“I am a history teacher,” I usually tell people when they ask. And they, most often those who are professionals (and in recent weeks usually doctors), respond with telling me how they enjoy watching the history channel. Occasionally, one will mention a book that he read or intends to read that is about history.
It is a bit disconcerting. I would never think to answer the doctor by telling him that I watched “House” on television in such a way as to imply that I am as grounded in his profession as he is in mine. Maybe it is all part of the liberal arts inferiority complex that some of us have to deal with. We know what useful things doctors, dentists, chemists, lawyers, and accountants do. But people who talk of history , literature, and the arts can seem to be a bit of societal fluff.
At the same time, we who teach history and other academic subjects should not be so smug and elitist as to think that the non-academic cannot benefit from and enjoy the same kinds of things that we label as work. And maybe there is truth to what I have often said (possibly in jest) which is that I became a history teacher because I didn’t want to have to work for a living.
Most non-professional history fans, enthusiasts, and buffs enjoy a particular kind of history book. Or they consume hours of endless World War II documentaries on cable television. The Bill O’Reilly “Killing” series, which I am skeptical of, is said to be one of the best selling history series ever. And plenty of other news celebrities write books on history. I myself recently read Bret Baier’s Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. I picked up another of his “Three Days” histories shortly after that.
Dr. Michael Douma, who is both one of the most serious academic historians and least serious Facebook friends, wrote a fine article describing “Dad History.” This has reference to the often best selling histories and biographies that many men (and probably women as well) enjoy reading and read simply for enjoyment. (Men are often skeptical of fiction.)
One of my recent readings was Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. What a story of adventures! And it is history! I have read few books as fun, terrifying, and gripping as this story. The idea of Boone being a legend, a near mythic character, and a proto-type o western heroes is all true and laid out in this book.
The range of historical studies goes far beyond those books that show up in our local book franchises or that get best seller status. The more serious “tools of the trade” will almost never be seen at a Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble. Thanks to on-line venues, they are much more easily found.
I recently read a book and have been reading a book that illustrate some of the spectrum of what historians and history students (I am one of the latter) read. If there is a depth and seriousness to our calling, it must be cultivated in the types of books I am going to mention below.
Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West, 1834-1890 by LeRoy R. Hafen and Francis Marion Young came out in 1938 and is being kept in print by the University of Nebraska Press.
This book deals with a narrow portion of a relatively short period of time in a subsection of American history. The story is part of the Western Movement, particularly that part concerning events and places beyond the Mississippi River. Keep in mind that all of American history up to 1890 was the Western Movement.
Located in the eastern part of Wyoming, Fort Laramie is still a national historical sight. It was one of the pivotal locations in the processes where trappers and traders, farmers and soldiers, Indians and agents, and missionaries and Mormons passed through in route to new lands and hopes for wealth or struggles for survival.
This book is clearly not the work of a modern historian. He or she would have sifted through the material, woven a unified narrative, analyzed the data in comparison to other events, set the story in the greater historical context, and produced an academically satisfying work.
Instead, the authors of this work did lots of archiving and compiling. The book has lots of details that include the numbers of wagons, the names of both obscure and famous travelers, the food items and supplies delivered or consumed, and more. But the narrative story, the adventure we might say, still emerges in the midst of the details.
What is refreshing is that the bulk of the information is not pasteurized, sanitized, or analyzed for the reader. Horrible events (perpetrated both by whites and Indians) are told. Attitudes are reflected. Historical figures are named. But judgments are left out. There is no attempt here to expand upon or refute the Turner Thesis or to condemn what would now be unacceptable.
Lots and lots of facts, anecdotes, trivia, and minor details fill the book. But it is not just a sourcebook for factual content. It is a story and that story is easily seen as being pivotal to the western movement, the growth of the nation, the plight of the Indians, and the changing roles of the government as the nation settled the areas beyond the MIssissippi.
And it is a fun book. Consider this snippet:
“Sir George Gore’s favorite author was Shakespeare, which Jim Bridger ‘reckin’d was too highfalutin’ for him; moreover, he remarked, ‘thet he rather calcerlated that that big Dutchman, Mr. Full-stuff (Falstaff), was a leetle too fond of lager beer, ‘ and thought it would have been better for the old man if he had ‘stuck to bourbon whiskey straight. ‘”
Those who settled the West were, in the best senses of the word, characters.
Thanks to Steven Carr, a serious student and teacher of American history, for both calling my attention to this book and for putting one into my possession.
Far different and far more difficult on the history spectrum is The Wealth Explosion :The Nature and Origins of Modernity by Stephen Davies. This work is published by Edward Everett Root Publishers in London.
This book was proved to me by the aforementioned Michael Douma. I was invited to read it and then join in a discussion with some real scholars who also read the book. (Alas! My most recent hospital venture prevented me from finishing the book and messed up my efforts to join in on the discussion via Zoom.)
This is the type of book that one might pull from the nightstand, start, get sleepy, put away, and never pick up again. Despite the use of the word “explosion” in the title, this book is not one for those who enjoy the rough and tumble, the wars and tribulations, and the trials and tribulations of history.
But, after hearing parts of the group discussion and after my own–as yet incomplete–reading from the book, I recognize that it is an important work. Whereas Fort Laramie focused on a narrow part of American history, this book is examining an incredibly wide swath of world history, particularly from the 1700s on.
I often contrast narrative histories with analytical histories. This one is analytical. It not only gets under the hood, but it dismantles the engine to examine how the parts work.
This is a book that makes me want to study it and hear lecture discussions on it piece by piece. One reading is not enough. This is historical calculus, not historical multiplication tables. Get the point?
Would non-historians want to read the book? No, not for fun, but I can see the advantages for academic or scholarly people working through it. But this is mainly for the historians.
Granted, when I teach, I prefer to build the case for Modernity and wealth on a few preferred foundations. Following the work of Christopher Dawson from the past and Rodney Stark from the present, I would structure the modern world in the positive sense on the influence of Christian thought. And I would throw in enough of Adam Smith, the American Founding Fathers, Edmund Burke, and or Northern Europeans to solidify my biases.
I don’t think I am all wrong, but my explanations would suffer from not being broad and deep enough. Davies’ book takes me past my stream and forces me to go both up river and down river to see how much I am missing.
Stephen Davies seems to have historical superpowers. He analyzes and describes events in Asia, Europe, and America, past and present, with broad sweeping generalizations and specific details. This is a world history text, but one that supplements the books that give us the maps and timelines.
This is the book that I need to read several times. And if the book itself is not daunting enough, at the end of each chapter, Davies includes a section for further reading that is incredibly wide-ranging and comprehensive.
Fine books described above. Very different. Very representative of what we history folks really have to contend with. We only make it look easy and fun for your benefit.