I am what might be termed an “armchair historian.” As a lifelong student of American history, I have read hundreds of books covering nearly every aspect of the subject I hold in such reverence. I’m also a collector of books. I currently own a personal library of over 300 volumes of history. More than just a few of the volumes that adorn my bookshelves have won the Pulitzer Prize for History. They are the “best of the best.”
The Pulitzer prizes are the most prestigious awards given in the United States for journalistic and literary excellence. They are named for Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), a nineteenth century Hungarian-born immigrant to the United States, who became the most powerful and influential newspaper publisher of his time. In his 1904 will, Pulitzer provided for the establishment of prizes for excellence in journalism, letters, and drama. Pulitzer specified a board of overseers (now called the Pulitzer Prize Board) to administer the awards. The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917; only eight categories existed then. Now, nearly a century later, the awards have been expanded to 21 categories (14 for Journalism and 7 for Letters, Drama, and Music). Juries of distinguished writers and journalists select winners and finalists from thousands of entrants.
History is one of the original categories specified in Pulitzer’s will. Criteria for the award are simple: the winner shall be “…a distinguished and appropriately documented book upon the history of the United States.” A winner has been declared every year since 1917, with the exception of 1919, 1984, and 1994. As of this writing, 90 authors have won a Pulitzer Prize for History.
Here is my list of the “Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for History books” of all time. I have read each one of them, and each one of them has an honored place on my bookshelves.
In descending order, may I now introduce:
10. “What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe
(2008 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Oxford University Press
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 is part of the Oxford History of the United States series, the third honored with a Pulitzer Prize. Daniel Walker Howe recalls the era that began in 1815, at the close of the War of 1812, and ended in 1848, at the conclusion of the American war against Mexico. During this period, eight presidents, from James Madison to James K. Polk, held office. It was the time of America’s greatest geographical expansion, as well as a time of tremendous social ferment and technological development. Howe brilliantly balances the political, military, and social aspects of the nation’s history during these three decades. His research is impeccable and his writing is excellent.
9. Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
(2002 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is a slender volume that takes an unusual approach to the two decades immediately following the American Revolution. In only 287 pages, Ellis recounts the closing years of eighteenth century American history through the eyes of the seven men and one woman – Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington – who actually made that history as the nation’s “founding brothers.” This lively and entertaining book is sure to appeal to all who wish to learn more about the men and women who founded our great nation.
8. No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
(1995 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Simon and Schuster
In this masterful work, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s years together in the White House. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: the Home Front in World War II is a very personal biography, with primary emphasis placed on what made the two such an effective political team during one of the most critical periods in 20th century American history. Although this more biography than history, it won in the History category because of how effectively Goodwin places the Roosevelts squarely in the context of the times. It’s a first-rate read, with flowing prose. It’s sure to please anyone with an interest in the history of the U.S. from 1932 through 1945.
7. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War by Mary Boykin Chesnut, C. Vann Woodward, Editor
(1982 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Yale University Press
Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) was the wife of James Chesnut, an aide to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Throughout the Civil War, she kept a detailed diary in which she eloquently and passionately recounted not only the events of each day, but her emotional reaction to them as well. Woodward, who edited her diary and published it as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War in 1981, provides a detailed introduction that’s a masterful mini-history in itself.
6. An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson
(2003 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Henry Holt
In An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Rick Atkinson provides a thorough and judicious examination of the American and British allied military campaign against Germany and Italy in North Africa during 1942-43. This splendid book is the first volume of Atkinson’s projected three-volume “Liberation Trilogy.” (The second volume, The Day of Battle, was published in 2007.) It combines first-class research with a polished, invigorating, and authoritative writing style. It’s truly an essential work for understanding how the Allies gained victory in World War II, and one of the finest books on military history to appear in recent years.
5.Freedom From Fear by David M. Kennedy
(2001 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Oxford University Press
Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 is a superb volume of the Oxford History of the United States series, and the second to win a Pulitzer Prize. It recounts with great clarity the period marked by the Great Depression and World War II. Historian David M. Kennedy provides a concise and fast-paced narrative of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, before launching into a fascinating account of the United States’ involvement in World War II. The chapter covering “The War of Machines” – including the establishment of the Manhattan project – is especially brilliant. This is one of the best one-volume accounts of mid- 20th century American history available
4. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch
(1989 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Taylor Branch’s magnificent first volume on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. traces the early life of America’s greatest advocate of civil rights and non-violence from his birth, childhood, and young adulthood; through the critical decade of the 1950s, when the struggle for African American rights reached its peak; to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. King is presented as a flawed but noble hero who battled not only the segregationist establishment of the Deep South, but the federal government as well. (Some very surprising villains will be found in these pages.) A brilliant biography that’s also a towering history of one of the most disturbing periods of the twentieth century.
3. A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton
(1954 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Doubleday
This third volume of Bruce Catton’s celebrated “Army of the Potomac” trilogy (Mr. Lincoln’s Army and Glory Road are the first two volumes) recounts the final year of the American Civil War, from the Army of the Potomac’s crossing into Virginia in April 1864, through the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House exactly one year later. Catton, a gifted storyteller, describes in detail some of the bloodiest battles of the war: The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor the siege of Petersburg, and the Crater. I consider A Stillness at Appomattox one of the finest books available on the Civil War.
2. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom by James MacGregor Burns
(1971 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich
This book is actually the second volume of James MacGregor Burns’ magisterial biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). (Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox is the first volume.) I first read it while in college in the early 1970s, and was so impressed with it I decided to buy a copy right away. It’s the very first volume to be included in my personal library. Burns brilliantly encapsulates the wartime presidency of FDR, placing him squarely in the center of the whirlwind of worldwide historical events of the 1940s. His interpretations of history are flawless; his narrative power is immense. Throughout its 600-plus pages, this book reads like a novel.
1. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
(1989 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Oxford University Press
This is chronologically the second volume in the Oxford History of the United States series, and the first to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. It’s widely viewed as the best one-volume account of the American Civil War available today. I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. Every page of this masterpiece is crammed with beautifully written prose detailing almost every aspect of the War Between the States. McPherson provides a detailed analysis of the war’s causes and effects; the major characters involved in the conflict; and the major battles. McPherson takes a decidedly pro-Union position in the book, but remains objective in his historical interpretations. This is a “must read” for all who want to know more about America’s bloodiest war. It’s also my personal favorite in American history…
Read and enjoy all of these outstanding books!
The Pulitzer Prizes – The Official Web Site
Pulitzer Prize – Wikipedia article
Book jacket information from listed volumes
Personal reading experience
Other Book Reviews by Mike Powers: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 ; An Army at Dawn ; The Alienist ; Last Man Standing ; Is Paris Burning?