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 Dennis Drabelle
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I've not read the other works you cited, but I'll second your Catton heartily. I'd wager that he is largely responsible for the insatiable public appetite for Civil War history. . . and for good reason. He had wonderful narrative instincts and a fictive style that was as beautifully fluid as an old battlefield creek. He's one of the few writers of history who could entrance you.

Posted by: billbrantley | March 26, 2009 4:19 PM

Bill Hancock's "Riding with the Blue Moth" is the story of his cross-country bike ride from Huntington Beach, Calif. to Tybee Island, Ga. Bill undertook the ride a few months after his prided son had been killed in the 2001 Oklahoma State basketball team crash. Bill for many years was the administrator for the NCAA basketball tournament.

The pain of that loss, and its effect on his family, had Bill so keyed up he felt compelled to do something other than stand and scream at the sky. The return of the "blue moth" is Bill's description of how it felt every time the total agony of his loss would once again invade his thoughts, knocking him flat. It might be a sudden thought of something the two of them had always looked forward to doing--now, never to be....

"I could not predict when the blue moth might attack, dousing me with a napalm that destroyed all hope. I despised the agony that came with those waves of sadness. I hated the savage blue moth." He often pedaled with all he had--feeling its shadow lurking over his shoulder.

His wife, who needed the release as badly as he, accompanied him with car and sleeper. Bill, not used to such strenuous requirements, experienced it all--many times almost quitting. It's a heartbreakingly poignant narrative. "I will miss my son every day for the rest of my life," he says on the last page. But there is triumph, too, as when he crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia: "Historians quote World War II soldiers in February, 1945, as saying to themselves, 'Hey, I might just make it!' That's how I felt: I might actually ride to the Atlantic Ocean; I might return from the war of grief we had waged since the crash."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | March 26, 2009 5:36 PM

Regarding Bruce Catton, I've always thought that "A Stillness at Appomattox" the prettiest and perhaps most conveying of all book titles in American history.

Then there's the beautiful writing. As others have said, if Robert E. Lee didn't surrender the way Bruce Catton described it in "A Stillness at Appomattox" he should have.

Another beloved historian, the African-American John Hope Franklin, died earlier this week. It's nice that he lived long enough--he was 94--to see the Obama presidency.

Franklin's accomplishments were many but it was his well-placed pride I found the most inspirational.

I heard him say at one of the National Book Festivals that following his 1947 "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans" people would come up to him and say things like: "You forgot my great-great grandpa: he was the first man to haul ice in Savannah." Or "You forgot an ancestor of mine: he was the first man to stand on his head in a traveling circus." Franklin, who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard as a young man said, "I didn't forget them, I just wasn't interested."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | March 28, 2009 9:06 AM

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