May 24th, 2012


Favourite Presidential Historians

In a previous journal entry, a thread developed about some of our favourite history writers are. To quote direcorrector, "if there is a Doris Kearns Goodwin book or a David McCullough book on the topic at hand, I will be reading it." It's hard to argue with that.

Who are some of your favourite writers of US history or Presidential biographies? Here's a list of some of my favourites, I'd love to know who yours are.

1. H. W. Brands: Henry William "Billiam" Brands is an American historian and author of 22 books and is also a Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. If you follow him on Twitter, you will know that he loves to tweet "Haiku history" (little snippets of history in the form of Haiku). Earlier this month his most recent book The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr went on sale. For me his best biographies of Presidents were Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, and Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also wrote the biography of Woodrow Wilson for the American Presidents Series and many other wonderful books. I feel the same way about Brands that direcorrector feels about Goodwin and McCulloch.

2. Speaking of Doris Kearns Goodwin, she really cemented her reputation as an excellent writer with Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which is being made into a Steven Spielberg movie. Goodwin taught at Harvard University, including the course on American Presidency. She worked as an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson during his last year in the White House and she later assisted Johnson on the preparation of his memoirs. In 1976 she wrote Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She also wrote No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Homefront During World War II in 1995.

3. David Pietrusza: This guy is brilliant! He makes me smile and want to read more. I haven't read his book on the 1948 election yet (called 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America,) but it will be one of the next two books I read. His other books on election years, 1960-LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies and 1920: The Year of Six Presidents were terrific because they contained a lot of information not found in traditional history books.

4. Robert Remini: He is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and his specialty is the Jacksonian Era. He has written 9 books about Jackson including a three volume set, but I especially like his books about some of the lesser known Presidents including his biography of John Quincy Adams for the American Presidents Series, as well as his wonderful biography entitled Henry Clay: Statesman For The Union.

5. John Eisenhower: The son of President Dwight Eisenhower and a former Army general himself, John Eisenhower has written about the Mexican-War in So Far From God: The US War With Mexico as well as the biography of Zachary Taylor for the American Presidents series, a wonderful biography of Winfield Scott entitled Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott and a book about his father entitled General Ike: A Personal Reminiscence.

6. Zachary Karabell is an author and economist who writes for the Wall Street Journal. I'm a fan of his writing mainly because I loved his book on the 1948 election entitled The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won The 1948 Election and his American Presidents Series biography of Chester Alan Arthur. Lately though he's been writing mainly on economics. For some people, making money is more interesting that history, and the best kind of dead presidents are the kind that you can fold and put in your wallet.

7. Sarah Vowell is perfect to read if you want to laugh out loud, see the ironic or wry side of history, and have had it up to here with pedantic and pretentious historians. Assassination Vacation is probably her only book about Presidents (it contains essays on her travels to historic sights related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley), but she has some other histories as well. Where else will you read an author who calls Robert Lincoln (who was in the vicinity of three assassinations) Jinxey McDeath? She is often a guest on The Daily Show and she personfies the notion that history can be fun if you have the right frame of mind.

8. Ron Chernow is nothing if not through. His 904 page biography entitled Washington: A Life contains everything you could possibly want to know about the first President. (It was too daunting to read, so I listened to it on audiobook over several months of walking my dog Abby). He's also written an award winning biography of Alexander Hamilton.

There are so many other good writers including David McCulloch, John Milton Cooper, Candice Millard to mention a few. But this post is already too long. So please comment and tell me who your favourite history writers are. Thank you!