History Recommendations from Scott Powell

Courtesy of Scott Powell, I've expanded the history book recommendations with more than a dozen new entries.

  • Modern Progress by Willis Mason West. The first of the general works on the history of Western civilization that I want to recommend to today's readers is Modern Progress by Willis Mason West. West's theme is progress. He values present-day America, freedom, and technology, and he seeks to present the past in terms of the fundamentally positive progression, without, however, treating progress as an oversimplification. West's telling is fundamentally successful. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Prince Henry: The Navigator by William Jay Jacobs. What sets this work apart is that it is genuinely accessible to the first time reader of history, without being simplistic or childish. It is well structured, and written in a clear, flowing style. At only 51 pages in length--including ample and perfectly selected images--you can read it in one sitting. But then you can return to it to even greater advantage, because despite it's small size, this book is packed with good stuff.
  • The Growth of the French Nation by George Adams. The Growth of the French Nation is a great history book. Written in 1896, there are sure to be minute inaccuracies in it--though I haven't found any--but what is striking about the book is that it is written with a clear, valid historical theme. Whether it is read with an eye to later American history, or to understand Europe for itself, what stands out about the story of France is the character of its national growth, both culturally and in terms of government. It is the distinctive evolution of France's national monarchy during the Middle Ages that sets it apart from all its neighbors, though most importantly its rivals England and Germany. To present this theme Adams is highly selective in his narrative. As he explains, "I have endeavored...to resist the temptation to use the space at my command for other facts, however interesting, if they do not seem to bear upon the national growth." Consequently, he creates an accessible, enjoyable single-volume history of France. A great place to start for any reader! (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789 by John Fiske. This is definitely the best book I know of on the subject of the period immediately following the Revolutionary War. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • The Discovery of America by John Fiske. Fiske's "The Discovery of America" (2 vols.) has given me a deeper appreciation of the true place of Columbus in world history. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Europe Since 1815 by Charles Downer Hazen. This is a great book. Normally, when one reads about the nineteenth century, one either has to contend with books that focus on too narrow a topic (such as the revolutions of 1848) or too restricted a theme (such as the rise of Nationalism). The onus is on the reader of history to integrate this topic, since historians have not. By constrast, however, Hazen has a way of selecting out the facts that are important to the broad progression of events, and discarding the minutiae that normally clutters history books. Consequently, his narrative is purposeful and easy to follow. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • The Middle Period: 1817-1858 by John Burgess. An important shift in American culture attends the passing of the Revolutionary generation. This period, marked by democratization (as symbolized by Andrew Jackson), a tragic failure to eradicate slavery, and, most unfortunately, a significant rise in economic statism, is not easy to wade through. But John W. Burgess makes it seem uncomplicated in his book "The Middle Period: 1817-1858," (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909). (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Our United States by Woodburn, Moran, and Hill. What makes Our United States a great book is that it is actually designed to facilitate the learning of the past by the reader, not simply to expose him to the sum of what the author knows. It is not merely a "knowledge dump," as one of my students has termed it, like virtually every modern presentation of the past. "Our United States" is a selective telling of the fundamental facts about the story of America which must be grasped first, if the reader aims to embark on a productive study of history. In the words of the authors, "it is a better educative procedure to follow...the main lines of progress that have marked the history of our country than to attempt to carry them all along at the same time. Instead of presenting a mass of miscellaneous and unrelated facts merely in the order of their happening, we have sought, therefore, to bring out in a unified way the great movements in our history, their causes, beginnings, and growth, and to make known the achievements and character of the great men and women who have made the United States what it is today." (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Sir Edward Creasy. In Creasy's own words, "there are some battles...which claim our attention...on account of the enduring influence on our social and political condition, which we can trace up to the results of those engagements. They have for us an abiding and actual interest, both while we investigate the chain of causes and effects, by which they have helped to make us what we are; and also while we speculate on what we probably should have been, if anyone of those battles had come to a different termination."
  • A Short History of Medieval Europe by Thatcher, Oliver J. Published in 1897, this is the best first history of the middle ages. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Europe in the Middle Ages by Hoyt, Robert. This is the best second history of the European middle ages.
  • Historical Atlas by Shepherd. Indispensible for understanding history.
  • American Epoch, A History of the United States Since the 1890s by Link and Catton. Probably the best telling of the story of the United States from 1890 up to the cold war is by William Catton and Arthur Link, whose American Epoch is comparable to Palmer and Colton's excellent single volume history of the West in being both readable and reasonably comprehensive. As a single reference it exceeds all others in my experience.
  • Twentieth Century America by Dulles, Forster R.. An excellent compliment to American Epoch is Foster Dulles's Twentieth Century America. To work one's way, back and forth between the two volumes is a good way to progress through the story, and to fill the gaps that exist in each.
  • Reconstruction and the Constitution by John William Burgess. Yet again Burgess delivers a uniquely well-crafted narrative that relays both compelling details and a fascinating theme. In this case, I agree with Burgess's basic idea: that northern leaders, including Lincoln, Seward, and Johnson failed to grasp the intellectual foundations for the proper re-integration of the South once it was conquered. (out-of-print, see sources.)