A Layperson’s Reading List in American History

October 2000. Revised July 2004. Reformatted August 2006.

Academics are often accused of writing books and articles that only specialists can understand. While I cannot speak for other fields, it is the pride of history that many of the most influential books produced by professional historians are sufficiently clear and compelling to be understood and enjoyed by readers without professional training. This is not to say that academic history and popular history are identical. Much good academic history lacks the tight story line and focus on individuals that can carry a non-specialist. Conversely, the history section of Barnes and Noble is largely filled with popular narratives that may be good reads but that fail to ask the big questions that characterize academic works. But there is enough of an overlap between the two types of history that with guidance, a lay reader interested in the past can take advantage of the latest academic discourse.

Here I try to provide such guidance, by listing some of my favorite works of academic American history, along with teasers designed to encourage people to read them. Rather than trying to write a balanced syllabus that would equally cover all eras, regions, groups, and topics, I have selected books that combine literary and scholarly merit. This priority has led me to exclude some works that have been valuable to my intellectual development but which I fear would be too dry for non-specialists. (There aren’t many. The most powerful arguments often come wrapped in superb storytelling.) At the other end, I have excluded books that tell great stories and make important arguments, but that lack footnotes and therefore cannot be interrogated in the manner of academic history. Finally, I have decided to list only one book by any single author. This list is designed as a starting place for intelligent readers, whom I trust to follow up on authors they like.

What is left, then, is two dozen or so books that tell very good stories while applying scholarly methods to very important questions in American history. I have divided the list into several themes, each of which provides one answer to a very basic question: what is America?

Naturally, I welcome comments and suggestions for modifying the list.

Note: I have built a version of this list under the user nameSchragRecommends at LibraryThing.

Origins

Just what were all those people thinking when they left Europe to come to North America? And why did they need to enslave millions of Africans to accomplish their objectives?

Sidney Wilfred Mintz
Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history
New York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1985. xxx, 274 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 20 cm.
GT2869 .M56 1986A central impetus to colonization and slavery was opportunity to grow profitable plantation crops–especially sugar.
Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Providence Island, 1630-1641 : the other Puritan colony
Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1993. xii, 393 p. ; 24 cm.
F2281.S15 K8 1993English Puritans, like other Europeans, came to the New World for many reasons, some of which were not easily reconciled.
Edmund Sears Morgan
American slavery, American freedom : the ordeal of colonial Virginia
New York: Norton, [1975] x, 454 p. : map ; 24 cm. 1st ed
E445.V8 M67 1975In the late 17th century, the plantation traditions of the Caribbean were transplanted to the mainland, with permanent effects on the Southern colonies.
William Cronon
Changes in the land : Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England
New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. x, 241 p. ; 22 cm. 1st ed
GF504.N45 C76 1983New England did not offer the same opportunity for plantation agriculture, but the European reshaping of the landscape was still profound.

Revolution

As a political entity, the United States was born in the Revolution of the 1770s. But not everyone agreed on what the Revolution was for.

Gordon S. Wood
The radicalism of the American Revolution
New York: A.A. Knopf, 1992. x, 447 p. ; 25 cm. 1st ed
E209 .W65 1992John Adams wanted a country where a Harvard degree counted more than being the cousin of a nobleman. But he got a revolution more revolutionary than he had wished.
Alan Taylor
Liberty men and great proprietors : the revolutionary settlement on the Maine frontier, 1760-1820
Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by University of
F24 .T39 1990In the years after the Revolutionary War, the generals of the Continental Army and the men of the militias discovered they had been fighting for very different things.
Laurel Ulrich
A midwife’s tale : the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812
New York: Vintage Books, 1991. x, 444 p. : maps ; 21 cm. 1st Vintage Books ed
F29.H15 U47 1991A reminder that even revolutions may pass largely unnoticed by busy people with jobs to do.

Race and Justice

A central contradiction of American history is that a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal has done such a poor job of applying that belief across racial lines.

Eric Foner
Free soil, free labor, free men: the ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War
New York, Oxford University Press, 1970. xii, 353 p. 24 cm.
E436 .F6 1970Don’t let anyone tell you that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Neil R. McMillen
Dark journey : black Mississippians in the age of Jim Crow
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1989. xvii, 430 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.
E185.93.M6 M33 1989Perhaps slavery did not end in 1865.
James E. Goodman
Stories of Scottsboro
New York: Pantheon Books, c1994. xiii, 465 p. ; 24 cm. 1st ed
KF224.S34 G66 1994Not only an important story about racial justice, but an engaging exploration of narrative technique.
Thomas J. Sugrue
The origins of the urban crisis : race and inequality in postwar Detroit
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1996. xviii, 375 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm.
F574.D49 N4835 1996Government-sanctioned racial discrimination was not limited to the South.

Immigration

How did people from all over the world create this nation of nations?

Tyler Anbinder
Five Points : the 19th-century New York City neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world
New York: Free Press, c2001. viii, 532 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm.
F128.68.F56 A53 2001New York City once had a truly free market for labor and housing. It wasn’t pretty.
Elizabeth Ewen
Immigrant women in the land of dollars : life and culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925
New York: Monthly Review Press, c1985. 303 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.
F128.9.I8 E83 1985Jews and Italians did not merely move from Europe to America. They moved from a land of tradition to a land of dollars, where money could strengthen old bonds or shred them.
Lizabeth Cohen
Making a new deal : industrial workers in Chicago, 1919-1939
Cambridge [England]; Cambridge University Press, 1990. xviii, 526 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
HD8085.C53 C64 1990How immigrants to Chicago learned to be Americans, and union members, together.

Culture

America is still a new nation, but it has created a culture all its own. How did that happen?

John L. Brooke
The refiner’s fire : the making of Mormon cosmology, 1644-1844
Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1994. xix, 421 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm.
BX8643.C68 B76 1994A window into Americans’ capacity for inventing religions.
T. J. Jackson Lears
No place of grace : antimodernism and the transformation of American culture, 1880-1920
New York: Pantheon Books, c1981. xx, 375 p. ; 23 cm. 1st Pantheon paperback ed
E169.1 .L48 1981bA reminder that not everyone perceives change as progress.
William Leach
Land of desire : merchants, power, and the rise of a new American culture
New York: Pantheon Books, c1993. xvii, 510 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. 1st ed
HF5465.U5 L4 1993How shopping became the national pastime.

Harvey A. Levenstein
Revolution at the table : the transformation of the American diet
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. xii, 275 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
GT2853.U5 L48 1988Paradox of plenty : a social history of eating in modern America
New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ix, 337 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm.
GT2853.U5 L47 1993Is McDonald’s the perfect American restaurant?

Landscape

America is a place, and these books help explain why it looks the way it does.

John R. Stilgoe
Common landscape of America, 1580 to 1845
New Haven: Yale University Press, c1982. xi, 429 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
E169.1 .S85 1982Before industrialization, Americans shaped their land according to lore and custom.
Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar
The park and the people : a history of Central Park
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. xi, 623 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
F128.65.C3 R67 1992Even public spaces have rules about who gets to use them, and about who gets to make the rules.
Kenneth T. Jackson
Crabgrass frontier : the suburbanization of the United States
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. x, 396 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
HT384.U5 J33 1985Most Americans now live in suburbs. That didn’t just happen.
Donald Worster
Dust Bowl : the southern plains in the 1930s
New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. x, 277 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
F786 .W87Long before Love Canal, human industry invited environmental catastrophe.

Technology

Americans are people who believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing with power tools.

David A. Mindell
War, technology, and experience aboard the USS Monitor
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. x, 187 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm.
VA65.M65 M55 2000Weakly armed and barely seaworthy, she was a greater danger to her own crew than to the enemy. How did the USS Monitor become the most fabled weapon of the Civil War?
Rachel P. Maines
The technology of orgasm : “hysteria,” the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction
Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. xviii, 181 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
HQ29 .M35 1998Sure, we commonly do things that would shock the Victorians. But the Victorians did some things that would shock us.
Alfred Dupont Chandler
The visible hand : the managerial revolution in American business
Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977. xvi, 608 p. ; 24 cm.
HF5343 .C584How a generation of managers took advantage of the possibilities of mass production.
Ruth Schwartz Cowan
More work for mother : the ironies of household technology from the open hearth to the microwave
New York: Basic Books, c1983. xiv, 257 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
TX23 .C64 1983Why a house full of “labor-saving devices” still required the full time labor of a housewife.
David E. Nye
Electrifying America : social meanings of a new technology, 1880-1940
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1990. xv, 479 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
HD9685.U5 N94 1990Said one farmer: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
Michael S. Sherry
The rise of American air power : the creation of Armageddon
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. xiii, 435 p., [26] p. of plates : ill. ; 26 cm.
UG633 .S457 1987Why the U.S. Army Air Force kept bombing Japan until it was just “making the rubble bounce.”