The day after Christmas, The New Republic published a piece by Senior Editor, John J. Judis, entitled “Looking Backward: Ten Books Any Student of American History Must Read.” The piece began promisingly (flatteringly, even): “I woke up on Christmas morning thinking about American historians.” [Editor’s Note: Wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people did that?] Judis closed the opening paragraph with the following caveat: “They’re my favorites; they’re not the best books.” Each book was followed by a paragraph with some combination of a brief synopsis and Judis’s own reactions. I have linked to the article but, just for reference, I’ll list his ten picks here:
- Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness
- William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform
- Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787
- Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian
- Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life
- Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916
- Warren Susman, Culture and History
- Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual
- William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History
- Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America
Now, Judis has written about history but he is not an academic and the list makes no claim of being authoritative or comprehensive in any way. As he himself noted, the list is heavy on the Progressive Era as well as religious history. However, one curious aspect of the list is that the most recently published book on the list is from 1988.
What can be gathered from this list about the general reader? Well, I’m not sure anything can. This reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurred during our March Madness tournament last year. I haven’t gone back and done any quantitative analysis of the 64 books that started the tournament but I remember a number of us being surprised at the weight given to books published before the 1980s in the nominating process. Classics like Morgan’s American Slavery received far more nominations than many recent works. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising since classics are classics for a reason. That said, I think some of us had expectations (based on assumptions made about our readership) that the balance would have tilted the other way toward more recent academic works.
I must admit that I am an early American historiography junkie who has read Hartz (without it being assigned . . . because WHO assigns Louis Hartz?). However, even I couldn’t argue with a straight face that it is a book that “any student of American history must read.” And so I wonder how much of the reaction to Judis’s piece came from the less-than-rigorous way in which he framed the list. So I decided to do my own list and to frame it as “Ten (Relatively) Recent Books That Anyone Interested In Early American History Should Read.” Keep in mind that the reason why I think someone “should read” each of these books is not implicitly because I agree with their arguments but because I think the reader will benefit from being exposed to or engaging with them. My one hard rule was that they are all published after the most recent book in Judis’s list. And I tried but don’t pretend to have achieved some topical balance. So, in no specific order, here they are:
- Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone – This is valuable to the general reader for its exposure to a narrative of American slavery that does not seem to be widely known among general audiences. It remains just as important for “any students of American history” as when I was assigned this book as an undergraduate and twice as a graduate student.
- Alan Taylor, American Colonies – For me, this is the best survey yet of the colonial period on a continental scale and general audiences, like some academics, could do with a broadening of their understanding of the term “colonial period.”
- Richard White, The Middle Ground – Despite the work since that has modified White’s arguments, it’s still one of the best places for a general reader to get an initial sense of Native-European cultural exchange.
- Gordon Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution – Before the howls begin, there is no arguing that the book is engaging. I have seen undergraduates at both Brooklyn College and Yale become engaged with the book more easily than many other works on the period. Perhaps the most important reason it should be read is that it is easily critiqued by non-specialists.
- Edmund Morgan, Inventing the People – One of the most underrated books of the last 25 years. Morgan’s studied cynicism is an excellent antidote to Wood and puts forth an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable. And that is exactly why anyone interested in early American history should read it.
- Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul – Johnson gets at both the economic mechanics of slavery in the Deep South while focusing on individual lives and it has proven to be an intoxicating combination for both academic and general reader alike.
- Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale – Ulrich’s book is not only one of the most important books in women’s history in the last 25 years, it is also a model of scholarship and working with primary sources. Therefore, it should give any reader a sense of what it is like to engage with primary sources.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy – This book does the same thing for secondary sources as Ulrich’s does for primary sources. There is no better book for showing the reader why secondary sources need to be questioned just like primary sources.
- Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party – Young’s book was important for historiographical reasons but even for a general audience, who seemingly cannot get enough American Revolution in their reading diet, this book provides an alternative view of the experience of the Revolution to the usual wink-and-nod to Joseph Plumb Martin in many popular works on the topic.
Am I missing something? Does a certain book not deserve to be on the list? Is there a better book on a similar topic? Am I wrong about my reasons for why a specific book should be read? What would your list of ten (relatively) recent books that anyone interested in early American history should read look like?