With A Little Help From My Historian Friends

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

After reading a series of books on Detroit, I'm back to my Civil War/Slavery kick. As a kind of an extension of that, I started Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause a few months ago. I was struggling with it at the time, and didn't find it to be written particularly well. I'm back on The Glorious Cause and it's even more maddening now. I don't know if I was spoiled by Battle Cry Of Freedom or what, but The Glorious Cause just isn't moving for me. I'm having to go back and read pages two, three times to keep track of events.

I think historians sometimes feel like good writing is icing on the cake, and can be given short-shrift. But good writing isn't just more enjoyable, it's actually more efficient. I don't get the sense that Middlekauff is dealing with anything more complicated than McPherson. Indeed, Battle Cry tackles everything from the monetary system to American expansionism, all under the rubric of the Civil War. But McPherson is able to take all those disparate strands and weave a narrative out of them. I just don't feel like I'm getting that from Middlekauff. The book feels vaguer, somehow. For me, presuming the author's honesty, clear writing is clear thinking. It's extremely important to me, and I can't really cut any slack for historians. I just don't have time. 

That said, I struggled through American Slavery, American Freedom, and by the end, I was really glad I had. For those familiar with Middlekauff, is the payoff the same? If not can you recommend a solid, well-written history of the American Revolution? I know citing McPherson sets a high bar, but seriously, it's the birth of our country. I really don't want to read a cheap Mchistory either. I'm not interested in propaganda or writers who confuse themselves with the story. But I'm desperately curious. And I can't keep re-reading chapters to get clear.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/12/with-a-little-help-from-my-historian-friends/32741/