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Aug 15, 2008, 12:57am Top

My introduction to History ahs been mostly through David McCullough and Stephan Ambrose. I plan on reading several books by Joseph Ellis. My question is have these three authors raised the qulity of writing in history books and therefore set higher expectations for History writers or have history authors always been at a high level and these three are merely joining a level that has already been set? Or I guess I could aks if these are more popular authors and not at the level of many more seious hostory writers.

Aug 15, 2008, 12:39pm Top

I would say that they are more popular because their style is more narrative and less analytical. It doesn't make them better or worse, only more readable.

Right now I'm going through The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. While the style is somewhat narrative, it's not an easy read due to the numerous parties and people to keep straight. But it is a very informative, eye opening book, well worth the trouble it takes to read.

Aug 15, 2008, 5:44pm Top

Be careful about Joseph Ellis. Agree he is a gifted popular writer. But he has trouble telling the truth. As I recall, he fabricated a Vietnam War record.

Aug 15, 2008, 7:37pm Top

Ellis was accused of fabricating his own record. Has he ever been accused of fabricating his work?

Aug 16, 2008, 10:49pm Top

To me, truth-telling is hard to compartmentalize. It's a credibility thing. Plus I have a violent reaction about people who fabricate war records. It's an insult to our friends and neighbors who served and sacrificed.

Aug 18, 2008, 6:28pm Top

Joe Ellis didn't just tell stories, he taught a very popular history class based entirely on his "experiences" in Vietnam--I know, I took it. Here's a NYT story on him... It's hard for me to trust him as a historian now. But that said, his books on Early America really are great.

Aug 19, 2008, 10:10am Top

I don't think that McCullough and Ellis are better writers than previous history writers. I have been reading a lot of civil war recently and Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton were excellent writers. If you look at the Pulitzer prize winners in history you will find some very good writers.
From what I know Joseph Ellis ego ran away with him when he started talking about Vietnam. I have never found anything he has written that appeared fabricated. His writing also went through an editing process which would help eliminate those types of errors.

Aug 20, 2008, 4:57pm Top

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln still is a very interesting book to read, an unusual viewpoint on that period of American politics.

I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to develop an entire list of excellent authors we wouldn't want to let our children date/loan money to/trust with our pets.

May 10, 2009, 12:03pm Top

OK, well, in addition to David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Ellis, Shelby Foote, and Bruce Catton, who else do you recommend?

I have recently become a fan of Joseph Wheelan. Who else is in your favorite historians?

May 10, 2009, 4:39pm Top

Love, love, love Carl Ekberg, James Axtell, and my man John Gregory Burke. Butcha know me. I read non-standard stuff.

May 10, 2009, 10:38pm Top

Ah, Pam, I knew I could count on you for some good rec's!

Edited: May 12, 2009, 1:35am Top

I guess I would now add David Herbert Donald to the list.

May 10, 2009, 11:43pm Top

To me, Ambrose's "alleged" plagiarism is a worse transgression then Ellis'. However, both cause me concern when reading their books.

May 11, 2009, 9:39am Top

If you're interested in the Revolutionary War period, try David Hackett Fischer. His Paul Revere's Ride and Washington's Crossing are both great reads.

May 11, 2009, 12:16pm Top

>14 Billhere:
I was about to suggest the same author, and point to the same two books. Both are highly readable, but the dry, bare-facts stuff is still there in the appendices.

May 11, 2009, 12:56pm Top

I would also add the name of Alan Taylor, an excellent and very readable historian specializing in early American history. He writes reviews for The New Republic and has won the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for William Cooper's Town. Other books include American Colonies and The Divided Ground.

May 12, 2009, 7:11am Top

Ah, I'm really glad David Hackett Fischer was mentioned. I loved Washington's Crossing, and recently found Paul Revere's Ride in a used book store on MD's eastern shore. Am looking forward to getting that. The other one that I've heard recommended and have on my (Bookmooch) wishlist by him is Albion's Seed.

I've read one book by Jill Lepore - The Name of War - it was excellent - really really fascinating look at King Phillip's War and argued that it wasn't just about land but also identity - on both the colonists and the Native American's side - a really interesting read and well argued.

I haven't heard of the other authors eromsted mentioned, and also think Alan Taylor sounds interesting.

If interested in Andrew Jackson, I'd suggest Robert V Remini, he has written a number of books on him and appears to be considered a respected Jacksonian Scholar.

Richard Hofstadter I found to be very difficult, especially his American Political Tradition but a number of others on LT have praised him for his insights.

Edited: May 12, 2009, 7:55am Top

Also, does anyone have opinions about John Ferling or Jon Meacham?

I liked Lincoln's Melancholy by the former, but thought Franklin and Winston (by the latter) was alright, but assumed a level of familiarity with the two.

Here's Jon Meacham's promo of The American Lion on The Daily Show.

May 12, 2009, 11:26am Top

BFertig, me good buddy, thanks for the kind words. I am a positively a pimp for Axtell and Ekberg.

Axtell has articles that are just wonderful. Do you have access to JSTOR? If not dm me.

As for Ekberg, he writes about French settled Colonial Ste. Genevieve in the Mississippi valley. Their experience there is totally un-British-like. Changed by opinion on what American settlement could have been.

May 12, 2009, 12:23pm Top

Don't miss Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. As good as McCullough in my opinion.

May 12, 2009, 12:34pm Top

Ranging across all periods, here are some more academic authors who have written excellent and very accessible works:

Fred Anderson, especially his outstanding history of the Seven Years' War (and its relationship to the movement toward independence), Crucible of War: The Seven Year's War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, and his and Andrew Cayton's The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, a penetrating look at just how important military conflict has been in shaping the United States.

John Mack Faragher, in particular his biography, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, and his account of the expulsion of the French Acadians from what is now Nova Scotia, A Great and Noble Scheme.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; her prize-winning book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary is widely and justifably praised.

Elliot West (The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado), Donald Worster (A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell and his new biography of John Muir, A Passion for Nature), and Aaron Sachs (The Humboldt Current), who all write on the European exploration and penetration of the West with a strong environmental focus.

John Milton Cooper, Jr. focuses on the early 20th century; his Pivotal Decades is a good survey of 1900-1920, and his dual biography of TR and Wilson, The Warrior and the Priest, is outstanding.

Finally, a political scientist who doesn't write like one: James A. Morone, whose Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History is a lively survey of the ways in which religion and moral fervor have influenced American history since the beginning.

May 12, 2009, 11:44pm Top

>21 sergerca: good point, and better than McCullough in my opinion. And a good counterpoint to Chernow (he is a big hagiographic) is Thomas Fleming, who, although a journalist, has received a number of awards from the field of history. Really good books on Hamilton and Burr, Wilson, FDR, e.g.:

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America
Washington's Secret War
Illusion of Victory (this one is primarily on Wilson)
The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II

Edited: May 13, 2009, 11:28am Top

Edmund S. Morgan (touchstone failing here)
David Hawke
Francis Jennings
John Putnam Demos
Daniel K. Richter
Bernard Bailyn
Pauline Maier
Christopher Ward
William Cronon
Roger Wilkins
James H. Merrell
Daniel H. Usner, Jr. (touchstone failing here)
Gary B. Nash

In my opinion (and it's just an opinion), McCullough and Foote are excellent writers and merely adequate historians --or at least they allow the story to take such precendence in their work that deeper interpretation of the subject is sacrificed. This is likely what makes them so readable, the work of thinking about their points is much easier than for more academically minded authors.

Demos's The Unredeemed Captive is a great blending of readable story with excellent interpretive work.


May 13, 2009, 11:34am Top

Just perused the touchstone list on the right....

Hard to believe that Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr (bloody touchstone!) is not mentioned.


May 13, 2009, 3:15pm Top

>24 JFCooper:, 25


Thanks for adding more excellent academic historians to the list, including Schlesinger (like a lot of other folks, I'm in the midst of rereading his three volumes on FDR). I also agree with your comment about popular authors who are "excellent writers but merely adequate historians."

I enjoy reading writers like McCullough and Foote, but any more I approach their work as I do good novels -- for entertainment and perhaps some interesting details or insights into the subjects they're writing about. But I find I always go elsewhere when I really want to understand a particular historical person or subject.

Of course, academics too often fall into the trap of writing for a narrow audience familiar with their jargon and sympathetic to their pet theories. But the best of them (which, I believe, includes your list as well as the historians I mentioned above) write clearly and intelligently, and provide challenging, valid interpretations that allow readers to see the past in new and different ways.

I happen to live with a biologist, who likes to recall advice she received about studying biochemistry: don't try to memorize all the equations for chemical reactions; focus instead on how molecules interact with one another and the reactions will always be comprehensible. I think that's true for history as well. For me, at least, it's understanding something of the social, cultural, economic, and political context that makes a particular narrative story line interesting and memorable, and makes it possible to see the linkages with other narratives across communities, cultures, and time.

There is, by the way, an outstanding series of books that joins academic rigor with good writing and a strong narrative approach: The Oxford History of the United States. Any one of the seven volumes now in print (the touchstone won't pick them all up as a group) is worth the time and effort. And they're all nice, long reads, just like McCullough!


May 14, 2009, 9:56am Top

I have found Douglas L. Wilson's books to be highly engaging, especially Honor's Voice. Shelby Foote has always been a favorite as well as Douglas Southall Freeman, along with others mentioned above, McCullough, D. Donald, Howe, etc.

May 14, 2009, 5:25pm Top

>26 walbat:
Thanks Phil.
I forgot to mention Harold Holzer, there's no better source for Lincoln. Though multiple sources, by dint of their differing points of view and biases are always better than a single source.

Is writing for a narrow audience a trap if that is the audience you intended to write for? Academics write academic stuff because they are operating at an extremely high level, and recognize that writing for each other is a better course of action if the goal is to challenge their thinking or add to the academic discussion. For example, Pauline Maier's From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 is nearly incomprehensible without a basic knowledge of the political history of the Continental Congress (and maybe a handy timeline to which the reader can refer when necessary). But it adds extremely valuable insight to the reader's understanding of how the His Majesty's American Colonies became 13 independent States operating collectively as a confederation.

Folks like McCullough and Foote are "popular historians". They write for a general audience, which is not to say that what they do is less important or less valid than what Maier does.

I guess I forget the distinction between the two, and truth be told the line is getting less and less distinct. Demos, Schama, Robisheaux, are excellent historians with much to add to the discussion, and they write very accessible stories as they do it.

Ruminating still...

May 15, 2009, 1:32am Top

Daniel, you raise a good point about the line blurring between academic and popular histories. In my field of ecology (and science in general) that is also happening to some extent with the proliferation of science journalism, and it necessitates a two way communication between the professionals and 'the general public' (whoever that is).

One of the things I find cool about LT is that it gets both experienced (perhaps academic, perhaps just really interested and well-read) and inexperienced (perhaps passing fancy, perhaps novice) people talking together, or at least sharing some bits of information and what they find interesting, worth reading, etc. Personally, I think it's on the whole a good thing for a person in the 'general public' to be able to brush shoulders with people more tuned to the academic side of things because it gets both to think about things from another perspective.

To bring it back to the thread topic, I'm glad both popular and academic authors are brought up here, and encourage more of both. I think they both have a place, since I assume that of the people following this thread there is a spectrum of experience and interest.

May 15, 2009, 10:25am Top

Yes, I think walbat >26 walbat: makes the best point here:

"I happen to live with a biologist, who likes to recall advice she received about studying biochemistry: don't try to memorize all the equations for chemical reactions; focus instead on how molecules interact with one another and the reactions will always be comprehensible. I think that's true for history as well. For me, at least, it's understanding something of the social, cultural, economic, and political context that makes a particular narrative story line interesting and memorable, and makes it possible to see the linkages with other narratives across communities, cultures, and time."

Relatedly, I think is important to promulgate the idea that no one history tells you the complete story, and I think these discussions help do that.

May 15, 2009, 5:29pm Top

Several of you probably alluded to this point, that the reading of the more "popular historians' may well peak and develop a more intense interest in a subject which would then lead to a reading of the more academic writers.

May 15, 2009, 11:17pm Top

Although the A History of US books by Joy Hakim are written for middle school kids, I find that adults are just as taken in with these books when they pick one up. I believe there are 10 in the series, and they are excellent.

May 17, 2009, 10:47pm Top

I count myself in the class of ‘general public’ or certainly a novice historian. I agree with Mr. Cooper that Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr was a writer that made history interesting. I would add the formal historians Dumas Malone, Harold Holzer, C. Vann Woodward and Garry Wills to the list. I would include Taylor Branch and Emory Thomas. I would put at the top of my list Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

May 18, 2009, 3:07pm Top

>28 JFCooper:

I'm still ruminating, too. But I do owe you an explanation of my "trap" comment (#26). You're obviously right, it's not a trap if scholars are intentionally adopting a narrow focus to probe deeper or shed new light on a particular period or subject. Even Hofstadter, my pet archetype crossover historian, assumed his readers already had a solid grounding in the basics of American history.

I was indulging my bias against the postmodernist crowd with my catty little comment about jargon and pet theories. There are fields of academic history dominated by folks more interested in advancing a theoretical agenda than in elucidating the past in a clear, understandable manner, but I think (and hope) their numbers are declining (see AHR President Gabrielle Spiegel's address, "The Task of the Historian," in the Feb 2009 American Historical Review).

Anyway, as you say, there do seem to be increasing numbers of good academic historians who are gaining a popular audience. Perhaps they're consciously writing in a more accessible style, to appeal to more readers. But I would like to think that there's also a growing appreciation among readers of history that moves away from the relatively simple story lines and unexamined assumptions of many popular historians and instead presents the past in all of its messy, contradictory, and fascinating glory.


May 20, 2009, 1:31am Top

>34 walbat:
You don't owe me a thing. We're all just sharing thoughts. But I think your point is well taken, nonetheless. ;-)


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