An All-Movie History Course
Volume One the First Ten Movies
The introduction and first chapter are below in their entirety. After that, you will find, as promised in the book, the literary recommendations for A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies.
After more than a century of commercial filmmaking, there is a vast library of movies based on history. Some rank among the finest achievements of Hollywood and some are at the other end of the spectrum, but there are more than enough, from just watchable to great, to impart an accurate overview of U.S. history. Of course, the movies must be assembled right and each given context, missing information provided and inaccuracies corrected.
This book will teach you history by explaining interesting movies, all of which are available on Netflix or Amazon. This book will walk you through each movie using virtually every appropriate detail, providing historical context, explaining historical references, pointing out pertinent cinematic devices, and even occasionally tossing-in a tidbit of Hollywood history. Almost without notic-ing, you are going to absorb an accurate overview, an outline, a satellite photo image of the contours of the story of America. Like an introductory course, this book will help provide the indispensable foundation for more detailed knowledge in the future. Of course, the book can also be used piecemeal for brushing-up on a particular period in an entertaining way.
In essence, this is an illustrated lecture, using a variation of the technique used by PBS and the History Channel: reenactments intercut with expert talking heads. Except here, the movies are the reenactments and A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies is the expert talking head. The movies and this book entertain by emphasizing history as human drama, which is what we go to movies for and what movies go to history for. The dates, the statistics, the treaties, etc. are here in abundance, but they are presented in a way that enhances the narrative.
If Hollywood has been cavalier about historical accuracy, it has also at times compensated with scrupulous accuracy in everything that didn’t affect the box office formula. But even in films that have no box office calculation, there can be unavoidable historical distortions; for example, the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008). If John Adams didn’t actually arrive at the Lexington-Concord battlefield until days after the battle, is more lost than gained having him arrive in the movie immediately after the battle, when there is still musket smoke in the air, the wounded groaning where they fell, and mothers wailing over the corpses of their sons? To cinematically illustrate an important point or event, filmmakers might have characters witness or even participate in events in a movie that they didn’t in life. I will explain historical distortions like this when they are important enough, but I won’t overwhelm or distract you with all of them.
There is one movie per chapter and three sections in each chapter. The first section, “Before,” prepares you by providing background and explaining the beginning, while avoiding spoilers. The second section, “After,” explains the whole movie, completes the history, and generally adds whatever might be missing from the movie that is indispensable for the fullest understanding of the subject of the movie and/or the period in which it is set. The third section, “Recommendations,” describes other relevant movies and documentaries that complement the one I chose, including the one or two other films that in some cases might just as well have been used in place of the one I chose. At escalloniapress.com, there are also free chapter-by-chapter recommendations of books – novels as well as histories, memoirs, and biographies – that are not already mentioned in the text. Some of the books are classics but most are the best of the newest in the relevant. Each chapter in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies also includes easy-to-read timelines with explained historical high points.
Over two hundred and fifty films are referenced in both volumes one and two (making this book also a resource for teachers). Incidentally, there may be good films not mentioned because they weren’t available on DVD at the time of writing. There also may be some mentioned that are no longer available as you are reading this. Availability is often erratic, especially with lesser-known films.
I have honed that two hundred and fifty films to an indispensable core twenty. That is the least intimidating and the bare minimum that provides enough references for a thorough overview of U.S. history. The standards for choosing a film were: 1) it had to have an historically important subject, and/or (2) at least be rich in references to its period, and (3) it had to be at least watchable. Taking into account the subjectivity variable in esthetic judgment, I didn’t hold out for great or even good, but a bottom line of simply “watchable.” However, many of the films here are Emmy or Oscar winners and some are based on Pulitzer Prize winning books or plays. If the choice was between two or more films equal in usable historical references for the same period, I chose the esthetically superior.
Though 12 Years a Slave (2013) is esthetically superior to Amistad (1997), the latter touches on so many more important subthemes that I chose Amistad for slavery. Same with Glory (1989), which is superior esthetically to Gettysburg (1993), but the latter deals with the pivotal battle of the Civil War and features more of the war’s major players. Amistad and Gettysburg are at least watchable, though plenty of those rich in history are not. A good example is Midway (1976).
It was the pivotal battle of World War II in the Pacific and deserves a movie. The true story is full of the fictional devices that make history so fascinating and exciting: tactical brilliance, desperate gambles, lucky breaks, etc. The film has a cast of top stars and makes a laudable pioneering effort to include the internment of Japanese-Americans. But the stars wrestle lines of clumsy exposition that sound like lecture notes and the special effects are so bad that I think I spotted stock footage from silent movies. So, the Battle of Midway will get paragraphs instead of a movie. Ideally for a project like this, we would have a rich satisfying movie on each important high point of American history. And we do for some. But in some cases, we have nothing whatsoever, and in others, we have excellent films about footnote events that nevertheless exemplify important themes.
An example of the latter is Matewan (1987) (a favorite of U.S. history teachers). It’s about a small and seemingly unimportant coal miners’ strike in West Virginia in 1920. But Matewan is esthetically top tier and extraordinarily rich in historical references, providing teaching opportunities on the history of labor, on immigration, racism, and even the Spanish American War and World War I.
Some of the films included in this book are historically significant themselves, such as Little Big Man (1970), and I’ll explain why for each. Here’s one of those tidbits of Hollywood history: in his masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage (1951), based on the famous Civil War novel of the same name, John Huston has the most famous coward in American literature played by the most highly decorated American soldier of World War II. Audie Murphy had a long and prolific screen-acting career that included playing himself in a hit movie about his own war experiences.
Like PBS and the History Channel, this book is popular history, for curious laymen and students. It is about narrative not sources, so there is no bibliography or endnotes. Some of the sources were the best history textbooks available, from which I taught for nearly twenty years. Of course, textbooks can be slanted toward school boards that are guided by prejudice more than evidence. The distortions of textbooks are widely known thanks to Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995) by James W. Loewen, and of course that great corrective, A People’s History of the United States (1980) by Howard Zinn. So the textbooks have been supplemented by the very best of the most recent popular histories, most of which will appear in the literary Recommendations section at http://www.escalloniapress.com.
This may be popular history but it is still evidence-based history with no quarter given to comforting myths. As a consequence, in some chapters, there are revelations based on the latest research from the most distinguished sources, which are cited in the text. There are revelations here even for history teachers. Was the Confederacy defending states’ rights or slavery? Tens of millions believe strongly on one side or the other but the most recent study is conclusive. The debate is over. Virtually every Hollywood western climaxed with a quickdraw showdown but what do historians say about its role in the real Old West? What was the largest armed uprising inside the U.S. after the Civil War? (It included the American Air Force participating in the bombing of American citizens.) Few history teachers could answer correctly, yet this occurred as a direct result of the events in one of our movies.
The two most basic elements of a nation are land and people. In these first ten movies, we will focus on where the land and the people came from that make up this particular nation. War is emphasized in these first ten movies because of the death and devastation, the resolution of issues, and the political realignment that results. In the second ten chapters, the presidency is emphasized, not just because of its power and influence but also because presidents are often a nexus for the major issues of their period. I welcome suggestions and corrections. Leave them at http://www.escalloniapress.com.
I have the ultimate qualification for commenting on the movies, one that nearly all “professional film critics” lack: I wrote, directed, produced, and edited a feature film (available on You Tube as “Twisted Tales from Edgar Allan Poe”). It was low budget and independently produced and made during the advent of the home video market in the early Eighties. In the late Eighties, I worked for George Lucas’ special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic. Then I became a history teacher, and for nearly twenty years, I searched for the most effective way to teach the subject that polls perennially rank as students’ least favorite. You are reading the results of that search.
Chapter One – The New World
Boy meets girl. It’s a core Hollywood plot formula, and in our first film, by legendary auteur (writer-director) Terence Malick, the boy and the girl are also the touch points of the Old and New Worlds. It’s the story of English adventurer and explorer Captain John Smith and Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas, a story that passed from history into the iconography of American popular culture even before there was a USA. Subject of numerous paintings, the story was eventually Disneyfied in a 2003 animated feature. Peggy Lee summarized the story well in her 1958 jazz classic, “Fever.”
“Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair.
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, ‘Daddy, oh, don’t you dare …
He gives me fever’.”
How much of their story is myth and how much history is still being debated by scholars and we’ll wade into that debate. Whatever happened, it answered a need as a founding myth: the Romeo and Juliet of the New World, the imaginary royal wedding of the two worlds.
Terence Malick planned his version of the American foundation myth for over twenty-five years, and he finally got it into theaters just short of the 400-year anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, where the lovers met and most of the story is set. Such is his reputation in Hollywood that Malick was given a 50 million dollar budget and total artistic control. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he translated a book by German philosopher Martin Heidegger and then graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa; then he was a Rhodes scholar; then he taught philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did all this while still in his twenties.
The New World strains for authenticity, which is great for our purposes. It was shot on location at the Chickahominy River, a tributary of the James River not far from the site of the historic events. The film crew created reconstructions of the Jamestown settlement and of the Powhatan village based on archaeological evidence and consultation with historians. They got a linguistics professor from the University of North Carolina to come up with a form of the extinct Powhatan language. They even sought historic varieties of Indian corn and tobacco rather than just plant contemporary strains.
The epigram at the beginning of the movie is from John Smith, “How much they err, that think everyone which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.” This cues us that this story is going to be about a mystery or at least different visions of reality. We next get an epigram from the New World when Pocahontas intones in a voice-over, “Come, Spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. We, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.” We hear this while the camera skims the briny primordial soup in which multicellular life evolved. Her invocation, “Come spirit. Help us sing …” echoes the traditional “Sing Muse…” that begins classical epics, and even more important, it highlights the intense spirituality of these so-called “heathen savages,” or “naturals” as the Englishmen call them in the movie.
Malick uses the opening credits to preview the story, animating maps and drawings of the period. There are drawings of ocean-going ships, maps in which rivers are filled-in by animation as they are explored, then images of shipwreck, and indigenous people around a fire. Of course, there is a detailed drawing of war and slaughter, which incidentally was completely imaginary, this particular drawing having been created in Salzburg, Austria. This animated montage (a series of images with a common theme) ends with a drawing of a suspended fish which becomes a segue into the movie when it is immediately followed by a suspended fish in the opening cinematography.
Pocahontas then continues her prayer to the Great Mother, “the great river that never runs dry.” And during her prayer, lest we forget that it is sex that makes that river flow, we watch Pocahontas and two other beautiful young women swimming naked through the primordial soup to strains from the prelude of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” Then the aliens arrive.
H.G. Wells intended his science fiction classic War of the Worlds (1898), about invading space aliens, to be an allegory about indigenous peoples’ reaction to the conquering Europeans. Throughout the momentous first meeting of Europeans and Indians at Jamestown, Malick maintains an appropriately charged atmosphere of unearthly visitation, from the natives’ first sighting of the English ships to the first face-to-face meeting in an insect-infested meadow where a native leader slaps Captain Newport, the English leader, on the chest to test his solidity.
The first time in The New World that we see the three English ships (echoes of Columbus’ three), we also see a title, “Virginia / 1607.” At this time, Virginia (named after the “virgin” queen, Elizabeth I) is what the English called the entire New World. With the permission of Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, a private company, the Virginia Company, has sent the three ships to colonize Virginia.
During this era, English nationalism blossomed under the threat of Spanish invasion, assisted by militant Protestantism and the leadership of Queen Elizabeth. The major colonial powers in the Americas were Spain and Portugal, but soon enough the English, the French, the Dutch, and even the Swedish would join them. There were three distinct forms of European colonization in the New World: empires of conquest, commerce, and settlement. Spain regarded the Indians as a usable labor force, while France treated the Indians primarily as trading partners. The English, in contrast, adopted a policy known as plantation settlement: the removal of the indigenous population and its replacement with native English and Scots. This English pattern of colonization was based on the conquest and settling of Ireland, as the Spanish pattern was based on their experiences resettling areas of Spain from which they drove out the Moors.
On the sparsely populated eastern seaboard of the present-day U.S., an area the Spanish dismissed as not worth the effort, the English were not faced with conquering and ruling established empires like the Spanish were with the Aztecs and the Incas. The English just had to survive harsh conditions. Spanish colonialism was the exclusive provenance of the crown, with the English it was business, involving “joint stock companies” which combined the investments of shareholders. The joint-stock company was supposed to make a profit from the natives to whom it brought the benefits of civilization. There were about 15,000 of the latter in eastern Virginia when the English first landed.
Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World but not the first English colony in the New World. That was at Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. It earned the name “Lost Colony” when supply ships delayed by England’s battle against the Spanish Armada, arrived at the colony to find 118 men, women, and children had vanished. To this day, we don’t know what happened.
The Virginia Company charged the Jamestown colonists with fulfilling three objectives: find gold, find the Northwest Passage (a short cut to Asia and its trade goods that would make rich everyone associated with the venture), and find survivors and/or descendants of the Lost Colony. When the ships of the Virginia Company reached Virginia, they had been sailing for an unusually long five months, passing through the Caribbean. In the movie, we see the crew getting their first close look at the part of the New World that will be English. We also see our hero, Captain John Smith, emerging like a cave dweller, in chains below decks. Then the Englishmen land and we see an armored soldier, weapon at the ready, wading into a vast lush meadow in a state of untrammeled purity, a symbol of the entire expedition.
Captain John Smith was a classic Hollywood swashbuckler come to life. It’s a wonder Errol Flynn never played him. Smith was twenty-eight when he arrived at Jamestown, and by his own account, he had already gone to sea at sixteen, fought as a mercenary for the French against the Spanish, fought for Dutch independence against the Spanish, and in Transylvania, killed and beheaded three Turkish commanders; for which, he was knighted by a Transylvanian prince and given a coat of arms with three Turk’s heads. Later, Smith was captured and sold into slavery and eventually owned by a Greek noblewoman who fell in love with him. He escaped and made his way back to England. This is only the broadest outline of his adventures. They have strained belief from his time to ours and garnered many detractors.
But during the 1950s, a linguist and former intelligence officer, Philip L. Barbour, scoured Eastern European archives, ignored by Smith’s detractors, and corroborated a huge number of details in Smith’s writings. Barbour’s The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964) forever lay to rest any suspicion that Smith invented his adventures from whole cloth.
When we are formally introduced to Smith in the movie, it is with a drum roll and a camera shot of him beside a hangman’s noose, and we learn he has been accused of “mutinous remarks.” It’s true he was scheduled to be hanged, but he wasn’t saved by the good graces of Captain Newport as in the movie. Sealed orders when opened indicated that he had been officially chosen by the Virginia Company as one of the leaders of the colony and that’s what saved him. “The Warres of Europe, Asia, and Affrica taught me how to subdue the wilde Salvages… in America,” Smith later wrote. The value of such a man for a remote outpost vulnerable to attack by the Spanish, French, and/or Indians must have been obvious to the Virginia Company.
His “mutinous remarks” show Smith to have been a rebel as well as an adventurer. Colin Farrell as Smith shows the certified rebel’s slight nod and slighter smirk the first two times that he is addressed by the authority figure, Captain Newport. The latter is played by two-time Emmy winner and one time Oscar winner, Christopher Plummer. Immediately after his reprieve, Smith wanders in the New World savoring the wonders of nature and showing us that, besides being rebellious, he is also sensitive. That quick insert shot of the swaying noose is meant to remind us that he has just narrowly escaped death, so the whole world is transcendently vivid.
In this scene, we are also being introduced to an important character, Nature in the New World, with which all of the other important characters interact in their own way. Malick inserted an exhibition of ravishing nature photography between the scenes of his story. The film got an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. Malick matched the quality of the cinematography with the sound design. In that animated montage during the opening credits, at one point, the music subsides and is strikingly replaced by a panoply of New World nature sounds. I highly recommend you listen with headphones to the beginning of the movie, at the very least, to savor the full richness of the multi-layered sound design.
Meanwhile, Captain Newport chooses the site of their settlement, next to a malarial swamp. Newport then mentions later seeking “… a route to the other sea.” It is also called in the film “a passage to the Indies.” The other sea was the Pacific and the Indies were Asia, specifically Indonesia, and the route or passage was the fabled Northwest Passage. That was the trade shortcut to Asia that Columbus was looking for when he “discovered” America. It would make all those associated with its discovery very wealthy. Others continued the search more than a century after Columbus, including Henry Hudson, whose crew mutinied in 1611 and set him adrift in a rowboat on the Canadian bay now bearing his name, where he perished.
A crewman asks Newport, “When might we … poke about, sir?” Newport then scolds the would-be pirate, renames what he asked about as “pillage and raid,” and reminds him that they are there to establish a colony. Piracy is at the heart of western culture going back to its ancient beginnings. (What was the very first thing Odysseus did after leaving Troy? Raid.) Indeed, much of the European colonization of the Americas can be seen as an extended pirate raid with missionaries.
Next, while Pocahontas plays with her brother in a meadow, we get a full dose of her charm and grace. This sets up the inevitable boy’s first meeting with girl. The way this is done is important: Smith is wandering in the same meadow, and the first time he sees Pocahontas, she is hidden in the middle distance, barely visible in the tall grass, barely distinguishable from the natural beauty around them. They move closer and eventually stand staring transfixed at each other until her brother leads her away. From the beginning, Smith’s feelings for Pocahontas are blended with his feelings for the New World. At one point as he is making love to her he calls her “My America.” She would mean for him a transformed life, as he recognizes in later voice-over musings, “Exchange this false life for a true one. Give up the name Smith.”
On first seeing the abundance of the land, one of the Jamestown colonists declares, “We shall live like kings.” Not long after that, circumstances reverse and they are, in Newport’s words, “Hardly better off than being shipwrecked.” The gravity of the situation is conveyed by Newport’s order to have a food thief branded and his ears cut off. Newport returns to England for supplies and appoints Smith the head of a diplomatic mission to find Indians with whom to trade for food.
Smith was “the low born son of a farmer” and not a gentleman, as his arch nemesis, the aristocratic Wingfield, points out while arguing against Smith’s appointment as captain of the diplomatic mission. (Though not mentioned in the film, Wingfield apparently accused Smith of the mutinous remarks that almost got him hung.)
While Smith wends his way up river on this mission, we get the first of Malick’s poetic voice-overs, a stylistic quirk of his. You may want to use the subtitles because these interior monologues are spoken in undertones but they are worth understanding. Smith’s first voice-over lays out one of the earliest visions of America as an escape from the oppressive European social structure.
This is a vision that will continue for centuries, to our day, and lure tens of millions of immigrants. “We shall make a new start, a fresh beginning … Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all … We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues… We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor…”
But when this monologue concludes we are startled by behavior that directly contradicts it. While Smith says, “None shall eat up carelessly what his friends got worthily or steal away that which virtue has stored up,” his famished men are stripping food from drying racks in an apparently abandoned Indian village. This is Malick reminding us that those high-minded principles are frequently ignored or at best compromised in the application.
The colony is in the territory of the Powhatan Confederacy, composed of thirty Algonquin tribes and ruled by a King Powahatan. That is who Smith is brought to when Indians capture him during that diplomatic mission. Then Powhatan apparently orders his execution and that brings us to the big question: did Pocahontas save his life?
We know about the incident from Smith himself, who could have written honestly about battles but lied about Pocahontas. Indeed, he claims in other writings to have been rescued by a young girl while a captive of the Turks, which could indicate a recurring invention. It used to be the consensus among historians that Pocahontas did not rescue John Smith. However, J. A. Leo Lemay, Professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (1992), makes the point that “No one in Smith’s day ever expressed doubt in [the story], and many persons who must have known the truth…including John Rolfe [and] Pocahontas…were in London in 1616 when Smith publicized the story in a letter to the queen.” Would Smith have lied to the queen while expecting, as he did then, that she would meet Pocahontas? Lemay concludes, “There are eight unmistakable references in Smith’s writings to Pocahontas’s saving his life… The overall evidence supplied by all eight (and possibly nine) references proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pocahontas rescued him.”
It has been suggested that the Powhatans were not actually trying to kill Smith when Pocahontas saved him but were putting him through an initiation ceremony that he didn’t understand. However, very little is actually known about Powhatan culture, so all we have in the end is speculation about it. Malick uses both Smith’s account and the speculation that he was being initiated. When Smith tries to wow the Indians with gunpowder thrown into fire, they answer with a shaman who can induce hallucinations. This is the beginning of what is clearly depicted as some sort of ritual laying-on of the hands by native women on Smith’s body. Then a warrior rushes toward Smith with a huge club held aloft and then Pocahontas is suddenly on top of him while the voice-over quotes Smith’s written description of the incident.
Before he is captured, when Smith and a small crew are going deep into Virginia forest, the scene is suggestive of Joseph Conrad’s later European, Marlow, going into the heart of darkness of an African jungle. Smith even encounters dangling shrunken heads for warning off intruders. But Smith’s experience is diametrically opposed to that of Conrad’s Kurtz. In the place of “the horror,” Smith finds Eden. His vision for a democratic future already exists in native society. “Real, what I thought a dream,” he says in voice-over.
While we watch the burgeoning romance between Smith and Pocahontas, handled with consummate delicacy, we also see Smith gradually being seduced by and absorbed into Powhatan society. Eventually he is dancing bare-chested beside a fire at night with other warriors and we know for certain that he has “gone native.” Then King Powhatan sends him back to Jamestown, with the understanding that the English are to leave the following spring, once their boats have returned.
This Indian idyll might be considered sentimental over-compensation for past distortions of Native American history except we have the fact that Indian societies were attractive to some whites, drawing them away from the colonies. It became such a problem for the Pilgrims that they outlawed long hair and had hanging as one of the punishments for those who joined the Indians. In other colonies, such people were burned alive. Plus, there are stories of rescued white captives refusing to return to white society.
An early American classic, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), says, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans.” Ben Franklin wrote, “No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies … All their government is by Council of the Sages. There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.”
Now enjoy the movie, and after watching it, finish the next section of this chapter.
It was fitting that Pocahontas died at the end of this film. By far the most effective European weapon against the indigenous peoples of the Americas was disease. Scholarly estimates for the death toll from disease range as high as ninety per cent. The traumatized survivors of the pandemics were much easier to defeat militarily, and of course, the Europeans considered the diseases a sign that God wanted them to possess these new lands.
Pocahontas died of unknown causes, but in the London of that time, she would have been exposed to things such as smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis for which she, like the rest of the indigenous American population, would have no immunities. This was because they had none of the domestic-cated animals from which the diseases and the immunities to the diseases derived.
If Pocahontas dies young, she dies in the film with a degree of spiritual fulfillment, and an answer to a query at the beginning of the film. She says in voice-over, “Mother, now I know where you live,” as the film fades to black over images of nature in the new world. Of course, “The New World” for Pocahontas was England and all things English. She is the bridge between the two peoples, and the film broadly follows her documented life from her youth in the Powhatan village, to the period with the settlers in Jamestown, to her marriage to John Rolfe, and her journey to London and an early death.
Pocahontas’ earliest ancestors first migrated into North America from Asia over the Bering Straits that separate Siberia from Alaska (and possibly by other routes) sometime between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. Scientific advances in the latter half of the twentieth century have led to the conclusion that indigenous American cultures were much more advanced technologically and much more numerous than was previously thought. Estimates range from 50 to 100 million for the population of the Americas at the time of Columbus’ arrival.
Once there was a holiday called Columbus Day. It is still formally celebrated in some places but nowhere is it nearly as big as it used to be. Why not? The truth finally got out, as it will, that though he may have been a heroic explorer and navigator of genius, Columbus was also a criminal. The Arawaks were the inhabitants of the Bahamas when Columbus landed there in 1492, and when the natives couldn’t supply him with enough gold, he punished them by cutting off their hands. When that didn’t produce enough gold, he made up the loss by enslaving the Arawaks and other indigenous peoples and taking them back to Spain. Columbus thus began both the transatlantic slave trade and the destruction of indigenous American cultures for gold that would continue for centuries. All of this is in the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (which has sold two million copies).
Bartolomé de las Casas, the son of one of Columbus’ officers and a Dominican priest who was known as “the Apostle of the Indians,” voluminously chronicled for over half a century crimes committed against the Indians. Writing of a period during most of which Columbus was in charge, Las Casas wrote that “from 1494 to 1508, over three million people perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….” The population of central Mexico alone fell from around twenty-five million in 1519 to little over one million by the end of that century.
Columbus also began what scholars call the “Columbian Exchange:” Europe, Africa, and the Americas exchanging foods, animals, diseases, and human beings. The Indians taught Europeans about tobacco, corn, potatoes, avocadoes, peanuts, tomatoes, and chocolate. Europeans introduced wheat, oats, barley, and rice, plus domesticated animals like horses, pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. All of what was exchanged of course had far reaching impact on societies and the natural environment.
In The New World, infectious diseases haven’t had enough time to become a factor in the struggle between English colonists and natives. Armed conflict erupts when Powhatan decides that the English intend to stay. The battle scenes give Malick an opportunity for some box office-fortifying, choreographed violence, which is not to say that there isn’t a feeling of authenticity in weapons, formations, and ferocity.
When his arch nemesis, Wingfield, threatens to shoot Smith and instead is shot himself, Malick is able to meet the demands of another box office formula almost as basic as boy-meets-girl: shoot a bad guy. Actually, the real Wingfield wasn’t killed, but when Smith was in command of the colony he sent Wingfield back to England “to seeke some place of better emploiment.” That “emploiment” turned out to be the writing of several books about Jamestown.
Another departure from history is when Smith is over-thrown by Argall, ostensibly for protecting Pocahontas, and then Smith is bound and whipped. It adds to Smith’s cred as a lover, rebel, and persecuted visionary but it didn’t happen. Not that he didn’t have enemies within the colony, and they even plotted his murder. Historically, Pocahontas was kidnapped by Argal but after Smith had returned to England. Incidentally, Pocahontas did participate in providing life-saving food to Jamestown in the first winter and she did save colonists by warning them ahead of time about an attack, though it wasn’t while they were in the fort but while visiting Powahatan.
The biggest departure from history in the film is the romance at its center. While it may or may not be that Pocahontas saved Smith’s life, it is extremely unlikely they were lovers, because she was possibly as young as ten years old when they first met. They definitely had a friendship, witness their meeting when she was in London, but the likely subject was the mistreatment of her people since his departure and not their failed romance.
Malick neatly closes his mythical romance with the lines, “Did you find your Indies John?” and “I may have sailed passed them.” For all its artistic achievement, and this is the best film by one of the best American filmmakers ever, The New World is also an example of the aforementioned scrupulous historical accuracy in everything that doesn’t affect the box office formula.
After Smith returns from his period of captivity with the Indians and is made (he was actually elected) leader of the colony, Malick accurately depicts Smith doing what would make him almost as famous as the supposed affair with Pocahontas: taking over the leadership of Jamestown to insure its survival and preserve England’s presence in the New World. Malick provides a title card: “The President / Fall 1608.”
The desperation of the colony that winter brought to the fore the contradiction of an aristocratic society and forced Smith to adopt stern measures. When he declared in the movie, “He that shall not work, he will not eat,” he was quoting the bible. Then Smith added something that is a pretty good formulation of English society in his time, “The labors of honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain the idleness of a few.” One of his biggest problems was getting the “gentlemen,” who made up about two thirds of the colony, to do manual labor.
Plus Smith also had to deal with true gold-madness. “While they starve, they dig for gold,” Smith said in a voice-over while we watched delirious men digging with their hands. Stories about the fabulous wealth stolen from the Aztecs and Incas had enflamed greed throughout Europe. The Disney version of the Pocahontas story includes an extravagant and very effective musical number about the gold-madness that Europeans inflicted on the Americas. In some respects, the rush into the New World was an earlier version of the Gold Rush that opened up California in 1849.
Despite Smith’s leadership and his best efforts, by the end of 1608 only 53 of the original 120 Jamestown colonists were still alive. But the next winter, after Smith returned to England, would be called “the starving time.” Without Smith and especially his skill at trading with the natives, the colonists descended to cannibalism. One man murdered his pregnant wife, “ripped the child out of her womb, and threw it into the river and afterward chopped the mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” according to Smith’s successor as President, an ineffectual aristocrat named Percy.
The boiled leather, references to cannibalism, and the ranting madmen in The New World would have been more appropriate to “the starving time.” Incidentally, the religious rants of several of the characters are important because this was a time of religious fervency in Europe. Known as the Protestant Reformation, it was a religious movement that began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the creation of Protestant sects and a series of devastating wars that pitted Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant.
As for what sent Smith back to England, it wasn’t the royal summons or the possibility of glory as discoverer of the Northwest Passage that the King through Newport dangled before Smith (which conveniently simplified Smith’s dilemma in the movie: love or glory?). Smith was actually forced to return to England because of a serious leg wound, caused by a stray spark that landed in his powder pouch when he was lighting tobacco. He returned to the New World five years later exploring Massachusetts Bay and the coast of Maine and bestowing the name “New England” on the territory. That’s where he was when the title card in the movie appeared that said, “Far to the North / Spring 1614.”
It is fitting that this most capitalist of countries should be founded for the profit of the Virginia Company, and it is also fitting that tobacco, a popular consumer commodity and addictive drug, helped the country take root and grow. Pocahontas’ next love interest, John Rolfe, was the first to develop a sellable tobacco (from stolen Spanish seeds). In the movie, Rolfe mentioned Pocahontas’ knowledge of tobacco cultivation as being one of her attractions. The “brown gold” the Rolfes created was Virginia’s first cash crop and it would eventually create an entire economy and vast fortunes. It would also lead to the first importation of African slaves.
The scene in the movie in which Rolfe is getting permission from the authorities to marry is muddled and confusing. Some of the dialogue comes from a letter he wrote to the governor requesting permission to marry. He was wracked with guilt about marrying a heathen and he even wondered if his feelings for her were prompted by the Devil. There was a political aspect to their marriage not touched-on in the film: it sealed a temporary peace between the colonists and the Powhatans.
With scrupulous (contemporary) psychological honesty, Malick puts the ache of first love and untenable love at the center of a story about first contact between worlds. And as such films must, most of it is told on the faces of the lovers, and after Smith’s departure from Jamestown, it is told mostly on the remarkable face of fourteen year old actress Q’orianka Kilcher, whose father is a Peruvian Quechua Indian. By the time of the making of this film, 2005, there was a long roster of excellent Native American screen actors and this film includes two of the very best, August Schellenberg (Mohawk) who plays King Powhatan and Wes Studi (Cherokee) who plays Opecancanough, younger brother of Powhatan and the counselor who advised killing all the colonists in the scene in which Pocahontas saved Smith.
Opecancanough did not accompany Pocahontas to England as he does in the movie, but you can’t blame any director for wanting as much of Wes Studi in front of his camera as he can get. By the way, in that scene in which this “natural” wandered bewildered through a rigidly structured and sculpted English garden, Malick was contrasting the English and Indian views of nature. Opecancanough succeeded Powhatan as king, and in an uprising, slaughtered 347, a third of the colonist population, including Pocahontas’ husband John Rolfe who had returned following her death. English reprisals were so ferocious that they nearly wiped out the entire Powahatan tribe.
Something not mentioned in the movie is the fact that Pocahontas was sent to London by the Virginia Company as a living advertisement, proof that the Indians could be civilized, and therefore, it was safe to live in the colony. John Smith became a tireless and insistent champion of British colonization of America, so much so that his literary endeavors for twenty years after he left the colony may have been as important as his actions while in the colony. After 1607, 14,000 people migrated to the colony, but by 1624, only 1132 were living there. Many returned to England but some also starved and some were killed in Indian attacks.
To attract needed craftsmen to the colony, the Virginia Company promised them “the rights of Englishmen” including a representative assembly which would be known as the House of Burgesses and would be the seed of American representative institutions. The company also provided ninety women for wives at a mere one hundred and twenty-five pounds of tobacco each. The same year the House of Burgesses first met, 1619, was also the year when the first cargo of slaves arrived, so that democracy and slavery were, as one historian put it, “born in the same cradle.”
The following year, the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, founding the second English colony, and that is the setting for our second film, The Crucible.
Exploration Timeline 1492–1607
1492 Columbus reaches the Bahamas
1493 Start of permanent settlement (La Isabela on northern
1497 John Cabot may have reached Newfoundland
1502 Columbus sails along the mainland coast south of Yucatán
1513 Ponce de Leon explores Florida
1521 Hernán Cortés completes the conquest of Mexico
1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano explored the Atlantic coast of North
America for the French
1534 Francisco Pizarro conquers the Inca in Peru
1535 Jacques Cartier reaches Quebec
1536 Cabeza de Vaca reaches Mexico City after wandering for
years in the North American Southwest
1539 Hernando de Soto explores the interior from Florida to
1540 Coronado travels from Mexico to eastern Kansas
1541 French settlement at Quebec City fails
1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo reaches the California coast
Hernando de Soto claims the Mississippi River for Spain
1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine
1570 The Iroquois League founded (a Native American
confederation of the “Five Nations”)
1587 Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh founded Roanoke Colony
1590 The Roanoke Colony was found deserted
1598 Spanish reach Northern New Mexico
1607 The first permanent English colony is founded in Jamestown,
For the 500th anniversary of his voyage, 1992 saw two films about Columbus. The first and worst, Christopher Columbus: the Discovery, was from the producers of Superman and featured a muscular comic-book hero Columbus. A Washington Post review dismissed it as “ridiculous.” The more promising 1492: Conquest of Paradise was directed by the Ridley Scott and starred Gérard Depardieu, but the Washington Post dismissed it with “Despite Scott’s trademark spectacular imagery, the story’s dead in the water.” And Variety seconded that calling the film, “a lumbering, one-dimensional historical fresco.” Plus, there was Columbus’ thick French accent. Of course, neither film had the guts to get close to historical accuracy. Probably the most accurate depiction yet is the film within a film of the excellent Spanish movie Even the Rain (2010).
But there are two superb, accurate movies that show colonization customs of other European powers, above and below the U.S. For above, there is The Black Robe (1991) which brings together the great Australian director Bruce Beresford and one of the best Irish novelists of the Twentieth Century, Brian Moore. He adapted his own novel of the same name which focuses on a French Jesuit missionary who arrives in Canada in 1634 to convert the Huron Indian tribe to Catholicism, and incidentally, expedite French colonization of Quebec. Relations between the French and Indians were less violent than in Spanish or English colonies. France’s Jesuit priests did not require the Indians to immediately abandon their tribal ties or their traditional way of life. Meticulously researched and utterly gripping start to finish, The Black Robe won the Genie (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Picture.
Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, and Liam Neeson star in The Mission (1986). It won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Set in the 1750s, it tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit who enters the South American jungle to build a mission and convert Guaraní Indians. The climax is the Guarani War of 1754–1756, during which the hopelessly out-gunned Guaranis attempted to defend their homes against Spanish-Portuguese forces. It is based on the book The Lost Cities of Paraguay (1982) by Father C. J. McNaspy, SJ, who was also a consultant on the film.
For the four hundredth anniversary of Jamestown, there were two new documentaries, National Geographic’s The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown (2006) and PBS’s Pocahontas Revealed: Science Examines an American Legend (2007). Both claim to have unearthed new truths with advanced scientific techniques. National Geographic’s America Before Columbus (2009) covers the same terrain as the book 1491, discussed with other free book recommendations at http://www.escalloniapress.com.
As promised in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies, here are free chapter-by-chapter recommendations of the best books – histories, biographies, memoirs, and even novels. But first, there are four extraordinary and indispensable books I want to recommend before we get into the chapters.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, a MacArthur fellow, and National Medal of Science winner. The book won the Pulitzer plus a slew of other prizes, and there is a 2005 PBS documentary based on it. And it is a book that itself has made history.
That is because it gives a solidly scientific refutation of the traditional pseudo-scientific racist explanation for European global dominance. “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves,” Diamond writes. Those who had the best array of domesticable plants and animals got an early head start on developing writing, government, technology, weapons of war, and immunity to ceetain deadly germs.
Geography is destiny for nations. Europe is dominant also because it was the end point of a millennial westward migration and because of that received the guns, germs, and steel that were key to its success. The same theory explains the global dominance of California, another end point of westward migration. Or is it possible that Californians are racially superior? No truly informed and educated American can ignore this book. “[Diamond] has done us all a great favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer,” said the Los Angeles Times. “The scope and explanatory power of this book are astounding,” said The New Yorker. “Darwinian in its authority,” said The New Leader.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a 2005 book by American science writer Charles C. Mann. The book argues that a combination of recent findings in different fields of research suggests that human populations in the Western Hemisphere—that is, the indigenous peoples of the Americas—were more numerous, had arrived earlier, were more sophisticated culturally, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape to a greater extent than scholars had previously thought, building a vast infrastructure of cities, orchards, canals, and causeways.
A New York Times review said the book is “in the best scientific tradition, carefully sifting the evidence, never jumping to hasty conclusions, giving everyone a fair hearing — the experts and the amateurs, the accounts of the Indians and of their conquerors. And rarely is he less than enthralling.” Publishers Weekly said, “In a riveting and fast-paced history, massing archeological, anthropological, scientific and literary evidence, Mann debunks much of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian America. There is another great book relevant here. It is as extraordinary for its form, for the way it blends art with history, as for its content. A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies blends history with the art of cinema while Memory of Fire (Memoria del fuego) (1976) by Uruguayan Eduardo Galleano, blends history with the art of written narrative. It is a three-volume narrative history of America, North and South. The characters are historical figures; generals, artists, revolutionaries, workers, conquerors and the conquered. Their stories are told in brief crafted episodes most just a few paragraphs. It highlights not only the colonial oppression that the hemisphere underwent but particularly the long history of resistance, from individual acts of heroism to mass revolutionary movements. For our purposes, it provides indispensable hemispheric context for the history of the U.S.
Memory of Fire is a modern classic and stylistically unique. The Times Literary Supplement said, “Great writers… dissolve old genres and found new ones. This trilogy by one of South America’s most daring and accomplished authors is impossible to classify.” “From pre-Columbian creation myths and the first European voyages of discovery and conquest to the Age of Reagan, here is nothing less than a unified history of the Western Hemisphere,” The New Yorker said. “A book as fascinating as the history it relates…. Galleano is a satirist, realist, and historian, and… deserves mention alongside John Dos Passos, Bernard DeVoto, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” said the Los Angeles Times.
In the American Grain(1925), quoted throughout this book, by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, is another genre-bending classic, also blending art with history. In exquisite, ecstatic, and idiosyncratic prose, Williams analyzes episodes in American history from Columbus to Lincoln.
Chapter One – The New World
The book Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, the First Decade, 1607-1617(1998) is described as “accounts of those involved with Jamestown in its first ten years, modernized for the general reader.” Samuel Eliot Morrison’s The Great Explorers: the European Discovery of America(1986) is the one volume abridgment of his two-volume The European Discovery of America(1993), which has long been considered the standard and is still largely accepted.
The more recent American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume1) (2002) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor was described by Booklist as “a far cry from the conventional Anglocentric version of U.S. history” and by Library Journal as “Instead of offering the traditional story of the English colonies and ‘American exceptionalism,’ Taylor examines the complex mix of peoples, events, and influences that shaped the New World.”
Chapter Two – The Crucible
The other most famous literary work about Puritans, after The Crucible, is The Scarlet Letter, the undisputed masterpiece of one of America’s greatest writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written in a lush exquisite prose, it is the story of Hester Prynne who, because she had a child out of wedlock, must wear a red letter “A” for adulteress on her dress. She is an outcast for that and for not revealing the name of the father of the child, who happens to be the extremely popular young minister Arthur Dimmesdale. He is racked with guilt for letting her suffer alone but he doesn’t have a lot of choice since the penalty for him would be hanging. I cannot recommend this novel too highly.
In recent years, historians have discovered a great deal more than was known when Miller first wrote The Crucible about witches and witchcraft in general and about the Salem episode in particular. Some historians got worked up over all of Miller’s liberties with the history. The latest and most thorough book on the subject is The Making of Salem: The Witch Trials in History, Fiction, and Tourism (2009) by Robin de Rosa, associate professor of English at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. This critical study examines original trial transcripts, historical accounts, fiction and drama, film and television shows, and tourist sites in contemporary Salem, challenging the process of how history is collected and recorded.
Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (2009) was written by Francis J. Bremer, Professor of History at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and a leading authority on Puritanism. He is also the co-author of Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, 2 volumes. Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (1990) by Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, was described by Publishers Weekly as “A very persuasive…most interesting book…stuffed with quotations from Puritan sources, almost to the point of making it a mini-anthology.” Harry Stout of Yale wrote, “A fine introduction to seventeenth-century Puritanism in its English and American contexts … ideally suited to general readers who have not delved widely into Puritan literature.”
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2007) by National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick is excellent. It focuses as much on subsequent relations and wars with the Indians as on the Mayflower crossing. Booklist called it “A sterling synthesis of sources.” The Washington Post, “Cherished myths … bear approximately as much resemblance to reality as does, say, the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. In Mayflower Philbrick dispatches them in a few paragraphs. It takes considerably longer, and requires vastly more detail, for him to get closer to the truth about relations between the Pilgrims and the Indians.”
Chapter Three – John Adams
As a general history, we are fortunate to have Gordon S. Wood’s 2001 book The American Revolution: A History by the universally-recognized dean of American Revolution scholars. Its only 224 pages. A professor of history at Brown University, his 1970 book The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787 was nominated for the National Book Award and received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes. In 1993, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Library Journal said of The American Revolution: A History, “A famed historian sums up his life’s work … manages to boil down to its essence this crucial period in the country’s history.” “An elegant synthesis done by the leading scholar in the field” wrote Joseph J. Ellis.
Ellis is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) which covers six episodes: Hamilton and Burr’s duel, Washington’s Farewell Address, the Adams’ administration including his political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams’ correspondence. A 2002 documentary series based on the book was created by The History Channel, which also has a series, Founding Fathers.
Joseph Ellis is also author of the National Book Award winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson as well as Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. On that subject there is also of course David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographyJohn Adams on which our miniseries was based.
In 2005, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow brought out Alexander Hamilton about which Joseph Ellis wrote “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.” “By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art,” said Kirkus Reviews.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life(2004) by Walter Isaacson, journalist, biographer, former CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. The Washington Post said of it, “The most readable full-length Franklin biography available.” Equally readable and a lot of fun is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, one of the earliest and most beloved of American classics.
Also by Gordon Wood is Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic,1789-1815. Harvard Professor of History Jill Lepore wrote of it in the Washington Post, “That thrilling momentousness — the boundless promise and grave peril facing the new and precarious United States — is what Gordon Wood has attempted to capture and tame in Empire of Liberty, the newest volume in the Oxford History of the United States, a hallmark series … No other living historian knows this era better than Wood, who has been writing about it since his first book … His argument in Radicalism of the American Revolution was that the real revolution lay as much in everyday and essentially peaceful ‘transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other’ as in the replacement of a monarchy with a democracy. He made the same argument in Creation of the American Republic and now has made it again in Empire of Liberty…. Wood has dominated this field because, at a time when historical scholarship has grown specialized and fragmented and cramped, he excels at expansive synthesis.”
Chapter Four- The Crossing
As mentioned in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies, Howard Fast had an intense if critical love of this country which he evinced in dozens of historical novels close to eighty million copies of which have been sold. The American Revolution was one of his major themes and the subject of his most popular novels. Besides The Crossing,The Unvanquished is the most important for us here, because it is about that long dark night of unrelenting defeat leading up to the Battle of Trenton. Fast wrote it in the early dark days of WWII to rally the country by illustrating that tough times weren’t new to America. Probably the most famous of his Revolution novels are Conceived in Liberty, about Valley Forge, another desperate winter for the Continentals, and Citizen Tom Paine, about the great pamphleteer. Also about the Revolution are Bunker Hill, The Proud and the Free, and The Hessian.
You’ll remember that Arthur Miller, who wrote the play that the movie The Crucible is based on, was married to Marilyn Monroe whose media savvy protected him from the very anti-communist witch hunt that his play was attacking. Howard Fast didn’t have Marilyn Monroe on his side, and at the beginning of the anti-communist hysteria of the ’50s, he refused to disclose to Congressional investigators the names of contributors to a fund for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War (one of the contributors was Eleanor Roosevelt), and he was sentenced to three-months in prison, which is where he started writing the novel Spartacus, which Stanley Kubrick a few years later turned into a classic movie of the same name.
The very next book after John Adams from two-time Pulitzer winner David McCullough was 1776. Library Journal said of it, “McCullough brilliantly captures the Spirit of ’76 in Washington’s miraculous victories at Trenton and Princeton. An altogether marvelous contribution that deserves to be read by every American.” Publishers Weekly seconded that with “This is a narrative tour de force, exhibiting all the hallmarks the author is known for: fascinating subject matter, expert research and detailed, graceful prose. … Simply put, this is history writing at its best from one of its top practitioners.”
The most recent book on the subject of The Crossing is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, University Professor at Brandeis University. “An impeccably researched, brilliantly executed military history,” Publishers Weekly called it. “A highly realistic and wonderfully readable narrative…. giving us a glimpse of what warfare back then was really like.” said the New York Times Book Review.
As can be imagined, there is a cottage-industry of books on Washington. The most recent biography is the afore-mentioned Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Here’s Jill Lepore’s final judgment “ ‘Washington: A Life’ is a prodigious biography, expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail.” Publishers’ Weekly said, “At times it feels as if Chernow, for all his careful research and talent for synthesis, is in the grip of a full-scale crush. The result is a good book that would have been great if better edited.” “Definitive Washington is the point and effect of this biography,” according to Booklist. “A rollicking read, sure to redefine perceptions and correct assumptions” was the opinion of Kirkus Reviews.
One of the top recommendations in the John Adams chapter is the Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers. Its author, Joseph Ellis, followed that with His Excellency: George Washington in which he examined not just Washington’s life, but his personality and how his life shaped it. Ellis focused on three main areas of Washington’s life: his military adventures during the French and Indian War, his generalship in the American Revolution, and his time as the first President of the United States. Publishers Weekly called the book “Magisterial.”
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek provides an important perspective. And if you want to know what the man had to say for himself, in his own words, there is George Washington: Writings a selection published by Library of America. For books with sections on Washington see the recommendations at the end of the John Adams chapter.
Chapter Five – Amistad
The novel Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is very powerful, though the movie version less so, but it deals more with the psychological aftereffects of slavery than directly with the institution itself, as mentioned in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies. Also mentioned there is the indispensable classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. About the book The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (2012) by Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and slavery specialist, Publishers Weekly said, “Spectacularly researched and fluidly composed, this latest study offers some much needed perspective on a critical yet oft-overlooked event in America’s history.” Kirkus Reviews called it, “A first-rate example of history told from the bottom up.”
American Slavery: 1619-1877 (2003) is a book by Peter Kolchin, Professor of History at the University of Delaware, is “A miraculous achievement . . . A concise, well-written, and sensibly argued survey of America’s greatest shame,” said The New Yorker. Eminent Harvard historian David Herbert Donald wrote, “Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery is the best history of the ‘peculiar institution’ that I have ever read. Paying equal attention to the slaves and the slaveholders, it is both comprehensive and fair-minded.”
Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2008) is a book by David Brion Davis, Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among a slew of others. Publishers Weekly said it was an “impressive and sprawling history of ‘human attempts to dehumanize other people’ that focuses extensively on slave rebellions.” Booklist said it “places American slavery in the broader global context … The Amistad case, involving African slaves who commandeered their slave ship and eventually sued for their freedom, provides the basis of an analysis of multinational charters of the Atlantic slave trade.”
When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection, according to publisher Dover Thrift Editions, provides “More than 2,000 interviews with former slaves, who, in blunt, simple language, provide often-startling first-person accounts of their lives in bondage. Includes some of the most detailed, compelling, and engrossing life histories in the Slave Narrative Collection, a project funded by the U.S. Government.”
The Age of Jackson (1946) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winning classic of American historical writing by a Harvard professor who also made history as an assistant to John Kennedy. There is also the more recent (2008) Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson by David S. Reynolds, professor at the City University of New York, that covers the years 1815–1848. It was described by Publishers Weekly as “a straightforward, insightful history of America during its bumptious adolescence.” “A terrific introduction of succinct length to a period in our history that was once ignored, a period increasingly recognized as a time when the foundations of much of modern America were laid,” according to a New York Times review.
Andrew Jackson is a 2005 biography by Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, about which Publishers’ Weekly said, “It is rare that historians manage both Wilentz’s deep interpretation and lively narrative.” Booklist said, “Best known now for beating the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Jackson is truly, monumentally important, Wilentz argues, as the first great presidential champion of the common man and indivisible union.” Whether or not it’s any better, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was able to get endorsements from most of the big names in popular history and biography for his American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2009).
Of John Quincy Adams (2012) by Harlow Giles Unger, Kirkus Reviews said, “A neglected president receives his due as a statesman and practical politician…A fine examination of a life, well deserving a place alongside David McCullough’s study of Adams père.” Library Journal said, “Unger does a masterful job. Although there are other books on John Quincy Adams, American history and political history buffs will find this stirring work irresistible.”
Chapter Six – One Man’s Hero
From 2012 comes the book A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg, professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University. Mark E. Neely, Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fate of Liberty, wrote of it: “A Wicked War, with its emphasis on politics rather than military history, does for the Mexican-American war what James McPherson did for the Civil War with Battle Cry of Freedom, greatly broadening our understanding of the war. Certainly Professor Greenberg’s book will immediately become the standard account of the Mexican War, at last giving it an important place in the history of the United States. This book restores my faith in the merits of narrative history.” James M. McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, wrote in the New York Review, “If one can read only a single book about the Mexican-American War, this is the one to read.”
The literary history of the Gold Rush is reflected in the works of Mark Twain, most famously his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and almost all the stories of Bret Harte. For something more recent, there is the novel Daughter of Fortune (2000) by Isabel Allende, entertaining and accurate and from a female perspective.
The standard book for many years on the California Gold Rush has been The World Rushed In: the California Gold Rush Experience by J. S. Holliday, (1981). And there is The Age of Gold: the California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002) by H. W. Brands. Publishers’ Weekly said: “The gold rush of 1848, says Brands, was a watershed in American history, helping mold the country into its modern shape, transforming the wilderness and pushing the country into civil war…. With solid research and a sprightly narrative, Brands’s portrait of the gold rush is an enlightening analysis of a transformative period for California and America.”
And from the dean of historians of California, Kevin Starr, comes the career-capping and magisterial single-volume California: A History (2007).
Chapter Seven – Gettysburg
The standard one-volume history of the Civil War is James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) (1988). In The New York Review of Books, Richard E. Beringer wrote: “James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom [is] a remarkably wide-ranging synthesis of the history of the 1850s and the Civil War presented in a highly cogent and readable narrative… [it] integrates in one volume social, political, and military events from the immediate aftermath of the Mexican War through the sectional strife of the 1850s, the secession movement, and the Civil War, the same years covered by Allan Nevins in his monumental eight volumes… Indeed the footnotes are a survey of the literature of the Civil War era and suggest how comprehensively McPherson has combined his own research and interpretations with those of two generations of other scholars.” For more details, there are two multi-volume histories by above-mentioned Pulitzer Prize winners: Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton.
After he left the presidency, while he was dying of cancer and broke, Ulysses S Grant, in an effort to avoid leaving his family destitute began his memoirs, writing a thousand-page book in eleven months and dying a week after its completion. Mark Twain called the Memoirs (1885) a “literary masterpiece”, and Matthew Arnold, Gertrude Stein, and the preeminent literary critic Edmund Wilson agreed. Edmund Wilson in 1962 reaffirmed Mark Twain’s 1885 judgment that the Memoirs were “the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.” The book made Grant’s widow and children wealthy.
Edmund Wilson wrote of Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Written by Himself (1875): “Sherman had a trained gift of self-expression and was, as Mark Twain says, a master of narrative. [Sherman’s] vigorous account of his pre-war activities and his conduct of his military operations is varied in just the right proportion and to just the right degree of vivacity with anecdotes and personal experiences. We live through his campaigns […] in the company of Sherman himself.”
Speaking of Edmund Wilson, for a challenging and exhilarating read try his Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), a book of historical and literary criticism that examines the works and lives of almost 30 writers. Noted historian Henry Steele Commager, reviewing it for The New York Times, characterized the book as “original, skeptical, allusive, penetrating… concerned to trace the impact of the sectional struggle, the war and reconstruction, on the American literary mind.”
Ambrose Bierce is one of those covered by Wilson and well he should be. “Bitter” Bierce saw four years of action as a Union officer, including the Battle of Shiloh, culminating in a head wound that got him released from duty. His short stories are probably the best narrative fiction on the subject by a Civil War veteran, just as his supernatural stories are some of the most original and disturbing. A good starting place for both types is his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). He was also an important prose stylist, one of the earliest minimalists. Wilson maintains that “the rapid transition from the complex, the flowery, the self-consciously learned to the direct and the economical” in prose styles was a result of the experience of the war.
Nobel Laureate William Faulkner is possibly our best novelist, definitely the South’s, and his masterpiece is generally considered to be The Sound and the Fury (1929). If that is so, Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is a very close second. That story of two generations of one Southern family takes place mostly during but also before and after the Civil War. The Oxford American literary magazine assembled one hundred and thirty four experts who declared Absalom, Absalom! the best Southern novel. Its innovations are less stylistic and more structural than those of The Sound and the Fury, so the prose is less difficult. Among other themes, it aims right at the twisted pathology of Southern racism, proving it to be a bigger perversion than incest. Another book of Faulkner’s that deals with the Civil War is The Unvanquished(1938); actually, a collection of seven interlocked stories all dealing with the adventures on the home front of various members of another Southern family.
Probably the greatest living American practitioner of the historical novel is E. L. Doctorow (I’ll be recommending more of his novels). One of his most recent is The March (2005), winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is a big mural of a novel with a dozen or so characters—white and black, rich and poor, Union and Confederate. It focuses on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” when his army scorched a swath 60 miles wide through the South. The novel includes all the major events of the end period of the war.
I want to end with the strongest recommendation for The Killer Angels. It is far superior to the movie and reading it now will provide unique insight into the strengths and weaknesses of literary versus cinematic storytelling. Mixing fiction and history goes way back of course (Napoleon is an major character in War and Peace), but The Killer Angels, with exclusively historical characters, uniquely uses in crucial moments an unmodified Joycean stream-of-consciousness style. This is an alternating mixture of omniscient narrative and protagonists’ thoughts that gives The Killer Angel s an unusual immediacy for an historical novel.
Chapter Eight – Lincoln
Gore Vidal (1925–2012) was an American writer known for his essays, novels, screenplays, and Broadway plays. His screenwriting credits include the epic historical drama Ben-Hur (1959), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. As a public intellectual and media darling, he was known for his patrician manner and acidic wit. Grandson of U.S. Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, Vidal was born into politics, ran for political office twice as a Democrat, and was a seasoned political commentator.
So, he brought considerable skills and savvy to his Lincoln (1984), a heavily researched novel that has drawn attackers and defenders, prominent among the latter Vidal himself. Edmund S. Morgan, Pulitzer Prize winning Yale historian, wrote of Vidal’s Lincoln in the December 18, 2003 issue of the New York Review of Books, that it “is an insider’s recreation of the man that wins both our sympathy and our acceptance. Criticism of Vidal’s depiction of Lincoln by my fellow historians seems to me beside the point. When Vidal’s novel departs from the historical record, it is only in nonessentials. Everything that matters, everything that affected Lincoln’s achievement, is there.” Vidal wrote long, detailed, point-by-point rebuttals to some of those critical historians. He wrote, “Although I do my own research… when it comes to checking a finished manuscript, I turn to Academia. In this case, Professor David Herbert Donald of Harvard, who has written a great deal about the period.”
It’s best to read the novel after reading a biography. You’ll understand the novel better and be better able to appreciate Vidal’s achievement. That same David Herbert Donald, twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and author of other important books on Lincoln, published his Lincoln in 1995, which is now the standard biography. It’s known for being especially strong on Lincoln’s political career with the most common criticism being Donald’s insistence on Lincoln’s passivity, based partly on a misreading of Lincoln’s own reflections about his inability to control events. “Donald’s biography will appeal to all readers and will undoubtedly corral its share of book awards. Highly recommended for all libraries,” Library Journal said. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, “A grand work–the Lincoln biography for this generation.”
The quality of the scholarly talent Lincoln has attracted is another measure of the man. The bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, 2009, saw several excellent biographies, two in particular vying for Donald’s title of “standard.” Fortunately, both were reviewed in the September 29, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books by James M. McPherson. Of one he wrote, “Ronald C. White has written two splendid books analyzing Lincoln’s speeches, and the power of Lincoln’s words provides a central theme in his elegant new book, A. Lincoln: A Biography.” Of Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame, McPherson wrote, “The two thousand closely written pages of Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln may be truly described as ‘definitive’ in both the positive and negative senses of the word. The author knows more about Abraham Lincoln than any other living person. These two volumes are valuable as an encyclopedic reference work.” McPherson added, “The great value of the biographies by Ronald C. White and Michael Burlingame is their humanizing of Lincoln and explorations of contradictions in his character.”
Mary Lincoln, disparaged by Burlingame and ignored by White, got her most recent biography into the same review. McPherson wrote that Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton “provides a fuller, fairer portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage than any of the biographies of Abraham.” He quotes Clinton, “ ‘Mary’s unconditional love sustained Lincoln’s growth to greatness… She was a woman of intense intellect and passion who stepped outside the boundaries her times prescribed, and suffered for it. She… endured more personal loss and public humiliation than any other woman of her generation.’ ”
As mentioned in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies, McPherson’s own mini-bio (under a hundred pages) Abraham Lincoln (2009) is the best thing available for those who only want the overview.
Probably, the most widely-read and influential biography of Lincoln (it sold over a million copies when the country was much smaller) is Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 2 vols. (1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. (1939). It inspired and informed Abe Lincoln in Illinois (play and movie) and Young Mr. Lincoln. James M. McPherson articulated in his own biography the consensus among professional historians that Sandburg’s Lincoln was “a powerful evocation of Lincoln and his times, which, however, piles up dubious as well as authentic evidence in a mixed profusion.” It is so full of poetic digressions and speculations that defenders have tried to reclassify it closer to fiction than biography. Edmund Wilson savaged it in Patriotic Gore: “The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
In the novel Freedom Road (1944), the main character, Gideon Jackson, is fictional, but his career from slave to Union veteran, to state senator and eventually to U.S. Congressmen, mirrors the careers of numerous real Reconstruction black leaders. The book has sold about a million copies in the U.S., been translated into 82 languages, and sold 32 million copies worldwide. The above-quoted Eric Foner wrote in an introduction for the most recent edition (1995), “Freedom Road… managed to distill many of the era’s major themes as well as its drama, poignancy, and tragic fate… I am struck by how closely it anticipates modern understandings of Reconstruction… Fast, to be sure, may be accused of romanticism in his depiction of the interracial settlement… Few examples can be found in the Reconstruction South of such black-white cooperation.”
Foner is a Professor of American History at Columbia University and winner of many prizes for history writing, and author of more than ten other books on Reconstruction. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) is the standard book on the subject. “This invaluable, definitive history re-creates the post-Civil War period as a pivotal drama in which ordinary people get equal billing with politicians and wheelers and dealers,” praised Publishers Weekly.
William S. McFeely, whose Grant: A Biography won the Pulitzer, wrote in the May 22, 1988 issue of The New York Times, “His splendid book, the first major overall treatment of the controversial era in 40 years… is the culmination of a quarter-century of revisionist scholarship… His synthesis is the product not only of a dauntingly thorough reading of this large body of literature, but also of his own extensive research… And with this book, Mr. Foner becomes the pre-eminent historian of Reconstruction.”
And for those who want less than the full Foner, he published an abridged edition, A Short History of Reconstruction 1863-1877(1990), that condensed the 736 page original down to 320 pages.
Since our subject, Abraham Lincoln, is one of the great wordsmiths of the language, let’s go to the source. Library of America published Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832- 1858 and Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865. Gore Vidal edited a selection from the two for Library of America, Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings.
For a reading list on Lincoln and the Civil War, we can hardly do better than Tony Kushner’s own list. “[Doris Kearns Goodwin’s] book is a magnificent account of Lincoln as a master politician… That is the Lincoln that I really wanted to write about…” Kushner said. “As a single volume about the American Civil War, I think [James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom] the best thing I’ve read on the war, and I really like McPherson’s take on Lincoln, which was slightly different from Doris’s… I heartily recommend everything on this list.”
Here’s an abridgment of what Kushner said was already a shortened version: Lincoln Day By Day–Earl Miers, The Metaphysical Club–Louis Menand, Herndon’s Informants and Herndon’s Lincoln–Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln–Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President–Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman–William Lee Miller, Race and Reunion–David W. Blight, Lincoln’s Constitution–Daniel Farber, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power–Richard Carwardine, Lincoln’s Melancholy–Joshua Wolf Schenk, Mary Todd Lincoln–Jean Baker, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War–Drew Gilpin Faust, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President–Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Gettysburg–Garry Wills, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World–David Brion Davis, Lincoln In The Times–David Donald and Harold Holzer, Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment–Edited by Harold Holzer et al. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War–Edited by David and Jeanne Heidler.
Chapter Nine – Little Big Man
The first historically accurate biography and probably still the best is Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend (1997) by Casey Tefertiller. The Oxford History of the American West (1996) is still probably the best of its type. Booklist said of it, “Gathered under the Oxford brand name are 28 essays from seasoned academics on that kaleidoscopic region of the U.S. known as the West…a roundup synthesis of the revisionist literature published since the 1960s.” Library Journal said, “Surveys the most recent research on the West … essential for academic and public libraries.”
There are as many books as movies about the West. Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) is authentic and hilarious. It follows the travels of young Mark Twain through the Wild West during the years 1861–1867. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short classics The Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains describe his 1879-80 trip from Europe to California, and The Old and New Pacific Capitals and The Silverado Squatters describe his subsequent stay in Monterey and Napa, California, respectively. Frank Norris’ classics The Octopus (1901), about the abuses of the railroad, and McTeague (1899), both detail life in the West during the latter quarter of the 19th Century by someone living through it. For capturing that same period in the West, Angle of Repose (1971), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Wallace Stegner, the dean of western writers, is considered the best by a 20th century author. His novel Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) charted life in the West in the 20th century up to World War II. Stegner also has a novella, “Genesis,” in his Collected Stories, that is a stunning tour-de-force on the often unimaginable hardships of the working cowhand during the Old West.
For Native American history in the latter half of the 19th century, there is one towering book: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an Indian History of the American West (1970) by Dee Brown (who was not himself Indian). Translated into 17 languages, it was on the bestseller list for more than a year and has never been out of print. It details everything ignored by the official myth.
Black Elk Speaks (1932) was dictated by an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) shaman. At age 13, Black Elk took part in the Battle of the Little Big Horn and he survived the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Plus he toured Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Geronimo also dictated an autobiography, Geronimo’s Story of His Life (1909).
For contemporary fiction by Indians, there is the extraordinary and Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday. Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie stand out in the next generation, both are multi-award winning novelists and poets. The latter has also joined the growing list of Indian film directors.
Chapter Ten – Matewan
The auteur behind this last movie, John Sayles, is also one of our best novelists. The movie Amigo (2010), so vigorously touted in the Recommendations section of A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies, also could be a section in Sayles’ latest novel, A Moment in the Sun (2011), a big sprawling nineteenth century novel that got rave reviews to match Amigo’s. Tom LeClair wrote in the New York Times, “The book opens in 1897, the year of the Klondike gold rush, and closes in 1903, the year after the Philippine-American War ended, and in between it takes the measure of America on the brink of the 20th century … But its true importance lies … in its commitment to recalling in heroic detail a little-known and contradictory historical moment.” Nathaniel Rich in the The New York Review of Books wrote, “Sayles reserves the greatest part of his energy for his almost fanatical reconstruction of a period … The depth of his knowledge is at times uncanny … Over its 955 pages A Moment in the Sun is almost never dull.”
The novel The U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos (1930, -32, -36) is one of the all time great American classics. It follows twelve characters through the first two decades of the twentieth century and you can live through the period yourself through this book. It features labor radicals and advertising executives, sailors and stenographers, interior decorators and movie stars and includes wars and revolutions, desperate love affairs and harrowing family crises, corrupt public triumphs and private catastrophes, in settings that include the trenches of World War I, insurgent Mexico, Hollywood studios in the silent era, Wall Street boardrooms, and the tumultuous streets of Boston just before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. It brilliantly uses various experimental narrative devices but is always accessible.
The narrative prose of Theodore Dreiser (1871 – 1945), the other great chronicler of this period, is crude but his novels are unusually intense and compelling, Dostoyevskian even. His first novel Sister Carrie (1900) was considered morally objectionable because of its depiction of a country girl in the city who pursues her dreams of fame and fortune through affairs with men. It was made into a 1952 film starring Laurence Olivier and directed by three-time Academy Award winner William Wyler.
Dreiser’s masterpiece was An American Tragedy (1925) about a young ambitious lover of a poor girl who meets a more attractive girl with money and position. It was based on a real life murder case. A movie version, A Place in the Sun (1951), starring Elizabeth Taylor, won six Oscars, including director George Stevens’ first of two, and best screenplay. Dreiser was a communist so of course he also wrote The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914).
Call It Sleep is a 1934 novel by Henry Roth. The book centers on the experiences of a young boy growing up in the Jewish immigrant ghetto of New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century. Time magazine described it in a 1935 review as “the story of three years in the life of a sensitive Jewish slum-child, told with painstaking and pain-giving fidelity to slum dialect, slum neuroses.” This was typical of the reviews it received, nevertheless it was out of print for thirty years, and since it was reprinted in 1965, it has sold over a million copies.
For Teddy Roosevelt, he of course wrote an autobiography, and Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913) is freely available online and in print. The redoubtable Pulitzer-Prize-winning Doris Kearns Goodwin brought out in 2013 The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (the latter referring to the progressive journalists known as the “muckrakers”). It is covers American society in the first couple decades of the Twentieth Century. The New York Times said, “Roosevelt and Taft and their wives and siblings and parents and children all wrote each other copious, loving and often eloquent reports. Goodwin seems to have read them all, along with every newspaper and magazine published during those years — the footnotes fill 115 pages of agate type — and used them to put political intrigues and moral dilemmas and daily lives into rich and elegant language. Imagine The West Wing scripted by Henry James.”
Publishers Weekly wrote about There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (2011) by Philip Dray: “This stirring study situates one of the most subversive yet profoundly American of social movements at the heart of the nation’s history … shows labor’s heroic age as an era of naked class warfare: strikers died by the dozens in pitched battles with police, soldiers, and Pinkerton agents.” “Spectacular… Dray’s chronicle reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery” came from Maureen Corrigan’s Favorite Books of the Year, on Fresh Air, on National Public Radio. Bill Moyers said: “The unending struggle between unions and big business has never been more vividly told. Philip Dray is a marvelous story teller who brings history memorably alive, and you will not soon forget the tales of murder and greed, commitment and sacrifice, that fill these pages.”
Roger Daniels, Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati has two books for us both with self-explanatory titles. Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924 (Sep 1, 1998) “Although more than 20 million immigrants came to the U.S. from 1890 to 1924, Daniels … argues convincingly here that the period was marked by hostility and violence toward immigrants … Drawing on extensive research, the author details the growth of anti-immigrant feeling, or nativism,” Publishers Weekly said.
About Roger Daniels’ Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (1991), the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “From almost every corner of the globe, in numbers great and small, America has drawn people whose contributions are as varied as their origins. Historians have spent much of the last generation investigating the separate pieces of that great story. Now historian Roger Daniels has crafted a work that does justice to the whole… Encyclopedic in scope, yet lively and provocative.”
Of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (2010) by Mary Walton, the Los Angeles Times said, “Part of the genius of the book lies in Walton’s quiet analysis of the methods used by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Party, founded by Paul in 1916.” And Ms. Magazine said, “Richly endowed with research . . . detailed, absorbing . . . I value the book for introducing her to the next generation of feminists with a taste for revolution.”
Of Women’s Suffrage in America (2004) by Elizabeth Frost-Knappman and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, Choice said, “A useful and interesting compendium of primary source materials . . . admirably edited and absorbing.” The Washington Spectator said, “One of the best recent books on the subject of women and the vote.”
A World Without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I (1997) by Frances H. Early “traces the connection between feminist antiwar activism and the emergence of the modern civil liberties movement in World War I America” according to the publisher’s description.
Over Here: The First World War and American Society (2004) by David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize winner and Professor of History at Stanford University, is about the home front during World War I and is “A very careful and thoughtful study, fascinating in its insight, panoramic in its sweep,” according to The American Historical Review.
The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 (2010) is by Evan Thomas, an editor at large for Newsweek. James McGrath Morris declared in a review in the Washington Post, “Thomas has delivered an innovative, frequently entertaining and valuable retelling of an episode that set the pattern for more than a century of foreign military adventurism.” “Thomas has illuminated, in a compulsively readable style, a critical moment in American history. This is a book that, with its style and panache, is hard to forget and hard to put down,” wrote Ronald Steel in his New York Times Review. “A dynamic examination of America’s rush into the Spanish-American War… Thomas wisely keeps these engaging figures front and center, and his multifaceted portraits lend the book a sweeping, almost cinematic quality… A lively, well-rounded look at politics and personalities in late-19th-century America,” said Kirkus Reviews.