Thursday, February 28, 2008

American History Class

A friend recently asked me to create a little curriculum for him - everything he should read over the course of a few years to have a solid handle on American history. I thought I'd share it with you.

This list does not intend to be comprehensive. It is a mix of scholarly works, popular history, and historical fiction. And there is no doubt that I've missed many many wonderful books. Looking over the list I notice that I don't have any David McCullough, who I admire, but I have two books from Stephen Ambrose, who I have mixed feelings about. What can I tell you?

Finally, I would describe this list as middle-brow. A very serious reader may see I've included a fairly pulpish book about the battle of Thermopylae rather than the works of Herodotus, and scoff derisively. But this list isn't for post-grad students - it's for the general reader.


Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
Steven Pressfield

I know. I said this is a list of American history books, and I'm leading off with a novel about Greek history. But American history is really the story of representative government, or as Lincoln would put it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. That starts with the ancient Greeks.

And democracy was nearly strangled in its cradle. The mighty autocratic Persian Empire invaded Greece early in the 5th century BC. The Greeks – really a collection of city-states - banded together to defeat them. This war was immediately followed by the Golden Age of Athens (Socrates, Pericles, Aristotle, the Greek dramatists). If this war had gone differently, the whole course of human history may have gone differently.

This is an entertaining and informative novel about the most famous battle of that war – in fact, one of the most famous battles in all of human history. (And yes, it is the battle dramatized in the movie "300".)


Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War

Both by Fred Anderson

Okay, skipping ahead 2200 years…The Seven Years War, more popularly known here as the French and Indian War, led to the American Revolution as surely as World War I led to the WW II. It was also, in the words of Winston Churchill, truly the first world war.

As Americans, we think of the French and Indian War as a minor conflict in the woods of Western Pennsylvania, the lakes of upstate New York, and the cliffs of Quebec. But that was only part of a much larger war that included Frederick the Great fighting epic battles in Western Europe, and French and English armies clashing as far away as India and South America.

These books mainly focus on the North American part of the war, however, and how it ignited the flames that led to the American Revolution.

Both are by Fred Anderson. I read the first, the definitive book on the war. It is a longer, scholarly but very readable treatment of war, its political and military aspects. It is one of my favorites, but probably goes into more detail than most readers want. The second book is his scaled-down popular version of the first, which I haven’t read.


John Adams and the American RevolutionCatherine Drinker Bowen

There are so many tremendous books about the American Revolution, it is difficult for me to narrow it down. But I’ll start here. Scholarly historians scoff at this book, which is a sort of novelistic history. I choose it for three reasons:

1. To understand the Revolution, you need to understand the period from the end of the Seven Years’ War to the Declaration of Independence, and Adams was the man in this period
2. No book better captures the drama of July 4, 1776
3. I dig this book, and its my list

Washington’s Crossing
David Hackett Fischer

The colonists have declared independence; now all they have to do is defeat the mightiest army on earth. How did they do it? This book answers that question as well as any other. Fischer and James MacPherson, two great historians, are editing a series called “Pivotal Moments in American History”, and in this book, Fischer argues Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware was one of those moments.

This book, though, is about much more than that battle. It is about how Washington built an army, held it together, and yes, defeated the mightiest army on earth.

It’s also about myth and history. In the last few years, academic historians have attacked icons like Washington and Lincoln, arguing that too much credit has been given to Dead White Males. Fischer, taking the famous painting of Washington’s Crossing as a starting point, argues that sometimes the myth is true.

Miracle in PhiladelphiaCatherine Drinker Bowen

Independence is declared; the British have been beaten. Now all that is required is a government. This book is a dramatic re-telling of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The link above is to a beautiful hard-cover edition that can be puchased online cheaply. By the way, at Amazon and Barnes &Noble online, plus sites like Alibris, you can find many of these books used, even in hardcover, at incredibly low prices.
Founding Brothers
Joseph Ellis

This is more a collection of essays than a unified history, but great stories are told about the major founders: the Hamilton-Burr duel; the dinner at which Jefferson and Hamilton negotiated the location of the Capitol; the ups and downs of the 50 year friendship between Jefferson and Adams. The essay on Washington’s Farewell Address is particularly good.

My favorite period in American history is the 1790’s, the period after the Constitution up to Jefferson’s Presidency. This book tells some of the great stories from that period.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789Robert Middlekauff

What I’ve done with the 4 books above is cover the 3 key parts of the Revolution: the pre-Revolutionary period, the War itself, and the creation of a government. But I’ve skipped huge parts, mainly through my somewhat eccentric choice of the Fischer book. Fischer’s telling of Washington’s Crossing illuminates the entire military story of the Revolution, but it doesn’t tell it. So if you just read the 4 books above, you’ll still be short on facts about Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Yorktown, and the other key battles.

On the other hand, you can skip all four books and just read this one. This is a volume of the outstanding Oxford History of the United States, and is a well-written and thorough account of the period covered by all 4 books.

Undaunted CourageStephen Ambrose

The Lewis & Clark Exploration was a historically insignificant event. They failed in their primary mission to find a Northwest Passage (because it didn’t exist); the path they took to the West was so arduous as to be completely useless to future pioneers; and the naturalist work they did wasn’t published till long after it would have been useful. In short, they did not open the American West.

But as Ambrose says, "the Lewis & Clark Expedition was the greatest camping trip of all time, and the greatest hunting trip." Worth reading for the adventure alone.

The Life of Andrew JacksonRobert Remini
The towering figure of the antebellum period is Andrew Jackson. He is also the most entertaining. And few historians dominate their subject matter the way Remini does Jackson. This book is the single-volume condensed version of his definitive 3-volume bio.
It has everything: backwoods adventures, frontier gunfights, Indian fights, the thrilling Battle of New Orleans, a ruffian in the White House, and a fundamental change in the perception and practice of American democracy.

The Gates of the Alamo
Stephen Harigan
Another historical novel about gates…this one about what is arguably the most famous battle in American history.


Battle Cry of Freedom – The Civil War EraJames McPherson
I’ve told many people over the years – if you read one book about the Civil War, make it this one. It’s an extraordinary historical achievement, covering everything that is important from the end of the Mexican War (which reignited the slavery debate) to the end of the War. An excellent narrative by one of our greatest historians.

The Killer Angels – A Novel of Gettysburg
Michael Shaara
My favorite historical novel. Read it. (Also, the basis for the great TV movie "Gettysburg").
David Herbert Donald
There are so many great Lincoln books. I'm partial to a book called Lincoln's Virtues. I love Gore Vidal's novel. And of course, there are many wonderful books that highlight certain parts of Lincoln's life - like Garry Wills book about the Gettysburg address. But Donald's book is probably the best single-volume biography that captures the whole life, and isn't dauntingly long.

A Stillness at AppomattoxBruce Catton
This is the 3rd volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, covering the final year of the Civil War. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, it is worth reading for the surrender scene alone.


Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn
Evan Connell
Using Custer at Little Big Horn as a focal point, Connell tells the story of the Plains Indians wars. He is a novelist writing history, and it is beautifully written and a bit idiosyncratic. But I’ve read a fair amount of books about this period, and this is my favorite.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Edmund Morris
Forget about history books – this is one of my favorite books, period. TR’s life before the Presidency was amazing; Park Avenue socialite, cowboy, war hero, city cop, writer, politician. And Morris is a stunningly brilliant writer. (And, apparently, the basis of an upcoming Scorcese/DiCaprio flick. Not Morris, the book...)


The Guns of AugustBarbara Tuchman
This doesn’t really qualify as American history, since it’s very specifically about the start of the Great War, and the Americans didn’t show up until 1917. But it’s one of the finest history books I’ve ever read, particularly the first half which focuses on how the war ignited.

The First World WarJohn Keegan
If you want to know about the entire war, then this is the book to read, from the finest military historian of the 20th century.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
By now, you know my fondness of learning history through fiction. This is probably considered the greatest war novel ever written.

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929 – 1945David Kennedy

This is another book in the Oxford History of the U.S. series. It takes a gifted historian to cover, in a mere 900 pages, virtually all of American history from the stock market crash to the surrender of the Japanese on the deck of the U.S. Missouri. Like the McPherson and Middlekauf books above, if you read one book, make it this one.

At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl HarborGordon Prange
The genius of this book is that it tells the Japanese side of the story as well as the American – and the Japanese side is much more interesting. The Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor – arguably the biggest strategic blunder in the history of warfare – is told side by side with the planning and execution of the attack – arguably the greatest tactical success in the history of warfare. The politics, the backdoor diplomacy, and of course, the attack itself, are all marvelously told.

War & Remembrance
Herman Wouk
Another novel. Wouk tells the story of WWII through one family, the Henrys, who conveniently have family members located in every theater of the war, including the concentration camps. The highlight of the book is the account of Midway.

The Liberation Trilogy:
Volume I: An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa 1942-43,
Volume II: Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944

Rick Atkinson
It appears that Atkinson is the Second World War’s Bruce Catton. Catton was a journalist turned historian who wrote two brilliant trilogies of the Civil War. Atkinson is a journalist turned historian who is writing a trilogy about the U.S. military in the European theater of WWII. The first book, focused on the least known part of the war, was outstanding, and the second fulfilled the promise of the first. I can’t wait for the third, which will obviously go from D-Day to Berlin, and will presumably feature the word “night” or “evening” or “dusk” in the title…

Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of GermanyStephen Ambrose
I’m not a huge fan of Ambrose’s. I find his writing to be a bit melodramatic. But this is a terrific book, because it is based on terrific research. Ambrose has interviewed thousands of soldiers, and tells the story through their stories – amazing, extraordinary stories – and does so in the larger context of the war in Western Europe.

Post-War Period

Sorry, I’m not your guy for this. I’ve never read a book about JFK or Eisenhower’s presidency or the Korean War or the Vietnam War or the Cold War. Volume II of Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King sits on my bookshelf unread. (I can never quite bring myself to read multi-volume biographies. I like to wait for the condensed single-volume.) I’ve been told by many people that Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” is the greatest book about the wielding of political power ever written, but it remains on my “someday” list.

So I’m going to go ahead and recommend a book I haven’t read:

Great Expectations, The United States 1945-1974
James T. Patterson
Yet another volume in the Oxford History of the United States. I’ve read 3 volumes in this series, so I can vouch for the quality of the series. It did win the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1997. And the critics loved it: The Wall Street Journal called it “a tour de force” and the Washington Post said "One can hardly imagine a better overview of American life during the Cold War, the struggle for civil rights, and the debacle of Vietnam.”

Hmm…maybe I should take my own advice and read this one…

Update (7/3/2013):  Since writing this, I've read several books on the post-war period, including Volume II of the MLK biography and Robert Dallek's biography on JFK.  You can find my comments on those books here.  I also read Robert Caro's latest installment in his LBJ masterpiece, The Passage of Power.  Still haven't delved into Vietnam (though I've read some excellent novels like Matterhorn, The Quiet American, and the wildly underrated novels of Charles McCarry).  But The Bright Shining Lie is on my list.


Jim from Florence said...

Mr. Keatfree,
First-time, long-time. I love what you're doing here. If American History was made into a movie (what a concept?), who would be the star? I'm thinking along these lines.
Paul Giamatti's got the Adams thing sewn up with the HBO deal.
The first GW could be played by DeNiro. He'd be commanding in a white wig, and he's about the right age.
Bill Clinton doesn't care who plays Bill Clinton, but he's got his eye on a few up and coming actresses to play Hillary. Lindsey Lohan apparently has already been contacted.
Jim Nabors could play the current resident President.
Don Rickles could surely have a role.
Then, of course, there's the obvious one -- George Clooney as Honest Abe.
See you... at the movies

Regis Philbin said...

Oh, my God. Chris. Why couldn't they have asked you the Iwo Jima question? I would have known that one and I'm a MORON! I think Ambrose is high-brow history, for crying out loud! You'd have smoked that one! And what are you thinking? The audience says chocolate milk, you say thank you very much it's chocolate milk, NEXT! I'm not going to be able to move from the couch until tomorrow night. This is KILLING me! I hope you can sleep tonight. Win one for the Gipper! Oh, MY!