will reject Mr. Kluger’s conclusions.”


THE NEW YORK TIMES:  “Mr. Kluger writes with great verve and knows how to turn a phrase…”


PROVIDENCE JOURNAL: “[A] sweeping and brilliant narrative….  No blind chauvinist, Kluger considers all sides, light and dark.  In so doing, he tells a riveting story of ambition, practical politics, betrayal and greed.”


NEW YORK SUN:  “This is a massive tome, offering a reading, or better a litany of the events, pressures, and dynamics that led Americans to seize a continent, and even to dream of super-continental conquest….  Mr. Kluger does not take a triumphalist tone while covering an impressive amount of historical ground…”


“This is history on a grand scale.  Kluger has created an overarching narrative without scanting the drama of individual episodes….  An important book and a timely one.”

  – JUSTIN KAPLAN, author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain and winner of the Pulitzer Prize


SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS:  “Kluger’s text is the beneficiary of his painstaking research….  [F]rom his archival devotion emerges a well-reasoned examination of ‘How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea.’  Equally worthy is his unstated purpose: while Seizing Destiny never mentions Iraq, its backdrop is the war’s deadly carnage and, in turn, it provides context for America’s latest misadventure abroad.”


SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN: “Kluger presents a comprehensive and critical view of America’s continental expansion…to challenge the sense of triumphalism that infuses the myth of manifest destiny….  As his sardonic subtitle suggests, it is not a pretty picture but an epic that might more rightly be called from seize to shining seize.”


THE DECATUR (AL.) DAILY: “In this remarkable study, [Kluger] demonstrates his critical eye for detail and the significant anecdote….  Kluger is a master, a storyteller who brings this remarkable American expansion to life.”


THE JOURNAL OF SOUTHERN HISTORY: “Kluger has produced a magnificently clear, colorful, and flowing narrative of America’s territorial expansion from the colonial period through the twentieth century. Kluger artfully and brilliantly illuminates an otherwise dull, two dimensional historical landscape. Somewhat liberated from the historian’s disinclination to be controversial, Kluger writes freely of the less-than-respectable way Americans went about creating...national boundaries and expanding their influence.”


“In Seizing Destiny, Richard Kluger has given us a vivid narrative of just how British colonials and then citizens of a new nation swept aside everything in their path as they spread their dominion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  This is not a celebratory story, but it is brilliant history.”

   – DAN T. CARTER, author of Scottsboro and The Politics of Rage


Rebutting a Brutal Pan


After an unaccountably scathing review of Seizing Destiny in the August 12, 2007, issue of The New York Times Book Review, Kluger sent the following letter to the editor of the literary supplement, which it ran in full two weeks later:


A Different Drummer


To the Editor:


I must confess to a moment of churlishness when, after being lulled by your reviewer's discussion of my book “Seizing Destiny” (Aug. 12), I was awakened by the artful thrust of the hired assassin’s knife. In the next to last paragraph, Richard Brookhiser wrote: “I cannot recommend this book, however. Kluger's writing is some of the worst I have ever had to read. … If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.”


But rather than childishly taking offense at what I interpreted as a gentle rebuke, I soon realized how dutiful – brave, even – the reviewer had been in soldiering on after those first five thoroughly nauseating pages. He even kindly illustrated my utter ineptitude by singling out this sentence I had written on the French Revolution: “French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy.” How could I have butchered the English language so grievously?


Suddenly I understood how mistaken the Book Review's critic had been about my last book, “Ashes to Ashes;” in his highly laudatory review‑and how besotted the jurors were who voted it the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, not usually awarded to wretched writers (I being the fortunate exception). How foolish, I thought, the Times columnist Bob Herbert had been for referring to my “Simple Justice” as a “brilliant and powerful book.” And how blind the former Times reporter Anthony Lukas, a garlanded book author, had been for stating that my book “The Paper: The Life and Death of The New York Herald Tribune” was “probably the best book ever written about an American newspaper … a brilliant piece of social history.” And how insensitive to hideous prose were the judges who placed both those books among the five finalists for the National Book Award in history for the years in which they were issued.


Here at last, I appreciatively recognized, was a critic astute and forthright enough to do for me what no other reviewer had done before: tell me I am a clown, not a writer. How sad I was for the publisher of my four books of social history, Alfred A. Knopf, which has gained its eminence by bringing out books by similarly dreadful authors. How bad I felt for the four eminent writers and scholars – Joseph Ellis, David Kennedy, Justin Kaplan and Dan T. Carter – who had unaccountably offered admiring words about “Seizing Destiny” for the back of the book jacket. And how insensitive Kirkus was for calling it, in a starred prepublication review, “brilliant”.


Rather than continue writing, I will henceforth devote my energies to mastering one or another percussion instrument (if not the drum, on which your reviewer seems to feel I have a head start). It was an honor to be so subtly awakened from my self‑deception by Mr. Brookhiser, who has honed his own skills by laboring for 30 years on the staff of National Review, a beacon of insightful commentary as well as fair and balanced judgment. Thanks, too, to your staff for selecting him. As we say out here to Berkeley, that iniquitous den of bluest liberalism, have a nice day.



Berkeley, Calif.


©2017 Richard Kluger