Blogs > Cliopatria > Is there a canon for early American history?

Oct 13, 2006 5:20 pm

Is there a canon for early American history?

(a follow up to Monday's bleg)

On Monday I posted a bleg, modeled on Rob’s earlier, similar bleg asking readers to leave lists of what they think are the top five early American history books in the comments. A few readers did so, with interesting results. One commenter wondered what the new early American history canon is. It’s a good question, and possibly an unanswerable one.

A few years ago, Bernard Bailyn told me that when he was a graduate student he had to read perhaps forty books in early American history, and then he knew the field. In March 2003, Joyce Chaplin mentioned in an article that in 1989 a guide to monographs in early American history was ominously titled Books about Early America: 2,001 Titles. Chaplin wondered, if such a work were commissioned today, if it could contain 5,001 titles. She also wondered if a continuously updated guide might someday soon contain as many as 10,001 titles. [1]

The growth of early American history, from forty books to many thousands, presents a problem for those of us who instruct graduate students: how do we select 30-40 books and articles, from these many, that will expose students to the major themes and problems in early American history? I’ve been working on such a syllabus for the past few weeks, and while I’m finding the task challenging and educational, I also find myself frustrated by the diffuse nature of early American history today, and the difficulty of creating my own canon from which to teach graduate students.

Here, as promised, and in no particular order, is the list readers created. I’ve marked those that are already on my draft syllabus with a double asterisk.

**Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991)

*Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (1991)

*James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (2002)

**Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)

**Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1969)

*Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (1986)

*Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race (1993)

*Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000)

**David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992)

*Jack Forbes, Africans and Native Americans (1993)

*Colin Calloway, New Worlds for All (1992)

**Robin Blackbourn: The Making of New World Slavery from the Baroque to the Modern (1997)

**Karen Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (2000)

*Daniels and Kennedy, eds., Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americans, 1500-1820 (2002)

*Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001)

I would add to this embryonic canon the collected works of Perry Miller, and Gordon Wood’s two masterpieces: The Creation of the American Republic (1969) and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991)

Readers are welcome to add to this list, or dispute this list, in the comments! When I finish the syllabus, I’ll post it at my other blog so that readers can see what I come up with.

[1] Joyce E. Chaplin, “Expansion and Exceptionalism in Early American History” Journal of American History vol. 89, no. 4 (March 2003), 1431-1456.

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/19/2006

Articles can be so useful. In the case of Isaac, I think his articles are actually better, and more focused. I think that is true for some other writers as well.

Turning to religion, Jon Butler's book "Awash in a Sea of Faith" would make for an interesting and controversial entry. (But you would need to want to stay with religion for a long time.) Excerpting portions of Hatch's "Democratization of American Christianity" would help act as a counterweight.

Perry Miller is problematic; so much of what he concludes is based on a small set of Puritans. Still, if one wanted to emphasize how the devout and intelligent Puritan mind worked, his works remain excellent.

Finally, Edmund Morgan's short Winthrop biography, "The Puritan Dilemma" can fit nicely into a class at any level. (I was assigned it in a freshman survey course.) I still don't agree with it entirely, but that does not mean that it's not good.

Bruce Neal Simon - 10/19/2006

I agree with Hiram on the Berlin and Thornton books.

Here's a kind of side question: in thinking over what I proposed, I tried to come up with big books that establish or significantly revise a major tradition of historiographial inquiry. So I've been biased toward the Fort Knox model (and even within those terms missing the major feminist landmarks) rather than the Little Gem model. By that I mean how during syllabus construction do you take into account the success of more modest books (in scope) like Demos's The Unredeemed Captive, Rosenthal's Salem Story, or Breslaw's Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem?

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 10/18/2006

Some of these I've pulled from articles instead (i.e., a Rhys Isaac article and a Tim Breen article, instead of reading the full books). Students who choose to invite me to examine them will also have to read additionally, so I'm consoling myself with that.

I'm also struck that no one has suggested some classic works of women/gender history (i.e., the works of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich or Nina Dayton, etc.)

Hiram Hover - 10/18/2006

Rebecca -- There's no doubt that you have the harder job in putting something comprehensive together.

To follow up on Bruce's eminently reasonable request about what I'd add--

With an eye to what hasn’t already been listed, I’d repeat my suggestions for Berlin’s _Many Thousands Gone_ and Thornton’s _Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World_.

Among older works, I’d consider Gary Nash, _Urban Crucible_ (1979) and almost certainly add Rhys Isaac, _Transformation of Virginia_ (1982).

There’s also the problem of how to integrate questions or areas of study that are historiographically important but lack a single towering, “classic” book of the new or old variety (and there’s only so much you can do with articles). For example, there are all the local studies from the 1960s-80s about colonial demographic and economic history, with a particular focus on questions about the market economy and pre-capitalist “mentalite.” Those questions seemed important 15+ years ago when I was in graduate school; I wonder if many scholars of early America see those debates as even worth teaching to graduate students today, and if so, what they’d assign to do it. One point of entry might be Tim Breen’s _Marketplace of Revolution_ (2004), which has a number of other advantages as well.

Anyway, as I said, I look forward to seeing what you produce.

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 10/17/2006

I'll second Bruce on that...the list was simply books folks had submitted via the comments! I'm working on the syllabus today; I hope to finish it by the end of the week but it's the sort of thing that I squeeze in between other tasks so I make no guarantees.

Bruce Neal Simon - 10/17/2006

HH, I'm a 19th C person myself, so when I posted my suggestions on the "emergent canon" to Rebecca's earlier Cliopatria post, I wasn't trying to be balanced or comprehensive. I figured she already knew the classic classics and wanted more feedback on what a multiethnic/global canon might look like.

What's your take on the classic classics? What newer works in those traditions would you recommend?

Here are some of mine:

Classic Classics


Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill: UNC P, 1972)

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973; Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2000)

Newer Classics

James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America (NY: Oxford UP, 2001)

David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (NY: Oxford UP, 1989)

Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700 (Chapel Hill: UNC P, 1991)

Philip Gura, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660 (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1984)

David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (NY: Knopf, 1989)

James Merrell, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (Chapel Hill: UNC P, 1989)

Neil Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 (NY: Oxford UP, 1982)

Gordon Sayre, Les Sauvages Americains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature (Chapel Hill: UNC P, 1997)

Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987)

Yes, this is from a bibliography I'm working up for my Japanese students, so any suggestions you make will find their way to them. Suggest on!

Hiram Hover - 10/16/2006

As someone who concentrates on the 19th and early 20th centuries, I find this a fascinating—and rather curious—list. It’s very heavy on native American history (at least ½ the titles deal substantially with indigenous peoples), and reasonably good on slavery and race (tho I’m a bit surprised at the omission of Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone, and John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World).

But it’s shockingly weak on almost everything else—notably religion and politics (which your own suggestions help remedy, Rebecca). In terms of regional coverage, it’s striking that there are 3 books about Spanish North America, and nothing about the middle colonies or New England (tho you again provide some balance there with Perry Miller).

If it’s really reflective of what would pass for a plausible syllabus, I’d find that pretty disturbing (which is not a knock on any of the individual titles, but on the whole). More likely it’s a function of how the list was compiled—a few people chipping in a few interesting titles apiece, but no one necessarily seeking to be comprehensive or balanced overall. In that regard, it still points to where the real areas of interest and dynamism are.

It looks like you’ve only picked 6 of the 15 main titles yourself, Rebecca, and I look forward to seeing your own draft syllabus.

S J - 10/15/2006

Thanks Rebecca! There are a number of books on this list that I have yet to read, I'll be sure to take a look at them.

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