Unitarian minister, poet, writer and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his Essays, First Series, “Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history.” Certainly, this is true as history reveals itself from the individual trying to make sense of the world and finding the truth within it. History is the account of everything, the headline and leading story, and the permanent record before we had permanent records.
Herodotus, the Father of History
Who writes history? Lots of people. Herodotus is probably the most famous historical scribe of them all. You may have heard his name in elementary school and forgot all about him from there. But, this Father of History wasn’t just a name in the history books or mere scribe of his life and times. On the contrary, he had a sense of what’s really going on in history that’s worth noting. A man of his times, Herodotus believed that Fate and Chance established the rules of the Universe. The Universe at its core was an unstable and dangerous place. Arrogance (Hubris) could invoke extreme retribution of the gods (Nemesis). Moral choices, on the other hand, could bring favor. To the extent that Herodotus culled morality lessons from the study of great events formed the basis of Greek and Roman historical traditions down through the ages.
Yes, indeed, much of what we know about Ancient Greece and Persia comes from the thoughtful inscriptions of Herodotus. To this day, what’s important in history and from whose perspective remain critical questions for the historian and readers alike.
Awesome Historians Through the Ages
Anyone else? Around the world and down through the ages, men and women have taken the time to write it all down for generations to come. For example, Ibn Khaldun was a legendary Tunisian historian, scholar, statesman and theologian, and is credited as the “Father of the Social Sciences.” Greek historian Thucydides carefully described the war between Athens and its arch-rival Sparta for generations to come. English great Edward Gibbon wrote the definitive book, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Leopold von Ranke pioneered “scientific history” and was a 19th century great. Noted Chinese scholar Shen Yue brought us the Liang Dynasty. The Venerable Bede is well known as the “Father of English History.” Russian historian Sergey Mikhaylovich Solovyov wrote the definitive “History of Russian from the Earliest Times.” Frenchman Michel Foucault holds a special place in history with his “Madness of Civilization” and his critical studies of social institutions. Voltaire made his mark as both historian and philosopher. As did Plutarch. Moroccan historian and scholar Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Khalid al-Nasiri al-Salawi’s definitive works on Morocco and the Islamic West are must-read volumes to this day. American Frances Fitzgerald wrote one of the most definitive books on the Vietnam War. The list goes on and on.
Top 5 Best Historians in Modern Times
History continues to be made and still fascinates those who write it. Over the years and down through the ages, hundreds of trained or self-made historians have offered their unique perspectives on what’s happened and why it’s happened. History is still filled with important times, dates, and deeds of the noble men and women who lived it and made it happen.
To choose the best of the best historians in moderns times is difficult as debates rage over liberal and conservative bias, who owns history, issues of diversity, among others. Are the very best historians ones who write with a classical perspective on history? Or, do historians who break the mold rank among the best of the best? Only time will tell.
Who today are among the very best historians of their generation? Check out these Top 5 Best Historians Today and the notable books that make these historians the very best in modern times. Sure to please, puzzle and prompt further study.
Margaret Olwen MacMillan
Further information on MacMillan
Notable Books: Women of the Raj, Nixon in China, Nixon and Mao, Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War; Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Celebrated historian, great granddaughter of Lloyd George of Britain, Margaret Olwen Macmillan has tackled some of the 20th Century’s most important historical events and time periods. She is a highly-regarded and decorated historian. Her historical books are thoughtful and important. Margaret Olwen MacMillan ranks among Trinity College’s best.
Doris Kerns Goodwin
Further information on Goodwin
Notable Books: ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys; No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; The Home Front in World War II; and Wait Till Next Year.
American presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kerns Goodwin is one of my personal favorites. She brings history alive in her writing, and is a frequent commentator on broadcast news shows on presidential history. Smart, engaging and utterly accessible, her historical books and her likable personality make history the place to be.
Further information on Tuchman
Notable Books: Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-45; The Guns of August; The First Salute; The First British Policy; Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour
I like Barbara Tuchman for all kinds of reasons. First, she was a self-trained historian, in the grand, old tradition. Second, she wrote with great passion and clarity. Third, her interests and writings were eclectic where history was the common thread. Finally, she made history come alive on the page. While Tuchman died in 1989, her historical writings are still a must-read for the new millennium.
Eugenia Y. Lean
Further information on Lean
Notable Books: Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China
Here’s a young historian who’s on my short list of greats. Her writing demonstrates great promise and is especially important today as we endeavor to assess the impact of new China. Lean’s is expert on late imperial and modern Chinese history and East Asia, with special interests in the history of emotions and gender, law and media, consumer culture, among others, some of which are long overlooked by historians of record. Lean will surely make an impact with her study and historical writings. Columbia is lucky to have her among its scholarly ranks.
Further information on McCullough
Notable Books: The Johnstown Flood; The Great Bridge; Truman; John Adams; 1776, among others
What list would be complete without mention of the great David McCullough? Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Book Award, author David McCullough has been celebrated the world over. The Great Bridge, about the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, was his noble attempt at writing something that wasn’t “all bad news.” On the contrary, this book and others like it make McCullough’s histories shine with purpose and dedicated scholarship.
American Historical Association
A students guide to the study of history
Organization of American Historians