RECENT MASTERWORKS IN AMERICAN HISTORY
As recommended by Seattle Pacific University Professor of History Bill Woodward
For those who like David McCullough’s approach to narrative history, here’s a list of some fine recent books on American history, wide-ranging in topic and time period, some pure narrative, others more analytical, all worth a few hours lounging on the beach or cozying up to a blazing fireplace. And once you’ve exhausted this list, check out the December 2004 issue of American Heritage, in which various historians offer their own don’t-miss book lists on a range of topics.
Walter McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 (2004). This idiosyncratic but irresistible account of America’s origins plays on the notion that Americans have always been hustlers, in both positive and negative senses.
John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (2004). Gordon is no critic of the American capitalist enterprise, but he writes compellingly and clearly of matters that often make eyes glaze over.
George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003). No figure in American Christianity looms larger than Edwards — thinker, theologian, pastor, revivalist preacher; no historian can better interpret his life and times than the prolific and insightful Marsden.
Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (2003). No one knows and explains American Christianity better than Noll; this story of the transatlantic origins of the evangelical movement brings together a lifetime of prodigious reading and deep insights.
John Keegan, Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1995). It’s unfair how brilliantly this British military historian writes; this glorious combination of travelogue, history, and personal memoir will make you want to read his books on World Wars I and II and the Iraq War.
Colin Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006). From a distinguished historian of American Indians: a brand new look at the decisive treaty that not only expelled the French from North America and set American colonists on the road to revolution, but sealed the doom of the native tribes.
David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (2005). This is a stunning and sweeping account of the many symbols of America’s cherished icons of freedom, from liberty poles to Uncle Sam.
Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782 (2001). Who woulda thunk someone could make disease fascinating, and in the process uncover a whole new dimension of America’s founding?
Andro Linklater, Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History (2002). Who woulda thunk someone could make surveyor’s math and the marketing of raw real estate fascinating, and in the process uncover a whole new dimension of America’s founding?
Richard Carwardine, Lincoln (2003). An Oxford don profiles a great American leader more incisively than most Americans have, and demonstrates how great that leader was; I rate this the best of a spate of fine recent Lincoln studies.
Ronald White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech (2002). No, not the Gettysburg Address, but the Second Inaugural is the focus of this fascinating exegesis of one of the shortest and most sacred of American texts. Read it to learn about Lincoln, to learn about mid-19th century religion, or just simply to savor the effective employment of the English language.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (2003). A tradition-minded architect, a tortured landscape designer, an engineer creating the most monumental thrill ride ever, and a serial killer — all made Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition the greatest and most intriguing world’s fair in American history.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (1997). The fifteen most decisive years of the 20th century are incisively explained in this magisterial narrative, a justly lauded contribution to the Oxford History of the United States.
Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (expanded ed., 1997). A serious but well-written book about a serious episode of America’s game: You will thrill, and you will weep.
Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (2006). The third and last of a massive trilogy, focusing on a part of King’s career less familiar than the earlier period; for a deeper understanding of a better known story, however, you might want to start with the very readable first volume, Parting the Waters (1988).
David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (2002). According to my Pentagon source (an international security specialist), this is the best summary of the American role in the post-Cold War period: a good and important story, ponderously told by a journalist who must get paid by the word.
Finally, for variety, add in fiction by the prolific Jeff Shaara. I’d lean toward Gods and Generals (1996), an account of the later years of the Civil War. But if you haven’t yet read what I consider the best American historical novel, The Killer Angels (1974) by Jeff’s father, Michael Shaara, start with this masterful retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg through the minds of Longstreet, Armistead, Hancock, and Chamberlain.
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