Tag Archives: David Hackett Fischer

Fifteen books on the American Revolution: CSM’s picks and mine

The Christian Science Monitor offers a list of fifteen books on the American Revolution for your Fourth of July reading pleasure.  It’s not a bad list, although I think my personal picks would only include a couple of their selections.

Tell you what: I’ll take a page from CSM and list my fifteen favorite Revolution books, too.  It’s always fun to compare notes.

Let me stress that my list isn’t a balanced representation of the historiography, not by any means.  If somebody grabbed me by the shirt collar and asked me for fifteen books that would give them a pretty good overview of the Revolution, that list would look quite different from this one.  I’m not aiming for complete coverage.  These are just my personal faves.

Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.  When Clio goes about sprinkling her magic fairy dust, she bestows a more generous dose on some historians than others.  She poured a tenfold measure on Fischer.
  2. Paul Revere’s Ride also by David Hackett Fischer.  Another examination of a Revolutionary event in which Fischer uses the technique of “braided narrative” to reconstruct an important event, unpack all its implications, and present it in the form of an engrossing story.
  3. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.  Explains why the colonists reacted to British policy the way they did, and in the process it opens up their entire political mindset.
  4. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood.  Hard to overstate this book’s richly deserved influence.  It’s packed with so many important ideas you want to highlight the whole thing.
  5. The Radicalism of the American Revolution also by Gordon Wood.  The Revolution changed the pre-modern world into the modern one.  Wood explains how and why, and he does it in prose so crystal clear that it’s easy to forget what intellectual heft this book has.
  6. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character by Charles Royster.  This is one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, a profound and elegant meditation on the Continental Army’s relationship to the Revolution and the society that made it.
  7. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas by John Buchanan.  Of all the books written about the Southern Campaign, this one is the most fun.  Buchanan’s enthusiasm for the subject practically somersaults off the page.
  8. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War by Wayne E. Lee.  Provides a framework for understanding the forces that both restrained and escalated the ferocious conflict in the Carolinas.
  9. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia by Woody Holton.  Makes a very persuasive case that in the Old Dominion the Revolution wasn’t just a question of freedom from British oppression; it was also an attempt by the gentry to maintain their authority at home.
  10. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.  The most comprehensive, balanced, and thorough one-volume history of the war.
  11. John Adams by David McCullough.  A book that deserved its stupendous commercial success.  No biographer has ever brought a founding figure so vividly to life.
  12. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.  A fascinating piece of detective work, and the most precise reconstruction of a single Rev War battle.  (Honorable mention for Babits’s Cowpens book, too.)
  13. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier.  Unravels the process by which loyal British subjects became Americans.
  14. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis.  There are a lot of books on Washington, but I admire the way Ellis captures his essence in this concise portrait.  It’s not a cradle-to-grave treatment, but it’s more effective than just about any book out there if you want to get your head around the man and his significance.  Same goes for Ellis’s Jefferson book.
  15. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence by John Shy.  An essay collection that’s loaded with insights.  Shy asks and answers many of the important questions about the Rev War.

As I said, my list leaves out a lot of important authors and topics, while other subjects are overrepresented.  A comprehensive Revolutionary reading list should also include Alfred Young, T.H. Breen, Gary Nash, Linda Kerber, Rhys Isaac, and Mary Beth Norton.  Likewise, it should have more thorough coverage of the shift from Confederation to Constitution, include biographies of additional key players, and make some space for the important campaigns in the North—to say nothing of the Revolution’s impact on women, slaves, Indians, tenants, and the urban underclass.

But those are the fifteen Am Rev books I’ve read and re-read with the most pleasure and awe.  Feel free to share your own picks in the comments.

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Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain Biography Released

I was in a bookstore earlier today and found, to my surprise and delight, that David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream is now available.  In my opinion, Dr. Fischer is simply the finest American historian working today, simply because he does so many different types of history incredibly well. 

His range is considerable; he’s written about everything from early American folkways to economic trends.  His research is always exhaustive, his conclusions are unfailingly provocative and insightful, and as a writer he has few equals.  I particularly recommend Fischer’s two accounts of pivotal events during the Revolution: Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing.  If you’re skeptical of the scholarly possibilities of narrative history, these two books will change your mind. 

Check out Simon & Schuster’s website for Champlain’s Dream to read an excerpt.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography