History · Nonfiction

Semester Review: Historiography Book List

I went back and forth on doing a semester review for last fall. Two of the classes (Museum Administration and History of American Architecture) would be difficult to sum up and not terribly helpful for anyone else. I have had people ask me for grad school book recommendations though, so I finally decided to just do one, in the form of a book list, for my favorite class: Historiography! The history of history, study of methodologies and theory, that sort of thing. We read an important history book each week and discussed it in detail, covering the type of history, the book’s audience, the historian’s approach, and how effective the book was at achieving its goal. As I’m sure you can imagine, this was a crash course in learning how to skim historical monographs.

Additional assignments:

  • Brief written responses to a question the professor posed about each book.
  • A 3- to 4-page written book review, chosen from any of the first six weeks’ readings.
  • An oral book review on a book related to that week’s reading. These were listed in the syllabus and we volunteered for the set of books we wanted to discuss.
  • An 8- to 10-page historiographical essay, describing and analyzing the history of scholarship on a topic of our choosing. Mine was about queer Southern history, and is posted here.

The book list, with comments:

The Making of the English Working Class – E. P. Thompson, 1966

This book transformed the historical profession with its Marx-inspired social history approach, so we started here. It’s huge. It’s got very small print. It is not at in any way engaging. However, since we were physically incapable of reading a book this size in a week, it was a pretty good introduction to the realities of skimming. And if you’re at all interested in the topic, it’s one to know.

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft – Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, 1974

Salem PossessedThe first fun book, and accessible to a lay reader! Using previously-unseen records from the time, it lays out Boyer and Nissenbaum’s hypothesis about emerging capitalism during the Salem Witch Trials and how those changes influenced — even caused — the trials as we know them today. There were witch scares in other similar towns, but none of them became stories with this much cultural staying power, and Salem had specific differences that can help explain that. Really fascinating in its own right, and we also referred back to this book in almost every discussion thereafter, because it raises the question of how much historians can know about the past. The authors, our professor, and I myself concur that in many cases, historians can know more about the past than actual historical characters. “We don’t know because we weren’t there” only applies to a tiny part of what we do.

The Return of Martin Guerre – Natalie Zemon Davis, 1984

Another fun one I can recommend! It’s a microhistory — a study of an extremely specific time, place, and event, and also a work of women’s history, although not necessarily feminist history. It’s about a woman — Bertrande du Rols, the wife of Martin Guerre — but doesn’t address power structures like a feminist history. It’s still great, though, and sensational. Martin Guerre abandoned his wife, and then “returned” years later, reuniting with her and living happily for some time. But wait! He was an impostor! The revelation leads to a gripping courtroom scene with a twist ending. The book is short and cool, and it also stirs questions about not only feminism, but about how much historians can or should “fill in the gaps” of a history, how much they can know about internal thoughts.

The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution – Roger Chartier, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, 1991)

I can’t lie, this one is extremely boring. I was fortunate enough to get a second-hand copy, and the previous owner was a skilled underliner, so I pretty much just read her underlines. However, the thesis is significant. Previously, the French Revolution had been understood in intellectual terms, as a response to the Enlightenment. Chartier argues for the importance of cultural influence, and suggests that French revolutionaries may even have retroactively “created” the Enlightenment, codifying the books that “counted” as part of it, during their process of rationalizing what they’d done.

I did my oral book report this week, on The Family Romance of the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt. It was much more interesting, addressing how families were conceptualized in French culture before, during, and after the Revolution, as seen in literature and art. Her emphasis on Freudian motivations got out of hand, but I loved that she incorporated popular culture as a window into the people’s thoughts, even down to weird Marie Antoinette-themed porn pamphlets.

Gay New YorkGay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 – George Chauncey, 1995

Love this one! It was a foundational work in queer history, revealing how incredibly visible gay culture had been, and the different ways it was conceptualized, in the early 20th century. We imagine everyone being “in the closet” until Stonewall, but like all terms, the “closet” is a concept created and used in a specific time and place. So is “gay.” Chauncey demonstrated New York’s rich and varied pre-WWII queer history on a solid historical basis, and changed the whole field of scholarship. It’s big, and I’m still planning on coming back to read it in more depth, but definitely check this out if you’re interested in the field.

Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia – Kathleen M. Brown, 1996

Another boring one, but a real feminist history, raising some pretty fascinating questions about intersectionality and historical categorizations of people. She convincingly demonstrates how women and slaves were conceptualized within colonial power structures, and that’s still hugely relevant today. I did my book review on this one, although I’m not sure it helped me remember the book.

Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe – Timothy Burke, 1996

An unexpected topic, but an interesting one, touching on imperialism and how advertisements function. Worth a read if you’re interested in African studies, consumerism, etc.

History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth – Paul A. Cohen, 1997

Interesting from a historian’s perspective, as Cohen addresses the limits of what historians can actually do. There’s the “truth” about an event, there’s the way people subjectively remember that event, and then there’s the social myth or popular narrative that develops around an event. However, I don’t think the book was fully successful. It occupied a confusing middle ground between “history of the Boxer rebellion” and “theoretical history discussion,” and it should’ve approached from one or the other direction instead of down the middle. I also think his three sections are all history, and it irritates me that he thinks they’re not. Experience is one thing, and myth is another thing, and both of them affect how history is done, but in writing them down this way, he’s still doing history.

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy – Kenneth Pomeranz, 2000

Worst. class. ever. No one understood this book. No one could find anything meaningful to say about it in discussion. We were sent home halfway through class time. I have never felt more inadequate.

However, if you’re an economist with the associated vocabulary and interests, perhaps this book would be meaningful for you.

Facing the Nazi PastFacing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich – Bill Niven, 2002

A more-than-welcome change after the economy book! This one is a kind of history of public history, describing the ways Germany has dealt with its WWII history through exhibits, public speeches, books, and more. As a public historian, this book was a goldmine of research and brought up so many worthwhile questions about why and how to present history for the public. The author was occasionally condescending, but it’s a small book, it was manageable.

A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era – Matthew Connelly, 2003

A fully traditional history. It has relevance to modern international politics, but that relevance isn’t the main point. The book exists to present details about a historic event in a traditional way. That’s totally fine, I agree that history is self-evidently important and for someone else’s work on Algeria or world politics it might be great, but it had nothing to offer me.

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America – Jon Coleman, 2004

A cool popular history, another one suitable for the casual reader and one I’ll return to for a more complete reading. Some classmates didn’t think it was a significant topic, but I loved it. How humans interact with animals as a culture, not just as individuals, can be a powerful statement about that culture. Coleman verged into ahistorical claims about how things have “always” been when he’s explaining motivations, but for the most part it’s a fascinating study with a creative interdisciplinary approach — biology and history.

The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe – Marci Shore, 2013

Again, I must be honest — I didn’t read a word of this book, because it was due the same day as our paper. I tried, and retained nothing. In fact, I was literally delirious through most of the class because I hadn’t slept and it was the last big thing I had to turn in, so I can’t make any qualitative statements about the book. As a summary, it’s sort of a work memoir about Shore’s research in Eastern Europe, a behind-the-scenes look at the process behind her more-traditional historical monograph. Seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing, depending on what you think of her attitude.


2 thoughts on “Semester Review: Historiography Book List

  1. Sounds like an great class! I read The Return of Martin Guerre in one of my undergraduate classes and loved it. They also made a fairly faithful (and good) film adaptation of it with Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, if you haven’t seen it (and a not so good one with Jody Foster and Richard Gere).

    Several of the books sound interesting; I might have to add them to my ever growing list of books to read.



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