Jim Cullen: Review of Paul Boyer's "American History: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, will be published by Oxford University Press in January. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

As anyone who teaches a survey knows, textbooks are big, beautiful, and expensive. And, for the most part, boring. Despite the impressive talents that go into them from editorial to design elements, they always seem, well, flat. Part of the reason is that they're relentless in purveying conventional wisdom. This is not merely a matter of pandering to state governments or appealing to the lowest common denominator of readers, but something intrinsic to the genre.

In recent years, I've found myself growing increasingly restless with textbooks. A meaningful engagement with U.S. history is more likely to come from primary sources and/or a piece of scholarship that bores vertically into a topic rather than stretches horizontally. At the same time, that plunge is not going to make sense unless students have at least some coordinates in which to situate it. For the last couple years I've been using Robert Remini's A Short History of the United States: From the Arrival of Native American Tribes to the Obama Presidency, which at $16 for about 300 pages of narrative runs about a third of the length, and a fifth of the price, of a typical two-volume paperback. There's nothing especially lovable about Remini's book beyond that; it's a dry sprint. But it packs the essential information into thirty-page chapters that serve as a night's homework. Such context can form the backdrop context of a case-study approach to surveying U.S. history that looks in detail at specific moments.

Viewed on these terms, Paul S. Boyer's American History: A Very Short Introduction is even more attractive: 140 pages for $12. The Oxford University Press VSI series has now surpassed 300 volumes, making it to non-fiction what Penguin Books have always been for literature. Attractively packaged and written by leading authorities, VSIs are entertaining in inverse proportion to how well you know a subject. Ignorance becomes bliss when you know you're in good hands.

The late Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin, who passed away earlier this year, dispatches with U.S. history in brisk, no-nonsense fashion. Boyer's own scholarship stretched from the Salem Witch trials to the Cold War, and he sustains an even, well-proportioned pace (something that's more possible here than, say, a VSI book on the Roman empire). Perhaps the most interesting interpretive aspect of the book is the dark mood that shadows the final chapters, only partially hedged by Boyer's assertions about U.S. resilience.

Boyer's volume is also useful as a pocket reference. Need a one paragraph reminder about the Stamp Act or the Populist Party? You'll find them here, easily tracked down with a good index. Given their attractive packaging, you may want to collect a few VSI books just to have 'em on your desk.

Again: anyone who's taught the survey will learn virtually nothing here. But anyone looking for a way into the subject will find a lifeline. Given the escalating cost of textbooks and student resistance to buying them, a volume like this may yet become a common as well as valuable tool.


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