The Ten Best History Books of 2019

Our favorite titles of the year resurrect forgotten histories and help explain how we got to where we are today

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Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

The history books we loved most in 2019 span centuries, nations and wars. From womanhood to nationhood, they challenge the construction of identity and mythology. They tell the stories of celebrity weddings, bootlegging trials, and people, places and things we thought we knew but prove, upon closer inspection, to be far more complex.

The Season: A Social History of the Debutante

When Consuelo Vanderbilt of the wealthy American Vanderbilt family married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, she was one of the most famous debutantes in the world, at a time when interest in the doings of the rich had never been more scrutinized. Consuelo had spent her whole life training to marry a royal, and the event itself was covered in major newspapers across the globe. In The Season: A Social History of the Debutante, author Kristen Richardson contextualizes Consuelo and her wedding—and those of other famous debutantes, or young women making their societal debut, from the 1600s to today. The book is a centuries-spanning look at how debutantes and their rituals, from the antebellum South to modern-day Russia, have shaped marriage and womanhood in America and abroad.

The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America

For a time, George Remus had it all. The most successful bootlegger in America, Cincinnati’s Remus controlled nearly 30 percent of illegal liquor in the United States in the early 1920s. Historian and bestselling author Karen Abbott traces the rise of Remus—he was a pharmacist and a defense attorney—and the inevitable fall as he found himself on trial not just for bootlegging, but for the murder of his own wife. In an interview with Smithsonian, Abbott talked about the connection between Remus and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby: “I think Gatsby and Remus both had these longings of belonging to a world that didn't wholly accept them or fully understand them. Even if Fitzgerald never met Remus, everybody knew who George Remus was by the time Fitzgerald started to draft The Great Gatsby.”

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power

Many Americans know the names of Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, key figures in North American Indigenous history. In his new book, Oxford history professor Pekka Hämäläinen (his previous book, The Comanche Empire, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2009) looks at the history of the Lakota Nation as other historians have looked at ancient Rome—a massive (and massively adaptive) empire that shaped the literal landscape of the Western United States as well as the fates of Indigenous groups for centuries.

American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation

Civil Rights, free love and anti-war protests have become synonymous with the 1960s, but in American Radicals, Holly Jackson, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, traces these movements back a century in a reconsideration of radical protest and social upheaval in the mid-19th century. While some of the names that appear in Jackson’s story, like famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, will be familiar to American history buffs, she also revives forgotten figures like Frances Wright, an heiress whose protests against the institution of marriage inspired Walt Whitman to call her “one of the best [characters] in history, though also one of the least understood.”

Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence

Only six people attended Thomas Paine’s funeral. Once the most famous writer in the American colonies (and, later, the United States of America), the corsetmaker-turned-pamphleteer had been virtually expelled from public life for his radical beliefs and writings, like the ones that suggested a tax on landowners could be used to fund basic income for everyone else. Harlow Giles Unger, a renowned biographer of the Founding Fathers, looks at the Paine we know and the one we don’t, in his telling of the story of a man who pursued Enlightenment ideals even when those ideals ran afoul of what was socially acceptable.

The Cigarette: A Political History

As every day a new story about the dangers of vaping—or the fervent support of vape fans—appears, historian Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette looks at the history of smoking in the United States and reminds us that once upon a time, the government was more concerned with the rights of tobacco companies than the rights of non-smokers. The book deftly connects the rise in organized opponents to smoking to food safety, car safety and other consumer rights movements of the 20th century. Kirkus says Milov “mixes big-picture academic theory with fascinating, specific details to illuminate the rise and fall of tobacco production.”

Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom

In Policing the Open Road, legal historian Sarah A. Seo argues that while cars (and highways, for that matter) have long been associated with freedom in the eyes of American drivers, their advent and rapid domination of travel is the basis for a radical increase in policing and criminalization. From traffic stops to parking tickets, Seo traces the history of cars alongside the history of crime and discovers that the two are inextricably linked. “At times,” says Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, Seo’s work “feels like an underground history―of closeted gay men testing the limits of privacy; of African-Americans, like Jack Johnson or Martin Luther King, Jr., simply trying to get from one place to another.”

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

Using the oral histories of formerly enslaved people, financial records and property history, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, makes a clear case that in the American South, many white women weren’t just complicit in the system of chattel slavery—they actively encouraged and benefited from it. Jones-Rogers’s work dismantles the notion that white women in slaveholding families were silent actors—instead, she argues, they used the institution of slavery to build a specific concept of womanhood that shaped the history of the nation before and after the Civil War.

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

In 1856, the United States passed a law that entitled citizens to take possession of any unclaimed island containing guano deposits—guano, of course, being the excrement of bats. Guano is an excellent fertilizer, and over the course of the 20th century, the U.S. claimed dozens of small islands in remote parts of the world, turning them into territories with few rights of their own. The story of guano is one of many that touch upon the empire forged by the U.S. from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. Daniel Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, tells the often brutal, often tragic stories of these territories in an attempt to make the ‘Greater United States’ truly part of U.S. history.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide

In 1998, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic changed the way we talk about the Civil War and the American South by making the point that for many, even 150 years after the war’s end, the conflict continued. In Spying on the South, published after Horwitz’s death this year, the author returned to the Southern states, this time following the trail of the young Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect whose work defined northern cities like New York and Boston. Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker, called Horwitz “the rare historian—the only historian I can think of—equally at home in the archive and in an interview, a dedicated scholar, a devoted journalist."

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