Recommend a good American History book...or books

I’ve been monitoring a thread in GD arguing about “the worst president ever” and am constantly struck by how little I actually know about American history. It’s a bit embarrassing really. I don’t feel I could chime in on a debate like this because I simply can’t weigh one president’s virtues against another in any critical way. Then I started thinking about all the other stuff I must’ve forgotten and felt woefully ignorant and then cried in a dark, moldy corner for a few minutes before posting this.

Here’s what I want: I want a book that’s far superior to the crap foisted on me in high school. I don’t want a biased, overly political history either. I don’t want something drably factual either (meaning, I’d like it to be well-written and engaging, not a laundry list of facts). I’d like this book (or, if you’d rather, set of books) to give me a good foundation for discussion and understanding of American history. I’m sick of staring slackjawed at Jeopardy Civil War categories, dammit.

(mods: I thought this was the place for this, but move it if I’m wrong here).

For a very lively social history, look for Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday (the 1920s) and Since Yesterday (the 1930s). They’re fun reads.

There’s also Eric Frederick Goldman’s The Crucial Decade . . . and After (postwar until the 50s).

For the Civil War, there are many good choices, but you should pick up Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

This should be in Cafe Society. Please ask to have it moved.

Check out Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America.

Thanks for the tip. Dropped the Mods a line.

I’ll second the mention of Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” as to the second requirement, however, to say that it is somewhat biased and overtly political is an understatment. It certainly gave me a different perspective on anything in American History that I was taught in high school or college, and for that reason alone I consider it an important book that I am glad to have read.

I’ve read an excerpt of Zinn and, all said, I’d like to make it a suppliment after a more “consensus” text (for lack of a better word, there).

Off to Cafe Society.

If anyone mentions the word “Loewen” in this thread, I shall burst an artery.

Taylor Branch’s series on the Civil Rights Movement was great: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.

Say what you will about Loewen, but his book Sundown Towns was an excellent look at an completely overlooked part of American history.

Gaaaahhhh! Ackk!

A word of advice about Loewen. Try checking his endnote citations. After about the third one that doesn’t remotely support the point for which it is cited, you will have a different perspective on the man.

A quick course in American History:

Daniel Boorstin - The Americans (3 volumes)

Joseph J. Ellis - Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Catherine Drinker Bowen - Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. - The Age of Jackson abridged ed.

James J. McPherson - Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Ray Ginger - Age of Excess: The United States from 1877 to 1914

Nathan Miller - New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America

William Manchester - The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972

Or, for a completely different approach, you could try the American Presidents Series, from Times Books. These slim biographies, only around 150 pages, cover one president each. Around 30 volumes have been published. They range from the dull but good to the lively and insightful, even though the range of authors is extremely eclectic. [From John Dean on Harding (surprisingly good) to E. L. Doctorow on Lincoln.] They would be a faster read and you’d get a good political history and feel for how each president got to the White House and what he did when he got there and why. The series is weak on social, cultural, industrial, and technological history, of course, which is not at all true for the first set of books I gave, but you need to decide what you want to start with.

If you read this er, recollection, of history, make sure you read plenty of other stuff, as it is written from a particular viewpoint (leftist). As you said that you di9dn’t want soemthing biased, you might want to pass on this. For a general overview I’d recommend A History of The American People, by Paul Johnson.

First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman (America’s beginnings by a very well respected historian)
The Scents of Eden, by Charles Corn (the spice trade, culminating in an agreement between the Dutch and the English about Manhattan)
D-Day, by Stephen Ambrose (WWII)
Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose (Lewis & Clark)
Nothing Like It In The World, by Stephen Ambrose
I Buried My Hear at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown (Native Americans and the settling of America)
T. R.: The Last Romantic, by H. W. Brands (Teddy Roosevelt)
Titan, by Ron Chernow (John D. Rockefeller)
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
John Adams, by David McCullough
George Washington, by Willard Sterne Randall
1776, by David McCullough
The Battle for New York, by Barnet Schecter


Anything by David McCullough. And “The Penguin History of the United States of America,” by Hugh Brogan (a Brit).

I used to like Zinn’s “People’s History” back in my younger days, but as I grew older, it started coming across more as a too-far leftie with a chip on his shoulder.

History of the American Frontier, by Frederic L. Paxson.
The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States, by Marcus Lee Hansen.
The Age of Jackson, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The Republican Era: 1869-1901, by Leonard D. White.
The Americans: The Democratic Experience, by Daniel J. Boorstin.
The Impending Crisis, 1841-1867, by David M. Potter.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch.
Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, by David M. Kennedy.

Some of these are out of print, but a good library should have all of them.

Howard Zinn (author of the “er, recollection of history”) does speak from the Left. According to many Amazon reviewers, Paul Johnson speaks from the Right.

There are lots of good suggestions here. You’ll probably need to read more than one book.

I have to confess I don’t know what survey of American history to recommend, since I’m usually reading books that are focused on a particular aspect of American history. So I’ll leave survey recommendations to others. (You are right to be wary of politically slanted histories, though. There are plenty that slant strongly left or right.)

Joseph J. Ellis (already mentioned) has written several books on members of the Revolutionary generation: Founding Brothers, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, His Excellency (George Washington). Those are all entertaining and informative reads.

You mention the Civil War. If you’ve got a LOT of time on your hands, you could read Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative (3 Volume Set). If that much reading is daunting, I recommend Ken Burns’s excellent (and very entertaining) documentary The Civil War.

Robert V. Remini has written several excellent books on Andrew Jackson and his era. If, for example, you want to understand the Trail of Tears and how it happened, you might try Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars.

These themselves aren’t good history books, but I think of them in the same vein as Jearl D. Walker’s “Flying Circus of Physics” – they’re collections of odd but interesting details about history, with the references so you can look them up in the original journals or books. Again, like the physics book, they’re NOT just collections of obscure and entertaining miscellanea that are ultimately of little use – reading this stuff and looking it up will actually give you a deeper and more thorough understanding of what’s really important. But you won’t get it if you only read the compendia themselves.

The books are Richard Schenkman’s Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History and the unfortunately titled I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not (that title is a quote from Warren G. Harding). By the time Schenmkman wrote Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of World History he was clearly running out of steam – it’s not as good as the others. similar comment on his first book, One-Night Stands with American History. But they’re fun reads. Schenkman had a brief showe on, I think, the Discovery Channel. and there’s an audiotape of Gary Owens reading LLaCMoAH, but he sounds as if he didn’t see the material before, and frequently doesn’t believe it. Plus it’s abridged, and, of course, lacks the references. but Owens has a great voice.

If this advice is relevant (and I think it is), shouldn’t birdmonster also ask other dopers to go back and state what particular viewpoint the books they have recommended here are written from, before he decides which if any of them to read?

Most history books are not written from a particular viewpoint unless you yourself have one that colors your view of neutral. Zinn and Johnson are among the few well known to the public who work from a consciously partisan stance.

Older history books do tend to be written from what was then neutral but is today obviously skewed: white males conquered the country through heroic feats. More modern books do tend to avoid this with varying degrees of success but it would be hard to encapsulate how well a book achieves this. And because it is adored by the public, Great Man works are in vogue once more, as evidenced in the books by Ron Chernow and David McCullough. (Chernow is the most boring writer in the world, IMO. McCullough can write rings around him blindfolded.)

I tried consciously in my list to give books that were old and new, written by academics and amateurs, and biased toward narrative history rather than hagiographies to get around various biases. But you can’t start someone who hasn’t read any history with just a few books and not include a host of hidden assumptions that can only be recognized and accounted for by years of reading.

That’s the basic problem behind any of these “give me something to read” threads. The OP gets dozens and dozens of recommendations when only one or two are required and there is no good way to choose among them. I always wonder a year later what if anything has come out of them.

You make a good point.

Speaking for myself, the Paul Johnson I mentioned book is right of center, (but not as far from it as Zinn). Myself, I left out many more skewed takes on history. As good as I think they might be, I think that someone should get a good overall view of history. Afterwards, they’ll be able to read the more ideological takes with a better understandeing and appreciation. Same with the types of books offered by CalMeachem. Interesting, often fun, reads, but a basic grounding in history should come first. Of course, YMMV.