Great histories of Boston and/or the American Revolution?
September 23, 2013 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I recently moved to the Boston area, and realized that I don't know anything about it, or the main period that it's famous for. Please recommend me some non-fiction page-turners.

I'm looking for any and all of the following:

1. A good comprehensive history, from settlement to the present day. (Not a coffee table book.)

2. A good history of the American Revolution--think the equivalent of James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", i.e. a serious and credible but readable narrative history.

3. Any more specific history books about particular important events in the city's history.

posted by Beardman to Education (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You will be shocked at how dramatic and enthralling a book about the explosion of a molasses storage tank can be.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:43 AM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mike Duncan who did the really comprehensive History of Rome podcast has just started a new one called "Revolutions". He is starting with the English revolution (1600's) but will eventually be doing the American Revolution. Probably wont get to the American Revolution for at least 4 to 6 months down the road but worth keeping an eye out .
posted by Captain_Science at 11:44 AM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

David McCullough's John Adams (the series isn't bad, either, though not all the history is right) and 1776.
posted by lharmon at 11:49 AM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding 1776.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:52 AM on September 23, 2013

J. Anthony Lukas's Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the Boston busing crisis, Common Ground, is an incredibly rich look at the city and its history--it's not just about the crisis, but the hundreds of years of national and local history that got us there. Cannot recommend more highly.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:09 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Pulio, the same author of the Molasses book (Dark tide) also has written "A city so grand"- Boston between 1850 and 1900, and "The Italians of Boston".
posted by Gungho at 12:09 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anything by Thomas H. O'Connor, who is considered the "dean" of Boston history. (He sadly passed away last year.) I especially recommend his book "The Hub: Boston Past and Present" as a starting point, but I've enjoyed all of them.

Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill tells the history of Boston through its geography and architecture. Boston's landmass was close to doubled by leveling the hills and filling in various wet bits in the 1700s and 1800s, and was demographically altered by the leveling of the West End in the 1960s. Whitehill's unique angle on the city's history highlights influences that a lot of historians either back-burner or ignore entirely.

You can probably find used copies of both books at the Harvard COOP or at the Harvard Book Store, which despite its name has no affiliation to the university. (Great store, though.)

Don't bother with the Duck Tour. The history on that tour is incredibly inaccurate.
posted by rednikki at 12:35 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if you want to get into some fairly recent history, The Last Tenement is a fantastic book about the destruction of the West End neighborhood in the name of urban renewal. If you want to know why Bostonians pitch a hysterical fit anytime anyone suggests demolishing any old building, wall, or anything else - this book explains why. (Full disclosure: my mom grew up in the West End so this is somewhat personal to us, but it's a historical episode that has affected urban planning throughout the US.)
posted by rednikki at 12:41 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

rednikki: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill

I wanted to recommend this, but I couldn't remember the name. It also puts me in mind of Mapping Boston, which isn't exactly a comprehensive history, but a history-minded Bostonian should certainly have it in their library. The geography of Boston can teach so much about the city's history.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:47 PM on September 23, 2013

Paul Revere's Ride
posted by Ideefixe at 1:22 PM on September 23, 2013

I'm glad the maps got mentioned - there's a surprising amount of interesting cartography about this town.
posted by maryr at 1:30 PM on September 23, 2013

Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes. On my phone or I would link. I loved that book when I was a teenager. It's by the author of Johnny Tremain (which is itself a great--though fictional--account of Boston at the beginning of the American Revolution.).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:32 PM on September 23, 2013

Edward Rowe Snow wrote a number of (somewhat romantic) histories of the Harbor Islands and coastline surrounding Boston. These are slowly coming back into print, but should be easily found used online.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:24 PM on September 23, 2013

Another great read from Nathanial Philbrick is highly recomended for at least a few years during the revolution.
posted by Rad_Boy at 2:44 PM on September 23, 2013

Currently reading Joseph Ellis' Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. A bit narrow of focus, but for good writing, it's hard to beat.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:55 PM on September 23, 2013

Nthing Common Ground. It is just fabulous.

McCullough's are great, too.
posted by jgirl at 4:17 PM on September 23, 2013

Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes
posted by Bwithh at 5:52 PM on September 23, 2013

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