Specific American History books?
June 10, 2010 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend books about American history that cover specific important periods or turning points in a comprehensive but readable fashion? E.g, Foner's book on Reconstruction, or Taylor's American Colonies?

I would like books about the Progressive Era, the Civil War, the early battles between Federalism and states rights (the Marshall court), the major Depressions, etc. (Where etc. is all the things I don't know I should be asking about.)

I have seen this former question which is similar, but which does not cover everything I've asked about.
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Most of this answer probably falls in the category of "etc.", but: consider looking at some of the Library of America collections of contemporary sources.

The American Revolution
The Debate on the Constitution (two volumes)
Reporting World War II (two volumes)
Reporting Civil Rights (two volumes)
Reporting Vietnam (two volumes)

The last three on that list are supremely accessible; the language of the first two made them harder for me to get through.

Other Library of America books that may interest you (but that I haven't read myself, and so can't speak to their accessibility):

John Marshall: Writings
Henry Adams: History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson
Henry Adams: History of the United States During the Administrations of Madison

And consider some Presidential biographies. J. A. Leo Lemay's biography of Benjamin Franklin is sadly incomplete (Lemay passed away a few years ago), but three volumes out of a projected seven are available. Michael Burlingame's recent biography of Lincoln got good reviews--it's sitting on my shelf staring at me, but I haven't worked up the nerve to tackle it yet.

Finally, Fred Anderson's Crucible of War is a highly readable and comprehensive history of the Seven Years' War.
posted by Prospero at 3:30 PM on June 10, 2010

There are a lot of wonderful books. I'll mention a couple: David McCullough's outstanding biography, John Adams (which also covers the early Federalist period as context), and Shelby Foote's magnum opus, The Civil War.
posted by bearwife at 3:33 PM on June 10, 2010

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is excellent. It's part of the Oxford History of the United States. (Shelby Foote's books are also very good, but it's a three-volume set of giant books.)
posted by kirkaracha at 3:47 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

For a break from the heavy stuff already mentioned, do give consideration to Frances Trollope's (Anthony's mum) Domestic Manners of the Americans from the early 19th Century.

Sample, on the life of a Quaker housewife: she mounts to her chamber, carefully sets aside her bonnet and its appurtenances, puts on her scolloped black silk apron, walks into the kitchen to see that all is right, then into the parlour, where, having cast a careful glance over the table prepared for dinner, she sits down, work in hand, to await her spouse. He comes, shakes hands with her, spits, and dines. The conversation is not much, and ten minutes suffices for the dinner; fruit and toddy, the newspaper and the work-bag succeed.

La Trollope captured her thoughts in this book because she was strapped for cash. As you might imagine, Europe ate it up. Problem solved.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:18 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nding the Oxford History of the United States series. I've slowly been working my way through them and they're fantastic.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:40 PM on June 10, 2010

Won't suggest any specific books, but will say that, when deciding what to read about the Civil War, or any other war, you need to decide if your are interested in the military history of the war or in the causes and impact of the war. You don't need to read lengthy battle descriptions in the former to understand and appreciate the latter.
posted by justcorbly at 4:50 PM on June 10, 2010

I've always found James Michener to be a wonderful read. My favorite is: Chesapeake.
posted by Draccy at 6:05 PM on June 10, 2010

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Three volumes about the Roosevelt, the depression and the recovery, dated but well written. The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933, The Age of Roosevelt, Volume I, The Coming of the New Deal, 1933-1935 (The Age of Roosevelt, Vol. 2), The Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936, The Age of Roosevelt, Volume III .

Also three volumes, Taylor Branch's history of America in the King years: Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63, Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man is part biography, part fresh history (it was written after Nixon's election but before Watergate) salted with insightful social commentary. One of the best books about modern America.
posted by shothotbot at 7:01 PM on June 10, 2010

Heartily seconding Domestic Manners of the Americans, though I never would have thought of it in this context without Short Attention Sp's prompting.

It's so funny and so oddly revelatory; for example, concerning the origins of one of the worlds great folk art traditions:

After breakfast, being much in want of amusement, I seated myself by her, and entered into conversation. I found her nothing loth, and in about a minute and a half she put a card into my hand, setting forth, that she taught the art of painting upon velvet in all its branches.

She stated to me, with great volubility, that no one but herself and her daughter knew any thing of this invaluable branch of art; but that for twenty-five dollars they were willing to communicate all they knew.

Published in 1832.
posted by jamjam at 7:54 PM on June 10, 2010

Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 is an excellent recent survey of Jacksonian America, with some nice attention paid to cultural undercurrents like utopianism, temperance, and women's rights in addition to all the usual stuff about the Bank War, etc.

Also, and I've recommended them here beforeā€”if you're at all interested in material or social history, you owe it to yourself to check out the Everyday Life in America series: Everyday Life in Early America by Hawke; The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840 by Larkin; Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 by Schlereth. I'm not sure whether this series at all fits your criteria, but they're terrific books and a lot of fun to read.
posted by cirripede at 10:15 PM on June 10, 2010

Seconding What Hath God Wrought or any book in the Oxford History of the United States series. It's brilliant historical scholarship in tandem with the sort of narrative/synthesis you're looking for. Here's the Wikipedia entry with the list of all of the books

The Progressive Era is tricky. Some of the current historiographical trends center around ideas of determining who is or which cast of characters should be called Progressives. This era also has a fair number of detractors who say it's not really even an era. It's interesting stuff. I think Maureen Flanagan's America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s to 1920s and Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 are two books that aptly fit your criteria (although the Flanagan book reads more like a textbook).

My absolute favorite book is Gender and Jim Crow: Gender and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina by Glenda Gilmore. I can't recommend it highly enough.

If you are interested in US History in an international context (and really, who isn't?) Daniel T. Rodgers's Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age is a good book to check out.

Although it's a biography and relatively narrow in scope, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy examines Addams' egalitarianism and democratic code of ethics. The book handles many of the issues, conditions, and events of the Progressive Era and also how Addams (and others at Hull House) reacted. Addams is the quintessential Progressive and unpacking her thinking, for me anyway, is an endlessly fascinating lens with which to view the era.
posted by Hop123 at 7:28 AM on June 11, 2010

One very concrete turning point in American history was the establishment of the transcontinental railroad shortly after the Civil War. Prior to this, getting from NY to SFO required either (1) going overland, which took months and involved evading unfriendly natives, or (2) crossing Panama with a 10% chance of dying of yellow fever, or (3) sailing around South America, which took months and cost a fortune. Then, suddenly, you could cross the country in 4 days. Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It In the World tells the story.

And if you're unfamiliar with the Lewis & Clark expedition, Ambrose's Undaunted Courage is a must.
posted by neuron at 12:44 PM on June 11, 2010

The Glory and the Dream for the New Deal through the Great Society and the rise of liberalism.

Nixonland for the fall of liberalism and the creation of our current political environment, although it's probably too current for what you're asking about.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:37 PM on June 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all these excellent answers!
posted by OmieWise at 7:04 AM on June 12, 2010

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