Great Books and Studies in American History

          At least I have an excuse for some of my recent readings. This fall I will be teaching American history. I have only taught American history for thirty years, having studied it in college before that, so I really need to devote time and energy away from yard work and to the books.

Volume 1 of Alan Brinkley’s treatment of American History

There are several American history texts that I will be using, reading, and consulting. The text for the class is American History: Connecting With the Past by Alan Brinkley (2 volumes). This is an overly large unwieldy rather recent history. Brinkley currently teaches at Columbia University and is the author of quite a few historical studies. I am just getting acquainted with this book and author.

I will fall back frequently to two or three favorite U.S. histories. Paul Johnson’s History of the American People is quite good because Johnson’s perspective is that of an outsider (an Englishman), an independent thinker, and a conservative. Since my college days, I have enjoyed Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant. More recent editions are co-authored by David Kennedy. The more Bailey the book, the better since Bailey was remarkably witty. I also really like William Bennett’s two volume narrative history of the United States, titled America: The Last Best Hope. Bennett is not “a professional historian,” but he is an academic by background. His main strength is that he sees history as a narrative, a story. His title stems from his former boss’ view of America.  (Bennett was Secretary of Education under President Reagan.)  A book with a different angle or approach to American history, a thematic approach, is David Fischer Hackett’s Liberty and Freedom. So far, and not far enough into it, I am really enjoying this book.

A Student’s Guide to U. S. History by Wilfred McClay. Dr. McClay is a professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

I have rereading A Student’s Guide to U. S. History by Wilfred McClay. This is a short (less than 100 pages) survey of major themes of American history and lots of book recommendations.  Although short in length, the book is packed with content. It is a part of the series of Student’s Guides published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The whole series is a great collection of short works that introduce students to large fields of thought and study.

At the end of McClay’s book, he gives his list of books that he dubs “The American Canon.” He says that every one of the books in his list is one that “a serious student of American history and society ought to have read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested.” I love such lists, even when I question a book included or gasp at what was not on the list. So, here is McClay’s “American Canon” with my brief comments to follow:

Wilfred McClay’s American Canon

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. I am currently five chapters into this book. I am beginning to see why it has so often been mentioned and am repenting of my neglect of it.

The Library of America edition which I am reading.

2. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth. This work has been reprinted in two large volumes. I received the set with great glee some years back, but have neglected it. I hope to at least start reading bits and pieces from it.

3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness. I have read portions of this book and have read a fair amount about Whittaker Chambers. I need to dig more deeply, however, into this book. I find it a curious inclusion on the list, but am willing to accept McClay’s judgment.

4. John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum and The Child and Society. Hmmm. Nearly everything I have read about Dewey has been critical, and I recognize the need for reading the sources, but I will have to be further convinced of the inclusion of this book in the American Canon.

5. Frederick Douglas, Narrative. I have long read about Douglas and this book and recently picked up a copy. It is on my “to read” list.

6. W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk. I again question this book’s inclusion and would defer to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery instead.

7. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Plain and simple, I need to read this.

8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Essays, First Series. I have read some of Emerson and read much that was critical of him. But, like him or not, or even judge him as a lunatic (as I do), he was an influential thinker.  Emerson’s essays were also recommended by Jay Parini in a book he wrote on poetry.

9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. In spite of the fact that movie versions of this story appear every decade or so, it is a defining book about American attitudes.

After Robert Redford played Jay Gatsby, why did anyone else even try?

10. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography. Read this book and reread parts of it many times. It is a key book to understand much about an amazing man and his times.  It also clearly reveals the oddities and deviations in Franklin’s religious views, and it is the first of the “rags to riches” American sagas.

The weighty musings of three American thinkers written for the common folk of New York state.

11. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalists. Thankfully, I have been able to read and teach through these essays, but would like to better understand them.  This is one of the best works of political philosophy ever penned. It is also helpful to read some of the Anti-Federalists, who accurately foresaw some of today’s political problems.

12. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. I have read and taught it several times. The only warning is that it should not be taught as Puritan history.

13. William James, Pragmatism.  William James and Pragmatism have had such an impact on our history and culture that I must agree with McClay’s including this work. (I also need to read lots more of William’s brother Henry’s works.)

14. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature. I have learned indirectly from Lawrence’s study of American literature, but don’t even have this book.  Lawrence does present a strong defense of James Fenimore Cooper’s works, which is a further reason to read this book.

15. Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings. I agree with James McPherson’s essay read long ago somewhere that Lincoln won the war with metaphors. An extensive reading of speeches of political leaders is a great way to better understand America.

16. Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is one of my favorite novels. Its length, which repels many, is justified by its intensive study of knowledge.

The novel is really bigger than it seems, just like the whale, just like knowledge, just like life.

17. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, eds., The Puritans. This is one of many sources I have on the American Puritans. It is a sourcebook of their thought. Perry Miller, an atheist, did more to revive interest in the Puritans than anyone else.

18. David Reisman, et. al., The Lonely Crowd. Long heard of it, but do not have it.

19. George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” and Character and Opinion in the United States. I don’t even know how much I don’t know about these works.

20. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I agree to its importance, and, although dripping in sentimentality, it is a good story.

21. Henry David Thoreau, Walden. I read it in high school and from it since then. Beautiful but wacky.  Of course, Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” must also be read.

22. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. I have read and taught through much of this book. I like it better after each teaching.

23. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is one of the most important books about America ever written.  Hemingway’s glowing endorsement was on target. The narrative use of the midwestern vernacular, the racial, social, and religious issues, the beauty of the idyllic interludes on the river, and the character of Huck are all defining points of American culture at all times.

24. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery. Read it and taught it several times.  Booker T. Washington, however, has long been largely out of favor with both black and white readers.  That is a shame.

25. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and American Vistas. Yes, Whitman was gifted, sprawling in his poetry, stylistically brilliant at point, but also crazy and warped.

26. Richard Wright, Black Boy.  It is interesting that McClay has four (or five, if you count Twain) books that deal with the black experience in America.  Also, it is curious as to why he did not include a single white Southern writer (unless one counts Twain) in the list.  

Coming Next:  My Cannon (sic) Battery of American History and Culture.


One thought on “Great Books and Studies in American History

  1. Pingback: Summer Readings | The Heavy Laden Bookshelf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s