Best History Writers Today

If you are looking for good books… consider some choices from the best historians writing today.  Good histories are informative, scholarly, and readable.  Academics may scoff at the idea of “popular” history, but well written books stand up to any and all tests.  Here are some of the best writers working today:

5.  Joseph Ellis–Founding Brothers (Pulitzer Prize)  American SphinxFirst FamilyJoe Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke college.  His books are authoritative and readable.  For instance, Founding Brothers begins with a detailed account of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Look beyond the powdered wigs

4.  Eric Foner– The Fiery Trial (Pulitzer Prize)   Forever FreeFree Soil, Free Labor, Free MenWell respected in academia, Foner’s work has been reaching wider audiences the last decade.  His research on the Republican party has become the gold standard for all students of 19th century history.

3.  Gordon Wood– The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Pulitzer Prize)  The Idea of AmericaRevolutionary CharactersFans of the movie Good Will Hunting remember hearing Gordon Wood’s name dropped by Matt Damon.  What the film fails to convey is that Wood is the leading authority on the Founding generation.  Wood’s success stems from his scholarly and realistic portraits of our iconic founders.

Matt Damon should actually read this

2.  James McPherson–Battle Cry Freedom (Pulitzer Prize)  For Cause and Comrades This Mighty ScourgeMcPherson’s name is synonymous with Civil War history.  His research is impeccable and his volumes are always manageable.  Battle Cry Freedom is the greatest single volume history of the Civil War ever written.

1.  Nathaniel Philbrick– In the Heart of the Sea (National Book Award)  Sea of GloryMayflower.   Fans of maritime history and seafaring tales rejoice!  Philbrick spins wonderful yarns about adventure on the high seas.  In the Heart of the Sea tells the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. 

Moby Dick starts here

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How Have We Come so Far?

America seemed to represent the future… yet by the end of the 19th century, we became a people obsessed with our past.  A paradox not easily explained, and frankly, not wholly considered either.  The recent passing of historian Michael Kammen received little fanfare nationally, but to younger academics everywhere, it represented a melancholy turning point.

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Kammen’s epic study, “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” was standard reading for first year grad students across academia in the mid-1990’s.  The difficult task of explaining why Americans simplify and revere their past was at the core of Kammen’s research- historians agreed with his thesis, students were primed for future frustration.  The Civil War was indeed a transformative event, radically shifting our traditions of remembrance and honor.  Prior to the war, argued Kammen, Americans viewed their past with casual indifference- the Civil War democratized our past- the masses wanted a story worthy of the sacrifices made in that most bloody struggle…American mythology began.

1936-2013

1936-2013

The good academic he was… Kammen was troubled by the wave of popular history that emerged in the 20th century.  His analysis at times bordered on whining- why don’t ordinary folks pay more attention to academic history?  To his credit, he never looked to assign blame- his study maintained an analytical approach- and his conclusions are if nothing else, valid.  But, like many writers of his background, he misses the true point of historical remembrance- pride.  Trying to explain it away with abstract concepts understood only in academic circles  is manipulative.  Our story is a complex, yet inspiring one, and the American people truly feel a part of it.  The study of history is so compartmentalized that it cannot contemplate this collective remembrance.  There is room for all types of historical study- academic, public, and popular history alike…. Kammen’s work proved it to be so… though it may not have been his intention.

 

 

 

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The Art of Procrastination: Charleston, SC vs. Andrew Johnson

Originally posted on My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies:

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Two Meeting Street Inn, Charleston, SC

I’m confident the world is anxiously awaiting a review of the third biography I’m reading on former president Andrew Johnson.

Unfortunately, a trip to the indescribably charming city of Charleston, SC interfered with my plan to finish David Stewart’s “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson…” in a timely fashion.

A relaxing vacation to one of America’s oldest and most historic cities seems perfectly designed to inspire several hours of deep reading. After all, what could be better than a lazy afternoon spent on the wraparound porch of a magnificent Bed & Breakfast overlooking White Point Garden and the Charleston Harbor while reading a good book?

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Two things interfered: the food and the historic sites. If you’ve ever been to Charleston, SC you know exactly what I’m talking about – it’s full of gastronomical, architectural and historical distractions.

Among the dozens of sites I saw…

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I Am Impressed

Originally posted on thehistorytourist:

Heave, ho, heave, ho.  I was pulling on a rope with about 15 other people, trying to raise a sail on a British Navy schooner.  It was June 1814, and we were about to engage in the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek.

The Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek involved a group of American barges that tried to stop the British navy from going up the Patuxent River to get to Washington DC.  It definitely was a David v. Goliath scenario.  For its 200th anniversary, there was to be a reenactment of the battle involving several tall ships.  The Pride of Baltimore II, a recreation of an 1812 schooner, was participating and taking on observers.  Excited about the opportunity not only to sail on a tall ship but to participate in a battle reenactment, I had signed on.

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Besides the Pride of Baltimore II, there were three other tall ships…

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Revisited Myth #21: Armless chairs were designed to accommodate women wearing wide hoop skirts.

Originally posted on History Myths Debunked:

Queen Mary I

Queen Mary I

Nonsense. Armchairs were a status indicator. According to Ron Hurst, Chief Curator and Vice-President of Collections at Colonial Williamsburg, armchairs were few in number in any given household and were intended for the head of the household or other important people. Most people of average or low status sat on backless benches or stools until the late 17th century. Female heads of state, like Queen Elizabeth I or her half-sister, Queen Mary I (pictured above), are often shown in portraits wearing huge gowns and seated in armchairs. 

Chairs without arms first appeared in the 16th century. Sometime in the 19th century, people began calling them “farthingale chairs,” linking the chair’s purpose with the wide hoops. 

This reminds me of the corner-chairs,were-for-men-with-swords myth (see #10).

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Historians are not Filmmakers

Historical films cannot be 100% accurate….. filmmakers have to entertain as well as inform.  History is often complex, unsettling, even boring.  Historical movies must strike a balance between fact and fiction; finding the proper mix is often the difference between success and failure.  Critical acclaim and ticket sales are no guarantee historians will confirm a film’s accuracy.  Fickle academics will find something to criticize- none are comfortable with a Hollywood production educating the public more effectively.  Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film, ‘Lincoln’ is already in the crosshairs of some leading historians.

Note to historians- some scenes just work.

Note to historians -some scenes just work.

Pulitzer Prize winning Lincoln scholar, Eric Fonerdisapproves of the way emancipation is depicted in the film.  Foner suggests, “Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.”  This makes for a fine book, and Foner’s is one of the best in decades, but a major motion picture covering that much ground?  Enough scholars have praised the picture to validate the work of Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner.  Historians doubling as film critics have a clear problem- forget the forest, they only care to see the trees.  They also display a fundamental misunderstanding of the filmmaking process.  Professor Foner really needs to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show….rarely are historical movies this accurate…and enjoyable.

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Movie Review- “The Alamo” (2004)

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True appreciation of John Lee Hanc0ck’s… 2004 epic cannot be achieved until viewers acknowledge it is not a remake of the 1960 John Wayne film of the same name.  Wayne’s version is jingoistic in message, clumsy with history, and two dimensional about characterization.  Hancock’s film shows the defenders as flawed freedom fighters, not hokey legends spouting patriotic platitudes.  Historical accuracy often weighs down otherwise  entertaining scripts; “The Alamo” walks the fine line between epic film making and history lesson.

Gone to Texas

Gone to Texas

Billy Bob Thorton steals every scene… as the most human David Crockett yet put on screen.  Larger than life against his will, Thorton’s Crockett is a reluctant warrior forced to the Texas frontier out of political necessity.  His fiddle playing and homespun Tennessee wisdom are awkwardly received by the firebrands dominating Tejas politics-  Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston balances the bottle with his ambition, while Jason Patrick broods as Jim Bowie- dying a slow consumptive death, mourning the life he could have had in Texas.  William Travis, as portrayed by the understated Patrick Wilson, receives the most extensive reevaluation; long thought of as the rigid, inexperienced amateur, Hancock and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan more accurately show Travis as a deeply flawed man seeking redemption as a soldier in Texas.  The well fleshed out performances are the strength that help the film stand on its own- and eliminates any comparisons to the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1960 version.

Victory or death

Victory or death

There is just enough action… to keep the pace of the film moving- at times it does get bogged down with dialogue.  Thorton serves as comic relief and his scenes are always the most enjoyable (his harmonic interlude to the Mexican march of “Degüello”is the most powerful of the film.)  Hancock is careful to use the historical record to dramatic effect- gone is the infamous line in the sand drawn by a wooden Travis- replaced with a painful, but honest appeal to troops facing certain death.  Travis’s stirring letter to the Texas government provides proper context to the heroism of the defenders.  Historical details are presented accurately(the final assault occurred before daybreak) and Hancock does an admirable job preventing the film from being just another dry history lesson.  The film presents both points of view while, for the most part, avoiding the politically correct preaching of recent historical epics (see Kingdom of Heaven, Cold Mountain, Last Samurai.) The film does labor through Houston’s victory at San Jacinto, carrying the narrative well beyond the walls of the beleaguered mission.  Focusing squarely on the Alamo is difficult with a script so rich in Tejas political maneuvering.
To many film fans… John Wayne will always be the burly incarnation of Davy Crockett, bravely meeting death at the point of a Mexican bayonet.  It is more difficult to imagine Crockett being executed after surrender, regardless of what the historical record tells us.  Hancock’s retelling of the story fits perfectly into film history as the perfect blend of character, legend, fact- even fiction.  The critical analysis is that the film does justice to all those involved- a rare feat in an industry willing to sacrifice accuracy for self-righteous story telling.

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