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After my Glenn Beck piece of last week…

06/23/2010 Comments (50)

A reader writes:

Many of my Catholic friends want “Good” alternative Books on U.S. History vs. the books being promoted by Glenn Beck? After sharing your blog But I Learn So Much from Glenn Beck! many people want good books about U.S. History.

Can you make any recommendations of good U.S. History books?

First, a caveat.  I would be as cautious about rejecting books just because they were mentioned by Beck as I would about uncritically embracing books promoted by Beck.  Beck may very well recommend books that are quite good, just as, for instance, many fundamentalists will constantly recommend the greatest book in the world, the Bible.  The problem is not with the book, but with who is doing the interpreting.

I’m no expert and am, in fact, an amateur (that is, a passionate lover) of history.  I’m more of a fan of pre-modern history, though certain periods in American history are fascinating to me (especially, the Civil War).  In approaching matters of history, I think getting a sense of the Big Picture is important.  So I would suggest (again, as a total non-expert) something that gives you a Big Picture. I think Alistair Cooke’s America is good (he also did a great series back in the 70s that is impossible to find on DVD but which, I am happy to report, some kind soul has made available on Youtube (pieced out in 10 minute increments starting here).  Be aware that Cooke’s British hostility to Spanish Catholicism sometimes bleeds through, but there is still much of value here. Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton are both good on the Civil War.  David McCullough’s work is very good.  Stephen Ambrose too.  I have a good set of volumes that are now 45 years out of date from Time Life, but which still do a good job of giving you an overview of the themes and personalities of the American story. Dunno if it’s still in print in some updated edition. History always gets dicier the closer you come to your own time.  Hard to get perspective.  I’d also recommend A History of the American People by Paul Johnson (an English Catholic, by the way). 

But again I would emphasize this: I’m no expert.  What you really want to do is talk to a good teacher of history and get some recommendations.  Getting an overview of American history is a good place to start, then you can focus on particular areas of interest.  Avoid conspiracy theories (aptly described by Kathy Shaidle as “history for stupid people”).  Also, though every historian will naturally attempt to frame his work in some narrative structure that makes sense of cause and effect in the turbulent weather system that is history, beware of people with ideological All Explaining Theories of Everything (“History is nothing but…” followed by the attempt to make history fit into some system of The Triumph of Capitalism, or Communism, or Marxism or Evolution or whatever).  History is very resistant to simplistic reductionism.  That’s because History is the story of the actions of people with free will acting according to the folly of original sin *and* the miracles of grace, as well as a whole lot of merely human whim, odd coincidences, and stunning acts of valor and cruelty.  Similarly, beware of facile “connecting the dots” sort of history (Beck’s specialty) which does things like “A fasces was a symbol of fascism.  Here’s a fasces on the back of a Mercury Dime.  Mercury Dimes were minted by Wilson!  Wilson was a fascist!”  That’s not history.  It’s pseudo-history.

Finally, a word about historiography.  In a time of extreme tribalism like ours, people who are trying to explore history are excessively afraid of contamination by contact with books written by people with the Wrong Associations.  I once had a rather dim-witted woman of Leftist sympathy hand me a catalog of books filled with works like the Federalist Papers and biographies of Jefferson and Madison by first rate historians.  All she wanted to know was whether the catalog publisher was “liberal” or (and you could hear the tone of her voice tint with disgust) “conservative”.  She could give no consideration to the quality of the books as books.  Everything was to be judged by the tribal affiliation of the catalog publisher.  And, of course, the same thing happens on the Right.  “David McCullough wrote a book about Theodore Roosevelt?  But didn’t Glenn Beck say Roosevelt was a Progressive?  Well then, we can’t trust a word McCullough says.  He’s one of Them!”  Such people deprive themselves of contact with a first rate historian in their zeal to protect themselves from ritual impurity via contact with the Unclean Outsider.  The problem is: to study history in anything but the most superficial way means to make contact with minds and ideas hailing from cultures and civilization that think and act in ways radically foreign to you.  The past, as the saying goes, is another country.

Bottom line:  History is written by historians who all have particular points of view and outlooks framed by their time and culture. They can be nonetheless be invaluable historians writing about invaluable historic knowledge.  And indeed, there is no historian who is not affected by his time and culture. A friend who is a historian will sometimes show the 1938 and 1990 versions of Robin Hood, featuring the scene where Robin meets Maid Marian.  First version, Marian is uber feminine.  Second version, uber feminista.  Just as the times influence what goes into our art, so the times influence what a historian thinks is important and how he will read the same historical data that another historian might see in a completely different way.  That’s just how history is done and there’s no hope—no hope whatsoever—in trying to find a perfectly impartial and unbiased historian.  No such animal.  So instead what we should do is learn to read reliable sources widely, not only from different modern sources but from different pre-modern sources. Part of Beck’s problem is that he has read one author (a Mormon crank) and imbibed his picture of history as The Picture of History.  Even great historians, let alone cranks, should not be anointed as The Magisterial Interpreter of History.  Truth—especially historical truth—is symphonic and is built up as a mosaic of information from the great chorus of human witnesses.  That doesn’t mean that everybody is writing nothing but rank agitprop and it’s impossible to really know what happened in the past.  Rather, it means that even writers who try hard to be fair will still be affected by the assumptions of their age.  This doesn’t just create differences by the way.  It also creates commonalities—and blind spots—which can be unexpected.  That is why C.S. Lewis recommended the reading of old books along with modern ones:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

That’s why, in addition to studying US history, I would recommend some looks at world history.  The US is young and its history is fairly brief.  When Rome was as old as the US it was still in diapers and its greatest year lay far in the future.  Reading about how it was the world was able to give birth to the US involves us in world history.  But that’s for another time. Hope this helps for now.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.