American History

Faculty Picks: Five Favorite Books on American History - selected by Choice reviewer John David Smith

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. A.G. McClurg, 1903.
Du Bois’s brilliant, brooding, lyrical, and powerful collection of early essays remains one of the seminal texts in African American intellectual history. I first read this slender book as a graduate student and it influenced me greatly, introducing me to life under the “veil” of white racism, to the power of the “color line” that Du Bois and his ideological opponent Booker T. Washington experienced during the age of Jim Crow. Not only did Du Bois probe turn-of-the century race relations, but he identified important folk elements of the South’s slaves and ex-slaves and exhibited an almost mystical identification with blacks worldwide. Souls remains a timeless analysis of black identity in a white world. View on Amazon

The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth M. Stampp. Knopf, 1956.
In its day Stampp’s classic history of slavery, which I read as an undergraduate, was an essential corrective to the earlier proslavery writings of historian Ulrich B. Phillips. Writing during the modern Civil Rights movement, Stampp reproved Phillips for ignoring slave life on small plantations and farms and for failing to view slavery “through the eyes of the Negro.” Summarizing the anthropological thought of his day, Stampp wrote, “No historian … can be taken seriously any longer unless he begins with the knowledge that there is no valid evidence that the Negro race is innately inferior to the white, and that there is growing evidence that both races have approximately the same potentialities.” View on Amazon

Mirror to America, by John Hope Franklin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Franklin, the dean of twentieth-century African American historians, published his long-awaited autobiography four years before his death. It underscored not only his father’s work ethic, which he inherited, but also the unrelenting power of race and racism in American life. Franklin’s memoir is a remarkably candid, self-reflective, and sober account of the historian’s life and observations as writer, mentor, and activist, all framed within twentieth-century struggles to eradicate the blot of legalized segregation from the fabric of American life. Its most powerful passages cover Franklin’s own brushes with white racism and his anger at what he considered the challenges facing black youth, especially males, in the new millennium. View on Amazon

The Sea Captain’s Wife, by Martha Hodes. W. W. Norton, 2006.
In this remarkable piece of historical detective work, Hodes pinpoints the complex intersection of class, gender, and race in the dreary life of Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly (1831–77), a New England working class woman. Her story is both a meticulously researched social history written “from the bottom up” and an explication of what Hodes perceptively terms “the fickle nature of racial classification.” In the end, Hodes brilliantly chronicles her protagonist’s series of “unconventional acts,” including crossing the color line and marrying a prosperous sea captain from the West Indies, a light-skinned man of African and European descent. View on Amazon

The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, by Mark Smith. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Smith’s innovative analysis merges a history of the much-studied conflict with the relatively new sensory approach to mediating historical evidence. As he correctly notes, the Civil War’s sheer scale—its length, its concentration of millions of soldiers and civilians, and its new technologies of death and destruction—engaged Americans’ senses in major new ways. Civil War weapons “lacerated, shot, punctured, bayonetted, mashed, pulverized, extracted, amputated, and burned. Flesh was torn asunder—the sight of brain and bone—became commonplace.” In so many ways, the war “rearranged the sensory experiences of the participants.” Smith’s unearthing and creative use of sensory evidence should encourage historians to subject other historical events to similar analysis—“to turn up the volume, to make the whiffs smell, the caresses touch.” View on Amazon

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