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Jan 6, 2005 2:00 pm

A Popular History of the United States ...

In comments below, Van Hayhow asks for recommendations of a popular history of the United States. As I said, I wouldn't recommend Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States or Larry Schweikart's and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States. I've used and liked Carl Degler's Out of Our Past in conjunction with Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition. All three of us are a little shop-worn, of course. The third edition of Out of Our Past is now 20 years old. Yet, Boston's Bruce Shulman sees it as a classic, too neglected. How about it, American historians? Have the past two decades produced a popular survey of American history that is Degler's equal? We're open for your recommendations in comments.

Update: We have a credible nominee: Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the United States of America. Second edition, 2001. A conservative alternative to it might be Paul Johnson's A History of the American People, though it's a hefty 1100 pages and the post-1960's coverage is highly polemical. Both Brogan and Johnson are British, of course, but it's no surprise that some of the most perceptive historians of the United States are from abroad. Still, there's a market for the new, single volume interpretation of American history by a major American historian.

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More Comments:

Van L. Hayhow - 1/6/2005

Thanks everyone, I will check it out.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/6/2005

Yep, that's the one. Let's agree not to add a 'Dr.' to my colorful if unspectacular CV, though.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 1/6/2005

If Dr. Morgan is refering to Hugh Brogan's Penguin History of the United States, I agree. It covers all of the basics and is generally well written. Like Zinn and the Patriot people, he is writing from a particular perspective, but it is broad enough to admit a variety of different political viewpoints and ideological perspectives. Good stuff. I've often thought of assigning it instead of a textbook.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/6/2005

Brogan's work ain't all that bad.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

I recall liking The Americans very much, as well. It is old now and, at three volumes, more than I had in mind. I'm surprised that no one has cited a recent single volume popular history that they'd recommend.

Manan Ahmed - 1/5/2005

Daniel Boorstin's The Americans was a really fun read for me back in undergrad. Although I'd say it suffers from age as well.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

That banner ad sure is insistent, isn't it?
Foner does good work [and he is, of course, a historian of the Left]. I suspect that this is a text book, which doesn't generally recommend itself to me, and I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, myself, but I will look at it this week at the AHA convention in Seattle.

Adam Kotsko - 1/5/2005

That looks pretty good.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/5/2005

I'm afraid that I harken back to a survey text, too. It was one of the Garraty texts (whatever edition was around in the early 1970s). I could comprehend it. It had wonderful cultural sections, including one on travelling theater in the late 19th century. I still remember the example of the transition to movies that ened the section, an advertisement from a theater group bragging that the play was portrayed by "live men and women. Not a Moving Picture."

I also remember its description of the 1860 presidential campaign, and the comment--by whoever wrote that section--that it was during that fall that Stephen Douglas achieved true greatness, by campaigning in the South for the continuation of the Union.

Maybe now I would look at it and find it ordinary. Maybe I was simply ready for history. But I remember it.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

Couldn't disagree with you more, Richard, which should not be surprising. Textbooks tend to be deadly reading. Up to a certain point, they are useful in giving students some sort of common body of information. But one of the last times I turned down a job offer, it was because the course requirements included reading a _huge_ textbook, in which I had no voice in choosing. Since _I_ didn't want to read the bloody thing, myself, I saw no reason why I should require my students to do so.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/5/2005

I think I get what you're getting at. I'm not really big on theme-related breezy surveys -- Procrustes and all that. Stuff like Louis Hartz' The Liberal Tradition in America haven't worn well. Hofstadter's Political Tradition sounds like Just So stories to my ear now -- sort of like Margaret Mead finding three tribes with exactly three different sex role configurations. But I'll be interested to see what others have to say on the matter.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/5/2005

Thanks, Richard. I was thinking of something other than a textbook, but I'm sure that The Great Republic is a good one.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/5/2005

Well, I ain't an American historian, though I've taught it. And I think a survey book should be a jumping off point, not an endpoint. But I always liked The Great Republic (particularly the later editions). It has a decent amount of cultural and social history to go with the political. The level of detail is just enough not to confuse, and it doesn't seem to push a single ideological line. The authors are leaders in their fields. The suggested readings are good. It has helpful chronologies, and a lot of good maps, illustrations, etc. In the rear you have copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, as well as a list of Presidents, their dates of office, and their parties.