American Eagle: A Visual History of Our National Emblem
By Preston Cook
Goff Books, 2019
There are two safe bets associated with the spectacular new production from Goff Books, American Eagle: A Visual History of Our National Emblem: the first is that most Americans know little or nothing about the long and storied history of the bald eagle image in the country’s iconography, and the second is that nobody anywhere on God’s green Earth knows more about that history than Preston Cook.
Cook has been avidly collecting all traces of that history for decades. He’s amassed a collection of books, pamphlets, magazines, songbooks, badges, banners, flags, paintings, postcards, buttons, posters, helmets, plates, rugs, stamps, and dozens of other iterations, a collection so vast that it literally gets a museum of its own: a fifteen-thousand-square-foot building in the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s unlikely that any other single American individual has ever been responsible for such a massive and priceless assemblage of Americana, and thanks to the talented design staff at Goff Books, readers who’ll never visit Wabasha can get a beautiful sense of what they’re missing.
It’s all devoted to Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the American bald eagle whose image has been synonymous with the United States since before the United States formally existed, and pretty much the only thing missing from this collection is the live feed from the various popular “eagle-cam” channels on YouTube.
“This book is an introduction to the collection and a tribute to the American emblem I cherish,” Cook writes. “I believe it’s also a window into American life, a way of looking at one country through the symbol that has inspired artists, soldiers, public officials, and homemakers for centuries - living symbol that continues to fly over us today.” And this is accurate enough: paging through American Eagle, in addition to being an awe-inspiring survey of the near-infinite variety of American creativity, is also a quick and vivid tour of American history.
People not bound for Wabasha should explore this book; the temptation to call it a bird’s eye view of American history is well-nigh irresistible.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.