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History for the Masses



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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