America Unabridged: The Definitive Guide to the Greatest Books about Our Past

Article excerpt

THIS FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE OF AMERICAN HERITAGE WAS BORN ON THE GARDEN CITY, New York, railroad-station platform. That is where my longtime colleague and Forbes vice president Scott Masterson begins his day and, to hear him tell it, is approached nearly every morning by one neighbor or another with a question that invariably begins: "You work at American Heritage. What's the best book on ...?" The subject might be the Revolution, or the Great Depression, or the Old West, but the aim is identical: to find an authoritative book on a particular aspect of the American past. Scott would relay the questions to one or another of the editors, and we'd do our best to answer them, but we'd find ourselves talking about how there was no overall guide to such books, and how useful it would be if there were. Scott urged us to compile one, and with the laziness common to editors the world around, we'd say: too time-consuming, too complicated, too expensive.

But then our fiftieth anniversary began to loom through the mists of the future, and Scott's enterprise, though daunting, seemed to us more and more worthy of the event.

So here it is, certainly the most challenging editorial task we've ever attempted--and one of the most rewarding. We have drawn on the knowledge and enthusiasm of leading historians, writers, and critics to offer a compendium of the very best books about the American experience. Divided into both chronological and subject categories ranging from the rise of the Republic to sports, from the years of World War II to the African-American journey, each section presents the writer's choice of the 10 best books in a particular field, along with lucid, lively explanations of what makes them great. The result, we believe, is both a valuable reference work and an anthology of highly personal views of the making of our country and our culture that is immensely readable in its own right.

We feel that "America Unabridged" is as unusual as the magazine whose demi-centenary it marks; we are proud to offer it to our readers and are grateful both to them and to its contributors.--R.F.S.

The Colonial Era to 1776

BY JOHN DEMOS

To teach, write, or read about the "colonial era" is a special challenge. No other part of American history is as remote from our own; by the same token, none has been studied for as long. Revisions lie piled on revisions; and divergent styles of scholarship are stretched across an extraordinary range. The tableau of colonial America constructed in, say, 1875 looks markedly different from its successors in 1920 and 1960, and the latter bear only partial resemblance to predominant views today.

The list of books here embodies the work of the last generation or so. As such, its emphasis is social history: everyday life, ordinary people; cultural tradition, popular mentality; race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Still, that constitutes a very big tent, with no single organizing center. The authors themselves are a mixed lot: a semiotician, a biographer, a novelist, a little clutch of museum curators, plus several professional historians (not all of them full-time "colonialists"). But this, too, is emblematic. Precisely because of its remoteness, early American history has excited many different imaginations; indeed it encourages--not to say, insists on--such diversity.

Two caveats. The list does not treat all of colonial America with an even hand; some colonies and regions are more fully represented than others. Moreover, the list makes only light reference to chronology and, if anything, tilts somewhat toward the first part of the story. No doubt, in years to come these same elements will have a very different distribution, since historiography, no less than history itself, is ever-changing.

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. (1972; Greenwood). This was, and is, a foundational work in the very lively sub-field of environmental history. …