Good History Reads

A list of books on or about historical events and people I think are worthwhile reads. Organized into primary, secondary, and fictional sources. Links and annotations as I can find time to add them.

Primary Sources

Alexander Graydon, “Memoirs of a Life Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania Within the Last Sixty Years,” 1811

Graydon spent most of his life in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, with time spent in the Continental Army during the Revolution in between. His memoir covers all of this including interesting stuff like being a prisoner of war after the Battle of Harlem Heights, being a delegate at the 1790 PA Constitutional Convention, and living in Harrisburg when it was made the state capitol in 1812. A staunch federalist, Graydon apparently throws some serious shade on Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Gallatin in here, sounds like fun!

James O. Pattie, “The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie,” 1831.

An early classic in Western Americana writing. Pattie was a frontiersman who lived in Kentucky. His memoir covers travels through what is now the western US and Mexico. Pattie and his father were called west by the lucrative fur trade, and this in large part was what led them to be some of the very first Americans to travel all the way to California overland. I’m getting a very “John Wesley Powell” kind of vibe from this and it’d be interesting to compare the two and their travel experiences and writing.

-Frances Trollope, “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” 1832.

A travel book about the United States written by an English novelist that is not super fond of many American customs. When it was published it shocked readers on both sides of the ocean- the Americans because they were insulted and the British because they were disgusted. More on this cool book here.

-Washington Irving, “Astoria: Adventure in the Pacific Northwest,” 1836.

Yes, that’s the Washington Irving of Rip Van Winkle fame. He was commissioned by John Jacob Astor to chronicle the American Fur Company’s “Astor Expedition” to Oregon (1810-1812). It was a best seller when it was published. I’ve heard that the 1964 edition edited by Edgeley Todd has useful notes on the book’s accuracy and additional context.

-Charles Ball, “Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles, a Black Man,” 1837.

One of the earliest published memoirs of an enslaved person in the United States, historian William Andrews wrote Ball’s narrative “reprinted often in the decades following its initial publication; it directly influenced the manner and matter of later fugitive slave narratives.” Ball was born into slavery in Maryland around 1781 and eventually escaped and made his way to Pennsylvania (though he lost his wife and children who remained enslaved and were lost to him). He dictated this narrative to a white lawyer who apparently edited the text to eliminate Ball’s personal opinions about slavery. Even still, this is an important text worth reading closely.

Joseph Wilson, “Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia,” 1841.

The perfect complement to W.E.B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro, this account of Philadelphia’s Black community was written by Wilson (under the pseudonym “A Southerner”) about his newly adopted home.

Josiah Gregg, “Commerce of the Prairies,” 1844.

Gregg worked as a trader on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s and wrote this 2 volume account about his experiences and about the geography, botany, geology, and culture of the area. It was super popular in its day and inspired the travels of Raldolph Marcy in the 1850s (which in turn led to the publication of Prairie Traveler).

Thomas James, “Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans,” 1846.

James lived and worked as a trader in Santa Fe a decade before Josiah Gregg, and wrote this account towards the end of his life largely from memory. His position on the Anglo-American/Hispano-American frontiers let him interact with Mexicans and the tribes in the area (particularly the Comanches). James wasn’t particularly successful in business, which makes him come off as bitter and biased against his peers in this book. It is, according to one review, “a valuable but somewhat prejudiced” read.

-James B. Finley, “Memoirs of Prison Life,” 1850.

Aside from the missionary work and travel around the West he’s known best for, James Finley was also a chaplain in the Ohio State Penitentiary for several years. This memoir sheds light on prison ministry, which had its origins in colonial America and  had become a well-established church service by the 1800s.

James B. Finley, “Pioneer Life in the West,” 1854.

Finley was a Methodist Episcopal minister who spent forty years in what is now the Ohio Valley and American Mid-West expanding the American Empire and converting Wyandot people to Christianity. During his career, he regularly recorded his experiences and eventually published it all in this book so others would know what life on the frontier was like.

Frank Marryat, “Mountains and Molehills,” 1855.

California had so much going on in the 1850s its no surprise writers could fill dozens of memoirs and published travel journals with stories, facts, and experiences from this place and time period. Marryat was one of these many authors. A wealthy British traveler, he described the Gold Rush, social life of San Francisco, and many other unique things he witnessed here. Tragically, he contracted yellow fever near the end of writing this and died shortly before its publication at age 28. I wonder what else he might have written if he lived?

-William Alcott, “Forty Years in the Wilderness of Pills and Powders; or, the Cogitations and COnfessions of an Aged Physician,” 1859

-Meshach Browning, “Forty Four Years of The Life of a Hunter,” 1859.

Browning was one of Western Maryland’s most celebrated hunters, and like many other white pioneers of the early 19th century frontier wrote a memoir of his life and experiences in Appalachia. He allegedly wrote this book near the end of his life with quill pens made from feathers his grandchildren gathered from their family homestead in Garrett County. Browning reminds me a lot of Phillip Tome, the famed hunter from Pennsylvania who wrote a book called “Thirty Years a Hunter” (similar titles: coincidence or on purpose??).

-Randolph Barnes Marcy, “Prairie Traveler: A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions, with Maps, Illustrations, and Itineraries of the Principal Routes Between the Mississippi and the Pacific,” 1859.

This guidebook was carries by thousands of Americans as they traveled westward in the 19th century. It has also been described by one historian as “perhaps the single most important work on the conduct of frontier expeditions published under the aegis of the War Department.”

-Eliza Potter, “A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life,” 1859.

Frederick Law Olmsted, “The Cotton Kingdom,” 1861.

Before he became the Father of Landscape Architecture, Olmsted was an accomplished journalist and writer. According the a synopsis from the Library of Congress, he was hired by the New-York Daily Times (today the New York Times) in the 1850s to report on conditions and life in slaveholding states. His articles were subsequently published as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857), A Journey in the Back Country (1860), and in a two-volume compilation of material from all three books, The Cotton Kingdom (read a contemporary review here).Together Olmsted’s keen observations created the most complete contemporary portrait of the South on the eve of the Civil War, concluding that slavery harmed the whole of Southern society.

William Howard Russell, “My Diary North and South,” 1863.

Russell was a correspondent for the Times of London and send to the United States on assignment to report on the Civil War in 1861 and 1862. Of course he meets the famous figures from the day like Lincoln, David, and McClellan; but what I’m most interested the ordinary people that he profiled. His writing recounts American manners, appearances, values, and habits at the dawn of the war, and it should be interesting to see an outsider’s perspective on these.

-Sarah Broadead, “The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from June 15 to July 15, 1863,” 1864.

There are few first-hand accounts from civilians who were present at the Battle of Gettysburg. This is the best of them. Broadhead recorded her life before and in the aftermath of the battle and later decided to publish it. She had 200 copies made and gave many to friends, before later donating the remaining copies to the US Sanitary Commission to sell at the Great Central Fair. This is a deeply personal account of Gettysburg that was even quoted in Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary.

Elizabeth Keckley, “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” 1868.

This book was considered quite controversial when it was published, not because of Keckley’s personal story of slavery, but because of the intimate insights into the Lincoln’s personal lives it revealed. Though she intended to raise money for Mary Lincoln with book sales and defend her ‘old clothes scandal’ of 1868, many thought the book transgressed the boundaries of public and private life. If you read this and like it, I recommend checking out Jennifer Flieschner’s “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly” next.

Samuel Bowles, “Our New West,” 1869.

To say Bowles was impressed with the American West is an understatement. After traveling the western states in 1865 with a party that included future Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, he wrote of the territory: “commerce and an industry, a wealth and a power, that will rival the most enthusiastic predictions of our Atlantic States Empire, and together…. will present on the North American Continent such a triumph of Man in race, in government and social development, in intellectual advancement, and in commercial supremacy, as the world never saw, – as the world never yet fairly dreamed of.” Today western travel writing usually focuses on the impressive natural wonders of the West, but Bowles was equally impressed with the land’s man-made wonders (especially the railroad) and exploitable resources too.

Clarence King, “Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada,” 1872.

William Still, “The Underground Railroad,” 1872.

Still was an abolitionist of great renown in Philadelphia and personally helped hundreds of enslaved people escape bondage as chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. This book is a compilation of the notes he took during his many years on the Underground Railroad in order to help separated families and companions reunite once they reached the North.

John Wesley Powell, “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons,” 1875.

Before he founded the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879, Powell led the first expedition of white men through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Though I’ve heard that he exaggerates a lot and takes more credit than he deserves, the story of this one-armed Civil War veteran leading a band of students along the Colorado River is a classic.

-George Washington Cable, “The New Orleans of George Washington Cable,” 1877.

Cable was an ex-Confederate soldier and one of the most important Southern writers of the late 19th century. Known best for his public advocacy for Black equality in the Reconstruction period and colorful writing about his native New Orleans, this book was originally commissioned as a special section of the 10th Federal Census. From what I’ve read, Cable was a meticulous researcher, delving into a litany of English, French, and Spanish sources to write this masterful history of his hometown.

-Jane Swisshelm, “Half a Century,” 1880.

I love this description of Jane Swisshelm by historian Stan Harold: “This petite white woman, characterized by more than one observer as bird-like, was a fiercely independent contrarian whose acerbic wit and cutting sarcasm attracted attention but also limited her effectiveness. Self-centered, aggressive, and contentious, she rejected formal membership in reform organizations.” Swisshelm wrote this memoir largely from memory and it chronicles her career spent advocating for temperance, abolition, women’s rights, and other reforms. She’s one of the best things to ever come out of Pittsburgh, and this book captures a lot of what made her so interesting.

-George Washington Cable, “Old Creole Days,” 1883.

-Sarah Winnemuca, “Life among the Piutes, Their Wrongs and Claims,” 1883.

-George Washington Sears, “Woodcraft,” 1884.

Sears (also known by his pen name “Nessmuk”) is one of my favorite Pennsylvania authors and I’ve written about him several times in this blog. His book Woodcraft is a general guide for camping and advocates for a style of relaxation in the wilderness that a person can do by themselves and doesn’t require tons of money or special gadgets. My fav quote from the book sums it all up nicely: “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.”

Williard Glazier, “Peculiarities of American Cities,” 1886.

An interesting tourist’s book for the late 19th century, this is an account of many of the major (and some smaller) cities in the United States complete with descriptions of interesting things in each one (with pictures!). I especially want to read the descriptions of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Lancaster, and St. Louis to compare to today.

-Charles Siringo, “A Texas Cow Boy, or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony,” 1886.

-Nellie Bly, “Ten Days in a Mad House,” 1887.

Nellie Bly is one in a long list of 19th century women whose written works exposed the the horrors of life in American mental institutions and raised public awareness of the treatment of people who were considered to be mentally ill or insane (see also: Dorthea Dix and Adriana Brinckle). Bly feigned insanity and was committed to Blackwell’s Island in New York and spent 10 days there observing widespread brutality and neglect. This book is a compilation of the newspaper exposes she published based on those experiences, originally published in the New York World. Bly’s writing prompted a grand jury investigation and eventually a massive increase in funding for New York asylums. The power of investigative journalism.

Willis Fletcher Johnson, “History of the Johnstown Flood,” 1889.

The Johnstown Flood was one of the biggest news story of the era. Johnson’s account of the disaster was one of the first published, and he was present at the scene shortly after if occurred in May 1889, giving this book a unique perspective you won’t find in other accounts.

Hikozo Hamada (Joseph Heco), “The Narrative of a Japanese, What He Has Seen and the People He Has Met in the Course of the Last Forty Years,” 1895.

Hamada was born in Japan in 1837 and went to sea at a young age. In 1850 his ship was wrecked and he was rescued by an American vessel that took him to San Francisco. Hamada stayed there for nine years, learning English keenly observing life in the American West. He went back and forth to Japan and across the United States in a long career in business and interpretation. In 1895 he published this memoir, based off of journals he started writing as soon as he mastered English.

-Charles Post, “I Am Well!: The Modern Practice of Natural Suggestion: as Distinct from Hypnotic Or Unnatural Influence,” 1895.

King-Richardson Company, “Social Culture, a Treatise on Etiquette, Self Culture, Dress, Physical Beauty and Domestic Relations.” 1902.

-WEB Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk.” 1903.

-Ezra Meeker, “Pioneer Reminisces of Puget Sound,” 1905.

-David Homer Bates, “Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps During the Civil War,” 1907.

-Morris Friedman, “The Pinkerton’s Labor Spy,” 1907.

-Nat Love, “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,'” 1907.

Born in Tennessee and working as a cowboy from a young age, Nat Love was one of the most famous and well known Black figures of the Old West (did you know roughly a quarter of all cowboys were Black in the 19th century?). He was the only Black cowboy known to have written an autobiography. After many years of riding and cattledriving, he adopted his famous moniker ‘Deadwood Dick,’ a reference to a popular dime novel of the day. He wrote this memoir in 1907, which plays a big part in cementing his legacy in history and Western Americana today.

Iola Beebe, “The True Life Story of Swiftwater Bill Gates,” 1908.

-“The Pittsburgh Survey: Findings in Six Volumes,” 1909.

I’ve read portions of this epic sociological survey before and learned more than a few amazing things about life in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century. This is where I got the material from my post on yeggmen from! This study was made by a team of over 70 researchers, including Lewis Hine. Its goal was to confront business, civic, and government leaders with overwhelming facts in support of progressive reform in order to spur changes that would benefit the city and all of its people. If you like Middletown then you’ll love this.

Margaret Byington, “Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town,” 1910.

This volume was originally published by the Russell Sage Foundation as part of its amazing “Pittsburgh Survey” series. Of all 6 volumes in the series, this was the only one to study the length and breadth of an entire community- Homestead- instead of analyzing a particular subject like housing or sanitation like the others did.

William Thomas Cox, “Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts,” 1910.

A fantasy field guide written by Minnesota’s first State Forester. With illustrations by the Chief Dendrologist of the Forest Service. What more could you ask for? The book was a fairly influential piece of folklore even though it largely forgotten in the decades after it was written. Sounds like a contradiction to me but I’d never say no to a book that chronicles the Squonk, a mysterious creature of the Pennsylvania woodlands that is so ashamed of his appearance that it constantly weeps.

Martha Summerhayes, “Vanished Arizona,” 1911.

After growing up in Nantucket, Summerhayes moved around. A lot. Married to a major in the army, she traveled anywhere he went (in peacetime). In this memoir, she recounts her time in Arizona in the mid 1870s, which at the time only had about 20,000 white inhabitants.

-W.S. Berridge and W. Percival Westell, “The Book of the Zoo,” 1911.

A book about the London Zoo with dozens of photographs. Because we all like animals!

-Alexander Berkman, “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” 1912.

Matthew Henson, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole,” 1912.

Caroline Cowles Richards, “Village Life in America, 1852-1872, Including the Period of the American Civil War as Told in the Diary of a School Girl,” 1913.

-Henry W. Shoemaker, “Eldorado Found: The Central Pennsylvania Highlands; A Tourist’s Survey,” 1917.

P.B.M. Allan,”The Book Hunter at Home,” 1920.

-Joseph Tumulty, “Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him,” 1921.

-Jack Black, “You Can’t Win,” 1926.

A memoir about life as a hobo and yeggman. Black’s popular book was intended to discourage crime and urge would-be criminals to avoid the mistakes he made in his own life. He also used the book to demonstrate what he believed was the futility of prisons and the criminal justice system. The book has been cited as a critical influence on William Burroughs and other Beat writers of the mid 20th century.

-E.J. Stackpole, “Behind the Scenes with a Newspaper Man: Fifty Years in the Life of an Editor,” 1927.

-R.S. Garnett, “Some Book Hunting Adventures: A Diversion,” 1931.

Smedley Butler, “War is a Racket,” 1935.

-Zora Neale Hurston, “Mules and Men,” 1935.

An important collection of African American folktales and hoodoo compiled by Harlem Renaissance artist/gifted anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. When I used to work at the National Anthropological Archives, I wrote a blog post about this book’s original manuscript that you can read here.

-H.G. Wells, “The New America: The New World,” 1935.

Though we usually think of Wells as a writer of science fiction, he was also a good observer of the present day. In 1935 he visited the United States for about a month meeting, meeting with people all over including President Roosevelt and Huey Long. In this collection of four essays, Wells describes the American scene as the spectacle of a great material civilization, halted, paralyzed.”

-Robert and Helen Lynd, “Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts,” 1937.

-Neil H. Borden, “The Economic Effects of Advertising,” 1942.

-John E. Washington, “They Knew Lincoln,” 1942.

Partially a memoir and partially a history, John Washington wrote this book about the Black community in Washington D.C. and their encounters with Abraham Lincoln. Washington included his own recollections and stories told to him by his grandparent’s elderly friends. Readers have said the book fills “such an obvious gap in the material about Lincoln that one wonders why no one ever did it before.” In 2018 it was republished with an introduction by historian Kate Masur. Now I don’t know if I want to hunt an original edition down or get the new one!

-Jack Goodman edt. “While You Were Gone,” Simon and Schuster, Inc. 1946.

-Harry Bird, “This Fascinating Advertising Business, ” 1947.

-George Creel, “Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years,” 1947.

-John Gunther, “Inside U.S.A.,” 1947

-Ernie Pyle, “Home Country,” William Sloane Associates, Inc. 1947.

-Grace Tully, “FDR, My Boss,” 1949.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that “a presidential associate, moreover, inevitably tends to overrate the significance of the things he knows about.” Grace Tully, FDR’s personal secretary, had this to say about books written by the men who were close to the president: “none of them could know that for each minute they spent with the President he spent a hundred minutes by himself and a thousand more with scores of other people- to reject, improvise, weigh and match this against that until a decision was reached.” Thoughtful words, and I’m sure this will be a thoughtful and interesting read.

-Joseph Guffey, “Seventy Years on the Red Fire Wagon: From Tilden to Truman, Through New Freedom and New Deal,” 1952.

-James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son,” 1955.

-Ralph Ginzburg, “100 Years of Lynchings,” 1962.

-EB White, “The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South,” 1962.

-John Roy Lynch, “Reminiscences of an Active Life,” 1970.

Lynch was a brilliant politician and speaker. A formerly enslaved man who became the first black Congressman from Mississippi at the age of 25 (!), his autobiography is a poignant record of the Reconstruction Era.

-Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, “Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” 1970.

-Jerry Della Femina, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War,” 1971.

-Alice and Staughton Lynd. “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers,” 1973.

-Harry Maurer, “Not Working: An Oral History of the Unemployed,” 1979.

-Phillip McGuire, “Taps for a Jim Crow Army: Letters from Black Soldiers in World War II,” 1983.

-George Templeton Strong, “The Diary of George Templeton Strong,” 1988.

-Nancy Heffernan and Ann Page Steckler, “Sisters of Fortune: Being the true story of how three motherless sisters saved their home in New England and raised their younger brother while their father went fortune hunting in the California Gold Rush,'” 1993.

-Martha Clevenger, “‘Indescribably Grand’: Diaries and Letters from the 1904 World’s Fair,” 1996.

-Roland Johnson, “Lost in a Desert World: The Autobiography of Roland Johnson,” 1999.

Roland Johnson was institutionalized at Pennhurst State School near Philadelphia from 1958-1971, where he endured the horrors of abuse, neglect, and violence on a daily basis. But after he was released he was relentless in championing disability rights and self-advocacy. He was integral to Pennhurst’s closure in the 80s and was present at the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. In his autobiography he describes experiences at Pennhurst and afterwards.

-Agnes Herbert and A. Shikari, “Two Dianas In Alaska,” 2004.

-Romin Teratol, “Travelers to the Other World: A Maya View of North America,” 2010.

From the early 1960s through the 2000s, Smithsonian anthropologist Robert Laughlin lived and worked in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where he studied the language and culture of the Mayans who lived there. In 1963 and again later in the decade, he invited two of his Mayan friends to come back to the United States. This book contains the narrative written by these two men, Romin Teratol and Antzelmo Peres, as they observed American culture firsthand. I’ve read some snippets from this book, including their reaction to President Kennedy’s assassination (they were shocked that “the murderer had never met the president”), Vietnam War protests, and the use of machines in everyday work and life. Sounds really interesting to see the United States through someone else’s eyes! Review of the book here.

-Devon Carbado and Donald Weise (editors), “The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives,” 2012.

-Barbara Taylor, “The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times,” 2015.

-Austin Reed, “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison,” 2017.

Reed wrote the oldest known prison memoir by a Black man in 1858. The manuscript was discovered in an estate sale in 2009 and was purchased by the Beinecke Library at Yale where you can see it today. Dr. Caleb Smith published and added commentary to this story about life in the New York House of Refuge and Auburn State Prison. Makes you think about what other incredible historical sources are buried away in private hands…we need to get them all in the archives!

Secondary Sources

-H.L. Barnum, “The Spy Unmasked: Or Memoirs of Enoch Crosby,” 1886.

-Gilson Willetts, “Inside History of the White House: The Complete History of the Domestic and Official Life in Washington of the Nation’s Presidents and Their Families,” 1908.

-Charles Hanson Towne, “Roosevelt as the Poets Saw Him,” 1923.

-Gilbert Seldes, “The Seven Lively Arts, ” 1924.

-Mark Sullivan, “Our Times” (6 volumes), 1925-1936.

I currently have the first volume but am hunting for the rest. Sullivan was an accomplished journalist and writer, as well as a respected Republican. He had lots of contacts in American politics and used them to write this popular history of the first quarter of the 20th century. Dan Rather later wrote that “ It is fair to say that no series of nonfiction books, all on the same general subject by the same author over such a compact space of writing time, ever captured the country so completely sold so well, was so widely read and acclaimed, and had such a lasting, growing reputation for excellence as Mark Sullivan’s Our Times.” Sullivan was also big on using unorthodox (for the time) sources like advertisements, popular music, and school textbooks to help tell the story of American history. Although it has been criticized for focusing too much on stories of consensus and ignoring ugly realities of American society (race, gender, class issues, etc.). Still sounds like a really interesting read!

-Herbert Asbury, “The Gangs of New York,” 1928. [also any other book by him about underworld crime]

-Preston Slosson, “The Great Crusade and After.” 1930.

A history of the 1920s, this book was written immediately after the decade closed so I imagine it sees the Roaring Twenties much differently than later historians did. History is different when its still fresh. You can read a contemporary review of this book here.

Fredrick Lewis Allen, “Only Yesterday.” 1931.

-Constance Rourke, “American Humor: A Study of the National Character.” 1931.

-WEB Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America.” 1935.

-Mirra Komarovsky, “The Unemployed Man and his Family.” 1940.

-St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton, “Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City,” 1945.

-James West, “Plainville, USA.” 1945.

Similar to the Middletown book by Robert and Helen Lynd, this book is a sociological study of a small rural Ohio town done in the 1940s. In an interesting article about the history of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, Michael Barton writes that West’s book is “a keen-eyed account and even comical in its observations of the local class system.” You can read a review of the book here.

-Vance Randolph, “Ozark Superstitions,” Columbia University Press. 1947.

Randolph was a writer and folklorist who lived most of his life in the Ozark Mountains. In the early 1940s, Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress asked Randolph to make field recordings in the Ozarks for the Archive of American Folk Song. And he did! And he published much of the material he collected on folklore and magic in this 1947 book.

-Aurora Hunt, “The Army of the Pacific: Its Operations in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Plains Region, Mexico, Etc., 1860-1866,” 1950.

-Gerald Carson, “Cornflake Crusade,” 1957.

-Julian Watkins, “The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958: Who Wrote Them and What They Did,” 1959.

-Paul Wallace, “Indians in Pennsylvania,” 1961.

-Peter Gay, “Wiemar Culture: The Outsider as Insider.” 1968.

-David McCullough, “The Johnstown Flood.” 1968.

Everybody knows McCullough and his many popular history books today. He wrote his first book on the infamous flood in western Pennsylvania in his spare time while working at American Heritage magazine and raising a family, in inspiration to all of us aspiring history writers!

-Vine Deloria, Jr., “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.” 1969.

-Angela Davis, “If They Come in the Morning,” 1971.

-Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, “Witches Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers,” 1972.

-Ann Banks, “First Person America.” 1980.

In the 1930s staff from the Federal Writers Project interviewed thousands of Americans from all walks of life and recorded their stories. But after the New Deal ended, these records were largely ignored by historians. In 1980 Ann Banks dove in to this treasure trove, held at the Library of Congress, and selected about 80 interviews from the collection to publish in this book. I read this cover to cover and can confirm its a great read.

-Paul Beers, “Pennsylvania Politics: Today and Yesterday,” 1980.

-Joan Shelley Rubin, “Constance Rourke and American Culture,” 1980.

-Lee Clark Mitchell, “Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response,” 1981.

-Angela Davis, “Women, Race, & Class,” 1983.

-Lorena Hicock, “One Third of the Nation: Lorena Hicock Reports on the Great Depression.” 1983.

-Joanna Stratton, “Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier,” 1984.

-Nancy Tomes, “A Generous Confidence: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Art of Asylum Keeping, 1840-1883,” 1984.

-Roy Rosenzweig, “Government and the Arts in Thirties America: A Guide to Oral Histories and Other Research Materials,” 1986.

-Michael Schudson, “Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion,” 1986.

-Emory Elliott, “The Columbia Literary History of the United States,” 1988.

-James Gilbert, “A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s,” 1988.

-Susan J. Douglas, “Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922,” 1989.

-Alice and Howard Hoffman, “Archives of Memory: A Soldier Recalls World War II,” 1990.

-William Miller, “The Training of an Army: Camp Curtin and the North’s Civil War,” 1990.

Camp Curtin, located in what is now downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was the largest Union training camp during the Civil War. More than 300,000 soldiers passed through there in its five years of operation.

-William Cronon, “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” 1991.

-James Gregory, “American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California.” 1991.

-Jib Fowles, “Starstruck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public,” 1992.

-Alex Sareyan, “The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill,” 1994.

-Lynn Dumenil, “The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s,” 1995.

-Otto Friedrich, “Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s.” 1995.

-Lynn Gamwell and Nancy Tomes, “Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness Before 1914,” 1995.

-Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris, “Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945,” 1995.

-Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, “History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past,” 1996.

-Herman Viola, “Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City.” 1995.

Written by the former director of the National Anthropological Archives (where I used to work), this book is a history of various Indian groups that traveled to meet with US government representatives in D.C. and other places from colonial times to the 20th century. The book is organized thematically, and I’d like to especially read the section on Indian life in D.C. I’m sure that the book uses a lot of really neat archival sources since Dr. Viola had so many at his finger tips at the NAA and nearby at NARA, LOC, etc.

-Susan Smulyan, “Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting 1920-1934,” 1996.

-William Bird and Hary Rubenstein, “Design for Victory:World War II Posters on the American Home Front, ” 1998.

-Lori Landay, “Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture,” 1998.

-Anne M. Butler, “Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men’s Penitentiaries,” 1999.

-Maurice Isserman, “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s,” 1999.

-Roland Marchand, “Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business,” 1999.

Simone Weil Davis, “Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920’s,” 2000.

-Gerald Nachman, “Raised on Radio,” 2000.

-Clark Davis, “Company Men: White-Collar Life and Corporate Cultures in Los Angeles, 1892-1941,” 2001.

Saverio Giovacchini, “Hollywood Modernism: Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal,” 2001.

-Pamela Liard, “Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing,” 2001.

-Michael Lofaro, “Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs (1835-1856),” 2001.

-Steven Watts, “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life,” 2001.

-Randall Miller and William Pencak (eds), “Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth,” 2002.

Jennifer Sinor, “The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary,” 2002.

I’m a big fan of reading memoirs and personal diaries, and this book promises to deliver on the diary part. Using the diary of her great great great aunt, Sinor uses this to talk about “ordinary” writing and its value in reading today. This review on Amazon sums it up nicely I think: “It’s been a couple years since I’ve read this book, but seeing no other reviews, felt compelled to be the first. I read Sinor’s book about transcribing her aunt’s diaries shortly after finding and transcribing a 19th century diary myself. I became completely transfixed by the “ordinary” writing of “my diarist” and decided to create a lecture for my MFA thesis around 19th century women’s diaries as a feminine genre. Sinor’s book helped me to make my decision. She gave validity to a topic that seemed esoteric at best, at worst, too weak and unimportant to warrant a 20 minute lecture given to a community of scholars and writers. The insight and creativity that Sinor brought to her work allowed me to approach my own topic, and diarist, with similar creativity and confidence. To read, take seriously and share the diaries of ordinary women who were often times voiceless in every other respect seems to me a humanistic endeavor.
Sinor’s book is a strong piece of creative and feminist scholarship that is also an enjoyable read. If you’ve never read a published or unpublished diary written by a farm wife, factory worker, seamstress, housewife, you’re really missing something. Read this book!”

-Patricia Turner, “Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and their Influence on Culture,” 2002.

-Kathy Newman, “Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947,” 2004.

-Jackson Lears, “Something for Nothing: Luck in America,” 2003.

-Susan Merrill Squier (editor), “Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture,” 2003.

-T.H. Breen, “The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence,” 2004.

-Linda Rozenkrantz, “Telegram!: Modern History as Told Through More than 400 Witty, Poignant, and Revealing Telegrams,” 2004.

-Douglas Craig, “Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940,” 2005.

-Jack Mariette and GS Rowe, “Troubled Experiment: Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania 1682-1800,” 2006.

-Louis Warren, “Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show,” 2006

Read a review for the book here.

-Charles McGovern, “Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945,” 2006.

-Scott Sandage, “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America,” 2006.

-Inger Stole, “Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s,” 2006.

-Stephanie Capparell, “The Real Pepsi Challenge: How One Pioneering Company Broke Color Barriers in 1940s American Business,” 2006.

-Edith Sparks, “Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920,” 2006.

-Peter Gay, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.” 2007.

-Steve Wurtzler, “Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media,” 2007.

-Robert Campbell, “In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage,” 2008.

-Lizabeth Cohen, “Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939,” 2008.

Jessica Helfand, “Scrapbooks: An American History,” 2008.

-Scott Nelson, “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend,: 2008.

-Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic,” 2009.

-A. Joan Saab, “For the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars,” 2009.

-Lauren Sklaroff, “Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era,” 2009.

-T.J. Stiles, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” 2009.

I’m usually more interested in reading biographies and memoirs of the rich and powerful, but this biography of the railroad magnate Vanderbilt looks pretty interesting. I imagine this story would help anyone interested in learning more about the rise of big business and corporate culture in the United States.

-Morris Dickstein, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” 2010.

-HW Brands, “American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900,” 2011.

-Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, “The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century,” 2010.

-Irving Bernstein, “The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker,” 2010.

-Stephen Berry, “Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges,” 2011.

-Peter Boag, “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past,” 2011.

-David Graeber, “Debt: The First 5000 Years,” 2011.

-David Suisman and Susan Strasser (editors), “Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 2012.

-Edward Ball, “The Inventor and the Tycoon: The Murderer Eadweard Muybridge, the Entrepreneur Leland Stanford, and the Birth of Moving Pictures,” 2013.

-Kim Neilson, “A Disability History of the United States,” 2013.

-Nell Irvin Painter, “Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Age,” 2013.

-Lawrence Samuel, “Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America,” 2013.

-Alan Derickson, “Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness,” 2014 .

-Jill Lepore, “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” 2014.

-Cynthia Meyers, “A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio,” 2014.

-Richard Polenberg, “Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, and Other Traditional American Folk Songs,” 2015.

-Ronald Schafer, “The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ Changed Presidential Elections Forever,” 2016.

-Steven Hahn, “A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910,” 2016.

A discussion of the United States’ “appetite for conquest” during its most expansive years, in this book Hahn “argues that America developed into a nation precisely because of its obsession with owning space; that is, it sought to become a continental empire, which meant acquiring land and resources, almost at any cost, and dominating sovereign peoples both at home and abroad,” according to this New York Times review. Apparently there is also a good bibliographical essay with lots of good sources in this volume too.

-Ethan Michaeli, “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” 2016.

-Nancy Tomes, “Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers,” 2016.

-Carl Cannon, “On This Date: From the Pilgrims to Today, Discovering America One Day at a Time,” 2017.

-Nancy Isenberg, “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” 2017.

-Andrew Lichtenstein and Alex Lichtenstein, “Marked, Unmarked, Remembered,” 2017.

-Sally McMurry, “Pennsylvania Farming: A History in Landscapes,” 2017.

-Heather Ann Thompson,  “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” 2017.

-Richard White, “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896,” 2017.

-Theodore Porter, “Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity,” 2018.

-Alisa Roth, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” 2018.

Damion Searls, “The Inkblots: Herman Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” 2018.

-Patrick Spero, “Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776,” 2018.

-William Klingaman, The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942.” 2019.

-Sarah Milov, “The Cigarette: A Political History,” 2019.

-Ellen Wayland-Smith, “The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America,” 2020.

From the publisher: this book “follows the career of adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub who in the mid-twentieth century created the advertising campaigns selling consumer products to the average American housewife. More than products, Rindlaub sold a dream of domesticity and prosperity delivered through free-market capitalism and a Christian corporate order…Rindlaub produced some of the most successful and award-winning advertising campaigns for such brands as Betty Crocker, Campbell’s soup, and Chiquita bananas. At the end of her career, Rindlaub began to question the ideas she had once promoted and to doubt the free market as the solution to social ills.”


Arthur Morecamp, “Live Boys, or, Charley and Nasho in Texas,” 1878

From the University of Texas at Arlington’s Special Collections folks: “”Live Boys in Texas” (1878) was written by Thomas Pilgrim (pseud. Arthur Morecamp) and is considered the first authentic (fictional) cowboy narrative. Pilgrim first came to Texas in 1828 and began serving as a Spanish interpreter for Austin’s colony.” 

-Percy Greg, “Across the Zodiac,” 1880.

-H. Rider Haggard, “King Solomon’s Mines,” 1885.

-Edward Bellamy, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, 1888.

-Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurence at Owl Creek,” 1890.

-Hamlin Garland, “Main Travelled Roads,” 1891.

-Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1892.

-Gustavus Pope, “Journey to Mars,” 1894.

William Lindsey, “Cinder-path Tales,” 1896.

Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology,” 1915.

A collection of short poems/epitaphs of the residents of Spoon River, a fictional representation of small town America. The aims of the poems is to demistify rural small town life and reveal the real story as Masters saw it (he based Spoon River on his own home town). James Thurber praised this book highly in his Soapland articles. I imagine they’re a tad depressing but still a good read about small town life in the early 20th century.

-Hamlin Garland, “A Son of the Middle Border,” 1917.

-Sherwood Anderson, “Wineburg, Ohio,” 1919.

-E.W. Howe, “The Anthology of Another Town,” 1920.

-Sinclair Lewis, “Main Street,” 1920.

A classic by Lewis, the novel is about a progressive woman who moves to a small Minnesota town with her new husband. After seeing their conservative ways, she attempts to bring reforms to the town with mixed success. Lewis was almost awarded a Pulitzer for the work, which is one of best known works.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, “The Moon Maid,” 1926.

-Philip Francis Nowlan, “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” 1928.

A classic early science fiction piece, this book features the character Anthony Rogers, who eventually evolved into the famous Buck Rogers! A story of a WWI veteran who is placed into suspended animation during a cave-in and is woken up again in 2419. He walks into a world where the United States has been taken over by the technologically superior Airlords of Han, a conglomerate of Asian nations who control powerful floating cities. This book laid the groundwork for a lot of really great science fiction works and also has some interesting predictions of future technology!

-R.C. Sherriff, “Journey’s End,” 1928.

-Edna Ferber, “Cimarron,” 1929.

A novel about the Oklahoma Land Rush in the late 19th century. The story follows a couple as they move to the Sooner State and make their fortune. Pretty popular in its day, it was later made into a movie in 1931 and later in 1960.

-John O’Hara, “The Doctor’s Son,” 1935.

-Christopher Isherwood, “Goodbye to Berlin,” 1939.

-James Street, “Tap Roots,” 1942.

-Frederic Wakeman, “The Hucksters,” 1946.

-James Thurber, “The Beast in Me and Other Animals,” 1948.

-Joe David Brown, “Addie Pray,” 1971.

-Thomas Pynchon, “Mason & Dixon,” 1997.

-Molly McCully Brown, “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems,” 2017.

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