U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The U.S. History Canon

It’s been a while since we talked bibliographic canon, so I thought we might give it another whack. A couple of years ago I posted a list for the long nineteenth century. The list below covers all of modern American history excluding the Revolution and the Federalist period. My colleague Michelle Brattain and I drafted it for doctoral students in our department, and it has benefited from suggestions by several others on our faculty. But the list is still too slanted toward our own interests.

Here’s the goal: Come up with a list of truly canonical books that everyone who has gone to graduate school in U.S. history should have read. This is not just a list of intellectual and cultural history–it is supposed to include all the major works in modern U.S. history in all the different sub-specialties. In certain cases where an article was substantially the same as an important book, we added the article instead. We also left out many good books and books that would help to fill out a coherent narrative, trying instead to arrive at a truly canonical list. That is, of course, an impossible task, given the fragmentation and specialization of the historiography of the United States. But we thought it worth the effort in any case.

So now the question is: where have we gone wrong? The list is capped at 100 works, so all suggestions for additions need to be accompanied by an equal number of works to cut. That is the only way to arrive at a canonical list. But we also could have gone wrong in our periodization or in any number of ways, so critique away. I look forward to the conversation.

Without further ado, here’s the list.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Book List

Disciplinary

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (1988)

Antebellum

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (2007).

Charles Grier Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (1991).

Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2005)

Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power, Rev. Ed. (2006)

Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic (1984)

Eugene D Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)

Eugene D Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (1967).

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household (1988)

Drew Faust, John Henry Hammond and the Old South (1982)

William Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (2003)

Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (1990).

Christine Heyrman, South Cross (1997)

Paul Johnson, Shopkeeper’s Millenium, Rev. Ed. (2004)

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)

Dave Roedeger, The Wages of Whiteness, Rev. Ed. (2007)

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (1998)

Nancy Cott, Bonds of Womanhood (1977)

Christine Stansell, City of Women (1986)

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1995)

Civil War/Reconstruction

Eric Foner, Reconstruction (1989).

Orville Vernon Burton, The Age of Lincoln, (2007).

James MacPherson, Battlecry of Freedom (1988)

Drew Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1988)

Broad 19th Century

Rogers M Smith, Civic Ideals (1997).

John F Kasson, Rudeness & Civility (1990).

Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet (2003).

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color (1999)

Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (1964)

Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977)

Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988)

Karen Haltunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women (1982)

Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (1998)

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness (1998)

Gilded Age and Progressive Era

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991).

Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (1982).

William A. Link, The Paradox of Southern Progressivism (1992)

Robert H Wiebe, The Search for Order (1968).

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow 3rd ed. (1974)

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization (1996)

Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres (1982)

Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings (1998)

T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place for Grace (1981)

Fox and Lears, eds., Culture of Consumption (1983)

Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice (1991)

Christine Stansell, American Moderns (2000)

David Kennedy, Over Here (1980)

Herbert Gutman, Work, Society, and Culture in Industrializing America (1976)

Roy Rozenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will (1983)

Edward Ayers, Promise of the New South (1992)

Glend Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow (1996)

Michael Kazin, Populist Persuasion (1995)

George Chauncey, Gay New York (1994)

John Higham, Strangers in the Land, 2nd ed. (1992)

1920s

Edward L. Larson, Summer for the Gods (2006

Henry F. May, End of American Innocence, Columbia University Press Morningside edition (1992).

Nancy Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987)

Nancy MacLean, “The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Making of ReactionaryPopulism,” Journal of American History, 78 (Dec. 1991).

William Leuchtenberg, Perils of Prosperity, 2nd ed. (1993)

New Deal

Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope (1996).

Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest (1983)

Lizbeth Cohen, Making a New Deal (1990)

William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963).

Harvard Sitkoff, ed., Fifty Years Later: New Deal Evaluated (1985)

Paul Conkin, The New Deal, 3rd ed (1992)

Stephen Fraser and Gary Gerstle, ed., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (1990)

WWII

John Dower, War without Mercy (1986)

Cold War/Postwar Politics

Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic (2004)

David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense (2005)

Melvin Leffler, The Specter of Communism (1994)

Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War (1999).

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars (1991)

Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War (2005)

Friedman, Andrea, “The Smearing of Joe McCarthy: The Lavender Scare, Gossip, and Cold War Politics,” American Quarterly 57 (2005): 1105-1129.

Brattain, “Race, Racism and Anti-Racism,” American Historical Review (December 2007).

George C Herring, America’s Longest War, 4th ed. (2002).

Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority (2006)

Dan Carter, From Wallace to Gingrich (1996)

Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan (1992)

Cold War/Postwar Social Movements

Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, rev. ed. (1993)

Robin Kelley, “We Are Not What We Seem: Rethinking Black Working-class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,: Journal of American History 80 (June 1993): 75-112.

John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities 2nd ed (1998)

Timothy Tyson, “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,’and the Roots of the Black Freedom Struggle,” Journal of American History 85 (Sept. 1998): 540-570.

Braunstein and Doyle, eds. Imagine Nation (2002)

John Dittmer, Local People (1994).

Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home (2004).

Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties (1996)

Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty (2008)

David Chappell, Stone of Hope (2004)

Cold War/Postwar Culture

Stephen J. Whitfield, Culture of the Cold War (1991)

Cuordileone, K. A. “‘Politics in an Age of Anxiety’: Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis In American Masculinity, 1949-1960” Journal of American History 87 (2000): 515-545.

Costigliola, Frank, “‘Unceasing Pressure For Penetration’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War” Journal of American History 83 (1997): 1309-1339.

Cold War/Postwar Society

Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound, Rev. ed. (2008)

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996).

Rebecca E. Klatch, A Generation Divided (1999).

Bruce Schulman, The Seventies (2001)

Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2006)

Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country (2007)

Kevin Michael Kruse, White Flight (2005).

Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors (2001).

Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters, updated ed. (2005)

Gary Gerstle, American Crucible (2001)

27 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nothing dealing specifically with American diplomacy? Something by William Appleman Williams or John Gaddis? Perhaps Williams’ Tragedy?

  2. Seems awfully heavy on the antebellum period. And only one book on World War II seems thin. I always think Novick’s That Noble Dream seems unnecessary. But it’s a solid list overall.

  3. By coincidence, I just took my comprehensive exam this morning. Anyway, the first thing I’d do with this list is choose between David Roediger and Grace Elizabeth Hale. Two books with “Whiteness” in the title probably aren’t necessary. That frees up space for other people’s suggestions.

  4. I was just thinking we needed a post like this, although I may still ask for people’s opinions on the most recent books worth a read.

    Why did you start in the antebellum period? Is it a function of the students you were supervising?

  5. In response to Erik’s suggestion of cutting Peter Novick’s book: Perhaps the forthcoming third edition of Eric Foner’s collection “The New American History” (from the AHA and Temple University Press, out in July) might make a decent substitute? It does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of explaining recent historiographical developments….

    I love these discussions.

  6. A good list. I agree with the above comment that two books on whiteness is overkill–in any case, I’d cut Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Making Whiteness, which is overrated. I don’t think Kruse and Crespino are both necessary–basically the same books, with Kruse getting the nod as the better book. For the 1920s I would add Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper. For the 1930s I would add Michael Dennning, The Cultural Front. And I would also add Leo Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right (I realize I’m biased–he’s my advisor–but you included your advisor!)

  7. I’ve said elsewhere that Christine Heyrman’s *Southern Cross* is an extraordinarily weak book, in my opinion. The math that composes her tables wouldn’t pass eighth grade muster. Every decision to include or exclude evidence diminishes the role of African Americans in shaping Southern religion. It’s a shoddy piece of work whose path to a Bancroft led her student, Michael Bellesiles, to a Bancroft.

  8. Tough task! It’s always easier to decide what to add than what to drop. But I found it difficult to conceive of such a list without Hofstadter, Lasch, LaFeber, Susman, Blight, Ahlstrom, etc.. The historiography of the period since the 1960s still remains underdeveloped and uncertain, so it’s hard to determine what works will be of lasting value for that period. My list is probably a little weighted toward intellectual and cultural history (surprise!). And dropping titles here doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re important works–I think everybody would benefit by reading Novick, for instance.

    Drop:
    Novick, That Noble Dream
    Drew Faust, John Henry Hammond and the Old South
    Paul Johnson, Shopkeeper’s Millenium
    Grace Hale, Making Whiteness
    Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings
    Edward Ayers, Promise of the New South
    Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods
    Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope
    Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown
    Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country
    Steven Whitfield, Culture of the Cold War
    Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home
    John Dittmer, Local People
    Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity
    Orville Vernon Burton, The Age of Lincoln
    Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice
    Christine Stansell, American Moderns
    Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan
    Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will

    Add:
    Richard Hofstadter, Age of Reform
    James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory
    William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy
    Walter LaFeber, the New Empire
    C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South
    Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrializing America
    Sarah Igo, The Averaged American
    Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand
    Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
    Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct
    Warren Susman, Culture as History
    George Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind
    Michael O’Brian, Conjectures of Order
    Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven
    Sidney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People
    Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul
    David Blight, Race and Reunion
    Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract
    Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment

  9. At the request of David Sehat, to whom I sent this list by e-mail, here are some additional suggestions. I apologize for commandeering the conversation.

    – I would substitute Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity for Many Thousands Gone. It’s a shorter book with a very similar argument yet covers more ground, since it runs all the way up to the start of the Civil War. Plus, Berlin’s heuristic device of “generations” is very useful in conversation with students unfamiliar with the history of American slavery.

    – I agree with the commenter who suggested Alice Kessler-Harris. I think her book In Pursuit of Equity, together with Alan Brinkley’s End of Reform, does a nice job of demonstrating the limitations of New Deal reforms.

    – I’m not familiar with all of the books in the Cold War/Postwar Society list, but I’ve found Allen Matusow’s The Unraveling of America, like Many Thousands Gone, a great conversation starter.

    – I would substitute Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom for Tom Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty or for the Robin Kelley article. Payne’s book shook up Civil Rights scholarship fifteen years ago, and still influences those writing today, who have to focus upon grassroots activism in a way previous scholars did not. Plus it’s 250 pages or so shorter than the Sugrue.

    Other books I would add to the list for their canonical status include Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town and John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History. Well, the latter isn’t part of the canon yet, but it’s the capstone of a long career spent studying the Cold War and a fairly quick, enjoyable read.

  10. I agree with Dan that venerable historians like Lasch, Hofstadter, and Ahlstrom should be on any canon list. Speaking of venerable historians, I also agree with the poster who suggested William Appleman Williams, perhaps the greatest US historian ever, in my opinion. His Tragedy of American Diplomacy is a classic. But I also love The Contours of American History. And if we’re adding some intellectual history, what about Robert Westbrook’s excellent biography of Dewey, or James Livingston’s Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940.

  11. Andrew, if you haven’t already come across David S. Brown’s “Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing” (Chicago, 2009), I recommend it. (A quick Google search for the title on this site suggests it hasn’t been mentioned on the blog.) It offers a series of linked capsule intellectual biographies of Turner, Beard, Williams, and Lasch that focuses on their midwestern roots (as the title suggests). It’s just shy of 200 pages; you can read it in an afternoon.

    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=398863

  12. Aw, the Revolution and Early National period need to be on this list so I can get in on the action. Also, the site moves very slowly when I try to scroll up and down the page. I’m sure that’s due to the latest redesign.

  13. I’m kind of surprised to see Killen’s book on the list. Having read it on one of my rare forays into recent American history, I found it underwhelming. It felt like he got bogged down in cultural theatrics, which trampled whatever broader argument he was trying to make. There are, I know, a ton of books on the 70s. Surely one of them must be better.

  14. Your list makes me wish for another lifetime following this one. I will definitely use it as a reading guide.

    In the final category I think that Chris Hedges’ work would be suitable. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Death of the Liberal Class, among other.

  15. Bizarre list! Not one work by a black historian made your list…slightly baffled by the omission.

  16. The slighting of WW II is inexcusable. For openers add John Morton Blum, V WAS FOR VICTORY: POLITICS AND AMERICAN CULTURE DURING WORLD WAR II and Gabriel Kolko, THE POLITICS OF WAR: THE WORLD AND UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY, 1943-1945. I also join the chorus for including Hofstadter in the canon.

  17. I think that
    –The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward
    was the best book I read in my comps. I’d add
    –Ordinary People by John Dittmer,
    –Ar’n’t I a Woman by Deborah Grey White,
    –Many Thousands Gone by Ira Berlin,
    –Ideology and US Foreign Policy by Mike Hunt (LOL),
    and The New Radicalism in America by Christopher Lasch.
    And did I see
    –Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan, Roll
    on here? If not, it’s all a wash.

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