This is an index of the books I’ve read in my studies over the past couple of years that I’ve written something about. It finally occurred to me that leaving them buried in the reading blog archives isn’t helpful -- I can’t even find them myself when I need them! I’m only including ones that are important enough that when I go back and read what I wrote, I still care. There’s a brief summary, and they link to the original notes I posted about the books. I read many of these for my PhD oral exams, so if you’re putting together field lists, maybe these will help.
(the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was the Roman Catholic church’s list of banned books. I thought that was a little funny…)
Click on the titles to see my notes on the book.
Cultural History (inc. Intellectual):
Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, 1984. An interesting element of Appleby’s argument is that she’s talking about intellectual history, not economic determinism. While she acknowledges the influence of material changes, she’s really interested in the “Ideas [that] joined a group of established elite reformers to a network of political interlopers,” resulting in the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800. Appleby doesn’t completely sustain this point, I think; especially in the sense that she doesn’t identify the chicken and the egg. But it’s her characterization of the Federalists as upholders of the mainstream tradition that’s most interesting. The Federalists, she says, “never lost their posture of protecting known truths about civil society.
Colin Bonwick, English Radicals and the American Revolution, 1977. Bonwick mentions Christopher Wyvill early in the story, but keeps him in the background. More prominent is Major John Cartwright, whose “first reform tract, Take Your Choice! (published in 1776) advocated universal manhood suffrage and...anticipated the Chartists by more than fifty years.” (6) Granville Sharp and Thomas Brand Hollis were acquaintances of John Adams, and corresponded with him and other Americans after Adams returned to America. Catharine Macaulay was one of the few early radicals who did not soften her position as time went on.
Malcolm Cowley & Bernard Smith, Books that Changed Our Minds, 1939, This book, dedicated to Charles Beard, consists of a series of essays on authors or books deemed especially influential by American intellectuals responding to a New Republic inquiry. While it does not provide first-hand information about the books that influenced regular people (or even women, since all the respondents were apparently male), many of the people they polled had written books that did influence large groups of Americans.
Peter S. Field, The Crisis of the Standing Order, 1998. Field’s thesis is that the Standing Order self-destructed in a war between proto-Unitarian “Brahmins” and orthodox Congregationalist leaders. The Brahmin ministers represented the interests of their supporters, the Boston merchant elite, and developed a high literary culture to meet their needs. The orthodox establishment, seeing their influence and authority slipping, attacked the Brahmins in an attempt to retain their role as intellectual rulers of Massachusetts.
Gray, Susan E. The Yankee West : Community Life on the Michigan Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central.” Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality.”
Johnson, Paul Edward. A Shopkeeper's Millenium : Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837." 2004. Johnson contrasts a tightly-knit world of extended, kinship-based business connections, in which “ungoverned ambition was a fatal liability,” with a rapidly growing “unstable urban population.” The Second Great Awakening’s evangelism in Rochester, he says, was primarily about social control.
Laura L. Lovett, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938, 2007. Lovett’s 1998 UC Berkeley dissertation underlying this book was subtitled Nostalgic modernism, reproduction, and the family in the United States, 1890-1930. In the new introduction, Lovett says the U.S. “invested heavily in the reproduction of its citizenry during the early twentieth century.” She labels this covert, relatively non-coercive public policy focus “pronatalism” and suggests the subjects of her study “promoted reproduction indirectly.” Setting aside the pronatalist framing argument she introduced in the book, Lovett’s study of five reformers shows how they all used symbols and images of family and rural life, and asks important questions regarding the power these symbols had, over the reformers as well as their audiences.
Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, 1965 (posthumous). Perry Miller is one of those names I felt obligated to read. I was pretty sure, going in, that it wasn’t going to be the most fun I ever had reading for this list. I wasn’t mistaken, but there were some interesting things in this, even by my own admittedly “outside the box” standards.
Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States, 1947. A list and description of all the bestselling books in US History, including information about publication histories, and contemporary reader and critical response. INVALUABLE! Mott’s standard of Best Seller status was that the book’s sales exceeded 1% of the population when printed.
W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, 1979. Unconvincing. Rorabaugh writes “the United States [between 1790-1830] underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress. America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be...).
Darren Staloff, The Making of an American Thinking Class, 1998. Staloff’s thesis is that Puritan Massachusetts was run by an alliance of intellectuals (ministers, the producers of culture) and intelligentsia (magistrates, who administered culture through politics). The basis of their shared power he names cultural dominance, which he says is built on four principles: 1.) public recognition or ritual acceptance of leaders, 2.) leaders always agree publicly (avoids schisms), 3.) public expressions of the dominant culture are “socially privileged” and single source, 4.) dissent is suppressed, as are unauthorized expressions of culture. This was a challenging text, which assumed a prior knowledge of the events of the Puritan period, and applied the formulas of what Staloff calls a post-revisionist approach that was heavily influenced by Marx and Weber.
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 1982. About equal parts polemic and accessible undergraduate summary of the Gilded Age. Trachtenberg begins with Charles Francis Adams Jr.’s observation that “We have no word to express government by monied corporations.” Trachetenberg claims the “deepest changes” and the “deepest resistances” to “these decades of swift and thorough industrialization and urbanization lay at the level of culture, difficult for contemporaries to recognize, and baffling for historians.”
Ed White, The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America, 2005. White teaches English at the Univ. of Florida. His title recalls Raymond Williams, which White says he turned to in the early stages of thinking about this project. The central question of this book is, “What was the role of an urban public sphere in a largely rural society?” More generally, White asks, “what did it mean to focus on urban literate culture,” when explaining social movements in a largely rural society? The question is actually more compelling for American history, White suggests, than Williams’ made it for British. While English literary traditions reflected an ancient agrarian heritage, “for early America...the literary production, from the sermons and tracts all the way to the earliest newspapers and novels, is predominantly urban.”
Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920, 1967. “America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities,” Wiebe begins. (1) If you don’t agree, you really don’t have to read any further (unless this is on your Orals list), because Wiebe’s argument (like that of many contemporary historians) depends on this prior condition. America had to be pre-commercial, traditional, and parochial, or it could not have changed into the market-oriented, modern, cosmopolitan place it became. And without this change, there would have been no displacement and anxiety, and no middle-class search for order. The issue isn’t only the antiquated, magisterial tone of the text, which seems to say to the reader, “this is the way it was, because I say so.” It would be one thing if the author was simply presenting uncontroversial facts in an excessively authoritative way. It’s something completely different to try to float an interpretation on nothing but a claim to superior (but unshared) knowledge.
William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, 1983, 2003. A core environmental history text that smashes myths about the pristine wilderness, the empty state of New England when the British colonists arrived, and the relationship between the natives and the colonists. Cronon shows that native American land and resource use was deliberate and organized, and that English colonists benefited greatly from these native practices even when they didn't understand them.
Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis : Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991. Chicago, says Cronon, cannot attribute its rapid growth in the last third of the nineteenth century simply to being a central place. Chicago stood at the boundaries of ecosystems, continental watersheds, glacial termini, rural and urban society, railroad “trunk and fan,” and “natural and cultural landscapes,” and grew by bridging the gap between the east (primarily New York) and the west (all the way to the Rockies). In Chicago, eastern capital met western raw materials and consumers.
Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 1972. This is another one of those books that must be read. And even after 38 years, there’s a lot of good stuff in it. The thesis is summed up in the title, which has entered the language as a short-hand descriptor for the idea that “the most important changes brought about by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature,” even if not all the people who use the term agree with Crosby that the interaction of the old world and the new “has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool.”
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, 2001. This is a scary book. The genocidal imperialists in this story are the British (and briefly, the Americans in the Philippines), but dial the clock ahead a hundred years and it’s all us. Seriously. Davis begins his story with a description of ex-president Ulysses Grant’s “family vacation” around the world. As the hero of the Civil War sailed from feast to banquet, a copy of Innocent’s Abroad in his lap (I wonder if this is documented, or if it was just an anecdote that was too ironic to pass up?), the world was in the grip of a climatic event of global proportions. The late-1870s famine was the first of a series of three that together killed more than 50 million people. Davis argues that these deaths, however, were not due to natural disaster, but to political choices made before, during, and after the droughts and crop failures occurred.
Alf Hornborg, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment, 2001. “Like all power structures,” Hornborg begins, “the machine will continue to reign only as long as it is not unmasked as a species of power.” If only it was so easy. We may realize that the emperor is naked, but that doesn’t stop him from being the emperor.
Hornborg’s analysis is built on two big ideas. The first is a definition of power as “ a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks.” The second is the idea that beyond the cultural construction of our idea of “the machine,” there are actual machines. And Hornborg says, “the actual machine contradicts our everyday image of it.” Hornborg believes “the foundation of machine technology is not primarily know-how but unequal exchange in the world system, which generates an increasing, global polarization of wealth and impoverishment.”
Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 2001. The first section, on the Adirondack State Park, was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation, by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of rural land use (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests this wilderness is “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” Jacoby also agrees with William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservationists “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.”
Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,1987. The tone may have been inevitable. Limerick wrote in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Turnerian history of the west to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Reagan western myth. The attack she mounts on the normal view of the west is split between history and more current events; Limerick advocates for the continuity of western history to the present, and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that current view. Since most of these issues were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date.
Shawn William Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America, 2007. One of the things that surprised me about this (but in retrospect maybe doesn’t) is that in the introduction Miller notes that although “Ideas matter,” history shows that “regardless of a culture’s religious or scientific views of nature, we of the human race have joined hands in reshaping and devastating the earth.” I suspect Miller’s intention was to begin combatting the “Pristine Myth,” which he takes on a few pages later. But I think he gives too much of a pass to Europe’s dominant religion and its ideas about nature. Miller also, like Steinberg in Down to Earth, decides to use sustainability as a measure of cultural success, although he is critical of its anthropocentricity. But like Steinberg, Miller does not offer a solid alternative criterion that balances human and non-human values.
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000. Pomeranz suggests that the timely discovery of America by Europeans provided them an opportunity to avoid moving onto the type of labor-intensive, land-scarce economic path taken by India and China. The discovery of coal was the other major element of the divergence, although in a very interesting aside, Pomeranz calls attention to the influence of the addictive New World stimulants sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and coffee, which along with tea became early mainstays of a mass consumer market. Overall, he concludes that “forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe deserve a central place in explaining why western Europe’s otherwise largely unexceptional core achieved unique breakthroughs and wound up as the privileged center of the nineteenth century’s new world economy.”
Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr., Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, 2002, 2008 tr. Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to translate Nature and Power into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism.
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998. “Nomads and pastoralists…hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states,” says Scott. Premodern states, Scott continues, had great difficulty “seeing” their people, and this interfered with “the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.” Efforts to render populations more “legible” included “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the invention of freehold tenure…language and legal discourse.” These “simplification” practices of early modern states, Scott says, paved the way for “huge development fiascoes” of the modern era like China’s Great Leap Forward (which killed at least 45 million people).
James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009. Scott continues this story, from the perspective of the “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.” (2009, ix) “Civilizational discourses,” Scott points out, “never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the barbarians,” and often even have difficulty understanding why the outsiders resist their civilizing influences. And of course, most of our histories come from these valley civilizations.
Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, 2001. Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process (invented by Fritz Haber and brought up to commercial scale by Carl Bosch) as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without nitrogen fertilizers provided by the process, he says, the world population would not have been able to grow from the roughly 1.6 billion level of 1900 to the current 6 billion. Only in the postscript does Smil mention that Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service.
Smil, Vaclav. Creating the Twentieth Century : Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Smil argues that the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” Many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization had not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” Especially the Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process.
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Red Earth, 2004. In contrast to “Dust Bowl” of declension and progress, Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been. “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain.” Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside.”
Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England, 1991. Steinberg’s narrative of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts calls attention not only to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles, but also to how much these changes owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference through the courts. Despite the regular complaints of area farmers, by 1795 people in the Charles valley believed “their natural rights stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two Millers, still the luck favorites & likely to remain, so long as the rage for Factory at every place, whether others sink or swim, continues the rage of Government.”
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire : Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Worster draws heavily on Wittfogel’s idea of the hydraulic society, to argue that despite American myth, the western states really grew as a result of “authority and restraint, of class and exploitation, and ultimately of imperial power.”
Legal & Political History:
Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, 1992. Anbinder argues that the Know Nothing party was formed and motivated by combination of anti-Catholic, nativist, and anti-slavery sentiments. Anti-slavery attracted many northerners, swelling the ranks of the party initially, but eroding its strength as more specifically abolitionist political options became available. Anbinder also suggests that interest in the party reflected a lot of pent-up frustration with the Whigs and Democrats. This generalized discontent also facilitated the shift from Know Nothingism to Republicanism.
Peri E. Arnold, Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, 1901-1916, 2009. Arnold examines the three presidents of the Progressive Era, arguing that “to examine only a president’s personal characteristics masks the opportunities and constraints within which he or she works. But, to examine only the president’s role and its political context is to miss how an individual functions within a given role and context.” (2) The unique contributions of Roosevelt and Wilson (and failure of Taft), then, are based on a lucky combination of character and the historical moment they found themselves in. This seems a reasonable enough argument, echoing the old saying that achievement happens when opportunity meets preparation, on a grand scale.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Foner's dissertation, political history. Tracks free soil ideology, focusing particularly on Seward, Chase, and Greeley. In 25th anniversary edition, Foner responds in a new foreword to more recent scholarship, and qualifies some of his earlier statements. This is one of those books you just can’t avoid reading.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 1988. Foner’s task in this book is to retell the story of Reconstruction, and take it back from a “fraternity of professional historians,” who rewrote history, to the profession’s “everlasting shame.” Another must-read book for students of American History. And really, read the long version.
Oscar Handlin & Mary Flug Handlin, Commonwealth, A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861, 1947. Dedicated to Schlesinger, this is an attempt to look behind economic and political events and actions, to find “a large body of ideas, unformalized preconceptions, that embodied people’s notions of the kind of world in which they lived and the kind of world in which they wanted to live.” Overall, I think it’s very effective (an opinion I did not have about Handlin’s award-winning book on immigrants). “All franchises included an element of privilege, permitting to a few, as special assistance in a worthwhile enterprise, what was forbidden to all others.”
Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Horwitz says in his introduction, “I seek to show that one of the crucial choices made during the antebellum period was to promote economic growth primarily through the legal, not the tax, system, a choice which had major consequences for the distribution of wealth and power in American society.” The legal system he’s talking about, though, isn’t the legislative system, where changes can be debated and representatives are accountable to the constituencies that vote for them. It’s not even the Supreme Court, where judgments receive a lot of public scrutiny and comment. Most frequently, Horwitz says, major changes happened incrementally, in lower (or even local) court decisions, and in evolving laws and conventions governing contracts.
Paul L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War, 1987.Huston examines the economic events leading up to the Crisis in a very cursory fashion, then spends a fair amount of time discussing political and press reaction to it. This leads him to some conclusions about the role of the Crisis in foregrounding some economic issues in the sectional debate that led to the Civil War, although Huston is quick to qualify these claims and place them in a generalized “blame-everything-on-slavery” context.
John, Richard R. Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. 2010, John’s main point in this book is that “The first electrical communications media—the telegraph and the telephone—were products not only of technological imperatives and economic incentives, but also of governmental institutions and civic ideals.” John points out at the outset that the telegraph was no “Victorian internet,” and that even the much more popular telephone system was really only used by regular people for local calls until World War II.
Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898, 1963. Interesting, given LaFeber’s reputation as a critic of American Empire, that he refaces this book by saying “I have been profoundly impressed with the statesmen of these decades…I found both the policymakers and the businessmen of this era to be responsible, conscientious men who accepted the economic and social realities of their day, understood domestic and foreign problems, debated issues vigorously, and especially were unafraid to strike out on new and uncharted paths in order to create what they sincerely hoped would be a better nation and a better world.” This sincere appreciation on LaFeber’s part for the people whose decisions he will be criticizing so thoroughly, suggests his story is much more subtle than the standard good guys vs. bad guys approach taken in many texts.
Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, 1996. Jeffersonian Republicans, especially Madison but even including Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time. In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men (all familiar with classical antiquity) universally believed was the inevitable declension of civilization and decadence. Their objective was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the “corruption” of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries which they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic.
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. Oxford: New York, 2007. Populists, Postel says were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding. This challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially Hofstadter) that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy.
David M. Potter & Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, 1976. Henry Steele Commager introduces this posthumous edition of Potter’s magnum opus (completed by Fehrenbacher) by praising Potter’s ability to see that although “slavery was indeed the overshadowing problem of the decade,” it seems not to have “monopolized the politics of the decade as it now tends to monopolize its history.” (xiv) And Potter does come back to this point again and again. Lincoln was hardly a household name in 1850, and it was far from inevitable in the minds of most Americans that slavery would lead to secession, emancipation, and Civil War.
Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, 2003. Rauchway’s main point is that, contrary to the contemporaries and historians who have tried to portray him as a madman, Leon Czolgosz was rational. “He said plainly that he shot the President of the United States because he hated the politics of state-supported capitalism that the President and his party represented,” Rauchway says, “and in so doing he echoes hosts of critics in the United States and around the world.”
Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, 2001. Richardson expands on the racism/politics argument of Foner and others, saying that Northerners, “seeing ex-slaves as abstract figures in a free labor society...ignored the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and economic dislocation in the postwar black experience.” (241) Moderate Republicans couldn’t understand why blacks were not satisfied with the “free labor” social ideology that whites had associated with abolition from the earliest, pre-war, Free Soil days.
Heather Cox Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War, 2007. A continuation of Richardson’s argument that political and social change in the middle of the 19th century was driven by conflict over ideas about individuals and their proper relationship with government. In this volume, the argument is strengthened and extended with the addition of the West. The frontier and (especially) the mythical cowboy become icons and emblems of Americanism, that echo in events as recent as the 2004 presidential election. The book begins and ends, in fact, with a discussion of the “red and blue states” and G. W. Bush, who “promised to be a cowboy president.”
Richardson, Heather Cox. Wounded Knee : Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. New York: Basic Books, 2010. There’s a lot of contingency in Wounded Knee, but there’s also a lot of venality, incompetence, and malice -- on both sides. But regardless of the mistakes or poor judgments the Indians may have made, this was a massacre; women and children were murdered for no reason, and Richardson is not afraid to say so. I TA-ed for an Indigenous History class this semester -- this book, and the graphic description of the events in South Dakota, would have added a lot.
Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837,1968. A very dry, but necessary administrative history of western expansion, that offers some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough says. Not only in the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain” (of course, this may not have been the Indians’ perspective).
Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State 1877-1917, 1999. “Agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I.” This story has not been well told, Sanders says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class.” “The dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism.” In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream. And they did just that, Sanders says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism.”
J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830, 1983. Stagg admits that the dominant feature of almost all literature” on the War of 1812 “has been its emphasis on the sheer ineptitude of the American war effort.” But even so, “to stress ineptitude as the theme of the War of 1812...is to neglect an important, albeit obvious, point about its history--which is that no administration could have actually intended what happened to have occurred.” The question is, was there a realistic plan behind Madison’s policy, or was he too a source of incompetence?
Social History (inc. Economic, Business, Labor)
Edward J. Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, 2001. Balleisen focuses on the 1841 Bankruptcy Law, “partly because it coincided with and emanated from powerful transformations in the scope and character of American capitalism.” He says “financial panics, like the ones in 1837 and 1839 that precipitated tens of thousands of commercial insolvencies” not only “unleashed an upsurge of political support for a comprehensive federal bankruptcy system,” but also helped push some members of the growing middle class away from an ethic of entrepreneurial risk-taking and self-reliance, toward a desire for financial security in salaried employment.
Bodenhorn, A history of banking in antebellum America : financial markets and economic development in an era of nation-building, 2000. Bodenhorn says “by 1820...banks became better known, more reputable, more established, and therefore more trusted,” presumably convincing more people (whether as shareholders or depositors) to put their money in banks. This is capital deepening, a supply-side argument: growth happened when banks began to accumulate enough money to lend to industrialists or invest. There’s so little written about banking since Bray Hammond, this is a must-read.
Howard Bodenhorn, State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History, 2003. A big part of the motivation for this book seems to have been Bodenhorn’s desire to refute the “historical justification” provided by the two classic histories of banking (Redlich’s The Molding of American Banking and Hammond’s Banks and Politics from the Revolution to the Civil War), for central banking in general and the broadening of the Federal Reserve’s powers after the Great Depression in particular. The other claim Bodenhorn makes is that no one has really done an economic history of American banking, applying and testing state of the art economic theories against historical evidence. Both reasons highlight issues: why do we write history, and how best can we communicate historical insights to the public?
Martin Bruegel, Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860, 2002. The market society happened when “Commercial transactions...moved from a physical setting to an abstract, intangible sphere where prices mattered more than people and relationships.” Bruegel describes the “social and economic processes that underlay the movement from an understanding of the world rooted in concrete and particular experiences to general abstractions.” While he rarely has an opportunity to present “before” and “after” views of an individual’s changing orientation, I think he successfully shows changing relationships and social realities in the Hudson River Valley.
Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism : Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. Clark’s account of the transition from a “subsistence-surplus” economy to “rural capitalism” in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts is built around his observation that it was not an ideological shift that prompted this change, but “the search for livelihoods and security.” A balanced introduction to the “market transition” debate.
Christopher Clark, Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War, 2006. An overview of the “market revolution” period Clark described in detail in western Massachusetts in The Roots of Rural Capitalism. Clark outlines six areas he thinks hold the most interest: families and households, work and labor, new social structures and elites that emerge “from the interactions of households, labor, and property,” regional differences, and the tension between “extensive” growth over new territories and “intensive” development in settled areas. He anchors the narrative in a “perspective that places regional social differences at the heart of an argument about national developments. These differences were not variations or exceptions to general trends,” Clark says; “rather, their interactions were the essence of social change” throughout this period.
Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929, 2008. Conkin was 80 when he published this book. He includes his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, with a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.
Deborah Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, 2003. Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country.” This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” took over farm life: “Every Farm a Factory” comes from and International Harvester ad.
Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era, 2009. Fronc argues that Progressive social activists used private investigators to spy on Americans in a variety of settings. They went looking for information to confirm their suspicions about their fellow citizens, “produced the knowledge necessary to alter conditions,” and because they were willing to “tamper with civil liberties, cross lines, and perform tasks that would have been illegal” for government employees, “they were central to the creation of a stronger federal state during the Progressive Era and World War I, one that became increasingly repressive in the interests of a national security agenda.”
Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Hammond argues that Andrew Jackson wrecked the Second Bank for political reasons, out of economic ignorance, and that Jackson precipitated the Panic of 1837 with the Specie Circular. Lots of good detail on how nineteenth-century banking worked, much of it taken directly from nineteenth-century sources. This is the book that later banking historians like Bodenhorn complain is often the only banking book most people read.
Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, 1951. Handlin’s “history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences.” But he never mentions anyone in particular. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says. Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they find in America. They huddle together in ghettos until they are told by their social betters that they must become American; and then they discover the depth of their alienation -- they will never belong, and they can never go home.
Howard R. Lamar, The Trader on the American Frontier: Myth’s Victim, 1977. In this short book (53 pages), Lamar challenges not only the American stereotype of frontier traders as “despicable characters cavorting with Indians,” but the east-to-west determinism of the Turner thesis. There is a “trader’s point of view” that we know little about; “indeed, a trader’s world that lasted from 1600 to 1850” in the west. “In re-examining the main determinants of frontier history,” Lamar says, “we have neglected a dual tradition of trade and mercantile capitalism by over-stressing the mythic figures of explorers, pioneers, and settlers.”
Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America, 1989. Laurie begins with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” After tracing the high points of labor historiography, he suggests that “the ideology of radicalism persisted longer than in any continental nation” and that this “durability of radicalism...[which] never completely repudiated the old republican axiom that active government was corrupt government...inhibited the transition to socialism.” Laurie’s radicalism is admittedly ambiguous: “it harbored both individualism and collectivism and before the 1850s it was the universal language of skilled workers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, 2007. Mihm’s argument is that the monetary chaos of the antebellum years prevented Americans from feeling confident in their currency, and by extension, in their economy and nation. “The Civil War, and the search for national unity it fostered, compelled the federal government to secure the right to make money.” The nation’s fight against counterfeiters (including the establishment of the Secret Service by near-criminal William Patrick Wood) and nationalization of the currency were necessary steps in the United States becoming “a genuine nation...[with] confidence in both our country and its currency.”
Donald H. Parkerson, The Agricultural Transition in New York State, 1995. “One of the defining characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century New York State,” Parkerson begins, “was the extraordinary mobility of its rural people.” Contrary to popular belief and a historiographical tradition that mistakenly pictures a stable, tradition-bound rural world in contrast with the (more thoroughly studied) dynamic, industrializing urban world, Parkerson says that “ordinary farm families...embraced social and economic change” largely through chain migrations that extended the households of farmers trying to enter market production.
Glenn Porter and Harold C. Livesay, Merchants and Manufacturers: Studies in the Changing Structure of Nineteenth-Century Marketing, 1971. “Changes in distribution played at least as important a role in the story of our economic past as did changes in production.” No one who’s studied the history of transportation would think this point needed to be made again -- but apparently the shelves of business historians are “groaning with the weight of volumes dealing with...manufactured goods.”
Winifred Barr Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy, 1992. Through extensive primary research and mathematical modeling, Rothenberg came to the conclusion that the “capitalist transition” began around 1750, and was substantially underway in rural Massachusetts by 1800. While she performs a little sleight of hand navigating between a tight, economist’s definition of capital and markets, and the expansive, politically loaded language used in the historians’ debate, Rothenberg uncovers some really valuable data which helps advance our understanding of events, wherever we stand on the “social vs. market” historiographical spectrum.
Sellers, Charles Grier, The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, 1991. “History’s most revolutionary force, the capitalist market, was wresting the future from history’s most conservative force, the land.” I can deal with the slight determinism Sellers brings into this from Marx. The thing I really object to is the theology. Sellers simply says “The Awakening had an ultimately profound political effect by undermining deference,” without really explaining the sources of the Awakening.
John L. Shover, First Majority-Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America, 1976. Shover traced the rapid change of American agriculture and rural life in the three decades following World War II. “Farming,” he says, is “one of the last vestiges of the individual entrepreneur” in America. He argues for what he calls the “Great Disjuncture,” and although his name for it didn’t stick, his observations have become widely-accepted truisms. And yet, thirty-five years after its publication, many of the issues Shover calls attention to in First Majority are farther from resolution than ever.
John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923, 1986. Thompson was apparently motivated to write this history of his home state by the discovery that riots his grandmother remembered from her youth “did not coincide with the history textbooks.” Thompson begins with Webb’s Great Frontier, which he says was “inextricably bound” with corporate capitalism. Sweeping Braudel, Wallerstein, Turner, Billington, Gates, and Bogue into the net as elaborators (albeit sometimes unconsciously) of the Great Frontier thesis, Thompson claims the speed of development in search of quick profits was the key to disaster in Oklahoma, both in the arid west and the more industrial east.
Alfred F. Young, ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, 1993. I found 2 articles in this anthology very useful. Allan Kulikoff, “The American Revolution, Capitalism, and the Formation of the Yeoman Classes”: As you’d expect from the title, Kulikoff argues that there was class-consciousness among yeomen farmers, separating them not only from aristocrats and merchants, but also from capitalist farmers. Alan Taylor, “Agrarian Independence: Northern Land Rioters after the Revolution”: In contrast to Kulikoff, Taylor’s article is full of references to particular people and events. He quotes “Liberty-Men” who he says were “defending their notion of the American Revolution against betrayal by the Great Proprietors”
Historiography/Theory (including some “old chestnuts”):
John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America, 1965. Novick characterizes Higham’s historiography as celebratory and Whiggish, and Higham acknowledges the validity of these points in his review of That Noble Dream. In 1965, he explains, there seemed to be something to celebrate. Who knew the profession was standing on the edge of fragmentation? Sub-disciplines went their separate ways, post-modernists challenged what they believed was the naive epistemology of historians; instead of three acts ending in victory, we were left with four acts -- Higham’s self-congratulatory third act now seems like pride before the fall.
Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R., 1955, Hofstadter admits reform would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” but he prefers to separate out a more-or-less cultural spirit of progressivism, which he says was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.” Why? Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he can cut its ties with the Populist political movement that proceeded it.
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996. Kuhn’s thesis is that scientific progress does not proceed cumulatively, as most people have believed. Instead, he says that it oscillates between stable periods of normal science, during which scientists elaborate and extend a single dominant paradigm, and revolutionary breaks, when an existing paradigm is abandoned in favor of a new one. Kuhn popularized the term "paradigm" -- the question for us, of course, is does his theory apply to historical thinking too?
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 2007. Actually, this book is really about high school history textbooks, and only peripherally about things teachers say to students. Loewen looked at twelve major US History textbooks, and catalogued the ways they distort the historical record. Interestingly, he found that even when textbook authors were well-known for holding much more sophisticated opinions, and writing about them in historical monographs; when they turned their hands to the textbook something happened. All the complexity fell away, and the historians became little more than apologists for the status quo.
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, 1988. Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of history as an American academic profession. This is very helpful to me right now, as I’m working out a historiography for my oral exam fields. He also addresses the issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even two decades after the book’s publication. Click here to go to my rather long review of this one.
Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, 1927. “The child of two continents, America can be explained in its significant traits by neither alone.”
Book One: The Colonial Mind
Book Two: The Romantic Revolution in America
Book Three: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America
Larry Schweikart, 48 Liberal Lies About American History (That You Probably Learned in School), 2009. This is Larry Schweikart’s version of Lies My Teacher Told Me. I have no doubt there are left-leaning distortions in many textbooks, just as there are right-leaning ones. But this book seems to be focused on providing talking points for opponents of the “liberal elite.” I’ve only listened to the first few minutes of this, but my initial impression is that Schweikart is trying to paint college textbooks as irredeemably biased and slanted toward the left, while very carefully trying to hide his own biases and unexamined assumptions.
Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays, 1961. Touted by the back-cover copy as “not one, but the explanation of American history.” If we scrape away all of that, it’s a thoughtful essay that contains a lot of good ideas that can be debated and expanded almost indefinitely, as the historiography has proven. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was an address given by Turner to a special meeting of the AHA, held at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, July 12, 1893. Turner was not the president of the AHA at this time (Henry Adams was), and the talk was regarded as interesting but not earth-shattering. Turner’s thesis is contained in the first paragraph: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”
Ian Tyrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970, 2005. It was probably unfair of me to read this book immediately after Novick. It’s a much dryer study, with much less personal detail. Tyrell focuses mainly on the official life of the AHA, which makes this much less interesting for me. But a few things did stick out, like the “rapid rise of agricultural history, with the formation of the Agricultural History Society under AHA auspices in 1919 and a specialized journal in 1927.” Tyrell connects the advancing fortunes of ag. history with a Progressive interest in country life, which seems reasonable, but probably bears repeating just because it is so obvious.
Hayden White, Metahistory, 1973. Although virtually unreadable, this book is important. White says history is a verbal artifact that we use to “combine a certain amount of data, theoretical concepts for explaining these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation.” So understanding the tools available to us as storytellers and writers is key. I really like White, for the style of his shorter articles, and for his sarcasm when he’s arguing with literalists like Arthur Marwick.
Popular History (history for the general public):
Glenn Beck, Broke: The Plan to Restore Trust, Truth and Treasure, 2010. Why the heck am I reviewing Glenn Beck's book? Two reasons. First, because Beck is claiming to write history here. He dedicates the book "to all the historians who have refused to compromise the truth to be popular, rich, or tenured" (Thanks, Glenn!), and second, because the entire first section of the book is titled, "Past is Prologue." Somebody needs to respond to the claims he makes about American history.
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, 1984. While Davis rightly argues that the rich settings and thorough backgrounds and back-stories help us enter the world these characters inhabited, this creates an air of narrative omniscience which Davis compounds this impression by stating conclusions (“Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different”) rather than making qualified guesses. The wide-awake reader will realize that Davis cannot know Bertrande’s dreams and wishes, especially in the absence of documents. Davis might argue (and does in response to criticism) that Bertrande’s actions expose her thoughts. But the reader can be pulled along by the fast-moving story, and pass by the issue without even realizing it’s there.
Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 2002. “The real war will never get in the books.” (Walt Whitman, 1882). Fahs says our division of texts into elite and “trash” is a way of “organizing cultural authority…that readers, writers, and publishers would not have recognized at the time.” It’s also interesting, how there were not only “shared rhetorics” in Northern and Southern war writing, but common practices stemming from a shared “commercial literary culture.” In the popular sphere, the commercial nature of writing and printing is (perhaps) more influential than in high literature.
Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, 2004. The basic question behind What’s the Matter with Kansas is liberal astonishment: how can anyone who’s ever worked for someone else vote Republican? But the problem with the liberals is, they can ask a question like this with a straight face. To explain this situation, Frank says, maybe they were pushed by Bill Clinton and his patently insincere concern and his contempt for anyone who was not Ivy League. I think he’s onto something here, but again, this is still just the rhetorical veneer. Maybe regular people see through a lot of the BS and posturing, and know these guys are doing nothing for them in Washington.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005. In general, I will say that I felt weighed down by the amount of detail in Goodwin’s story. I did not need to know what Lincoln and Seward had for breakfast on their first day together in Washington DC. On the other hand, lots of people bought, read, and loved this book. So, there’s a market for detailed description, especially when it helps the reader enter the subject’s world. I need to keep that in mind as I write. I can’t assume the setting, and focus only on my interest, the action.
Stewart H. Holbrook, Lost Men of American History, 1947. In a short introduction, Allan Nevins says: “There is always danger that the story of the nation, at least in its briefer versions, will become conventionalized...And [Holbrook] also touches on a deeper question. The United States is a great mass democracy, where equality of opportunity is emphasized;...have we not made a little too much of the very great men, the primary figures; and too little of the serried ranks of talent and achievement just behind them, the host of men whose labors were the main element in progress?” In his own note to the reader, Holbrook says “I believe that men, even one man or one woman, often have had immense effect in slowing or hastening the forces that are said to make history...Many just such men and women have been slighted or wholly ignored in our history books. They are in large part the people I want to tell about.”
Gary B Nash,The Unknown American Revolution, 2005. Popular history, by UCLA professor who specializes in women, Native and African Americans in history. The book reflects this focus, and yet still seems to dwell excessively on the names you’ll find in any old-fashioned political history. I grabbed a bunch of things that pertain to my interests, and added a bunch more books he refers to, to my queue of titles.
Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 2001. The subtitle of this award-winning volume of essays, promises to chart the future of teaching the past. Wineburg’s main point, that the “historical thinking” and close, critical reading practiced by professional historians are very different from the ways students in other fields (and high school students, even in history classes) are taught to read and think. This is a valuable insight, which historians who write for the public (and grad students) would benefit from pondering. Wineburg’s essays, gathered from a decade of articles, conference papers and informal presentations, open a new field of study and outline a number of questions that he and others have begun trying to answer.