Ten Books That Have Taught Me About America

Deal W. Hudson

July 4, 2018

Though I have not read as widely in American history as I should have, some books have remained with me since I read them.  They have shaped for me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my native country. I’m not going to list some of the obvious suspects such as The Federalist Papers, although that should be at the top of anyone’s list. Instead, I offer a personal list chosen out of my unsystematic reading on the subject.

  1. 1777 by David McCullough (2005). I have no idea how close we came to losing the American Revolution until I read McCullough’s dramatic account. Neither was I aware of George Washington’s true stature behind all the stories so often repeated.
  2. Truman by David McCullough (1992). Need I apologize for two by McCullough in a row? Absolutely not! At a personal level, Truman is a story about a mid-westerner with little formal learning but remarkable commonsense and a more remarkable work ethic who rises to the occasion when suddenly faced with the necessity of negotiation with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Douglas MacArthur. As a work of history, Truman illuminates how the American character overcame powerful temptations to divide into a factionalism which would have weakened our resolve to end the war in Europe and the Pacific.
  3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016). I grew up in a relatively safe middle-class household shield for the most part from afflictions described by Vance about his youth in a Rust Belt Ohio town. His world of drugs; child and spouse abuse; debilitating poverty; constant job insecurity, poor education; and pervasive lack of hope was one I knew next to nothing about. To be confronted so vividly with that world and the twists of fate, or grace, that save only a few greatly enlarged what I understood about the limitations of the American Dream.
  4. Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer (2009). This book came as a sort of revelation — I had never read anything in depth about the founding of America from the North, a story of how two nations, Canada and the United States, grew out of the encounter between French and British explorers with the native inhabitants along the lakes, rivers, and bays of 17th century exploration. The hero of Fischer’s book — Samuel de Champlain — can stand aside any of our nation’s heroes in determination to secure human rights and religious toleration.  
  5. Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment by Patrick K. O’Donnell  (2016). The best way I can describe this delicious book is a more thorough treatment of account by McCullough in 1776 of how Washington’s army overmatched in every way eventually prevailed. O’Donnell’s account of the early clashes around Manhattan, notably the Battle of Brooklyn, formed no part of my education in American history, and what a story! Washington’s army could have been destroyed had it not been for the sacrificial effort of 256 ‘Maryland Heroes’ who gave the Commander time to evacuate his remaining men. Also quite astounding was the sheer arrogance of the British leadership in failing to recognize the opportunity to end the rebellion right then and there.
  6. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their LovesTheir Work by Susan Cheever (2007). In the middle of the nineteenth century, a remarkable gathering of intellectual talent lived in the same city of Concord, MA, a group whose writing would leave as deep a stamp on the American character as the Founders themselves a century earlier. Emerson served as the godfather to the group which inevitably created barely concealed rivalries with writers of equal talent, particularly Hawthorne and Thoreau. And, yes, there were other barely concealed dynamics as well, none evidently consummated — they were all heirs to New England Puritanism thought they sought refuge in prodigious learning, transcendentalism, and a form of Christianity resembling classical humanism. 
  7. Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience by Kevin Starr (2016). I had the privilege of interviewing the author about this book twice before he was suddenly taken away from us. To those who believe all the roots of America are Protestant, this book is a definitive refutation. In fact, one country in the Americas, the United States had Catholic roots growing from all geographical directions. Yes, the Founding elite were almost all Protestant, but as Starr shows parts of the vast territory eventually unified as the United States had a Catholic character long before the rise of the WASPs! 
  8. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel (2013). As I said about McCullough’s 1776, I did not know how close we came to be reconquered by Great Britain following the August 24, 1814 raid on Washington, DC which caught our leaders and military entirely unawares, leaving the White House and the Capitol destroyed by fire. As the heavily manned British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake towards Baltimore, if it had not been for command of Major General Samuel Smith Baltimore would have very likely been taken, with nothing standing in the way of the British all the way up the Eastern coast of the US.
  9. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (2011). I had always thought John Brown was just a maniac, and then I read this book. Yes, he was a maniac of a kind but with deep intelligence, flamboyant personality, and irresistible leadership. Horwitz hour by hour account of the showdown in Harper’s Ferry is riveting, especially given Brown was under attack by U. S. soldiers under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee, we are told, did everything he could to keep deaths to a minimum, which he did in spite of Brown’s unwillingness to surrender. Most memorable, however, is Horwitz’s account of John Brown’s capture, trial, and execution — how those around him, even Lee, began to admire him.
  10. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s by Roger Kahn (1999). What an eye-opener this book was! Boxing in the sport in our nation long before football, baseball, and basketball began competing to be the nation’s favorite pastime. Boxing events and personalities, such as Dempsey, became the foundation of mass entertainment, beginning with July 21, 1921, the first-ever live radio broadcast of a world title fight between Dempsey and Georges Carpenter in Jersey City. Kahn connects Dempsey to the Roaring 20s, the Flappers, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, Coolidge, segregation, and organized crime.

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