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History for the Masses

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santa-barbara-1930s

Yesterday, in a different forum, our valued commenter Bijan Parsia complained about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Basically, his complaint, if I may summarize, is that it is awfully simplistic. I agree, as I have stated before. The basic problem with Zinn is that while it was a very useful book in 1980, it is badly dated today. All those stories about the rich exploiting the poor, women, and people of color and all those stories about how people rose up to fight their exploitation have been explored in great depth by historians. The appeal of Zinn today is the idea that history teachers and professors don’t teach that stuff–but of course most of them, at least at the college level, very much do teach a bottom up history today. What often happens though is that the student is not ready to hear that history when they taking a 100-level intro U.S. history course at the age of 18. So Zinn still feels fresh to some readers. But to others, who do know some of this material, A People’s History reveals little but its own limitations. That’s not really a criticism–it’s a 35 year old book. Most 35 year old history books have limitations to today’s reader.

But there isn’t a ready text to replace Zinn either. Perhaps the closest is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which covers some of the same ground from a similar perspective. It has great value, but also is not a one-volume overview of U.S. history from a leftist perspective that takes into account the vast historiography of the past 50 years.

I told Bijan I’d provide some reading recommendations. Here are a few books I think any reader of this site would find useful and interesting. These are well-written and often argumentative books that provide a lot more complexity than Zinn offers and also are well-written. As I’ve said a few times, we are in a renaissance of good historical writing from scholars appealing to popular audiences and providing a lot more complex looks at tough questions than authors like Ron Chernow and David McCullough. People love those guys and that’s fine, nothing wrong with that. But they are also both basically celebrity biographers of historical figures that aren’t really forcing audiences to confront the dark side of American history in the way that Zinn does. On the other hand, we are lacking in good overarching synthesis. I suppose one might look at Eric Foner’s two-volume textbook as a possible synthesis, but it’s a college-level textbook and that style simply doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of writing and audience, as good as it may be. It’s also priced like a textbook.

Anyway, here are some books I think are really accessible to modern readers that provide pieces of what Zinn purports to do.

1) Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. I’ve reviewed it here. Some don’t like it because it is so openly political, but that’s hardly a problem for me or for most of you. An angry history of the Gilded Age written from the perspective of the New Gilded Age.

2) Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. We actually really need a new synthesis of Reconstruction and historians to challenge Foner’s dominance over this field, but this remains a wonderful book that retains great value today. See also Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

3) Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Simply a great book on a key issue in modern history.

4) Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. I’m not sure that a short list like this should have a companion book to the McCartin, but the 1970s is blowing up in the recent historiography and this is a wonderful work of history.

5) Tiya Miles, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. You might not think a book about a house in Georgia would be that amazing, but this is a fantastic microhistory that introduces readers to whole words of Cherokee history, domestic violence, trading networks, changing racial standards, white supremacy, and displacement. A must read.

6) James Green, The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Green’s new book centers the story of West Virginia coal miners right smack in the middle of the American freedom struggle, challenging historians for leaving them out. I reviewed this professionally so I can’t really go into it too much here, but if you read one 2015 history book, read this one.

7) James Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Title pretty much sums it up.

8) John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. A classic It’s also fascinating and heartbreaking story about cultural clashes in the 18th century.

9) John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. How the Japanese saw the Americans and how the Americans saw the Japanese.

10) Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Easy to read and very insightful if you want to know how the modern craziness started.

11) Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A very reader friendly book using McKinley’s assassination as an entry point into a rapidly changing and very contentious America.

12) Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. An older book but still one of the great social histories. Peiss makes it very easy to root for the immigrant kids of New York to make a new youth culture that will eventually transform the U.S.

13) Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Wiliams and the Roots of Black Power. This will really change your view of the civil rights movement.

14) Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: The History of the Fetus in Modern America. A must-read for anyone concerned with reproductive freedom.

15) Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel. Half a history of the steel industry centered on the 1959 strike and half a personal memoir of growing up in a steel family, this is outstanding.

I’m not really satisfied with this list because a lot of the books are still monographs. It also reflects my own reading, which is defined largely by my scholarly interests, so there is a lack of books on the American Revolution, about which I basically don’t care, and slavery, which I should read more of but I don’t have time. I could have included some of the new critically acclaimed studies on slavery that I have not read but I figured that would be misleading. But barring spending even more time on this post than I already have, I can live with it. However, I am sure that many of you have recommendations on excellent histories as well.

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  • keta

    Casual Observation: All But One of These Titles Uses This Format.

    Thanks for the list.

    • Vance Maverick

      Which one? Striking Steel has a subtitle too. It’s not exactly unprecedented.

      • Hogan

        #2 wasn’t italicized. Now it is.

  • Malaclypse
  • One of the fun things about the Internet is you can take one dude who’s read Zinn, and another who’s read Lies My Teacher Told Me, and put them in the ring together for hours of fun.

    • pseudalicious

      Wait, do you mind expanding on this? I didn’t realize there was a Star Wars vs. Star Trek kinda thing going on with those books. I’ve only read Lies but I assume that and A People’s History would reinforce or complement each other?

  • sleepyirv

    I don’t think you can leave off the Rick Perlstein trilogy: Before the Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge.

    • I think you definitely can leave it off, largely because the books are entirely too long, but you can definitely include it too.

    • Captain Haddock

      The nice thing about the trilogy is that Rick Perlstein’s prose translates pretty well into audio book format. The Nixonland audio book in particular is very well narrated. The Invisible Bridge not so much.

      • Captain Haddock

        Replying to myself to delve further into an already tangential response, I recommend David Blight’s course on the Civil War and Reconstruction that he taught at Yale. You can download the audio at the links here. Good to listen to during long drives or doing house work.

  • humanoid.panda

    Battle Cry of Freedom pretty much has to be on that list, given that its both not a monograph and the definite slaying of neo-confederate nonsense, right?

    • I don’t think is has to be on there. I think it certainly can be on there. At this point, I don’t know if it is really the definitive book. But obviously it is still highly respected.

      • LFC

        I’ve read (most of) Battle Cry of Freedom. The combination of readability, narrative drive, and research is very impressive. The campaigns are narrated in perhaps too much detail for some people’s taste (a feature of the book that the then general editor of the series in which the bk appeared, C. Vann Woodward, defended in his editor’s preface).

        p.s. The conclusion, where McPherson discusses, inter alia, why the Confederacy lost, is nothing short of superb, imho. Ties various strands together v well.

    • ExpatJK

      What about This Mighty Scourge, the series of short essays by McPherson? Obviously less comprehensive than BCOF, but good as a shorter intro.

  • humanoid.panda

    And of course both Warmth of Other Suns and The New Jim Crow are essential reading.

    • Neither are by professional historians, which is why I didn’t include them. That’s my own criteria and hardly a definitive one.

  • Ronan

    Has anyone read Sven beckerts new book on cotton, slavery and the making of modern capitalism ? Curious to hear thoughts on it…..

    • LeeEsq

      Read it.

      • Ronan

        Does that mean you’ve read it and reccomend it ?

        • LeeEsq

          Yes. Its very good.

        • Ahenobarbus

          LOL, “reed” it or “red” it. Damned English language.

          • Ronan

            I’m sick and tired of speaking this godforsaken language. I don’t have a clue what’s going on half the time

            • Ahuitzotl

              its a poor workman that blames his tools :)

  • Bruce Vail

    Sort of OT: Am I the only one who thinks the foto of Huntington Beach circa 1930s looks fake? Anybody out there with any specific knowledge care to attest to the authenticity, or lack thereof, of this particular foto?

    • There are any number of similar photos of Huntington Beach at the time. I am pretty sure I took this image from a scholarly article.

      https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1234&bih=614&q=huntington+beach+oil&oq=huntington+beach+oil&gs_l=img.3..0l8j0i30j0i8i30.577.3879.0.4431.26.13.0.1.1.0.347.1812.0j2j5j1.8.0….0…1ac.1.64.img..17.9.1813.mZN6dsQ5wEs

      • Bruce Vail

        Yeah, no question there was a lot of oil drilling in Southern California in the 1930s. I’ve seen the foto identified as both Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach, but it can’t be both.

    • Warren Terra

      The one guy in a white shirt in the foreground, with most other figures much darker in hue and indistinct, makes it look very staged and cinematic, as if the one framed person is the protagonist in a scripted narrative. This may be part of your response.

    • MD Rackham

      I can say that as late as the early 1960s there were a lot of wooden oil derricks in Huntington Beach. They had mostly disappeared and been replaced by rocker pumps by the mid-70s as oil drilling moved to offshore platforms, at least until Santa Barbara.

      Spent part of my youth growing up in a house on land leased from Signal Oil. Turned out it was previously an oil waste disposal pond. Ah well.

  • ExpatJK

    On my TBR but highly recommended by others: Out of the House of Bondage by Thalvolia Glymph, which is a history of plantation households.

    I’d also put Embracing Defeat by John Dower up there. Of course, it is not a history of the US, but it does cover the US occupation of Japan, so…

  • LeeEsq

    One issue that could get discussed more is that one person’s history for the masses could seem really academic to another person. I’m currently reading the second volume of the British historian Dominic Sandbrook’s four volume History of Britain between Suez and Thatcher’s election.

    The second volume deals with what happened socially, politically, and economically during Harold Wilson’s premiership between 1964-1970. Its clearly aimed for a mass but educated audience because academic language is non-existent like all the other volumes. At the same time, I can see how somebody who hasn’t had much contact with academic history can see be overwhelmed by it even though Dominic Sandbrook is a great writer. He goes into some very minute detail about many things most people really wouldn’t care about like the peculiarities of how Permissive Society legislation were past during the Wilson administration and or the non-conformist Protestant backgrounds of Wilson and James Callaghan. There is a lot of dense and very interesting detail in these works. For many people, popular history is essentially tales of daring do in battle or politics and uplifting moralism. I find this true across the political spectrum.

    • Ronan

      Ive always intended to read Sandbrook’s books,and think I have one lying around the house that I picked up in a second hand bookshop. Im a little sceptical of Sandbrook from his public persona, which is a bit too much cosmopolitan English conservative. I mean, I consider myself a liberal cosmopolitan more or less, but I like my historians more old school conservative, full of wistfulness, regret, and barely contained heartache. Sandbrook seems too cheery. Too removed from the joys and tribulations of agrarian dystopias.
      Having said that, Ive heard it’s a decent series of books (the first few anyway, i dont know after that)

      • LeeEsq

        Maybe because I’m American but I always Sandbrook as more of squishy liberal rather than a cosmopolitan conservative; democratic capitalism with the welfare state to rough off the edges. In his Cold War Britain documentary for the BBC he does express regret with the hyper-capitalistic economic choices the West made after the fall of Communism even though he is clearly glad the USSR and the Soviet Bloc are gone for good. Basically, he and I share many of the same politics probably. He tends to hide his politics in his books as much as possible and is never overtly hostile to most politicians he writes about. He has nothing but praises for Harold Wilson but he is also more sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher than is usual. He definitely likes modernity though and has a populist touch.

        An interesting comparison read is to read Sandbrook’s history with David Kynaston’s multivolume history of roughly the same period, although Kynaston starts with Atlee rather than Eden. Kynaston’s beliefs and preferences, although he probably is also conservative because he wrote a big multivolume history of the United Kingdom’s version of Wall Street for a positive perspective, are harder to grasp at than Sandbrook’s but the approach the same manner differently. Kynaston is more bottom up and relies on the diaries, letters, and recorded experiences of ordinary people more. Sandbrook focuses on the top more, the politicians, the celebrities but he does so to show the aspirations and wants of ordinary British people.

        • Ronan

          Which did you prefer ? Kynaston got a lot of very good press from what I remember

          • LeeEsq

            Sandbrook is a better historian than Kynaston. Both write very well but Kynaston comes across much more like a chronicler of events than an actual historian. Its really difficult to figure out what his own opinions are. Sandbrook is not overly polemic but he does let his own interpretation of the events he describes show more in his work, which is generally cosmopolitan populism (if that makes sense). When Sandbrook writes about the negative reaction that British intellectuals had to television in general and the BBC in particular you can tell that he is on the side of the television of loving masses more. With Kynaston, not so much.

    • howard

      since i am one of the very few people in america to have read the crossman diaries (don’t ask!), you fascinate me: i will have to track this down (after i read at least one book on erik’s list, that is!).

      • LeeEsq

        You can also watch at least part of the three documentary series he did for the BBC on youtube for free. You can watch all three episodes of Cold War Britain, episodes 1, 3, and 4 of The Seventies, and episodes 1, 3, and 4 or a series on the post-war British cultural/entertainment industry.

      • Breadbaker

        Gee, I’ve read the Crossman Diaries. That led to reading the Yes, Minister books before the TV shows were broadcast in America.

    • Yankee

      popular history is essentially tales of daring do in battle or politics and uplifting moralism. I find this true across the political spectrum.

      popular science, popular politics, popular culture, &c &c &c

  • Bruce Vail

    I’m embarassed to have read so few of the 15 books on the list. Dower’s War Without Mercy has been on my shelf for years, but I’ve never done more than hopscotch around different sections.

    One of James Green’s other books — Death in the Haymarket — is very good and worthy of consideration for your list.

    http://jamesgreenworks.com/books/

    • witlesschum

      I’ve got two, Reconstruction and the Unredeemed Captive.

  • BGinCHI

    When I was 18 or 19 and still pretty stupid inexperienced with political history, reading Zinn was huge for me. Not so much the “facts” but the blowing the lid off the shit I was taught and observed in American culture (where half your HS history teachers are football coaches).

    It’s the counter-cultural critique that is important.

    Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a similar book, I think, in terms of changing minds about a subject.

    Tempted to include the full text of Sherman Alexie’s great poem, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.”

    • Bruce Vail

      Yes, This.

      I speak less for myself than for my son, who was assigned Zinn as a high school text. It really made an impression. He graduated from HS about five years ago and is now pursuing his masters degree.

  • howard

    can i put in a plug for my old prof richard slotkin’s trilogy regeneration through violence, fatal environment, and gunfighter nation, a deep reading of popular literature?

    or are they out of date or too long?

    i appreciate your list and hope to read at least one and ideally several next year.

    • They are certainly long….

      But they are good, for sure.

  • Unlearner

    The Fall of the House of Labor; Land of Hope; Making the Second Ghetto; I’ve Got the Light of Freedom; Bourgeois Nightmares; To Stand and Fight; Brownsville, Brooklyn; A Consumer’s Republic.

  • Ken

    Speaking as a mass, I don’t want to wade through all that tedious text and analysis, or waste half my money on pages of nothing but endnotes and references. Give me a good patriotic tale about how Ben Franklin invented electricity, or Paul Revere rang that bell to warn that the British were coming, or FDR conspired to get the US fleet sunk at Pearl Harbor.

    • If you are reading history to hear patriotic tales, you should never read anything I write.

      • rea

        I personally think your labor history series is deeply patriotic.

        • sharculese

          Seconded.

    • Origami Isopod

      You don’t want history, then; you want propaganda.

  • Booger

    Hey, just finished Green’s “Devil,” and it’s a real eye opener…striking miners being bombed from the air in the 20th century.

  • rjayp

    an angry history of the Gilded Age! Shades of one of my favorites, Matthew Josephson.

  • partisan

    I’d put Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis

    • partisan

      Also, Sweet Land of Liberty not to mention his lectures on the rise of Obama. Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie strikes me as better than McPherson, while Levine’s book on Confederate Emancipation plans, or more accurately non plans, is also worth reading. Alan Taylor’s two books on the war of 1812 are both readable and well documented, and his first book on the Maine Frontier is an important work on the American Revolution. On the American Revolution, I’d recommend Terry Bouton on Pennsylvania and Woody Holton on the origins of the constitution.

      • partisan

        But it’s not that there’s a shortage of books: Eric Foner’s history of American freedom, Linda Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, Leslie Reagan and Rickie Solinger on abortion, Stephanie Coontz on the family, Colin Gordon on the travails of American health insurance, Steven Hahn’s “A Nation Under Out Feet”, Nancy MacLean on the origins of affirmative action, Timothy Minchin and John Salmond’s book on southerners after 1965 as well as Thomas Jackson on Martin Luther King. I prefer Joshua Freeman’s “American Empire” to Sugrue and Gilmore’s recent summary of American history since 1890. William Leuchtenburg’s entry on Herbert Hoover in the American President series is delightfully rude. American diplomatic history isn’t in the best situation, partially because Republican presidents have been fighting tooth and nail not to declassify documents. But Nick Cullather on the world food crisis, Matthew Connolly on population control, Piero Gleijeses’ two volumes on the endgame of apartheid (as well as his earlier book on Guatemala), Tsuyoshi Hasegawa on Japan’s surrender and Nick Turse on American war crimes in Vietnam are all worth reading. There are Jackson Lears’ four books. And while this blog isn’t the greatest Sean Wilentz fan, Mrs. Sean Wilentz offers a useful history of feminism in The Feminist Promise.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    the cool thing about ‘railroaded’ is the near-total lack of respect the writer has for the masters of the universe. definitely the opposite of the ‘great man’ theory of how things happen

  • lizzie

    Hey this is great. Thanks. My only quibble: this list would have been super useful before Christmas.

    • I assumed everyone was too busy bursting their Christmas budgets buying copies of Out of Sight for everyone they know.

      • JL

        I bought a copy for one of my brothers!

  • Todd

    It’s not by a historian, and is actually merely a memoir, but the best book of history I read this year was Josephine Baker’s “Fighting for Life”. She recounts her efforts to set up and expand NYC’s office of public health in the first decades of the 20th century (one of the first such permanent institutions). Wonderful retelling of the struggle to bring basic health care and health education to poor people in urban environments through governmental auspices for the first time.

  • alanba42

    If you like America and imperialism these are two really good books that I have used part or all of with some success.

    Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. University of California Press, 2003.

    Great on how Americans came to understand their place in the world after WWII. I tend to use the “How to be an American Abroad” chapter, but the whole book is good.

    Bickers, Robert. Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Not really about the U.S., although the subject was always wishing to become an American and thus more up-to-date. Empire, masculinity and race, with a nice biographical hook and also helpful on how historians find things out.

  • Bruce Vail

    J. Anthony Lukas Big Trouble

    One of the good things about this book is that Lukas didn’t want it to be only a labor book, so he tells the story of the Steunenburg murder case against the leaders of Western Miners Federation while including a lot of other social history of the era.

    • skate

      Oooh, I should put that on my To-Read list. I read The Rocky Mountain Revolution many years ago and found it all fascinating.

  • LiveFreeOrShop

    OK, the American Revolution. Bernard Bailyn’s “To Begin the World Anew” gives a short, readable overview of the unique economic and political environment in the colonies–and some of the personalities–leading up to the revolution. (For a review of the political debates during that period, Bailyn’s “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” is interesting, but longer and a bit dry.)

    “Angel in the Whirlwind,” by Benson Bobrick, covers some of the same ground, but continues by examining the brilliant way Washington managed the army throughout. The book also describes the contributions made by lesser-known characters like the inimitable Henry Knox.

    Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” is still timely.

  • Brett

    Having read them, I’ll definitely second Railroaded, Suburban Warriors, and Stayin’Alive. Suburban Warriors can be a bit narrowly focused on southern California, but it really is a great account of how Movement Conservatism emerged there in the 1950s.

    Railroaded is my personal favorite.

  • ColBatGuano

    I’ll just put a word in for “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s book about the early days of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Every clown who talks about “bringing freedom and democracy” to other countries via military force should be forced to read it.

  • Linnaeus

    Let me plug my subfield and suggest David Cassidy’s _J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century_.

  • Bruce Vail

    I totally agree that an obsessive focus on the ‘Great Man’ is not the best way to do history, but that doesn’t mean that an exceptionally well-done biography of an individual at the center of important change in America should be automatically excluded from your list.

    I’m thinking of The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles, on the life and times of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and also of John L. Lewis by Melvyn Dubofsky & Warren Tines.

    • skate

      Or even not so “great”. I learned a fair amount about early 20th century America by reading The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill. But then I’m not an academic.

      • heckblazer

        Trivia note: Stephen King named his eldest son after Joe Hill(strom).

  • human

    Family Properties by Beryl Satter is really good for showing how systemic housing discrimination was: it was banks and governments at all levels, not just randoms burning crosses. Also it’s beautifully written and a true pleasure to read.

  • Gregor Sansa

    OK, so now you’ve replaced Zinn, somebody needs to make a similar list for replacing Galeano’s Venas Abiertas de America Latina. It’s a product of the same kind of moment as Zinn, equally important in terms of opening many an undergraduate’s eyes, and surely equally flawed from today’s perspective.

    • pseudalicious

      I would love that.

  • SamChevre

    Great first-person book–not a scholarly history, but a readable primary source.

    The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens; the autobiography of one of the original muckrakers, who was a police-beat reporter in New York city when Theodore Roosevelt was governor.

  • nixnutz

    I discovered Cheap Amusements when it happened to be on the table where I was sitting at the library, I was lucky enough to find a copy in a store and it’s one of my very favorite non-fiction books. Years later I was delighted when I brought it up in conversation with my sister and she was like “oh yeah, Kathy Peiss,” I don’t even know why exactly but I just love that book.

    And as some others have said, I read Zinn as a teenager and I found it very eye-opening, not because it’s an exhaustive history, but because it had so many surprising details about things I thought I already knew. The part about Squanto having been to England before the pilgrims arrived for instance. I think it’s great for kids to realize that there’s a ton to learn beyond their textbooks, and also get some insight into the kind of bias that those books sources reflect.

  • dn

    I’m just a layman and nowhere near as well-read as most here, but for a concise, accessible gateway into 19th-century America, I really doubt that you could do much better than Orville Vernon Burton’s The Age of Lincoln. It begins with the ‘Great Disappointment’ of 1844 and ends with the defeat of the Populists, a great framework for understanding the obsessive millennialism of the 19th-century mind and how it was steadily crushed by civil war and the onset of capitalist modernity.

  • Thanks Erik and everyone! I look forward to exploring these.

  • Fnarf

    The new book that updates Foner on Reconstruction and is even more blood-boiling is The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas Egerton. His focus is on the many freemen and freedmen who made and lost the rights of Reconstruction, rather than on the politicians who watched and allowed that loss to happen.

    Seconding Cowie, and Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, which I’m a third of the way through and already put up there with 1491 as the book that explains why the world is as it is. Land (stolen from Indians) and labor (stolen from Africans) = not just America but Britain and modern capitalism.

  • mch

    Thanks for the bibliography. Much to pursue.

    I am curious: “so there is a lack of books on the American Revolution, about which I basically don’t care, and slavery, which I should read more of but I don’t have time.”

    Not caring about the Revolution? No time for slavery? Perhaps you should take an interest and find some time?

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    In defense of Zinn, he never claimed that People’s History was definitive and explicitly said it only be used as a starting point.

    I suspect he would endorse the idea of a list such as the one in the OP.

    • My problem with Zinn thus far isn’t that he isn’t definitive, but that it’s not clear to me how to use him as a starting point. If there’s a methodology, I haven’t discerned it. There are claims about elites putting structures in place to maintain comtrol but not being consciously aware that that’s what they were doing. Let’s not dilute the former for the moment: where is the latter coming from? What grounds it? Is it historically specific or just a general claim about institutions? There’s no hint at all. Indeed, the caveat seems more dialectically tactical (ie them being unaware of their political manuver makes the less loathsome).

      There’s some hand waves about the development of racism as a tool (contrasted with a natural antagonism): is the natural antagonism view something that even needs countering?

      He talks about cross group relations springing from sexual attraction as if love, solidarity, sympathy were not at work.

      The links to the literature are slender afaict. Certainly, there’s little guidance thus far.

      This is why it’s proving unsatisfactory for me and my goal of refreshing my American history understanding (which hasn’t been updated since AP history, except haphazardly, which was over 20 years ago). I’d like to be able to recommend stuff to my nieces and nephews as they hit secondary school. I feel like I could say read Zinn, but Lies seems more useful fans readable for shaking one out of one’s complacency and neither seems to steer you toward developing your understanding further.

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