Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Recommended History Podcasts


I commute most days, and most of my time in the car is spent listening to – you guessed it! – history podcasts. I therefore thought I'd regale you with brief descriptions of some of my favorites. The list is in roughly chronological order. All of the selections are available at iTunes, either as podcasts or in the iTunes U section.

I've probably praised Yale history prof Donald Kagan's course on ancient Greek history before – I'm too lazy to check. Very briefly, Don Kagan (I'm always tempted to use a Marlon Brando-in-the-Godfather rasp and inflection) is one of the great figures in the ancient history field. His four volume work on the Peloponnesian War remains, almost forty years after its publication, the outstanding work on the subject. His lecturing skills have been highly regarded since at least the mid-1970s, when students packed his introduction to ancient Greek history course despite its esoteric subject matter, rigorous grading and Prof. Kagan's notorious status as a despised conservative on a campus that regarded Bobby Seale as a moderate. We are now blessed to have that course available. Take advantage.

Mike Duncan is no Don Kagan. Nonetheless, I've enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – his History of Rome podcasts a great deal. He's over 150 installments now, covering roughly 1.000 years from the appearance of a bunch of huts on the banks of the Tiber to the latter part of the empire (the western empire, at any rate) in the years following the death of Constantine. If you know little about Roman history, you'll learn a good deal. If you know your stuff, it's fun and relaxing, sort of like visiting with an old friend. My only warning is that some of the pronunciations will make you cringe.

Yale prof Keith E. Wrightson speaks with a delightful and mellifluous British accent – which is appropriate, I suppose, for a course on Early Modern England, i.e., basically the Tudors and the Stuarts, from roughly 1500 through 1700. Prof. Wrightson is so smooth that it can be a bit off-putting: one senses that every comma and pause is scripted. But he knows his material inside and out. Although the course includes much of the standard political history, where the good professor really shines, I think, is on the social and economic side. Although Prof. Wrightson repeatedly apologizes for those lectures (students must complain about economic history in particular in their reviews), he conveys a wonderful sense of the transformation of the country and much of its populace from an essentially medieval and local society to an increasingly urbanized and proto-industrial one with extensive regional and national ties.

I thank God that I did not take Stanford history prof Jack Rakove's course on colonial and revolutionary America as an undergraduate. Without background, I would have had no idea what he was talking about. The man is the exact opposite of the well-modulated Prof. Wrightson – he's manic. But it's the mania of a man whose ideas are so plentiful that they just come pouring out in a flood of words. Prof. Rakove is one of the leading scholars on the period of the early Republic and James Madison. My suggestion is that you first read Prof. Rakove's fine Original Meanings, which will give you an anchorage that will allow you to appreciate the torrent as it rushes by. Two subsidiary complaints. The course was recorded during the 2008 election season, and Prof. Rakove does not hesitate to display his adoration of the Big O. Second, there a few annoying comments about the Second Amendment, which he believes, for reasons that elude me, does not support an individual right to bear arms (I've read the brief he submitted to the Supremes and find it totally unconvincing). Prof. Rakove is living proof, I guess, that modern liberal ideology can trump the common sense of even an otherwise learned man.

Yale prof Joanne B. Freeman has a silly laugh, but that's what makes her great. Silly as it is, her laugh embodies and conveys the love for her subject in her course on the American Revolution. Prof. Freeman excels at humanizing the Founders – even the dour Thomas Jefferson – and at bringing home, for example, the communications and world-view gap (my phrase) between the colonists and the British, and explaining the unexpected shock and wrench that the colonists felt when they belatedly discovered that their love of their mother country and its institutions had led them revolt against it.

I think I've complained before that Yale prof David Blight sounds like Garrison Keillor (has no one else recognized this?). I also think, to be frank, that Prof. Blight can sometimes sound like a pompous ass. But if you can get past those two points (which I did), it's hard to ignore one of the leading authorities on the Civil War era. It's been a while since I've heard his course on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, so I'm a little light on details, but as I recall you get a good, well-told survey of all the basics from about the Wilmot Proviso with a heavy dose, as you might expect, of memory, race, and the like.

I've placed Dan Carlin and his Hardcore History last only because Dan's podcast is unclassifiable. Dan's topics range from ancient Mesopotamia to Word War II. Or he can come up with quirky and fascinating subjects that range across history – Is slavery a baseline human condition? Until recently was the model for child rearing a form of child abuse? Dan's stentorian and melodramatic delivery seems to elicit mixed reviews, but I enjoy it as part of the overall over-the-top package that Dan is clearly trying to deliver. Over-the-top or not, the drama of Dan's episodes – whether it's Tiberius Gracchus being beaten to death or the slaughter of the Stalingrad campaign – can't be beat. My advice is to try out an episode. Don't like it? Fine. But if you like it you'll probably be hooked and have hours of listening pleasure ahead. Dan takes his older podcasts out of free access as he releases new ones, so I suggest downloading the older shows now; you can delete them if you don't like them.

I find my podcasts by browsing around iTunes and the internet. If anyone has other suggestions, I'd be glad to take them.

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