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Making a list, checking it twice.

November 24, 2008, 1:57 pm

A friend recently asked Eric and me for a list of ten history books that would allow an interested but non-expert reader to “understand America.” Leaving aside all of the obvious caveats, my list, which runs through the era of Reconstruction (sort of), can be found below the fold. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question.

One more thing, when Eric presented his five choices, he quibbled with some of the particulars on my list. Which made me cry. So, if you want to see his list, you might be able to prevail upon him to share. Even though he’s notoriously very selfish.

1) Alan Taylor, American Colonies. I chose Alan’s book because I wanted to start with a survey. It seemed like a good idea to provide context, particularly in the colonial period, which lacks a unifying national narrative. But I also wanted a book that would include the West, Native people, and reach beyond the Anglo-American story. Plus, sucking up to a colleague is always a good idea.

2) Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. When I teach the survey, I often use as one of my themes what Eric Foner calls the “American irony,” which I take to mean the way that liberty expands for some, typically white men, at the expense of others, often people of African descent, women, Native people, or unfree white laborers. As this theme relates to slavery, Morgan got there first.

3) Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. This was the choice that troubled me the most. There’s a lot wrong with this book, problems that are well-documented anywhere better historians can be found. Wood focuses relentlessly on white elites, ignoring, for the most part, everyone else. Still, if one wants to understand the causes and consequences of the Revolution, and one only has time to read one book, I think this is the place to start.

4) James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. This was probably the easiest of my picks. The McPherson synthesis — that debates over territorial expansion and the fate of slavery moved in lockstep, pushing the nation toward civil war — seems unchallenged to me. And if you like shooting, you’ll find plenty of that as well.

5) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis. It would have been nice to include a book on Reconstruction. Foner’s Short History was the obvious choice. But I find that book hard to read and somewhat narrow. So I chose Cronon instead. The merits of Nature’s Metropolis are many: attention to urbanization in the opening and settlement of the West; the significance of commodity chains in tying a city to its hinterland; and the rise of futures markets in transforming the nation.

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