Tag Archives: Gordon Wood

The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…

THE FIRST AND LAST

LYNCH AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING BOOKS FROM

MY GRADUATE COURSE REQUIRED READING LISTS

A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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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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Following the evidence

Lately I’ve been digging back into a couple of classics on political thought during the American Revolution.  The first is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which originated as an introduction to a collection of pamphlets written during the imperial crisis.  The second is Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of these two books.  Both of them helped generate historians’ appreciation of republicanism as the dominant theme of revolutionary politics, a synthesis that made sense of eighteenth-century Americans’ obsession with public virtue, the common good, and the invasive nature of power.

Ideological Origins and Creation of the American Republic have something in common besides their arguments, something that explains why both books were seminal when first published and have stood the test of time.  In assembling their work, both Bailyn and Wood let the evidence guide them.  They saturated themselves in what revolutionary-era Americans were reading and writing, they looked for patterns, and they made sense of it all.  They didn’t ask, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking about such-and-such a subject?”  Instead, they simply asked, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking?” 

Writing the history of political thought, or any kind of intellectual history, should be an attempt to recover a past worldview.  Bailyn and Wood didn’t consider themselves to be shapers of the evidence.  They considered themselves subject to it, and that accounts for their work’s remarkable staying power; they listened to the American Revolutionaries and then allowed them to speak to us.

(Both book cover images are from Amazon.com.)

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