Last month, at a White House history conference, President Trump attacked the 1619 Project, a series of essays published in the New York Times Magazine. The project—conceived by staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, with contributions by Matthew Desmond, Wesley Morris, and others—explores the centrality of slavery to the story of America. Trump claimed that the 1619 Project has been “discredited”—in fact, Hannah-Jones’ own essay won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary—and groused that the “left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” He called for the establishment of a “1776 commission” to promote “patriotic education.”
Leaving aside the matter of nationally mandated “patriotic education”—which sounds like something out of Stalin’s Soviet Union—the president clearly misunderstands the nature of historiography, which involves not simply a fixed set of facts, but an ongoing dialogue with historians past and present. Just as new discoveries alter what we know about the past, so too our interpretations and conclusions transform over time. That’s the nature of historical inquiry.
The best works of American history make us rethink what we know and see the country’s story from a different angle. Here are a few outstanding titles that Kirkus has reviewed in recent years; any of them would be a worthy addition to your own personal historical commission:
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (Norton, 2018): At a time when so many works of nonfiction drill down to explore a specific subject in great depth, it’s refreshing to see a smart, readable one-volume history of the U.S.—especially when it’s written by Lepore, the Harvard professor and New Yorker writer who brings such verve and intelligence to all her work. Lepore tackles the major events and themes of our national history—wars, slavery, the Depression, etc.—while shining a light in more unfamiliar corners. Our reviewer called it “a splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope.”
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present by David Treuer (Riverhead, 2018): Kirkus’ reviewer called this book a “welcome modern rejoinder to classics such as God Is Red and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Treuer, an Ojibwe novelist and historian, begins where Dee Brown left off—with the massacre at Wounded Knee—and tells the little-told story of Indigenous peoples in the United States in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with significant accounts of Native resistance, from the American Indian Movement of the 1970s to Standing Rock. “We seem to be everywhere,” Treuer writes, “and doing everything.”
The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee (Simon Schuster, 2015): A recent Pew Research Center analysis of census data found that Asian Americans are the fastest growing group of eligible voters out of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. But they are woefully underrepresented in most tellings of American history—an omission corrected in this thorough book by a historian of immigration, the great-great-great-granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant. Kirkus called the book a “powerful, timely story told with method and dignity.”
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016): One of the myths Americans like to tell ourselves is that class doesn’t matter in this country—anyone can live the American dream. Isenberg shows otherwise, examining the role poor, landless Whites have played in our country’s history, beginning with the indentured servants brought to Jamestown and Plymouth in the 17th century. “From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck,” our reviewer wrote, “Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States.”
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.