Great American history book recommendations

This is a thread for suggestions.  I’m looking here for works which focus on social & economic changes, as opposed to personal biography and diplomatic history.  The latter was important, but my personal impression is that they’re easy to bone up on via simple web resources.  But when it comes to topics which are less likely to move copies in airport terminals the seamless narrative of a scholar still has a strong comparative advantage.  Here’s a few:

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14 Responses to Great American history book recommendations

  1. Prozium says:

    Henry Farnam’s “Chapters in the History of Social Legislation in the United States to 1860.”

  2. Gaylord Perry says:

    Three books that I hadn’t heard of that look good. Thanks.

    I realize that biographies were sort of poo-pooed but Gordon S. Wood’s “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin” is a pretty useful book — it’s not necessarily a biography like the one by Brands, Wood doesn’t focus on Franklin’s childhood or his science experiments — this one focuses on the transformation of the colonists viewing themselves as British into actual Americans with Franklin being Wood’s subject/example. Wood explored this in “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” but I actually liked the one on Franklin more as I felt he put forth something concrete rather than a hodgepodge of stories that “The Radicalism…” does.

  3. JM Hanes says:

    I’d have to repeat myself with The Transformation of Virginiah 1740-1790, by Rhys Isaac. Most people don’t know as much about Virginia as they think they do, and this period was, as the title suggests, truly transformational. It’s a good read too.

  4. Becky says:

    Daniel Boorstin’s “The Americans” — in my opinion, it isn’t as good as his world history series (“The Discovers”, “The Creators”, etc.) but still worth a read.

    I second the recommendation of David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed.” Although they don’t meet your criteria above, I thought his books “Washington’s Crossing” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” were both excellent. As I mentioned to my husband, I know the history behind both events, yet I couldn’t put either book down. The writing is that good.

  5. ◄Dave► says:

    If looking at our history from the perspective of education and the Progressive movement at all interests you, I highly recommend “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto. It is available in print or can be read online as an e-book here. It is one of the most thought provoking 700 page tomes I have ever read, and changed my perspective on several matters. Most devastating, was to discover that dumbing down our kids is not a recent failure of our public schools; it was deliberate, the early industrialists were complicit in it, and worst of all… they retarded me too… and I am an old man! ◄Dave►

  6. Donna B. says:

    Jacques Barzun — From Dawn to Decadence. I suggested it on the books for conservatives thread, but it’s probably a better fit here.

    (pardon my lack of html skills)

  7. Donna B. says:

    oh wait. American History. Scratch my earlier post and back to remedial comprehension for me!

  8. JeffB says:

    For a historical perspective from a higher altitude, check out “Generations” from Strauss and Howe. The authors make a compelling case for a generational cycle that informs American history, including our future. You don’t have to buy into all their ideas to at least be intrigued by the theory of a repetitive historical cycle driven by generational archetypes.

  9. Hisham says:

    This may be more in the area of current events since it covers more recent events, but American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips was a very good read. It’s an interesting discussion of the roles that religion, oil, and finance have played in American politics within the last fifty years.

  10. Sean O'Hara says:

    If you’re interested in the specific instead of the general, Mark Harris’ “Five Pictures at a Revolution” covers the major changes Hollywood went through in the ’60s, as the studio system and Production Code crumbled and the studios flailed around trying to figure out how to connect with Boomer audiences.

  11. Jeff Singer says:

    Although it is certainly idiosycratic in many ways, an excellent social analysis of American history, which sort of complements “Albion’s Seed” is Kevin Phillips’ “The Cousins’ Wars”. Phillips as an author fascinates me…he churns out silly polemics now and yet at one time he had the insight and ability to write “The Cousins’ Wars”. Strange.

  12. y81 says:

    Finke and Stark, “The Churching of America.”
    Butler, “Awash in a Sea of Faith.”
    –Though neither of these may be the story the questioner wants to hear.

    Depending on the exact question and the level of scholarship desired, there is a whole series on “Everyday Life in America” published by Harper Collins. Though these are sort of middlebrow (that means no footnotes), they have bibliographies if you want more.

    Ulrich, “The Age of Homespun.”

  13. Fry says:

    The only history book I’ve read cover to cover was “A History of the American People” by Paul Johnson. It focused well on social and economic changes, as well as the evolution of our own American culture. Johnson is also a great writer and makes it pleasurable to read.

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