My three all-time favorite novels are Forever and Ever, written by father, Wayne Cruseturner, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, and Mario Puzo's The Godfather. I have read all three of those works numerous timesóand all three delivered profound imprints on my inner life. But The Godfather merits special mention, as I have read the story of the Corleones at least twenty times (although only twice since I turned thirty).

I read The Godfather for the first time in fourth grade; it was the first novel I ever completed. From there, I read nearly the complete works of Harold Robbins before I graduated elementary school. During junior high I branched out a bit, reading most of Steinbeck and a generous smattering of fairly good contemporary fiction from the 1970sóbut I continued to come back to The Godfather. During my college years I read a generous helping of Hemingway and also discovered Larry McMurtry--but I continued to come back to The Godfather.

A few days ago, while re-reading David M. Potter's Impending Crisis, I realized that this work of history had become The Godfather of my adulthood. The Impending Crisis is the exceedingly well written and immaculately comprehensive story of the coming of the Civil War from 1848 to 1861.

In fact, I know precious little about the life of Potter; histories of historians are uncommon. Potter died in 1971, an era before C-SPAN2's Book-TV began to offer scholars of his stature a modicum of limited celebrity and television face time.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1910, Potter earned a B.A. from Emory, and took his Ph.D. at Yale in 1932 (where he studied under U.B. Phillips). Known as an important historian of the American South during his long career, he died while in the process of finishing the quintessential history monograph, his sublime contribution to the superb "New American Nation Series," The Impending Crisis. His friend and colleague at Stanford, Don Fehrenbacher, a truly marvelous historian in his own right, completed and edited the manuscript upon his death. Potter was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his magnum opus in 1976.

The Impending Crisis tells the tragic tale of the coming conflict between North and South with honesty, integrity, and patience (it is nearly 600 pages of text). But Potter also exhibits an appropriately professional love for American traditions and sympathetically flawed statesmanóand a humanity for his native Southlandówithout sacrificing objectivity.

Fairly often, Potter offers concise tutorial asides for budding historians and sophisticated consumers of the past. Consider this cautionary methodological vignette:

"Hindsight, the historians chief asset and his main liability, has enabled all historical writers to know that the decade of the [eighteen] fifties terminated in a great civil war. Knowing it, they have consistently treated the decade not as a segment in time with a character of its own, but as a prelude to something else. By the very term 'antebellum" they have diagnosed a whole period in the light of what came after. Even the titles of their books The Coming of the Civil War, The Irrepressible Conflict, Ordeal of the Union, The Eve of Conflict, Prologue to Conflict--are pregnant with the struggle which lay at the end."

"But for the sake of realism, it should be remembered that most human beings during these years went about their daily lives, preoccupied with their personal affairs, with no sense of impending disaster nor any fixation on the issue of slavery."

Ironically, I have always wondered if someone other than the author titled the work, as the naming of The Impending Crisis seems to slip into the tradition he warns against.

I have actually met only one individual in my life who knew Potter personally, Sir Robert Rhodes James, now deceased as well (and deserving of limitless encomiums himself). When Sir Robert learned of my admiration for Potter, he merely sighed and said wistfully: "now that was a true Southern gentleman."

That is how I like to think of him.

For my money, The Impending Crisis is the best history text of all time. If you have never read this work, I recommend it wholeheartedly.