Histories of the famous and forgotten

Literary nonfiction with non-ELA appeal

photos of covers of 3 history texts
These three nonfiction books have very different approaches to historical story-telling.

I remember high school history texts as bland prose about dead people who didn’t seem to have led very interesting lives. The first quarter of this year, my literary nonfiction reading has been primarily histories that are anything but bland prose about people who didn’t lead interesting lives. What’s even better, the topics of the histories lend themselves to use in classes other than English. An English teacher and a teacher in another discipline could each assign the same book and perhaps even accept the same written assignments based on the books.

The Vagabonds by Jeff Guinn

An investigative journalist before he turned to writing nonfiction books, Jeff Guinn knows how to bring out the personalities of the men, warts and all, while sticking to facts, being respectful to his characters, and keeping the story rolling.

Cover of "The Vagabonds"
Ford and Edison ready to go on vacation.

Guinn’s use of the story of fiddler Jep Bisbee to open and close the book about the late lives of the three super-successful businessmen adds to the poignancy of the story.

The Vagabonds could be used by students of history, business, and technology as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read it easily.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 306 p.

Barnum by Robert Wilson

Barnum: An American Life is a biography of P. T. Barnum, the man who created “the greatest show on earth, the Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  Born in 1810 in a small town outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum grew up in a rural community in which people did whatever they had to do to keep body and soul together. Barnum quickly learned that the way to make money was to give the public what it wanted.

Barnum-500h
Male figure is entering a huge circus tent.

He tried his hand at various get-rich-quick schemes before discovering his real talents lay in selling what we’d today call infotainment. He became a master of the art of self-publicity and never missed a chance to get his name in the papers.

Barnum suffers the problem that all biographies suffer: the biographer has to start with the lead character’s birth and stick to the facts until he dies. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of Barnum’s life ended long before his death.

To get English classes interested in Barnum, I think teachers would need to give students writing topics that would force them to draw comparisons between what Barnum did to promote his business ventures and what businessmen do today to attract free publicity and to keep the news media’s interest.

Barnum could be used by students of history, business, advertising, and marketing as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read Barnum, although it’s not fun to read the way The Vagabonds is.

Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 341 p.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

Historian Harlow Giles Unger’s The First Founding Father is about a man most people have never heard of, Richard Henry Lee. He was one of the Virginia Lees, a family noted today for the Lee that fought against the United States, Robert E. Lee.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger
A portrait of silver-haired Richard Henry Lee

The wealthy and scholarly Richard Henry Lee was born in America, educated in England. He was respected by both the colonies’ aristocratic leaders like John Adams and the working classes’ leaders like Patrick Henry. From the mid-1760s through the Revolutionary War his opinions carried great weight.

As the book’s liner notes say, he was “first to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights to protect Americans against government tyranny.”

Lee seems to have been a man who thought far in advance. Even when he was fighting for American independence from England, he saw that the country needed to get rid of slavery to ensure its national survival in decades ahead.

Unger details how a man of such importance and influence was marginalized and eventually written out of the history books.

Although Unger is a scholar, his writing is not difficult to read. (It’s easier, I think, than Barnum.) If you use the book, make sure you make students read beyond the summary in the introduction.

Obviously, The First Founding Father could be used by students in history classes as well as English, but Unger touches on events that might be used to explore business topics as well. The book’s first chapter, for example, talks about the Virginia colony being divided between the Tidewater aristocrats and the upland farmers and backwoodsmen. It might be interesting to have students explore whether s similar class division exists in the state in which they live today.

The First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence by Harlow Giles Unger. 2017, DaCapo Press. 306 p.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni