The best 19th century books

45 authors have picked their favorite books about 19th century and why they recommend each book.

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1861

By Adam Goodheart,

Book cover of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

The outbreak of the Civil War was not a single event as simple as the firing on Fort Sumter or reducible to a clear clash of ideologies. In this erudite yet intensely readable book, Goodheart captures with equal brio the grand sweep of events and the maneuvering of political men South and North, and – most compellingly of all – the dawning of the war in the lives of men and women both famous and unknown, from New England Transcendentalists, to the fiery abolitionist orator Abbey Kelley, to the wily lawyer-turned-soldier Benjamin Butler, whose clever legal maneuver early in the war opened to door to the northward hemorrhaging of tens of thousands of black slaves.


Who am I?

Fergus M. Bordewich is an American writer and popular historian. He is the author of eight nonfiction books and a frequent public speaker at universities, radio, and television. As a journalist, he has traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, and many others.


I wrote...

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

By Fergus M. Bordewich,

Book cover of Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

What is my book about?

The story of how Congress helped win the Civil War that puts the House and Senate, rather than Lincoln, at the center of the conflict. This original new perspective on the Civil War overturns the popular conception that Abraham Lincoln single-handedly led the Union to victory and gives us a vivid account of the essential role Congress played in winning the war. 

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman,

Book cover of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

This fifth pick isn’t fiction. But like the best fiction, poetry can pierce through to the very essence. Although shaggy poet Whitman was the furthest thing from a soldier imaginable, he was deeply involved in the war effort nonetheless. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his wounded brother. He then chose to remain in Washington, DC, nursing wounded soldiers. Whitman’s war-time experiences gave rise to some of the finest poems in Leaves of Grass such as “The Wound-Dresser,” “Come Up from the Fields Father,” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.”


Who am I?

My specialty is American history, meticulously researched, but delivered in a narrative style that’s akin to fiction. My latest book, A Fierce Glory, is about Antietam, a battle that occupied a single day in 1862, yet remains one of history’s most consequential events. Of course, there are countless military histories of Antietam–or any Civil War battle, for that matter–focusing on troop movements and tactics. I wanted to get at the emotional heart of this epic showdown: the confusion, terror, sadness, along with some startling and selfless acts of heroism. To do so, I drew inspiration from some of my favorite fictional works.

I wrote...

A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

By Justin Martin,

Book cover of A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

What is my book about?

This is a character-rich, modern-style account of an 1862 Civil War battle that was more important than Gettysburg and—with a death toll of 3,650 soldiers—remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. Had the South won, we’d likely be living in two separate nations today. Because it was a Northern victory instead, though by the slimmest of margins, Lincoln chose to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, imbuing the war effort with a new and noble purpose–freeing the slaves. Lincoln is woven deeply into this tale, far more than in a standard military history of the battle. The rich cast also includes generals George McClellan and Robert E. Lee, medical pioneers Clara Barton and Jonathan Letterman, and Alexander Gardner, the groundbreaking photographer.

Mirror of the Soul

By John Dewey,

Book cover of Mirror of the Soul: A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev

The most compelling aspect of Mirror of the Soul is its analysis of the great poet Tyutchev’s bi-polar temperament and compulsive philandering. He was a forgivable Don Juan, in that he deeply empathized with his victims, although his misbehaviour shortened the lives of his first wife and of his most infatuated mistress. Morbidly irresponsible, he impregnated at least two mistresses and both his wives before marriage. Joy was for Tyutchev a thin veneer of light over misery and darkness; deaths of those close to him and contrition (if not guilt) finally reconciled him, in a death-bed poem, with a “punitive God” who removes everything — “breath, willpower, sleep” — leaving just an aggrieved, loving wife as his intermediary. Mirror of the Soul is beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Tyutchev, doubtless in Russia, too.


Who am I?

Since adolescence, I have been fascinated by Slavonic languages, literature, cultures, and history, and by what can be retrieved from archives all over Eastern Europe. And because so much has been suppressed or distorted in everything from biographies of writers to atrocities by totalitarian governments, there has been much to expose and write about. Studying at Cambridge in the 1960s gave me an opportunity to learn everything from Lithuanian to Slovak: I have been able to write histories of Stalin and of Georgia, biographies of Russians such as Chekhov, Suvorin, and Przhevalsky, and the field is still fresh and open for future work.


I wrote...

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield,

Book cover of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

What is my book about?

Stalin did not act alone. The mass executions, the mock trials, the betrayals and purges, the jailings and secret torture that ravaged the Soviet Union during the three decades of Stalin's dictatorship, were the result of a tight network of trusted henchmen (and women), spies, psychopaths, and thugs. At the top of this pyramid of terror sat five indispensable hangmen who presided over the various incarnations of Stalin's secret police. Now, in his harrowing new book, Donald Rayfield probes the lives, the minds, the twisted careers, and the unpunished crimes of Stalin's loyal assassins.

The Transcendentalists

By Barbara L. Packer,

Book cover of The Transcendentalists

When I began writing about Emerson – not a usual task for a philosopher -- and was trying to figure out who the American Transcendentalists were, Barbara Packer’s brilliantly written study of the movement came to my assistance. She covers it all, from the background in European Biblical criticism and the idea that the sacred books of the world’s religious traditions are forms of poetry, to the Annus Mirabilus of 1836 when Emerson published Nature; to figures like Margaret Fuller, whose electrifying Conversations sparked a homegrown American feminism, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), and, of course, Emerson’s young friend, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.


Who am I?

Russell Goodman is a Regents Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of New Mexico. Russell loved the remark by the philosopher Wittgenstein that "James was a good philosopher because he was a real human being". This list is inspired by that statement. Russell picked books that he loves and admires and would happily read again, and which explore in their various ways what it is to be a human being.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein and William James

By Russell B. Goodman,

Book cover of Wittgenstein and William James

What is my book about?

This book explores Wittgenstein's long engagement with the work of the pragmatist William James. In contrast to previous discussions, Russell Goodman argues that James exerted a distinctive and pervasive positive influence on Wittgenstein's thought. He shows that both share commitments to anti-foundationalism, to the description of the concrete details of human experience, and to the priority of practice over intellect. Considering in detail what Wittgenstein learned from his reading of William James, Goodman provides considerable evidence for Wittgenstein's claim that he is saying "something that sounds like pragmatism."

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

By Michael F. Holt,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

A lifetime of research on and writing about the latter span of America’s formative years yield Michael Holt’s masterpiece, a detailed, lively look at the resurgence of federalist philosophy and its consequences. In a fascinating exposition, Holt fashions something resembling Shakespearean tragedy wherein the most well-intentioned politicians cannot stem the tide of sectionalism.


Who are we?

We have been researching and writing about the Early Republic since graduate school and began collaborating on the period with our first co-authored book, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire. Though we have occasionally ventured beyond the enthralling events that occurred during those years, mainly by editing books on the Civil War and other topics, we always return to them with relish. We hope you will find the books on our list entertaining as well as informative, thus to whet your appetite for the sumptuous banquet that awaits!


We wrote...

Henry Clay: The Essential American

By David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler,

Book cover of Henry Clay: The Essential American

What is our book about?

He was the Great Compromiser, a canny and colorful legislator whose life mirrors the story of America from its founding until the eve of the Civil War. Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, five-time presidential candidate, and idol to the young Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is captured in full at last in this rich and sweeping biography.

The authors reveal Clay’s tumultuous career in Washington, including his participation in the deadlocked election of 1824 that haunted him for the rest of his career, and shine new light on Clay’s marriage to plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart, a union that lasted fifty-three years and produced eleven children. Featuring an inimitable supporting cast including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is beautifully written and replete with fresh anecdotes and insights. 

The Quest for Corvo

By A.J.A. Symons,

Book cover of The Quest for Corvo

Before Symons published The Quest for Corvo in 1934, many biographies were little more than hagiographies, or boring tomes about unblemished saints. Symons redefined biography by writing a mystery story, featuring himself as a historical detective seeking to understand how a character as disagreeable as Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, could have authored beautiful novels like Hadrian the Seventh.

Who am I?

I am a historian of sexuality who is fascinated by unknown stories that reveal the past to be way more complicated than we expect. I’ve written about same-sex marriage in early America, a teenage female poet of the American Revolution, a masculine woman who founded her own college, and a notorious British pederast. Now I’m working on the tale of a forgotten American sexual adventuress and jewel thief. I also have a longstanding research project about the history of food and sex from the eighteenth century to the present day.


I wrote...

Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

By Rachel Hope Cleves,

Book cover of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

What is my book about?

The life of the writer Norman Douglas presents an impossible paradox: how could a man who was well known during his own lifetime for his sexual obsession with children have been so beloved by famous authors like D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, and Nancy Cunard, as well as by countless readers on both sides of the Atlantic? Answering that question puts the biographer (me) in an impossible situation, as I trace the social history of pederasty and discover that attitudes towards sex between men and children were far more accommodating in the first half of the twentieth century than they are now. Unspeakable is not just a sexual biography of a man who would now be considered a monster, it’s a reflection on how historians of sexuality can write about practices that are more taboo today than they were in the past.

Dickens

By Peter Ackroyd,

Book cover of Dickens

This is one of the great literary biographies: impeccably researched, stylishly narrated, refreshingly indifferent to academic convention, and authentically Dickensian in its pungency of atmosphere and solidity of characterisation.

Who am I?

I’m an award-winning biographer and critic. My essays and reviews appear regularly in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and I teach literature and creative writing at King’s College London. I’ve always loved stories about the lives of great writers – stories that seek to illuminate genius, without ever explaining it away.

I wrote...

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

By Edmund Gordon,

Book cover of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography

What is my book about?

Angela Carter’s life was as unconventional as anything in her fiction. Through her fearlessly original and inventive books, including The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, she became an icon to a generation and one of the most acclaimed English writers of the last hundred years. This is her first full and authorised biography.

Return of a King

By William Dalrymple,

Book cover of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

Did the British learn anything from Napoleon’s fatal retreat from Moscow in 1812? Exactly three decades later the greatest debacle in British military history occurred in Afghanistan, the graveyard of conquerors. William Dalrymple serves up a satisfying slice of history, complete with spies, counter-espionage, intrigue, hubris, and folly, and provides context for the emergence of the Taliban. The wise will heed the timeless saying, “The only time Pashtuns stop fighting, is when they go to war.”


Who am I?

To stop us from reopening a school for girls, a mob of angry and well-armed Pashtun men threatened to shoot my workers. I surprised myself. “If you are going to shoot my workmen, you will have to shoot me first!” My wife, Janna, and I bred cattle in outback Australia. On the weekends we played tennis. Yet, in 1984 we began a twenty-four-year adventure battling corruption, injustice, and disadvantage in the deserts, mountains, and cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I dug wells, built schools, and helped restore the eyesight of thousands of Afghans; until I myself became blind.

I wrote...

Shoot Me First: A Cattleman in Taliban Country. Twenty-Four Years in the Hotspots of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By Grant Lock,

Book cover of Shoot Me First: A Cattleman in Taliban Country. Twenty-Four Years in the Hotspots of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What is my book about?

Shoot Me First is a gripping personal account of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The author offers intriguing insights into the culture of the tribal territories that straddle the two countries. This is home to the Taliban, an untamed land that continues to absorb so much of the world’s attention and military endeavour. Lock is shrewd and laconic but above all compassionate.

The Proposition

By Judith Ivory,

Book cover of The Proposition

Judith Ivory has one of the most distinctive voices in historical romance. I wish she was still releasing new work! The Proposition is a fun take on My Fair Lady, where Henry Higgins is a down-on-her-luck duke’s daughter and Eliza Dolittle is a charming rat catcher. Yes, you heard that right. We’re a long way from the usual historical romance fare of dukes and rakes. Not only that, Mick Tremore, the rat catcher in question, has the most wonderful dog Win who threatens to steal the show every time she’s on the page. Charming, clever, witty and full of delicious sexual tension, this is a compelling read – and it has a serious message about how often the greatest barriers to our dreams are those our minds place on us. 


Who am I?

I’ve always loved historical romance, ever since my mother gave me my first Georgette Heyer when I was eight, and my grandmother gave me my first Barbara Cartland shortly after. The fascination has never waned, which is a good thing because I grew up to become a historical romance author myself. Since publishing my first romance in 2006, I’ve written nearly 50 books, mainly set during the Regency period (first quarter of the 19th century). I’ve always adored how a good historical romance whisks me away to a larger-than-life world replete with dashing rakes, smart-mouthed ladies, and glittering high society, not to mention witty banter, glamour, and heart-stopping romance.

I wrote...

One Wicked Wish: A Scandal in Mayfair Book 1

By Anna Campbell,

Book cover of One Wicked Wish: A Scandal in Mayfair Book 1

What is my book about?

Her secret lover…Lord Halston and impoverished companion Stella Faulkner start a sizzling affair under the cover of a respectable house party. But once this interval of heady delight ends, what will become of the humble governess and the wicked earl? Must they return to being strangers as originally arranged, or will five days of intoxicating sin turn into forever?

“One of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.” 5 stars. Amazon reviewer.

Truganini

By Cassandra Pybus,

Book cover of Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse

I have been intrigued by the story of Truganini since living in Tasmania. There are many myths about Truganini, including that she was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian. This is her full story, based on eyewitness accounts researched by a writer whose ancestors had a connection to her subject. It depicts a devastating time for Aboriginal Tasmanians, including the Nuenonne clan of Bruny Island which Truganini was from. Truganini was a survivor who experienced profound upheavals and many personal tragedies. She was part of the team of guides for missionary George Augustus Robinson’s trip around Tasmania and with other Aboriginal survivors was exiled to a Christian settlement on Flinders Island for a time. This was part of a broken agreement with surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal people removed from their homelands. Returning to Oyster Cove and dying in 1876, Truganini was not put to rest until 1976 when her ashes were scattered in…

Who am I?

Dr. Samantha Battams is an Associate Professor and has been a university lecturer, researcher, policy professional, community development worker, advocate, health service administrator, and management consultant. Samantha resides in Adelaide, South Australia, is widely travelled, and has lived and worked in Switzerland in global health. She has published academic articles and book chapters in the fields of public health and global health, social policy, and sociology. She has a passion for history and writing and has written a self-published family history and three non-fiction books.


I wrote...

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

By Samantha Battams,

Book cover of The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

What is my book about?

How did a serial killer from the 19th century almost get away with murder? At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as ‘The Black Widow’ after secretly poisoning her husband and children. The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers one by one. Reported as far afield as the New York Times, Martha’s story was front-page news in Australia, edging out many stories of the day that remain in the public consciousness today. And yet very few remember Martha Needle’s name.

Stranger still a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children. What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives connected through family to commit virtually the same crime? 

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