Books about American politics

by Henry on July 8, 2008

Having handed in my tenure file, and gotten my book accepted (yay!), I’m now, for the first time in years, in a place where I can think about doing some really serious reading outside the topics of my research, while I wait for the results to come in on the first, and do copy preparation on the second. So I’m in the market for good books about American politics, society, and history to fill in some of the holes in my knowledge of same as a non-US native. What I’m looking for are interesting, intellectually rich, accounts of American politics, preferably with a minimum of boosterism. Less Doris Kearns Goodwin then, than The Boys on the Bus. I’m interested both in academic books with a general appeal and good popular histories with intellectual bite. I’m also happy to entertain suggestions for good fiction that touches on these subjects – first on my list is Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country (I read one of the books that it’s based on, Killing Mr. Watson, years ago, and loved it). So please submit recommendations in comments. Up before I start on this list, I hope, my reviews of John McGowan on American liberalism and Dan Solove on reputation and the Internet.

{ 120 comments }

1

Donald A. Coffin 07.08.08 at 5:47 pm

Richard Hofstader is sort of out of favor these days, but I loved and was profoundly influenced by his work back when I was an undergraduate (40 years ago)), particularly The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

2

Miracle Max 07.08.08 at 5:50 pm

Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise. Hard to find. I could lend you mine.

3

The Modesto Kid 07.08.08 at 6:01 pm

Nixonland starts out as a very engaging history of Nixon’s rise to power and the way that he played in opposition to the movement towards racial equality; seems to have turned about midway through into a not-so-interesting or well-written history of the ’60′s counter-culture though. But the first half, I’d recommend highly.

4

Henry 07.08.08 at 6:04 pm

Nixonland starts out as a very engaging history of Nixon’s rise to power

Take a close look at the acknowledgments page ;)

Max – thanks for the recommendation – I think I can get it through GWU’s library (which is not to say that we shouldn’t meet for a coffee or something soon).

5

eamonn callan 07.08.08 at 6:06 pm

The first two installments in Walter McDougall’s history of the USA are magnificent: beautifully written, wise, and funny, though a little on the cynical side. The first, Freedom Around the Corner, takes us to the ascent of Andrew Jackson. The second, Throes of Democracy, ends with the aftermath of the Civil War. I’m halfway through the second volume. It seems to me even more impressive than the first.

6

Miracle Max 07.08.08 at 6:08 pm

I’m in Chinatown, so tea and dim sum are another option.

7

matt 07.08.08 at 6:11 pm

Congratulations on the book, Henry, and good luck w/ the tenure case.

I also liked Richard Hofstader when I was an undergrad but I was going to recommend _The American Political Tradition_. I’ve not read it for many years but really liked it when I did. It more or less ends w/ FDR so won’t get you up to the present day.

I also liked Ronald Takaki’s _A Different Mirror: A History of Multi-Cultural America_.

_Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life_ by Robert Utley is a highly readable, almost novel-like book that does a good job of showing how frontier violence developed in the US (partly as a growth out of the civil war).

Before he turned out horrible junk Stephen Ambrose wrote _The Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938_. It’s been a while since I read it but I enjoyed it a lot at the time.

Judith Sklar’s _American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion_ is also a useful, fun quick read.

8

SamChevre 07.08.08 at 6:20 pm

These recommendations are mostly history/culture, rather than politics as such.

David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed
This book focuses on the various British cultures that influenced America in various places(Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, Scots-Irish Appalachia, planter Virginia), and how they differed. I find its descriptions of the two cultures I’m part of (Quaker and Scots-Irish) to be generally fair and accurate. It’s my top recommendation on this list.

Booker T Washington, Up from Slavery
William A Percy, Lanterns on the Levee

Read them together. They capture Reconstruction and Redemption, and classic Southern culture, quite well. (There’s a third book that should be here–another autobiography, of an African-American woman from Chapel Hill, which I’ll add when I can find it.)

Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief
A good, careful look at religion and politics in an American legal context.

9

Martin 07.08.08 at 6:27 pm

Robert Caro’s volumes of Lyndon Johnson biography(3 so far, the second focusing on the 1940s and early political career, the most recent on Senate career and the 1950s) are very flawed but still net out as great books. They include lots of analysis of how large pieces of the political system worked (much of it probably true, if incomplete) along with narative and gossip. They are very readable-page turners even-albeit long. Similar for earlier biography of Robert Moses and political history of New York City and the heirs of the progressive movement in roughtly the middle third of the twentieth century.

10

roac 07.08.08 at 6:27 pm

You didn’t say how far you wanted to go back. Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was a revelation to me when I picked it up a while back.

11

DHN 07.08.08 at 6:30 pm

Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” is the best analysis I’ve ever read of what goes into making top level politicians.

The recent Pulitzer Prize winner, “What Hath God Wrought” by Daniel Walker Howe is a brilliant read and a reminder of how much our current political landscape traces directly to the America of 150 years ago.

12

Josh R. 07.08.08 at 6:39 pm

I’ll third Hofstadter, but favor The Age of Reform.

I’d also look at something on Andrew Jackson, as the type of anti-elitist, anti-coast politics that found favor in his administration have cast quite the pallor on subsequent American history. I’m not sure what the best book on that might be; The Jacksonian Persuasion is good, but I think requires some knowledge of the goings on of the day to give Meyers ideas proper context.

13

Miracle Max 07.08.08 at 6:40 pm

The Goodwyn book is long and tedious in places; he did a shortened version, The Populist Moment.

The Taylor Branch books on the civil rights era are well regarded, I haven’t read them.

Rising Tide by John Barry, about the great Mississippi flood, really about the economic and social development of the region, is an incredible story. Amusing subplot — blood feuds among civil engineers.

14

Shelby 07.08.08 at 6:48 pm

On the fiction side, Michener’s Centennial and Texas accurately convey the flavor of their regions and the broad sweep of history. They’re really more beach reads, but can make a nice counterpoint when you’ve read a few academic tomes.

15

Ginger Yellow 07.08.08 at 6:53 pm

The Paranoid Style seconded.

16

Zack 07.08.08 at 6:55 pm

Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson books. No better way to understand American politics and the creatures who inhabit it.

17

andrew 07.08.08 at 6:57 pm

If you’re going to go back to the revolutionary era, I’d recommend Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings to go along with Bailyn. Both books get more into the details of constitution writing than Bailyn does. Also good is an article by Daniel Rodgers, “Republicanism: Career of a Concept” which gives an overview of the “republican synthesis” interpretation of the revolutionary period.

For a different look at the same period, Peter Onuf, Origins of the Federal Republic is good.

18

Nur al-Cubicle 07.08.08 at 7:01 pm

I would recommend Dan T. Carter:

1) The politics of rage : George Wallace, the origins of the new conservatism, and the transformation of American politics

2) From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich : race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994

3) When the war was over : the failure of self-reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867

as well as Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union (reads like poetry)

19

Geoffrey 07.08.08 at 7:09 pm

David Levering-Lewis’s two volume bio of W.E.B. DuBois (each volume separately won the Pulitzer, if I remember correctly).

Anything by Leon Litwack.

No boosterism in either one.

20

D Young 07.08.08 at 7:21 pm

For general political history:

I’d second anything Hofstader, as well as many of the things others have said. However, for more general recent history, the following are all readable but academic, and a bit broader than some of the other stuff. Many of these happened to win prizes, but they usually deserved them too.

Depression and WWII: Can’t go wrong with
“Freedom from Fear” by David Kennedy. Its long, but you can read it in a day. Its my favorite book, and it deserved its pulitzer.

Post WWII:

“The Politics of Fear” by Robert Griffith. A Classic on McCarthy’s rise and fall in the 1950s.

“The Movement and the Sixties” by Terry Anderson. Fantastic book on the rise of the New Left

“The Seventies” by Bruce Schulman
Great general history about a forgotten decade

Taylor Branch’s 3 part series, but especially “Parting the Waters”

Caro’s LBJ books are also great, but they are a long slog in my opinion.

As for more recent, “Why Americans Hate Politics” by EJ Dionne is a great half history/half current events. Although he is a journalist, the book is somewhat academic but written in Dionne’s readable style. I highly recommend this one.

Earlier Eras:

21

Chris M 07.08.08 at 8:07 pm

“A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution” was a real eye-opener for me.

http://www.amazon.com/Struggle-Power-American-Revolution/dp/0679776427

22

trane 07.08.08 at 8:10 pm

Congratulations!

I will second Eamonn’s suggestion for McDougall’s books. I have both volumes – they were a gift from a friend at my reaching a much lesser mark than the one you just passed – but have not had the time to read the second yet. The first is great both for its analysis and its style.

23

Tom 07.08.08 at 8:15 pm

Some of my favorites are:

Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon — the growth of Chicago in an ecological-economic framework

A Consumer’s Republic, Lizabeth Cohen — politics of postwar prosperity

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne — the civil rights era from a grssroots perspective

Brownsville, Brooklyn, Wendell Pritchett — racial and economic change in a neighborhood

Working Class New York, Josh Freeman — how working class mobilization shaped a city

24

trane 07.08.08 at 8:15 pm

… and Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Jailbird’ I would recommend also.

25

jacob 07.08.08 at 8:20 pm

Several (especially Tom @22) already suggested what I was going to say: The Populist Moment, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Nature’s Metropolis, either of Liz Cohen’s books (although I think Making a New Deal is better than Consumer’s Republic). I can also never resist suggesting Karen Sawislak’s Smoldering City, about the aftermath of the Chicago Fire.

26

Donald A. Coffin 07.08.08 at 8:49 pm

I’d also recommend two books by Eugene Genovese, “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The world the Slaves Made” and “The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation.” Both illuminate the importance of slavery in the early years of the US.

Douglass North’s “Growth and Welfare in the American Past” and “The Economic Growth of the United States 1790 – 1860″ are both brilliant works of economic history.

27

Bloix 07.08.08 at 8:56 pm

You’re exactly right to include fiction. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, should be on your list. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/27/books/review/Eggers.t.html

28

Doug 07.08.08 at 9:37 pm

Seconding What it Takes (Richard Ben Cramer) and the Taylor Branch trilogy about America in the King years. Parting the Waters is brilliant, especially the opening frame. V.O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation is good beyond its context (on which it is of course very good indeed) by providing a typology of one-party systems. T. Harry Williams on Huey Long. Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene. Jimmy Carter’s book on his first election, the name of which escapes me just now. The Year the Lights Came On by Terry Kay (novel). What Hath God Wrought, the Oxford History of America 1815-1848 by DW Howe looks very promising. And the next in the set is Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, which is very good. Obama’s first book is excellent. The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe. Moneyball, Michael Lewis. Ball Four, Jim Bouton. The Cousins’ Wars, by Kevin Phillips (he of The Emerging Republican Majority), has an interesting thesis connecting the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the US Civil War. Once you dive into the literature of the Civil War, you may never surface again. Rising Tide, by John M. Barry. Miles from Nowhere by Dayton Duncan looks at the particular characteristics of America’s least densely populated counties; it’s short, too. The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin.

That should keep you occupied for at least a week or two. Couldn’t you also plunder the reading lists your colleagues set for their students?

29

Mark 07.08.08 at 10:13 pm

A couple of accessible academic books are Jim Morone’s “Hellfire Nation” and his earlier “The Democratic Wish.” They are both American political development/philosophy approaches to the evolution of American democracy.

30

Geoff 07.08.08 at 10:15 pm

Novel: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara – brilliant historical fiction about Gettysburg.

Non-fiction: *The American Political Tradition and the Men who Made It by Richard Hofstader, left historian introducing some well known and not so well known American historical figures, the very definition of popular history with an intellectual bite

Those are just the two that come to mind right away

31

winter 07.08.08 at 11:00 pm

32

al 07.08.08 at 11:13 pm

Recap of the recommendations so far:

Ambrose, Stephen: The Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938.
Anderson, Terry: The Movement and the Sixties.
Bailyn, Bernard: Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Barry, John: Rising Tide.
Bouton, Jim: Ball Four.
Branch, Taylor: Parting the Waters (part of 3 part series).
Branch, Taylor: trilogy about America in the King years.
Caro, Robert: Lyndon Johnson.
Carter, Dan: From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich : race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994.
Carter, Dan: The politics of rage : George Wallace, the origins of the new conservatism, and the transformation of American politics.
Carter, Dan: When the war was over : the failure of self-reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867.
Carter, Jimmy: book on his first election.
Carter, Stephen: The Culture of Disbelief.
Cohen, Lizabeth: A Consumer’s Republic.
Cohen, Lizabeth: Making a New Deal.
Cramer, Richard Ben: What It Takes.
Cronon, William: Nature’s Metropolis.
Dionne, EJ: Why Americans Hate Politics.
Draper, Theodore: A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution.
Duncan, Dayton: Miles from Nowhere (US life in rural counties).
Fisher, David Hackett: Albion’s Seed.
Freeman, Josh: Working Class New York.
Genovese, Eugene: Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.
Genovese, Eugene: The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation.
Goodwyn, Lawrence: Democratic Promise.
Goodwyn, Lawrence: The Populist Moment.
Greene, Melissa Fay: Praying for Sheetrock.
Griffith, Robert: The Politics of Fear.
Hofstader, Richard: The American Political Tradition.
Hofstader, Richard: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
Hofstadter, Richard: The Age of Reform.
Howe, Daniel Walker: What Hath God Wrought, the Oxford History of America 1815-1848.
Jones, Edward: The Known Worl (novel).
Kay, Terry: The Year the Lights Came On (novel).
Kennedy, David: Freedom from Fear.
Key, V.O.: Southern Politics in State and Nation.
Levering-Lewis, David: two-volume bio of W.E.B. DuBois.
Lewis, Michael: Moneyball.
Litwack, Leon: anything by him.
Martin, George: The Armageddon Rag.
McDougall, Walter: Throes of Democracy.
McDougall, Walter: history of the USA: Freedom Around the Corner.
McPherson, James: Battle Cry of Freedom.
Meyers, Marvin: The Jacksonian Persuasion.
Michener’s Centennial and Texas.
Nevins, Allen: Ordeal of the Union (reads like poetry).
North, Douglass: Growth and Welfare in the American Past and The Economic Growth of the United States 1790 – 1860.
Onuf, Peter: Origins of the Federal Republic is good.
Payne, Charles M.: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.
Percy, William: Lanterns on the Levee.
Perlstein, Rick: Nixonland.
Phillips, Kevin: The Cousins’ Wars.
Pritchett, Wendell: Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Rakove, Jack: Original Meanings.
Rodgers, Daniel: Republicanism: Career of a Concept.
Sawislak, Karen: Smoldering City.
Schulman, Bruce: The Seventies.
Sklar, Judith: American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion is also a useful, fun quick read.
Takaki, Ronald: A Different Mirror: A History of Multi-Cultural America.
Utley, Robert: Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life.
Vonnegut, Kurt: Jailbird.
Washington, Booker T.: Up from Slavery.
Williams, Harry: book on Huey Long.
Wolfe, Tom: The Right Stuff.
Wood, Gordon: Creation of the American Republic.

33

RickDFL 07.08.08 at 11:16 pm

“In Time of Torment” by I.F. Stone. The most clear-eyed contemporary account of America in the 1960′s.
Henry Adam’s “History of the United States During The Administration of Thomas Jefferson” is a great analysis of the terribly conflicting strands of American political opinion and character. Reading his description of the typical American diet of the time is alone worth the price of admission. Plus, it will acquaint you with Albert Gallatin, the greatest American politician without a great biography.

34

JP Stormcrow 07.08.08 at 11:29 pm

Fiction: The USA trilogy by Dos Passos. Is this widely read (or at all?) these days?

A couple of lesser known non-Fiction from the 60s/70s:

Whatever Happened to Timothy Leary by John Bryan (who died last year)better for its first hand view of the general scene and interviews than as an actual biography of Leary. (Probably hard to find.)

<a href=http://www.amazon.com/Reefer-madness-history-marijuana-America/dp/0672524236Reefer madness: The history of marijuana in America by Larry Sloman. Once again may be a better report on the overall milieu than marijuana itself. Good stuff on Harry J. Anslinger, J. Edgar Hooveresque head narc from 1930-1962.

35

JP Stormcrow 07.08.08 at 11:32 pm

That was Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America.

36

bianca steele 07.08.08 at 11:34 pm

America in Our Time (Godfrey Hodgson) is a readable history of the twentieth century by an English journalist. It stops pretty much at the civil rights movement; Hodgson just goes on to call feminists, gay rights activists, Latino activists, and Native American activists childish copycats, distracting effort from the real struggle (best I could make out, Labourites at the time believed African Americans represent the only true proletariat in the US). I thought What’s the Matter With Kansas (Thomas Frank) was an engaging mix of history, journalism, and personal experience, well worth reading.

If you want the mid-20th century “liberal consensus” view, three big names are Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin (The Americans, a trilogy), and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (of whom I’ve only read essays, The Cycles of American History). For AP History years ago we were assigned Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, and Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous With Destiny (about the New Deal). I don’t think anyone reads them anymore, other than middlebrow bourgeois who didn’t get the news about Political Correctness.

I’m reading Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy. So far, it seems like a story of the origins/evolution of Jacksonian democracy, but – again, so far – without much of any overview of what Jacksonian refers to. Probably Boorstin would be good to provide that background.

37

JP Stormcrow 07.08.08 at 11:42 pm

Your mention of Crouse’s estimable The Boys on the Bus reminds me how appalled I would have been at the time if I thought people described in it like Novak and Broder (they were old-timer and “Dean” even back then) would be setting the narrative 30+ years later. A “hmmm”-inducing exercise is to go back to that book and read the stuff on Broder and Greider and then contemplate their subsequent trajectories through American journalism and current status (and probably net worth). Gah! (And I refuse to even mention Woodward.)

38

Tyler Cowen 07.09.08 at 12:29 am

There’s a clear first choice and that’s John Gunther’s *Inside USA*, the modern Tocqueville despite its popular veneer. It doesn’t cover politics but its regional emphasis is essential for understanding the history of American politics in the 20th century.

39

catfish 07.09.08 at 12:31 am

_The Age of Federalism_ (I forget the authors) has a great chapter on the consequences of siting the nation’s capital in a swamp rather than a city like New York (compare to London or Paris).

There was also really good article in the most recent Organization of American Historians journal about the myth of the weak US state that contains cites of some must-read work in US political history as well.

40

Paul 07.09.08 at 1:21 am

Crisis of the house divided;: An interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Harry V Jaffa

41

Eli Rabett 07.09.08 at 1:24 am

Twain’s Life on the Mississippi

Peter Finley Dunne pretty much anything on Mr. Dooley, Mr. Dooley in War and Peace is a good place to start.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry

John Dos Passos’ USA

Tom Wolfe’s the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test
also Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers

Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie

42

matt 07.09.08 at 2:26 am

No one’s mention The Power Broker.

43

Bloix 07.09.08 at 2:41 am

That’s “A Bright Shining Lie,” and yes, it’s worth reading.

You might want to think about DVD’s while you’re at it. On The Waterfront. The Pawnbroker. Cool Hand Luke. Little Big Man. Giant. To Kill A Mockingbird. Philadelphia. Glory. All the King’s Men (1949). Nashville. Eight Men Out. Chinatown. The Godfather.

44

JE 07.09.08 at 2:43 am

I second the recommendations of Caro and of Taylor Branch. If you did not grow up in the US, the deep poison of racism will elude you. It is historically significant that Lyndon Johnson could correctly predict that passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 would cost the Democratic Party the South. Now the Republican Party is the party of the South and it is “normal.” Every Republican Presidential candidate has used racial signals in his campaign starting with Nixon. The signals evolve and get more subtle but are equally effective.

If I may go on, read Garry Wills’ book about the Gettysburg Address and McPherson’s one-volume history of the Civil War.

45

Chuck Darwin 07.09.08 at 2:54 am

I’m in the middle of Derek Leebaert’s “The Fifty-Year Wound” and it’s a helluva book. It’s an idiosyncratic history of the costs of the Cold War. I’m learning a lot and the prose is propulsive and witty.

46

jacob 07.09.08 at 3:06 am

I’m glad that JP and Eli both mentioned The USA Trilogy, which is among my favorites, and I think an excellent way of understanding the first third or so of the century.

On the other hand, I’m rather surprised to see the many recommendations of Hofstader. He’s a good writer, sure, but I find it troublesome that after all these years taking apart consensus history, when asked for introductory reads on US history, we still reach back to it. I guess they call it consensus for a reason. But really, if you want to read about the Populists, do yourself a favor and read Larry Goodwyn instead: it’s better written and more accurate.

47

D Young 07.09.08 at 3:11 am

To add to my previous recommendations now that I’m at my bookshlef, I want to second other’s recommendations of Bright Shining Lie, Battle Cry Freedom, and Hodgson’s “America in our Time.” I also greatly enjoy Maryilyn Young’s “The Vietnam Wars,” which is a great left-leaning take on the 30 plus years in Vietnam (Its partially Vietnamese history, but mostly American”

Lastly, a book that changed my outlook when I was an undergrad history major: Ideology in U.S. Foreign Policy.” by Michael Hunt. The book is a fantastic exploration on American exceptionalism, which I think is key to understanding US history.

Lastly: The Things They Carried by Tim Obrein, The Quiet American, and “Arc of Justice,” about race, housing, and 1920s Detroit. This has been a great list everyone, I have to read a lot of what people suggested now.

Thanks

48

Jeremy Thompson 07.09.08 at 3:27 am

I just finished “From the Puritans to the Projects,” by MIT planning professor Lawrence Vale, is a snappily written history of public housing in the US. It focuses on Boston but tracks federal housing and urban policy throughout. Most broadly, it is a window onto our society’s enduring “ambivalence” toward the poor.

49

Kieran Healy 07.09.08 at 3:34 am

Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine and The Creation of the Media are both great books.

50

jen 07.09.08 at 4:24 am

Two short histories that read like novels — the Kingdom of Matthias, by Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson, and Sam Patch the Famous Jumper, by Johnson alone. Microhistories of the market revolution, of New York, of the beginning of American celebrity. Much shorter than Schlesinger or Daniel Walker Howe but will tell you a lot about Jacksonian America.

51

jen 07.09.08 at 4:33 am

oh, also Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, Reconstruction, and Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.

52

Lee A. Arnold 07.09.08 at 4:34 am

The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands (Yale, 2001) is a short, compelling, detailed history arguing that the United States from its beginnings has tended to a small-government conservatism that never looked to Washington, D.C. for leadership except in times of war, and that the Sixties surge of liberalism was enabled by the domestic politics of the Cold War: indeed both ended at the same time. So people who’ve come of age during this period don’t realize that liberalism in America is historically anomalous. I think it’s a good argument, but only to-date; it falls short of what has begun to happen, a real sea-change: the world is becoming quickly so crowded and complex that government is growing irrevocably bigger, while the demands to make it smaller are traducing themselves.

53

joel hanes 07.09.08 at 5:29 am

I very much enjoyed Russell Baker’s Looking Back

54

geo 07.09.08 at 5:45 am

Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition

Christopher Lasch: The Agony of the American Left, The True and Only Heaven, and The Revolt of the Elites

Gore Vidal: seven-volume “American Chronicles” series (historical novels)

William Appleman Williams: The Contours of American History

Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States (ignore disparagement by academic historians)

55

Elliott Green 07.09.08 at 5:55 am

It is hard for me to understand that it took 52 comments to mention Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Yes, his prose is not the best, and yes, it is selective rather than comprehensive, but it is such a refreshing and radical take on American history that it is really required reading for all Americans and all non-American residents in the US.

56

Righteous Bubba 07.09.08 at 6:07 am

Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States (ignore disparagement by academic historians)

Why ignore the disparagement? Just paid a whopping 50 cents for it and I aim to get my well-informed money’s worth.

57

Melissa 07.09.08 at 6:28 am

This growing list is tremendous & makes me want to spend the rest of the summer in the library & a favourite reding spot.

But, there’s an absence of works on the west. I’m not a historian or political scientist, so I can’t recommend the best in those areas. But the essays of Larry McMurty (often book reviews) and Wallace Stegner are eye-opening & beautifully written in very different ways. My favourites are McMurtry’s Sacagawea’s Nickname and Stegner’s Wolfwillow. The latter (a history/memoir about an isolated Canadian prairie town in the 1910s, with comparisons to the US) pictures the constricted lives of settlers—including the failed immigrants and last chance professionals—is an excellent antidote to Westerns.

For fiction, Twain of course. But also try Willa Cather. My Antonia is the most famous; my favourite is Death Comes to the ArchBishop about French missionaries in New Mexico.

Two oddities, that may not be as important as other tomes, but which I enoyed and learned from: “Stranger at the Party” is a rich, gossipy, sexually frank book about New York, and Vanity Affair from the 20s to the 40s. Helen Lawrenson knew Luce, Clare Booth Luce, and Berensen. She had affairs with Bernard Baruch, the head Conservative Rabbi of New York, and others. She married a dissident longshoreman and ended up as Abbie Hoffman’s mother-in-law (though this last occurs after this tale has ended). Theories of War is an amazing novel about a bonded (sold) white boy in post-Civil War Kansas. Everyone is cynical, everyone is angry. The past is with us in Kansas, in the Pacific Northwest, and in Washington, DC.

58

Melissa 07.09.08 at 6:29 am

Whoops! Lost track of the html there at the end.

59

Matthew Kuzma 07.09.08 at 6:35 am

It may be a bit trite for this crowd, but I thought Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen was an eye-opening account of how corrupt the history textbook industry is.

60

Doug 07.09.08 at 8:06 am

Does this help?

61

Doug 07.09.08 at 8:06 am

Apparently not. Moderator! Please to be helping with the open tag.

62

stostosto 07.09.08 at 8:07 am

I trust you have read Krugman’s “Conscience of a liberal”. If not, it’s a must-read. It’s a lucid, and wonderfully opinionated, presentation of economic and political developments in the US since the 20s. It’s centered around the mindboggling changes in the American income distribution – from guilded age inequality to post-wwII/post new-deal evening out, to stratospheric increase of inequality since the 70s to a level now on a par with what it was in the 20s.

Krugman’s explanation for this development is straightforward: Politics. Not impersonal globalisation or technological forces, but a conscious, consistent relentless attack by Movement Conservatism on the institutions that underpinned the great evening out, notably unions. An evening out, by the way, that didn’t take place at the expense of overall economic growth.

The big question, of course, is how Movement Conservatism got to be so successful. Krugman insists it’s almost solely a matter of southern whites turning away from the Democrats since the Democrats became the party of civil rights. Nothing to do with “Kansas”.

Whether that is really all there is to it, I don’t know, but it’s an overall highly stimulating and persausive narrative.

63

stostosto 07.09.08 at 8:30 am

Also, if you haven’t read it:

Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father.

Yes, I know, but it’s really, truly very well-written and enjoyable.

64

William Burns 07.09.08 at 8:53 am

Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes is worth reading, as is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

65

phillip 07.09.08 at 8:58 am

Studs Terkel. The full collection, especially “Working”. It’s history and politics from the trenches rather than just highlights of the generals.

66

Manfred Arcane 07.09.08 at 9:26 am

For fiction, Gore Vidal’s American novels are a good idea. Other novelists in addition to Matthiesen: Cormac McCarthy (especially “Blood Meridian), Charles Willeford, James Elroy (especially “American Tabloid).

For non-fiction, a great choice is Bill Kauffman’s latest “Aint My America” (2008). His previous “Look Homeward, America” and “Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette” are also very worthwhile.

67

FrankM, Japan 07.09.08 at 11:38 am

Three stunning books: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, Making Globalization Work by Joseph Stiglitz, and Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson (third in the so-called Blowback Trilogy — the first two are worth reading, too). They do not focus on US politics per se, but throw US political/economic policies into harsh relief from a more international perspective. Total eye-openers and for me the best three books of 2008.

68

Dan Kervick 07.09.08 at 12:05 pm

I don’t read much American History, but Walter Karp’s The Politics of War was engrossing.

69

Valuethinker 07.09.08 at 12:11 pm

All of the Oxford History of the United States

but particularly

James T. Patterson
Grand Expectations: the United States 1945-74

and its sequel Restless Giant (1974-2000).

Also David M. Kennedy
Freedom from Fear (about the New Deal era)

All of these books will fill you with stuff that you thought you ‘knew’ about contemporary American history and politics, but in fact didn’t. They are fair, balanced treatments of controversies that rage to the current day.

I second the nomination of Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills.

‘Bright Shining Lie’ is an excellent history of US involvement in Vietnam.

Robert Dallek’s biography of Lyndon B Johnson is much more digestible than Robert Caro’s. By contrast, his ‘The Power Broker’ about Robert Moses, is almost the perfect study of mid 20th century America and political and institutional power– a classic amongst organisational behaviour specialists.

Philip K Dick captures very well the 1960s-70s paranoid zeitgeist.

70

Valuethinker 07.09.08 at 12:12 pm

Sorry that’s Robert Caro The Power Broker.

71

Kieran Healy 07.09.08 at 12:25 pm

(@56 et seq: fixed.)

72

Mark Schmitt 07.09.08 at 1:36 pm

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. An amazing book about the politics of water and dams in the west, but really about power and money. The chapter called “Dominus” is a masterpiece of almost experimental writing.

And also second Nixon Agonistes.

73

novakant 07.09.08 at 1:38 pm

I found Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 very informative and eye-opening.

It’s not an easy read, though, because the author discusses the convoluted subject matter in great detail. But if you are interested in the topics mentioned in the subtitle and most importantly the strangely inconsistent US policy towards Pakistan/ISI, then this book is essential.

74

SamChevre 07.09.08 at 1:44 pm

More recommendations:

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives
Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

Both mostly about turn-of-the-century New York; Lincoln Steffens was one of the most famous muckrakers, and the account of New York’s police before and during Roosevelt’s time as Police Commissioner is awesome.

Mencken, H L–Newspaper Days and Selected Prejudices in particular.

Jesse Stuart, The Thread that Runs so True.
This account of school teaching in Kentucky captures how poor the Appalachians very well.

For fiction, I’d second Willa Cather. I think her short stories are better than the novels, and would recommend the novella The Bohemian Girl as her single best work.

All the above are easy reading. A bit more challenging but well worth the effort are:

I’ll Take My Stand, the manifesto of the Nashville agrarians.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community
Really, something by Wendell Berry–it’s generally good; this is one of the more general collections.

75

Josh R. 07.09.08 at 2:40 pm

It’s occurred to me, that a good resource you might tap for reading suggestions would be MIT’s Open Course Ware. http://ocw.mit.edu/

76

laura 07.09.08 at 2:51 pm

77

roac 07.09.08 at 2:56 pm

Melissa at 57 recommended Wolf Willow (pretty sure it’s two words) by Wallace Stegner. To go with that I would put Ivan Doig’s first memoir about growing up in Montana, This House of Sky. A more cheerful view of the same territory, but a little cheerfulness does not come amiss from time to time.

And speaking of childhood memoirs, everyone should read Haven Kimmell’s A Girl Called Zippy, which is both screamingly funny and a dead-on picture of small-town Indiana.

78

Kate 07.09.08 at 3:00 pm

Not that you need more recommendations!, but for old-school deliciousness, you can’t do better than Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. For more recent historical sweepingness, Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers is excellent, but may make you wish you lived in another country.

79

Sean Young 07.09.08 at 3:44 pm

I don’t know if I’m qualified to make recommendations, but I benefited a lot from Richard Drinnon’s Facing West, about the westward expansion of the American empire. Apparently, it’s along the same lines as the better known Regeneration Through Violence by Richard Slotkin, which I haven’t read.

I don’t hear much about Randolph Bourne’s essays on the intellectual culture of WWI, but I found them incredibly insightful about the American intellegensia – they seem relevant even now.

Not exactly what you’re looking for, but Paul Fussell’s books on the two big wars (The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime are great.

I’ll second Lasch (with caution), Vidal, Mencken and Steffens. I’ll also note that Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch called Robert Sherrill’s The Gothic Politics of the Deep South “one of the most instructive books ever written on American politics.” I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment.

80

Sam 07.09.08 at 4:02 pm

I think “The Education of Henry Adams” is a wonderful memoir about 19th century American diplomacy.

Although it seems nobody much reads Henry Adams anymore, his “History of the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison” (Available through the Library of America) are some of the most readable American histories around. Of course it would probably help to have a particular interest in the period, but it’s still a beautifully written book.

“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans is an invaluable document of sharecropping in the early 20th century.

“Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch may be the definitive study of the American civil rights movement.

81

SteveHolt! 07.09.08 at 4:30 pm

I second Cadillac Desert. I read it because Mark Schmitt described it in a post as one of the best books written about American politics, and, as always, he was right.

82

eszter 07.09.08 at 4:38 pm

Of all these people, only a couple have said congrats? Hmm. Congratulations!

83

Bloix 07.09.08 at 4:45 pm

I absolutely love “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” but it’s very, very long and it’s more about James Agee than it is about the farmers. But the Walker Evans photos are extraordinary.

In fact, another good book would be Walker Evans: American Photographs.

84

jbd 07.09.08 at 4:50 pm

I really, really hate saying this, but Tears of the Sun was actually not terrible if you can step back and consider the tension it demonstrates between political values. And, I think obviously, Blackhawk Down, for all it’s sensational violence, is a phenomenal way to understand some really broken tensions that display themselves in American politics:

“It’s just war.”

85

Western Dave 07.09.08 at 5:01 pm

The East Coast and non-political stuff is way over-represented thus far. In my mind, James Gregory’s American Exodus is the one book you must read if you want to understand America. It covers the migration of Okie culture/politcs from the Dust Bowl to the sixties, introduces a useful concept – Plain Folks Americanism – and connects the dots from Woody Guthrie to the rise of Ronald Reagan. You want to understand modern America read this book before the Cohen books (which really are quite good) or even the Power Broker (which is great but of limited interest if you don’t think New York is the center of the Universe).

If you have to go back to Jacksonianism try Chuck Sellars’ one volume The Market Revolution which covers all the bases. Quite frankly, America as we know it begins with Jacksonianism. The Kingdom of Matthias is also great (and short!) but I think requires a bit of pre-knowledge about wacky Americans in the market revolution era.

I’ll save you the time on Zinn with the following synopsis with props to Tim Burke:

The underclass and overclass always understand their interests perfectly and act in ways that are appropriate to them. The overclass always wins because it has power. In the cases where it looks like the underclass has won, it is only because the overclass has conceded the minimum necessary to prevent revolution. Wash, rinse, repeat.

86

Gene O'Grady 07.09.08 at 5:31 pm

Rather than Utley’s book on Billy the Kid I might recommend his book on the overall Lincoln County War (in which Billy played a major role) called (I think) High Noon in Lincoln which pulls in more of the overall social and economic background.

One of my favorite books, not necessarily political, is Juanita Brooks’s Quicksand and Cactus (especially since there was a request for more stuff on the West). In addition to the material on her polygamist family, she shows in detail how people outside the normal take of academic history lived their lives, sometime with difficulty, usually with resourcefulness.

87

Jeff 07.09.08 at 5:32 pm

I’ve picked up W. E. B. DuBois, The souls of Black Folk (1903).

88

Stephen 07.09.08 at 6:03 pm

Obviously there is lots of classic American fiction you might want to read. I don’t think anyone has mentioned Faulkner. “Light In August” is powerful and interesting.

89

peter ramus 07.09.08 at 6:30 pm

Henry, try Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegner. It’s old, but it’s good. The life and career of John Wesley Powell. Powell rafted down the Colorado River at least as ill-equipped as Mallory was when he tried Everest, so Stegner’s got the ripping yarn built right in, fit to compare with any of the usual list of Remarkable Journeys of Exploration of the Nineteenth Century. Powell and his company, haphazardly prepared, wandering off into the unknown like Humboldt and his crew in South America, going to check out a vast region claimed to be part of the United States, but as yet relatively unknown to the nation supposed to own it, to make eventually a formal survey, complete with all the maps and specimens and journal entries and such that are the rudiments of useful knowledge. Powell sits in a highchair strapped to the middle of a raft running rapids bigger than a house. Oh, yeah.

And then he returns with the makings of his formal survey to Washington, where he’s engaged in a decades-long battle with Congress and committees over the interpretation and uses of what he’s described. So that’s the other and equally vividly presented harrowing journey of Powell, which took decades rather than days to play out, and which of course helped seal the fate of the American Southwest. And in this part of the book, Stegner’s picture of what late nineteenth century Congress and the delimited Federal government of the time amounted to and how they operated is as good as any we’ve got.

Nineteenth Century Derring-Do meets high policy wonkery in the conquest of the Southwest! What’s not to like?

90

Colin 07.09.08 at 7:20 pm

Just read Harry Watson’s _Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America_ on the recommendation of the folks at Edge of the American West and liked it — readable popular history that explains a lot about how U.S. politics turned out the way it did.

91

Sean Young 07.09.08 at 7:45 pm

Maybe I’m just cynical about politics, but I think a good way to get acquainted with American political history is to read the muckraking journalists who exposed a lot of the less appitizing details of it. Riis and Steffens have already been mentioned. I’d add Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson (Confessions of a Muckraker – great book), George Seldes, I.F. Stone and more recently Greg Palst. (I wasn’t around when these guys were writing, so it’s history to me, anyway.) Matthew Josephson’s histories The Robber Barons and The Politicos are in the same cavalier spirit. They may not be exactly what you’re looking for – not the last word in accuracy, anecdotal, not academic – but they sure are invigorating.

When I recommended Gore Vidal, I was thinking of his essays, and I’d like to recommend another essayist: Dwight Macdonald.

92

Fats Durston 07.09.08 at 8:59 pm

America’s Half-Century, McCormick
Fast Food Nation, Schlosser

Fiction:

1968, Joe Haldeman
“The Lucky Strike,” Kim Stanley Robinson

93

roac 07.09.08 at 9:09 pm

Powell and his company, haphazardly prepared, wandering off into the unknown like Humboldt and his crew in South America

And he only had one arm!

94

Ben Alpers 07.09.08 at 11:10 pm

Lots of good suggestions above, but I’ll spare you the “seconds” and “thirds.”

Some other novels:

Jean Toomer, Cane
James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Richard Powers, Gain
Don DeLillo, Underworld

Some other works of history:

Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly
Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South
George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America
Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run

And even though its US politics dimension is only a sub-theme, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is essential reading!

95

ignobility 07.09.08 at 11:23 pm

Second and third the Taylor Branch trilogy, esp. Parting the Waters. Also, haven’t seen this mentioned yet, but for an interesting take on the Vietnam War, try Dispatches by Michael Herr.

96

BillCinSD 07.09.08 at 11:35 pm

American Aurora : A Democratic-Republican Returns : The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It by Richard N. Rosenfeld and Edmund S. Morgan

97

Ben Alpers 07.09.08 at 11:43 pm

To essential war novels:

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

98

John Tierney 07.10.08 at 12:07 am

Congrats on submitting the tenure file. If you don’t already know it, a good read is Ben Ginsberg’s The American Lie.

99

Brendan 07.10.08 at 12:41 am

Two books by the great West Indian Marxist CLR James: American Civilisation and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes is remarkable, so is Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism.

100

Gene O'Grady 07.10.08 at 1:02 am

Much as I admire some of Stegner’s Western history, why not read Powell on his own terms? The account of his travels used to be available in a Dover reprint (and was I believe one of the few texts ever used in the famous/infamous Amherst English 1 course of Theodore Baird), and probably the report on the arid lands of the west (don’t know the title) is equally readable, prescient, and highly relevant to today’s issues.

101

cdogzilla 07.10.08 at 1:07 am

Many excellent recommendations here, so I’ll resist the urge to second them and only add:
W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South
Gore Vidal, United States: essays 1952–1992
Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (A lighter read, but fascinating.)

102

Tom Lowe 07.10.08 at 1:43 am

Missing from the list, the outliers:

Hunter S. Thompson “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail”

Edward Abbey “The Monkey Wrench Gang”

Ken Kesey “Sometimes A Great Notion”

Alex Hayley “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”

103

tired of blogs 07.10.08 at 2:49 am

McDougall also wrote an excellent and very readable interpretation of the whole history of American foreign policy in one volume: “Promised Land, Crusader State.” I don’t agree with everything he has to say by any means, but it’s a great place to start in that genre.

104

tired of blogs 07.10.08 at 2:50 am

Note that the McDougall on foreign policy was published in…um..1998? At any rate, pre-9/11. Its central contentions arguably survive the intervening events.

105

Mike 07.10.08 at 3:16 am

Henry, in addition to what other kind readers have suggested I would highly recommend anything by Gore Vidal, fiction and non fiction on the USA.

106

LFC 07.10.08 at 4:41 am

First, congratulations.

Second, a few recommendations:
Ronald Steel, ‘Walter Lippmann and the American Century’ (pub. 1980 or thereabouts, reissued by Transaction). Beautifully written, superbly researched; won the Bancroft Prize. Admiring but not uncritical of Lippmann, and puts him in the context of 20th cent. US history.

C. Lasch has been mentioned but not his book of essays ‘The World of Nations’.

On the fiction front: Richard Yates, ‘Revolutionary Road’ (1961) (still in print, Vintage paperback). Stinging, keenly observed critique of mid-1950s suburbia.
If you’re interested, I have a feeling there are quite a few good novels about McCarthyism and that period, but others will have to fill in the specifics there (or maybe some already have, above).

The above recs. also seem to be light on labor history, but I will, again, have to leave the specifics to others.

107

mike shupp 07.10.08 at 5:25 am

Norman Mailer – OF A FIRE ON THE MOON.

For a change of pace. Brilliant book.

108

mike shupp 07.10.08 at 5:37 am

Another choice, in a more traditional vein (you’re assumed to have read de Tocqueville)

Charles Dickens – AMERICAN NOTES: FOR GENERAL CIRCULATION.

109

jen 07.10.08 at 6:29 am

more on the west besides the works mentioned above — Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own is not as much of a narrative as the syntheses in the Oxford series (McPherson, Howe, Kennedy) mentioned above, but it is equally authoritative and also funny in parts. Patricia Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest and Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire are also classics of the (not so) new western history. Elliott West’s The Contested Plains is just a great book.

110

Laleh 07.10.08 at 7:03 am

Given the US’s imperial history, two books make a good read: Brian Linn’s _The Philippine War, 1899-1902_ and Mary Renda’s _Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism 1915-1940_.

I think there are also books to be read on native American reservations, and on the internment of the Japanese. And I would actually welcome recommendations in those departments too.

111

Laleh 07.10.08 at 7:05 am

Oh and Karl Marx’s journalistic writings on US politics c. 1860s are absolutely fantastic great read, mostly because they are so refreshingly perceptive!

112

ian 07.10.08 at 10:27 am

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow, both by Dee Brown

Prairyerth, by William Least Heat Moon – a detailed historical and geographical account of a single county in Kansas. Engrossing

113

Dan Hardie 07.10.08 at 11:52 am

God, I’m late to this party.

James M. MacPherson: ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’. The volume of the Oxford History of the USA dealing with the Civil War, and its causes. The second half of the book is one of the best narratives of the war I have ever read. But the first half of the book is even better: an account of the economic and social development of the US in the 1840s adn 1850s, which includes (among other things) brilliant discussions of the nature of US capitalism, the differences between different immigrant communities, the decline of the Whigs and the emergence of the Republicans, the guerrilla war in Kansas. There is an account of slavery that is both viscerally horrifying and analytically convincing (and contains a cool but brilliant dismissal of ‘Time on the Cross’).

The treatment of the causes of the Civil War is brilliant: the first time I felt I had grasped the key issues. MacPherson argues hard on a number of points- that the Mexican War was key to precipitating the Civil War, or that a Confederacy could never have co-existed peacefully with the North (or with its Southern neighbours).

Very few flaws indeed. Really a fine book.

114

LFC 07.10.08 at 2:10 pm

Comment #66 suggested Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. An excellent novel, its use of language is extraordinary, but its vision of the world and human nature can be summed up quickly: violence is innate, life in the Southwest in the early 20th cent. (as I recall, some of it is set in Mexico) was nasty, brutish, and often short. (The ‘Blood’ in the title should be taken very seriously.)
——-
Stanley Lebergott, ‘Pursuing Happiness’. A somewhat unfashionable defense of consumption and consumerism by an economic historian who was quite conservative, certainly by the time he wrote this. (I use the past tense b/c he is no longer writing.) He was a skillful deployer of data of all kinds. I only dipped into it.

115

Ralph Hitchens 07.10.08 at 5:17 pm

My candidate for the Great American Novel is _Guard of Honor_ by James Gould Cozzens. Tells a lot about America during WW-2, when the whole country (it seemed) went to war.

116

john luke 07.11.08 at 12:18 am

Charles E. Lindblom, “Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Policy”. Deeply engaging.

117

Eli Rabett 07.11.08 at 4:05 am

Lemme take a mulligan (and congratulations)

If you are feeling maniacal after getting tenure there never was a worse downer than Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” which illuminates the Scandinavian migrations to the Great Plains.

118

Joshua W. Burton 07.11.08 at 1:31 pm

Frederick Allen, Only Yesterday. A brilliantly readable history of the wild ride that was 1919-29, written from the unique “sadder but wiser” perspective of grim 1931.

119

Sean Young 07.11.08 at 3:42 pm

Since this thread seems about done with, I compiled all the suggestions so far into a list:

Abbey, Edward: The Monkey Wrench Gang
Adams, Henry: History of the United States During The Administration of Thomas Jefferson
Adams, Henry: The Education of Henry Adams
Agee, James and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Allen, Frederick: Only Yesterday (followed by a sequal, Since Yesterday)
Ambrose, Stephen: The Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938.
Anderson, Jack: Confessions of a Muckraker
Anderson, Terry: The Movement and the Sixties.
Ayers, Edward: The Promise of the New South
Bailyn, Bernard: Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Baker, Russell: Looking Back
Barry, John: Rising Tide.
Berry, Wendell: Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community
Boorstin, Daniel: The Americans
Bourne, Randolph: essays
Bouton, Jim: Ball Four.
Bowden, Mark: Blackhawk Down
Boyle, Kevin: Arc of Justice
Brady, Joan: Theory of War
Branch, Taylor: Parting the Waters (part of 3 part series).
Branch, Taylor: trilogy about America in the King years.
Brands, H.W.: The Strange Death of American Liberalism
Brooks, Juanita: Quicksand and Cactus
Brown, Dee: Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee
Brown, Dee: Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow
Bryan, John: Whatever Happened to Timothy Leary
Caro, Robert: Lyndon Johnson.
Caro, Robert: The Power Broker
Carter, Dan: From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich : race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994.
Carter, Dan: The politics of rage : George Wallace, the origins of the new conservatism, and the transformation of American politics.
Carter, Dan: When the war was over : the failure of self-reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867.
Carter, Jimmy: book on his first election.
Carter, Stephen: The Culture of Disbelief.
Cash, W.J.: The Mind of the South
Cather, Willa: Death Comes to the Archbishop
Cather, Willa: My Antonia
Cather, Willa: The Bohemian Girl
Chandler, Raymond: The Long Goodbye
Cohen, Lizabeth: A Consumer’s Republic.
Cohen, Lizabeth: Making a New Deal.
Coll, Steve: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
Cozzens, James Gould: Guard of Honor
Cramer, Richard Ben: What It Takes.
Cronon, William: Nature’s Metropolis.
Dallek, Robert: His biography of Lyndon B Johnson
Dawidoff, Nicholas: The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg
Debo, Angie: And Still the Waters Run
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
Deloria, Vine: Custer Died for Your Sins (very funny, believe it or not!)
Dick, Philip K.: novels
Dickens, Charles: American Notes: For General Circulation
Dionne, EJ: Why Americans Hate Politics.
Doig, Ivan: This House of Sky
Dos Passos, John: USA Trilogy
Draper, Theodore: A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution.
Drinnon, Richard: Facing West
DuBois, W.E.B.: Reconstruction
DuBois, W.E.B.: The souls of Black Folk
Duncan, Dayton: Miles from Nowhere (US life in rural counties).
Dunne, Peter Finley: The Mr. Dooley books (e.g. Mr. Dooley in War and Peace)
Ehrenreich, Barbara: Fear of Falling
Ehrenreich, Barbara: The Hearts of Men
Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick: The Age of Federalism
Ellroy, James: Novels (esp. American Tabloid, The L.A. Quartet)
Evans, Walker: Walker Evans: American Photographs
Faulkner, William: Light in August, among others
Fisher, David Hackett: Albion’s Seed.
Foner, Eric: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men
Foner, Eric: Reconstruction
Foner, Eric: The Story of American Freedom
Frank, Thomas: What’s the Matter With Kansas
Freeman, Josh: Working Class New York.
Fussell, Paul: Wartime
Genovese, Eugene: Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.
Genovese, Eugene: The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation.
Ginsberg, Ben: The American Lie.
Goldman, Eric: Rendezvous With Destiny
Goodwyn, Lawrence: Democratic Promise.
Goodwyn, Lawrence: The Populist Moment.
Greene, Melissa Fay: Praying for Sheetrock.
Gregory, James: American Exodus
Griffith, Robert: The Politics of Fear.
Gunther, John: Inside USA
Haldeman, Joe: 1968
Hayley, Alex: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Herr, Michael: Dispatches
Hodgson, Godfrey: America in Our Time
Hofstader, Richard: The American Political Tradition.
Hofstader, Richard: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
Hofstadter, Richard: The Age of Reform.
Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition
Howe, Daniel Walker: What Hath God Wrought, the Oxford History of America 1815-1848.
Hunt, Michael: Ideology in U.S. Foreign Policy
Jacoby, Susan: Freethinkers
Jaffa, Harry V.: Crisis of the house divided: An interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates
James, C.L.R.: American Civilisation
James, C.L.R.: Mariners, Renegades and Castaways
Johnson, Chalmers: Nemesis (part III of a trilogy)
Johnson, James Weldon: Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Johnson, Paul: Sam Patch the Famous Jumper
Jones, Edward: The Known Worl (novel).
Josephson, Matthew: The Politicos
Josephson, Matthew: The Robber Barons
Karp, Walter: The Politics of War
Kauffman, Bill: Ain’t My America
Kauffman, Bill: Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette
Kauffman, Bill: Look Homeward, America
Kay, Terry: The Year the Lights Came On (novel).
Kennedy, David M.: Freedom from Fear
Kennedy, David: Freedom from Fear.
Kerouac, Jack: On the Road
Kesey, Ken: Sometimes A Great Notion
Key, V.O.: Southern Politics in State and Nation.
Kimmell, Haven: A Girl Called Zippy
Klein, Naomi: The Shock Doctrine
Krugman, Paul: Conscience of a liberal
Lacy, Al: Tears of the Sun
Lasch, Christopher: The Agony of the American Left
Lasch, Christopher: The Culture of Narcissism
Lasch, Christopher: The Revolt of the Elites
Lasch, Christopher: The True and Only Heaven
Lasch, Christopher: The World of Nations (essays)
Lawrenson, Helen: Stranger at the Party
Least Heat Moon, William: Prairyerth
Lebergott, Stanley: Pursuing Happiness
Leebaert, Derek: The Fifty-Year Wound
Lemann, Nicholas: The Promised Land
Levering-Lewis, David: two-volume bio of W.E.B. DuBois.
Lewis, Michael: Moneyball.
Lewis, Sinclair: Elmer Gantry
Limerick, Patricia: Legacy of Conquest
Lindblom, Charles E.: Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Policy
Linn, Brian: The Philippine War, 1899-1902
Litwack, Leon: anything by him.
Loewen, James W.: Lies My Teacher Told Me
Macdonald, Dwight: essays (e.g. Notes of a Revolutionist or Politics Past: Essays in Political Criticism)
Mailer, Norman: Of a Fire on the Moon
Mailer, Norman: The Naked and the Dead
Martin, George: The Armageddon Rag.
Marx, Karl: Journalism (see: Marxists.org)
McCarthy, Cormac: Novels, esp. Blood Meridian
McCormick: America’s Half-Century
McDougall, Walter: history of the USA: Freedom Around the Corner.
McDougall, Walter: Promised Land, Crusader State
McDougall, Walter: Throes of Democracy.
McMurty, Larry: essays and review (e.g. Sacagawea’s Nickname)
McPherson, James: Battle Cry of Freedom.
Mencken, H.L.: Newspaper Days
Mencken, H.L.: Selected Prejudices
Meyers, Marvin: The Jacksonian Persuasion.
Michener’s Centennial and Texas.
Nash, George: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America
Nevins, Allen: Ordeal of the Union (reads like poetry).
Norris, Frank: The Octopus
North, Douglass: Growth and Welfare in the American Past and The Economic Growth of the United States 1790 – 1860.
Obama, Barack: Dreams From My Father
O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried
Onuf, Peter: Origins of the Federal Republic is good.
Oxford History of the United States, esp. James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: the United States 1945-74 & Restless Giant (1974-2000)
Payne, Charles M.: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.
Percy, William: Lanterns on the Levee.
Perlstein, Rick: Nixonland.
Phillips, Kevin: The Cousins’ Wars.
Pollan, Michael: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Powell, John Wesley: travels
Powers, Richard: Gain
Pritchett, Wendell: Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Rakove, Jack: Original Meanings.
Reisner, Marc: Cadillac Desert
Renda, Mary: Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism 1915-1940
Rhodes, Richard: Arsenals of Folly
Riis, Jacob: How the Other Half Lives
Robinson, Kim Stanley: “The Lucky Strike”
Rodgers, Daniel: Republicanism: Career of a Concept.
Rolvaag, Ole: Giants in the Earth
Rosenfeld, Richard N. and Edmund S. Morgan: American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns: The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It
Royko, Mike: Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago
Sawislak, Karen: Smoldering City.
Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr.: The Cycles of American History
Schlosser: Fast Food Nation
Schulman, Bruce: The Seventies.
Sellars, Chuck: The Market Revolution
Sheehan, Neil: A Bright Shining Lie
Sherrill, Robert: The Gothic Politics of the Deep South
Sinclair, Upton: The Jungle
Sklar, Judith: American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion is also a useful, fun quick read.
Sloman, Larry: Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America
Starr, Paul: The Creation of the Media
Starr, Paul: The Social Transformation of American Medicine
Steele, Ronald: Walter Lippmann and the American Century
Steffens, Lincoln: The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens
Steffens, Lincoln: The Shame of the Cities (with preface by Hofstadter)
Stegner, Wallace: Beyond the 100th Meridian
Stegner, Wallace: Essays (e.g. Wolf Willow)
Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath
Stiglitz, Joseph: Making Globalization Work
Stone, I.F.: In Time of Torment
Stuart, Jesse: The Thread that Runs so True.
Takaki, Ronald: A Different Mirror: A History of Multi-Cultural America.
Terkel, Studs: works, esp. Working
Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
Toomer, Jean: Cane
Twain, Mark: Life on the Mississippi
Twain, Mark: works
Twelve Southerners: I’ll Take My Stand
Utley, Robert: Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life.
Utley, Robert: High Noon in Lincoln
Vale, Lawrence: From the Puritans to the Projects
Vidal, Gore: seven-volume “American Chronicles” series (historical novels)
Vidal, Gore: The United States: Essays
Vonnegut, Kurt: Jailbird.
Washington, Booker T.: Up from Slavery.
Watson, Harry: Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America
West, Elliott: The Contested Plains
White, Richard: It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own
Wilentz, Sean and Paul Johnson: the Kingdom of Matthias
Wilentz, Sean: The Rise of American Democracy
Willeford, Charles: novels (esp. Cockfighter, The Woman-Chaser)
Williams, Harry: book on Huey Long.
Williams, William Appleman: The Contours of American History
Wills, Garry: His book about the Gettysburg Address
Wills, Garry: Nixon Agonistes
Wolfe, Tom: Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers
Wolfe, Tom: The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test
Wolfe, Tom: The Right Stuff.
Wood, Gordon: Creation of the American Republic.
Woodward, C. Vann: The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Worster, Donald: Rivers of Empire
Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road
Young, Marilyn: The Vietnam Wars
Zinn, Howard: A People’s History of the United States

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Henry (not the famous one) 07.14.08 at 5:17 am

In the intersection of history and fiction, Vidal’s Lincoln is wonderful. Then read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

As for straight history, try Irving Bernstein’s histories “The Lean Years” and “The Turbulent Years” on American labor in the 1920′s and the 1930′s. His brief dissection of the jurisprudence of William Howard Taft is enough to remind us of the violence inherent in the system, to quote another great political theorist.

Michael Hamburger “Our Portion of Hell,” on the civil rights movement’s impact on that part of Tennessee between Memphis and Mississippi, is a good history of what the movement meant in an area that did not see reporters or tv cameramen. “The
Children,” by the late great David Halberstam, is a closely observed view of what it took to challenge segregation. The political is personal, as it turns out.

On Jacksonianism: read Schlesinger’s book to discover that Old Hickory was the precursor to FDR, the way the OT prophets paved the way for JC. Hilarious in its wholly unintended way.

And as for McPherson’s wonderful book–a real page turner and one that notes the connection between coitus interruptus and abolitionism somewhere in the first few chapters–my favorite anecdote is a personal one. When the book club at my workplace admitted me and another person, she chose “Battle Cry of Freedom.” I brought home the paperback, with its Currier & Ives picture of a Civil War battle on the cover, which my son, then five, spotted and demanded that I read all 800+ pages to him. We started with the prologue, which describes an incident during the Mexican-American War in which Grant, Lee and Longstreet all featured. My son kept interrupting me to ask about the specialized military language (“What are ‘jaunty dragooms?’” he asked), but by two thirds of the first page he had given up, asking me “Dad, is this in English?”

That was as far as we got. The book club broke up too. Not McPherson’s fault, however.

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