As we get started with this new project, I don’t have any of my own recommendations for new books from 2018, though I’ve found a number of new books I’d love to read. I’ve consulted a number of “best of” lists from the past year which you can review as well:
From Smithsonian.com, by Angela Serratore
From History Today, by a variety of historians
From The Amazon Book Review, by Chris Schluep
From The Archive, Dave Adams
From The Financial Times, by Tony Barber
From these list and other sources I’ve compiled a list of history books published in 2018 that I’d love to read, and they all happen to cover some aspect of American history.
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanna Freeman
Our politics are divided today, but there have been times in American history when things were worse. Imagine fights on the floor of Congress. Passions over the issue of slavery unleashed violent behavior among politicians of the time. Angela Serratore writes, “In 1856, Southern congressman Preston Brooks, enraged at an anti-slavery speech given days earlier by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, shocked the nation when he beat Sumner unconscious with a cane—right on the Senate floor. The caning of Charles Sumner is well known to Civil War history buffs, but it was far from the only instance of violence breaking out in government spaces in the tense years before the war officially began.”
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings
The Sunday Times named this new Vietnam history as the History Book of the Year. “Beautifully balanced, immaculately researched and written with immense confidence, this is Hastings’s masterpiece. He begins with the Vietnamese struggle for liberation from the French and is rightly unsparing about the failures of the US war effort. But his book really shines when describing the war on the ground. Horrifying, compelling, definitive — and quite brilliantly done.”
Hastings was a young war correspondent in Vietnam so it’s not surprising that his battle descriptions draw praise. Check out this interview with Sir Max on Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Addendum podcast as he discusses the book and his experiences in Vietnam.
Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
Edith Hall writes, “Biography is not usually my favourite route into history, but David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster) is an exception. Douglass is one of the most contested figures in American history. This is his first comprehensive biography for more than 30 years and makes use of substantial new source material. Blight, who knows more about his subject than anyone else alive, having edited Douglass’ own autobiographies (he published three), writes stylishly. But Douglass was a troubled figure, a true ‘prophet of freedom’, the sheer power of whose passions and intellect drove him long after achieving his own liberty to continue the struggle for civil rights. Blight brings to his study a lucid objectivity which is refreshing given the hagiographic tone of much that has been written about this man.”
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
What leads to great presidential leadership? Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the lives of four presidents in search of an answer. Dave Adams writes, “The doyenne of American presidential history explores the lives and times of four of the nation’s greatest leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. From their boyhoods to the setbacks and failures of their early adulthoods to the crucial decisions that guided the country through times of crisis, Goodwin brings each man and his specific historical period to vivid life. She discovers that there is no one formula to make a great leader—Lincoln was raised by a stern disciplinarian who thought books were a waste of time, while FDR’s loving mother indulged his every wish—but that intelligence, persistence, and a gift for storytelling were qualities shared by all four of her subjects. Most importantly, she makes the convincing argument that a man’s flaws need not prevent him from achieving great things. It is a lesson we would all do well to remember in times as polarized and tumultuous as these.”
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
This is a timely book. We go through times in American history where some of our most cherished traditions and norms are challenged by the politics of the day. We’re certainly going through one of those times.
In his review of the book, Ray Locker writes, “Hard times have fallen on America often during our 242 years as a country, often bringing out the worst among many of us. Racism and hatred have flourished; fear and panic often prevailed. Politicians elected to lead have instead catered to our worst instincts and separated us by race, gender and religion. Yet each time, Meacham writes, we have managed to overcome hatred and divisiveness.” He quotes Meacham from the book, “In the main, the America of the twenty-first century is, for all its shortcomings, freer and more accepting than it has ever been. If that weren’t the case, right-wing populist attacks on immigrants and the widening mainstream wouldn’t be so ferocious. A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction.”
Please email us if you have any suggestions regarding history books published this past year.