Five First-Rate Narrative Histories
Narrative history was considered an endangered species during the 1970s and '80s, when no-frills revisionist scholarship was in the ascendance. But in the decades since, on the shoulders of such bestselling authors as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, narrative history has made a comeback. We've rediscovered the joy of reading true stories of momentous events, told with all the gifts of dramatic organization, shrewd assesment of human character and gripping prose style that a writer can command. I've gathered together some of my favorites -- I won't claim that they're the absolute best examples of narrative history I've ever read, but they are certainly among the most memorable.
1. A Stillness at Appomattox (1953), by Bruce Catton.
This, the third volume of Catton's superb Army of the Potomac trilogy, brings Grant and Lee together for the endgame of the Civil War. Among the book's great moments are the pulse-racing account of the Battle of the Crater, when Union soldiers tunneled under the Confederates' entrenched position and set off dynamite in an attempt to blow the enemy's line apart; and a more subtle moment after the stalemate of the Battle of the Wilderness. Previously, whenever the Army of Potomac failed to beat Robert E. Lee, it retreated or "skedaddled" laterally. Not this time. With that bulldog Ulysses Grant now in command, the army moved south, and when the "boys" realized what was going on and caught sight of Grant himself, they broke into "a wild cheer." For the first time, as Catton explains, they could believe in "victory for those who lived to see it."
2. The White Nile (1960), by Alan Moorehead.
Simply one of the best -- and best written -- books about exploring ever written. Its cast includes Sir Richard Burton, John Speke, Stanley and Livingstone, Samuel Baker and many others, most of them trying to track the eponymous river to its elusive source, with danger lurking at every bend.
3. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: The Drift to Revolution 1825-1917 (1976), by Edward Crankshaw.
One of the virtues of this haunting account of Russia in the century leading up to the revolution is to almost make you feel sorry for the czars. Faced with agitation by progressives and mayhem by anarchists, they didn't know whether to crack down or lighten up -- and invariably seemed to make the wrong choice.
4. The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (1988), by Pierre Berton.
I can think of no stronger endorsement than to call this book an icy equivalent of The White Nile. The explorers of the Arctic included an inordinate number of martinets, such as Charles Francis Hall, who was probably given a fatal dose of poison by his ship's doctor, and Robert Peary, who made it easy to doubt his claim to have reached the North Pole in 1909 by limiting membership in the final trekking party to men who couldn't check his navigational position.
5. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999), by David Kennedy.
I didn't plan it this way, but Freedom from Fear is the only one of my big five to be written by an academic: That makes sense because, as a volume in the Oxford History of the United States, the book was meant to have narrative brio. (Another volume in the series is James McPherson's terrific Battle Cry of Freedom, which has received so much praise that I can hardly add to it.) Among other strengths, Kennedy's history of a tumultuous period is a good source for those debating the question of whether New Deal government spending overcame the Depression or not.
I invite you to submit your own choices of first-rate narrative history.
-- Dennis Drabelle
By Denny Drabelle |
March 26, 2009; 10:50 AM ET
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