In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland declares, “History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.”
As the heroine of Jane Austen’s lighthearted novel, Catherine is a very young woman with a lot to learn. She’s much more addicted to the supernatural intrigues of Gothic novels than to serious, instructive reading. But Catherine hints at an interesting point: There are many ways to approach history. One is the grand, sweeping account of an era, which details military brilliance or events driven by powerful, larger-than-life characters. Such accounts help us understand the context and progress of a period. But another approach is just as important—the more intimate examination of how history affects and is affected by ordinary people.
Lerner’s People’s History series takes the latter path. The People’s History books use personal letters, autobiographies, newspaper articles, period photos, and other primary source material to zoom in on moments in American history. Over the years, the series has covered a wide range of fascinating topics: colonial life (Good Women of a Well-Blessed Land), labor unions (Sweat and Blood), burial traditions (Rest in Peace), and the prison system (Locked Up)—just to name a few.
Sometimes the close-up view of history is harrowing. It’s hard to read Elaine Landau’s Fleeing to Freedom on the Underground Railroad without a feeling of anxiety. The firsthand accounts of fugitive slaves and Railroad workers bring the grief and danger to life.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we see how fun and amusing (and sometimes bemusing) social history can be. For example, Stephen Krensky looks at the growth of a particular art form in Comic Book Century. The Depression, heroism and patriotism, youth culture, counterculture, and shifts in mainstream culture are all reflected in the “funny papers” and graphic novels.
Of course, People’s History also covers the quarrels of the powerful (Presidential Races) and serious conflict (Uncle Sam Wants You!). But many men prove their worth, and women are never excluded. Catherine Morland would approve.