Recommend a good Cultural History

I’m not sure if “cultural history” is quite the term I’m looking for, but it’s the best I can come up with. I’ve found that I really enjoy books that give an overview of a particular place in a particular time, without focusing exclusively on one particular event. Something that really gives a flavor of the place – the politics, history, culture, etc. Some examples that I’ve really enjoyed:

David Halberstam’s The Fifties, an awesome overview of the decade in the US, from the birth of television, to the development of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement.

Orlando Fige’s Natasha’s Dance, an overview of over a millenium of Russian culture – great book.

William Weintraub’s City Unique, a great look at politics and culture in Montreal’s 1940’s and 50’s heyday – everything leading up to the Quiet Revolution.

Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge – Berlin in the '20s and early '30s: Communists vs Socialists vs. Nazis, inflation, war reparations, Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, George Grosz…

Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets – L.A. and, in particular, Hollywood in the 1940s; almost a sequel to “Before the Deluge,” considering the number of German refugees it follows (including Brecht and Schoenberg). The studio system, the war years, gangsters, celebrities, corruption, the Hollywood Ten, the Red Scare – great book.
Anyone know any other similar types of books?

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is one of my favorites.

Also, try Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. He tries harder to capture the social currents and individual personalities than most Civil War historians.


Don’t know if it counts since it’s not about any PARTICULAR culture but Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power is one of the best books I’ve ever read in terms of an overview of how Western culture and politics have been affected since the discovery of Oil.
Really opened my eyes to the why many of the events in the 20th century happened how they did.

I’m currently 500+ pages into a nearly 1400 page book about the history of New York City to 1898 called Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. It won a Pulitzer and it’s absolutely amazing.

You remind me of another great similar book – Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower,” which discusses some of the big events in the years leading up to the First World War (the Dreyfus Affair, the anarchist movement, etc.). It goes into greater depth on far fewer concrete topics than the books I mentioned in the OP, but is a great book in its own right.

I’m glad you wrote that, because I have that very book checked out from the library sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me to finish the book I just finished last night. But I wasn’t sure if I should start it or not since I really was in the mood for another “cultural history” thing – but your recommendation cements it; and it seems to fit the bill in its own way. Awesome!

Searching on Amazon last night after I posted this, I think I may have found another book that fits in this category: Nathan Miller’s New World Coming, an overview of the 1920’s in the US – looks kind of similar to what Halberstam did for the Fifties. Sounds good!

It is good, and one I was planning on mentioning in my response. You might want to compare it to the classic Only Yesterday : An Informal History of the 1920’s, by Frederick L. Allen, which was written right at the end of the 1920s.

A similar book on an earlier period is The Good Years (1900-1914), by Walter Lord

A different take on the 1920s are books on the ex-pat generation in Paris. My favorite is That Summer in Paris, by Morley Callaghan which to my mind is better than Hemingway’s far more famous A Moveable Feast.

Since you mention long-term histories, you might want to give a look at Cities: A Magisterial Exploration of the Nature and Impact of the City from Its Beginnings to the Mega-Conurbations of Today, by John Reader. It’s being a bit disappointing to me precisely because he looks more at the culture of cities, at what happens in cities, rather than why cities happen and grow, but that might make it more what you’re looking for.

I’m also glad you mentioned City of Nets, which seems to be almost unknown, but is an excellent look at the culture of Hollywood.

Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, by James Miller does something similar for rock. The chapters on the early years especially contained much that was new to me and fascinating.

I don’t know if you is your style but I have to mention Culture As History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century, by Warren I. Susman.

Not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, but I’m about 100 pages into The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher. It’s a look at how and why Christianity spread throughout Europe during the Dark Ages. I’m really enjoying it; what little I’ve read has already shown me that a lot of what I thought I knew about that time period was wrong.

David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed .

Warning: it turned me into even more of a dorky trivia-spewing pariah than I was already.

Allen also wrote Since Yesterday about the 30s.

And pulled it all together into The Big Change 1900-1950.

I second this recommendation – I just reread it recently.

***A History of Women in the West.*** With contributions from 75 historians.

Vol. 1. From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints.
Vol. 2. Silences of the Middle Ages.
Vol. 3. Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes.
Vol. 4. Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War.
Vol. 5. Toward a Cultural Identity in the Twentieth Century.

David Gelernter’s 1939 is ostensibly about the New York World’s Fair, but uses it as a linchpin to the Zeitgeist of that era – which he sees as very much centralized on New York as gatekeepers of intellectual and popular culture. It’s effective and evocative, although Gelernter does have something of an agenda. He’s pushing the somewhat neocon idea of the past as an “ought culture” that we should return to. (Hey, the guy is devoutly Jewish and got blown half to bits by the Unibomber.)

The Year 1000 was good.

Try “Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization”, by David Keys. It’s a globe-spanning book about something catastrophic(possibly a huge volcanic erruption) that occurred in the sixth century. It’s in a much easier to read style than many books of this type, and more than nearly any other book I’ve read it gives you a feeling for how much what happens in other places can affect you. Different weather in Africa may cause the Plague in Europe. Drought in Asia may cause invasions of Mongol hordes, etc. Fascinating and scary when he goes into telling us all about the mega-volcanoes all over the world that could blow any day now.

Thanks for all the excellent recommendations; I’ve been putting them all on my Wish List (the Frederick Allen trilogy looks particularly interesting). I started “The Prize” on my lunch break today, and ordered a copy of “New World Coming.”

I particularly enjoy these overviews of particular decades, ala “The Fifties” and the Allen books. I browsed a bit in the 1980’s history section on Amazon last night trying to find a good one for that decade, but it seemed like most of the books were just varying takes on Reagan. Has the definitive cultural/political survey of that decade been written yet?

More recommendations are still welcome!