My own top ten history books

Following Craig Friend and Mark Cheathem, Susan Thomas and Therese Strohmer, here is my list of “ten books I found most impressionable on my way to becoming a historian.”

I am amazed how many of these come from undergraduate days (particularly Jane Censer’s “Jacksonian America” class), but I guess that’s where the bug is planted. I have always been interested in history, but these got me on the academic track, and eventually, how to think about the topics that interest me.

These are books that touched me very personally and so this list lacks the big names you’d expect to see like Roll, Jordan, Roll or The Transformation of Virginia. So, here goes, in no particular order:

1. Altina Waller, Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. The first academic book I ever read and opened my eyes to the idea that social forces make more compelling explanations for historical events than just people doing things….and that recounting those social forces as history could be pretty compelling too.

2. Richard E. Beringer, et. al, Why the South Lost the Civil War. Probably the second academic book I ever read, at the height of my “drums and bugles” phase of Civil War interest. Introduced the idea of interpretive disagreements between scholars.

3. Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. If I remember, this book combines some 18th Century classical republicanism with 19th Century honor culture stuff. I don’t know, I could be wrong about that, but either way it imprinted upon me a way of understanding politics and public life in the 19th Century.

4. Drew G. Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery. Other books are more fundamental to these topics, but this one introduced me to honor, slavery, and southern culture. And, I scored my very first points in James Henry Hammond Bingo!

5. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. History is a strange, strange, place, and I want to go there.

6. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. How much historical meaning can you tease out of a single befuddling source? And how compelling can you make it? This is it. I went into History Doctor school intending to write A Midwife’s Tale for the antebellum south. That didn’t happen, but I still want to.

7. James H. Merrell, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal. A real perspective shift, but more importantly, a complex, compelling historical process told in clear fashion with real people… and I could walk out my back door and step right onto the Trading Path where it all happened (well, back when I lived there.) This one kept me going for a couple of years there.

8. Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South. I structured my dissertation based on this book. That you can tell history and make important interpretive points based on the stories of individuals was permission to go ahead and invest in Caroline Lilly, Strong Thomasson, John Flintoff, and Mary Davis Brown.

9. Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South. Every time I think I’ve said something original I crack open this book and find that Donald Mathews uttered it forty years ago.

10. Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. I can’t talk about the Civil War and the Confederacy without talking about what a depressing, chaotic, and altogether fucked up experience it was. This book is largely (but not entirely) to blame. And that’s just the last two chapters! This book gave me the word “ethos” in relation to the North Carolina piedmont, and basically, pages 19-26 are what started my dissertation.

Honorable Mention: Joan E. Cashin, Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South. A collection of primary sources, but Cashin’s opening chapter introduced me to southern women’s history, which has taken me so many places.


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