Choice Magazine's List of "Top 25 Outstanding Academic Books of 2011" Includes Five Books by AHA Members

Elisabeth Grant, January 2012

Editor's Note: The purpose of this column, which is published in Perspectives on History as space permits, is to recognize and honor the accomplishments of AHA members. Submissions are welcome; entries will be published in alphabetical order. To submit an entry, e-mail or write to Elisabeth Grant, Web Editor, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889.

Thomas C. Holt (Univ. of Chicago), Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (Hill and Wang, 2011). Ordinary people don't experience history as it is taught by historians. They live across the convenient chronological divides we impose on the past. The same people who lived through the Civil War and the eradication of slavery also dealt with the hardships of Reconstruction, so why do we almost always treat them separately? In this groundbreaking new book, renowned historian Thomas C. Holt challenges this form to tell the story of generations of African Americans through the lived experience of the subjects themselves, with all of the nuances, ironies, contradictions, and complexities one might expect.

Louis Hyman (Harvard Univ.), Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011). Before the 20th century, personal debt resided on the fringes of the American economy, the province of small-time criminals and struggling merchants. By the end of the century, however, the most profitable corporations and banks in the country lent money to millions of American debtors. How did this happen? The first book to follow the history of personal debt in modern America, Debtor Nation traces the evolution of debt over the course of the twentieth century, following its transformation from fringe to mainstream—thanks to federal policy, financial innovation, and retail competition.

Samuel Moyn (Columbia Univ.), The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010). Human rights offer a vision of international justice that today's idealistic millions hold dear. Yet the very concept on which the movement is based became familiar only a few decades ago when it profoundly reshaped our hopes for an improved humanity. In this pioneering book, Samuel Moyn elevates that extraordinary transformation to center stage and asks what it reveals about the ideal's troubled present and uncertain future.

Pauline Maier (MIT), Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010). In this splendid new history, Pauline Maier tells the dramatic story of the yearlong battle over ratification that brought such famous founders as Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Henry together with less well-known Americans who sometimes eloquently and always passionately expressed their hopes and fears for their new country. Men argued in taverns and coffeehouses; women joined the debate in their parlors; broadsides and newspaper stories advocated various points of view and excoriated others. In small towns and counties across the country people read the document carefully and knew it well. Americans seized the opportunity to play a role in shaping the new nation. Then the ratifying conventions chosen by "We the People" scrutinized and debated the Constitution clause by clause.

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (Univ. of Michigan, emerita), This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010). This book traces the origins of American violence, racism, and paranoia to the founding moments of the new nation and the initial instability of Americans' national sense of self. Fusing cultural and political analyses to create a new form of political history, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explores the ways the founding generation, lacking a common history, governmental infrastructures, and shared culture, solidified their national sense of self by imagining a series of "Others" (African Americans, Native Americans, women, the propertyless) whose differences from European American male founders overshadowed the differences that divided those founders. These "Others," dangerous and polluting, had to be excluded from the European American body politic. Feared, but also desired, they refused to be marginalized, incurring increasingly enraged enactments of their political and social exclusion that shaped our long history of racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Close readings of political rhetoric during the Constitutional debates reveal the genesis of this long history.

Adapted from the blog post of December 15, 2011, on AHA Today by Elisabeth Grant, AHA web editor. The book descriptions are from the publishers.