The Best History Books of 2015

Beyond the boldface names are these chronicles from the past year that are well worth your time

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smithsonian.com

The year now passing was one for the history-related books, what with offerings from such luminaries as Sarah Vowell (Lafayette in the Somewhat United States), Eric Larson (Dead Wake, on the sinking of the Lusitania), T.J. Stiles (Custer’s Trials), Stacy Schiff (The Witches), H.W. Brands (Reagan: The Life) and Jon Meacham (Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush). But here are 10 more titles that caught our eye:

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, by Terry Alford

The first modern soup-to-nuts biography of Lincoln’s assassin and a worthy companion to Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus (2004) and Edward Steers Jr.’s Blood on the Moon (2001), landmark studies of the crime itself.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

A new look at an ancient civilization (the title is the Latin reference for “the People and the Senate of Rome”) from Britain’s much-celebrated classicist. (Read our Q & A with Beard about her book.)

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert:

The winner of a 2015 Bancroft Prize explains how one commodity in the 19th century remade global capitalism and created the modern world.

The Oregon Trail, A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck 

An aging, divorced journalist retraces, in a mule-drawn wagon, the route by which some 400,000 19th-century settlers journeyed the 2,000 miles from Missouri to Oregon.

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman

A new history of the gay-rights movement noted for the attention it pays to the dilemmas lesbians faced in both the (male-dominated) homophile-rights movement and the (straight-dominated) women’s movement.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West, by David Gessner

A probing joint biography—not only of the two writers who populate the title, but also of the region they defined in the American imagination and the one now pressed by drought and development.

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette

A monumental (600-plus-page) history of the role of slavery in the development of the U.S. economy, from the earliest colonial days to emancipation.

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan

Extraordinary? Tumultuous? Those adjectives only begin to describe this woman’s life—even before she defected to the United States in 1967, in the middle of the Cold War, and returned to the Soviet Union in 1984.

Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaireby Shane White

An enthralling biography of a bare-knuckled 19th-century capitalist who, because of his race, led what the author calls “an absurd life”—“In business, he was a Master of the Universe, but the moment he stepped out of his office he was, by the lights of most New Yorkers, an inferior being.”

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

An eventful biography that resurrects the largely forgotten German naturalist as the man who shaped how we see the natural world and an important influence on such American thinkers as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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