Teaching the survey, I have found, can be a blur. Events, people, and places zip by—on Monday, you’re at Jamestown in 1607, on Wednesday, Plymouth in 1620, and by Friday Cotton and Increase Mather are angling for a new charter for Massachusetts. (Okay, I don’t move quite that fast, but it’s still quick.) And in the meantime students deal mostly with brief snippets of texts in a document reader. Someday I may ditch it, but for now, it does the job.
One of my favorite parts of the course, therefore, is working with students a little more deeply on select texts, and getting to practice the craft of the historian more fully. So today I’ll share one or two of my favorites with you, offering no claims to originality.
I’ll start with my absolute favorite, which will come as no surprise to my friends: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.
I have students read several excerpts. Most importantly for broader context, I use Franklin to continue a discussion of the Great Awakening with his passages on his friendship with George Whitefield, in particular the scene where Franklin visited a Whitefield sermon determined not to believe a single thing but ended up emptying his pockets of gold and silver, so convincing an orator was Whitefield.
A few passages are self-indulgent: while I frame it in terms of imperial striving and information circulation, it is perhaps a touch self-indulgent to have students read and discuss Franklin’s appointment as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737.
And some are just because Franklin is such a great storyteller. I could not assign the autobiography without having students read Franklin’s melodramatic entrance into Philadelphia, a “great puffy Roll” under each arm. Nor can I pass up the following passage, in which Franklin details just how he came to be respected in town:
In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal: and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationary solicited my Custom, others propos’d supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly.
“Went on swimmingly,” indeed.
One other source we work with in greater depth is another classic first-person narrative: Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. It usually comes right after a discussion of religion and gender (a David Hall “World of Magic and Wonder”-witchcraft mashup), so students are primed to think about just how a woman was able to write such a book in the first place. We’re able to cover a great deal of ground (pun intended), ranging from her frequent mentions of hunger, to her sense of English identity, to what we can actually learn about Native Americans by reading a bit against the grain. We even manage to find some humor in the story (it’s a crutch, but it works for me) from Rowlandson’s, shall we say slightly inflated, estimation of her redemption price.
It’s one of the longest readings I assign during the semester and the language is miserable for students, even in the clean Bedford reader edition we use (I once had an upper-level class read the digitized Evans edition … don’t do that). So I don’t think many students would describe it as their favorite reading, but it has value for them. I also occasionally have a student who is taking the history survey simultaneously with the English department’s American survey, where the text is also popular (Franklin too), which brings an interdisciplinary note to the discussion.
I enjoy many more, and also have a few articles I particularly love to discuss, but I want to turn the floor over to you, dear readers: what are your favorite primary sources to teach in the survey? What works well, and why?