Be honest. Do you still browse? I fear the joy of book browsing, both in store and online, is in danger of extinction. Blame economics. Large “superstores” that offer a broad selection of titles are getting harder to find. The online sites that seek to replace them deploy algorithms that can get you to what you want—but isn’t the appeal of browsing not knowing what you want?
Fortunately, even in hardy indie stores, the American History section has mostly been spared. The key topics—the Revolution, the Civil War, WWII—continue to get ample representation. But for how long? As numbers get crunched will more stuffed pandas and book lights replace key backlist titles? Some online sites have tools to help you drill down into niche subjects, but those pesky bestsellers keep popping up to distract you.
Let me dig for you, and unearth some treasures that market forces may now be conspiring to bury. Soon we may need metal detectors to find them. All the more reason to call these titles “under the radar” gems of American history.
King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias
Extraordinary events and large personalities fill the 150 years between the landing of the Mayflower and the American Revolution, but this period hasn’t nearly been covered enough. This excellent book examines the war between the New England colonists and Native Americans in 1675–76. This war established the model on which the colonies and the Federal government would deal with the Native American populations. An essential title for any American history lover.
Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer
Fischer takes this incident, cuts away the Longfellow propaganda, and gives us a lucid narrative of the beginnings of the Revolution. In addition to analyzing the “ride,” Fischer also examines the political situation in Boston in the 1770s and the subsequent battles at Lexington and Concord.
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt
A comprehensive look at the rough and tumble world of nineteenth- century American politics featuring an amazing cast of personalities including Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun. Don’t wig out at this 1296-page brick; it may seem to take as long to read as the entire existence of the Whig party (22 years), but you’ll be rewarded with a brilliant analysis of Antebellum America.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 by Edward L. Ayers
Ayers examines the Civil War through the eyes of two small communities on each side of the Mason-Dixon line; one in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia. This unique approach immerses the reader in a very accessible narrative of the daily life along the divide. Most Civil War books are built around the major battles or key characters. This book dramatizes the impact of the war on the home front and how waves of emotion crested and crashed there.
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
This extraordinary biography provides an all-encompassing view of the Gilded Age. Carnegie’s real-life rags-to-riches story parallels the explosion of the industrial age and America’s rise to a global economic power. His battles and confrontations with the people and policies in his path are not only riveting reading, they are also surprisingly pertinent to contemporary quandaries about business and government and the role of the one percent. The reader is left to decide whether Carnegie’s donation of much of his fortune to libraries and the pursuit of higher education redeems what he did to achieve his status as one of the great titans of American business.
The Bonus Army: An American Epic by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen
In 1932 a group of 40,000 disgruntled WWI veterans set up a tent city in Washington, DC to demand payment of the bonus money promised them after the war. President Hoover eventually ordered Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to evict the protesters (with tanks). Ultimately, however, the marchers succeeded when their efforts led to the signing of the GI Bill of Rights. A well-researched account of a mostly forgotten episode in American history, The Bonus Army should be required reading for all sides of the current Occupy movement.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
- “Enamoured with Freedom”: Elizabeth Dowling Taylor on Paul Jennings, servant to James and Dolley Madison
- Brooks D. Simpson on Confederate women and the First Battle of Bull Run
- John Dos Passos on the 1932 “Bonus Army” encampment in Washington, D.C.