The Sum of Our Dreams: Five Books that Changed American History

Rutgers University

Louis Masur is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. A cultural historian who has written on a variety of topics, his most recent work is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America (2020). A specialist on Lincoln and the Civil War, he is the author of Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction & The Crisis of Reunion (2015), Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (2012), and The Civil War: A Concise History (2011). Masur’s essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington PostSlate, and on CNN. He has been elected to membership of the American Antiquarian Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Society of American Historians and has received teaching awards from Harvard University, the City College of New York, Trinity College and Rutgers University. His website is



James Baldwin once remarked that American history is “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” In this sweeping survey, Louis Masur probes that history by focusing on five books that changed America: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “ These books not only help us understand the past, they also continue to speak in various ways to the present.



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