Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman wrote and then obsessively spent much of his life rewriting this classic poetry collection. Leaves of Grass is a celebration of much of Whitman’s philosophy—his pursuit of pleasure, taking joy in nature, nature’s power over man and its symbolism, etc. Not only is Leaves of Grass considered a major work of American poetry, but it also includes the poem “Song of Myself,” a major reason we’re singling this book out for Independence Day. That poem celebrates much of American culture as Whitman saw it, including the landscape of the quickly urbanizing cities alongside the rural American scenery. Langston Hughes, another major American poet, also saw Whitman’s work as a great equalizer, embracing all people of various racial identities and class categories.
The Red Badge of Courage
A classic American war novel that takes place during the Civil War, the title refers to a wound—the would-be red badge of courage that proves a soldier’s participation in battle. Henry Fleming, the novel’s protagonist, flees from the battle scene during his first encounter with the enemy Confederate soldiers. He deserts his regiment but ends up back with a group of injured men from the battle, including a friend from home. As Henry moves from one ragtag band of men to another, he earns himself a wound from another impatient soldier, and when he finally joins in the next battle, he finds himself facing up to it. Unlike others that came before it, this early war novel explores the inner life of the soldier it portrays.
George Washington. We know him as one of the United States’ Founding Fathers. But what else was he? Who was he? In this single-volume book (a rarity for biographies this comprehensive), Ron Chernow delves into Washington’s history. From his early life and difficult childhood to the fierce courage he showed as a general serving in two wars to being elected as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington comes to life in this biography. Chernow refuses to merely revere the figure but investigates the man in all his complexity. This includes his relationship with his mother and later with his adopted children, as well as his position as a slave owner and master. Chernow brings the complex character closer to something we can understand rather than worship.
Never heard of Aaron Burr? Well, he’s the man who killed Alexander Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton) in a duel, and who was a Founding Father himself. He was tried for treason following the duel with his nemesis but was acquitted. This novel by Gore Vidal, which begins a series of novels he wrote about American history, shows Burr as an older statesman in 1833, telling his story to a young New York journalist. Burr’s candid confessions and attempts to set the record straight make this fictional-but-historically-accurate (though interpreted, of course) tale come alive for readers who may not be interested in dry biographies and histories. Vidal is a master of storytelling, and the novel looks at a man—considered by many to be a monster—with new eyes.
The Federalist Papers
For hardcore history buffs, or those interested in becoming better-versed in our nation’s birth, The Federalist, which was renamed The Federalist Papers in the 20th century, is a must-read. Essentially, it’s a collection of essays by three of the Founding Fathers, who published the pieces anonymously in their day. The essays are mostly concerned with trying to convince voters to consent to the Constitution; each of the writers lays out their arguments for various parts of the document, one oft-cited today in political arguments. A Poli-Sci classic, these essays show the thought process behind what is still considered one of the most well-written and careful documents of government: the United States Constitution.
Book of Ages
A historian whose work can often be found gracing the pages of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore’s books of social and political history are always engaging (see her book about Wonder Woman if you need further proof). In Book of Ages, Lepore examines the sister of one of the most famous American men of history, Benjamin Franklin. Jane Franklin was an accomplished and well-educated woman who gave birth to 12 children while also being a voracious reader, a wonderful writer, and staying politically engaged—but she’s virtually unknown, even though Ben wrote to her more than he wrote to anyone else. Lepore draws on their letters and recently found objects to portray Jane Franklin’s world, one of an intelligent woman with the resources to both be well-informed and care for her family.
For some lighter reading, we recommend Donna Thorland’s excellent novel The Turncoat, which is full of intrigue, romance, and history lessons. In 18th-century Philadelphia, a young Quaker woman and bluestocking, Kate Grey, is seduced by a British noble who commands her to return home with him. But before leaving, she’s implicated in his anti-American activities and is almost convicted of treason herself. Instead, she turns spy for General Washington, and when her British ex returns to Philadelphia, the dangerous games begin, especially as she’s now engaged to his cousin and working against him. Will the desire of the flesh or the desire for independence win out?
Every 4th of July, we gather around our flags, families, and often the grill to celebrate our nation’s birthday. But besides the barbecue and gorgeous displays of fireworks, Independence Day is also about our history as a nation. In honor of the holiday, we’ve put together an eclectic roundup of patriotic books that you can pick up this July Fourth weekend—because we’re pretty sure it says in the Constitution that “We the People of the United States…should never be without a good book.”
Featured Image: @janadunbar/Twenty20