Reading Suggestions

June 03, 2004

I offered to suggest a couple of books for one of my readers, a person who tends "to prefer reading about people rather than events, and military history is not one of my interests."

That means more biography and prosopography (history of a group of people), some intellectual/cultural history, and very little diplomatic/political history.

My favorite biography is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich A Midwife's Tale - Ulrich takes the diary of Martha Ballard, who worked as a midwife in Maine in the 1790s and 1800s, and decodes it into a full biography of Martha and partial history of her town. She traces the dislocations of the American Revolution and the Jeffersonian/Federalist conflict and shows how they affected the lives of Martha and her family. People who have enjoyed the recent Colonial House TV series might enjoy a look at the same ground some 170 years later.

Alan Taylor's book Liberty Men and Great Proprietors looks at events in mid-Maine from a larger perspective, focusing on the three families who bought the land grants that filled that part of Maine and tried to collect money from the people squatting there, and on the squatters and settlers who did not want to pay the proprietors. He has a wonderful set piece describing Mr and Mrs Henry Knox, and some great stories about settlers, treasure-hunting, and life in mid Maine. Taylor's
William Cooper's Town
looks at Cooperstown, NY, through William Cooper and the fiction of his son James Fenimore Cooper. It got more critical acclaim, but I still have not found it gripping enough to finish it.

Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra is not American history, but it is a wonderful biography of some interesting people. It is sad tragic, so be prepared. I just wrote about it on the reading log.

Anyone who works in a corporate environment should know some corporate history. My two favorite books there are Oliver Zunz Making America Corporate and Alfred Chandler The Visible Hand.

Zunz is the more modest book and it has held up better. He collected brief biographies of several hundred people who worked for corporations at the turn of the 20th century, then digs through these to show how they created modern corporate culture, one incremental little decision at a time. I like it, but when I assigned it in the survey the kids hated it - it was too hard and there were too many names.

Chandler's book is a big structural explanation of why and how we had big corporations in the 20th century. He argues that the successful corporations followed the planning and divisional model of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the DuPont, that planning is more efficient than other modes of doing business, and that once things get big they stay big. He wrote before the third industrial revolution kicked in, and most of the big long-lasting firms that he celebrated in the 1970s when he wrote the book have since gone tits up, merged, or been replaced by new corporations. So, his conclusions are faulty while his story of the growth of corporations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is still quite good.

Another good story about people and business is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis a geographic history of Chicago. This is the history of a place, like Burroughs and Wallace Gotham
but with a more focused argument. I like both; I recommend either to people who have ties to the appropriate city; I prefer Cronon's book.

Finally, for business history, I really like Roland Marchand Advertising the American Dream, a look at the growth of the advertising business in the 1920s. The book is recently back in print and it is a good thing that it is.

Some of the best written American history is written about the South. I am fond of two related books, both large and both focusing on the New South after the American Civil War. C. Van Woodward's The Origins of the New South is a wonderful political history of the era that includes a long discussion of culture and society. Ed Ayers The Promise of the New South is a wonderful cultural history that includes some discussions about politics and especially about the ambiguities of race. Ayers is particularly good at evoking the people of the era; as he describes the origins of the project, he was in the archives reading documents and stories and the people were so strong that he felt unable to summarize their stories, so instead he wrote what is basically a collage and let the people tell their own stories. It is a very postmodern book, in that Ayers disguises his argument and emphasizes the many overlapping voices of the past, but unlike the Cornell school Ayers writes clear grammatical sentences and crafts lucid and compelling prose. His art is to appear transparent when he is not, theirs is to add a layer of opacity to what would otherwise be clear. Both have their uses, but Ayers is a better light read.

That should be enough for now, more later.

Posted by Red Ted at June 3, 2004 10:34 AM | TrackBack