Top 10 List of Best American Historical Writing
Recently the net has seen various ten best lists of works in American history. I’d like to propose one of my own, but first I want to explain my rationale. American historical writing was transformed in the 1960s by two things: the realization that slavery and racism were the foundations of American history and the enormous achievements of such Marxist historians and social thinkers as Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson and Immanuel Wallerstein. Works produced during and after the sixties have given us a dramatically new picture of the country and my list reflects this. In addition, I chose works that look at American capitalism as a whole, not works that narrowly confine themselves to particular “fields,” like political history, economic history and so forth. Finally, I have chosen works that help us to see the United States in a global perspective even if the works are not themselves comparative or transnational. Here is my list:
1. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black. Perry Miller, of course, remains central, but Jordan shows how Elizabethan England and the American colonies blended Puritanism and race. The work also brilliantly deploys Freudian thought, without resorting to jargon. A closely related book, also great, is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.
2. Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, one of the great books of the sixties now largely forgotten. Tuveson shows how the Augustinian contempt for the “city of man” was transformed in the Reformation and how this shaped the US sense of absolute good and evil. I would supplement Tuveson with Richard Hofstadter’s great essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
3. To cover the American Revolution, many suggest Gordon Wood’s celebratory accounts. By contrast, I would use an old book but a great one, Robert Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution. What Palmer shows is that the American Revolution was one in a series of eighteenth century revolutions, and thus helps us de-provincialize our history.
4. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution shows that both the market and capitalism were historical phenomena and that both were intrinsically connected, on the one hand to slavery and on the other to family life, and thereby gender.
5. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress. There is an embarrassment of riches on slavery and race, but Davis links the slavery question to the rise of capitalism.
6. Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll the single greatest work on slavery, powerful because it shows that even that most horrendous of human institutions was based on human relationships.
7. Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship. Moore’s chapter on the American Civil War, which Moore calls “the second American Revolution,” remains nonpareil, and again has the benefit of situating the Civil War comparatively, linking it to the English Revolution, the French Revolution, Prussian state-building and the like. I would supplement Moore with the great sections on the US in Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Capital, particularly the discussion of the Gold Rush.
8. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West for the role of the railroads, the city and the environment.
9. Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work. Simultaneously a classic of women’s history and labor history; throwing a piercing light on the whole history of the working class. Alternatively, Linda Gordon’s Women’s Body, Women’s Right, taking us into the intimacies of the sexual bed.
10. George Chauncey, Gay New York, which transforms our understanding of urban history, of the twenties, of our greatest metropolis and of our sexual natures.
Admittedly, there are no works for the most recent period, which we are only beginning to conceptualize. A leading contender for me would be Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture. Of course, Natasha Zaretsky’s No Direction Home: The American Family and National Decline has a special place in my heart.