What happens when you mix early American history nerdyness with basketball geekyness? Junto March Madness!
In honor of the NCAA Tournament games tipping off in a few hours, and in reaction to the recent announcement of Bancroft Prize winners (which tragically did not include any book explicitly dedicated to early America), we here at the Junto decided to jump in on the competition atmosphere with brackets of our own: a several-bracket-tournament of books in early American history. Today, we submit competitors. The Junto team will then narrow the field to either 32 or, if we get enough submissions, 64, and rank them in brackets. (The organization of brackets is still up in the air—we could go with thematic regions like political, cultural, religious, and synthetic, or we could even go chronological with colonial, revolutionary, early republic, or Civil War-era, or we could even go with histiographical eras—and largely depends on the submissions. We are very open to suggestions, though, so please chime in in the comments!)
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The beauty of this competition depends on being fun, so the first and most important rule is not to take it too seriously. Deciding the winner is purely subjective and based on what are likely a widely variegated criteria of excellence including, but not limited to, most influential, best-written, most sophisticated, or even most popular. When in question, go with your gut reaction. Or, just go with your favorite. A debate between Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale and Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial is, of course, silly, because both books can be categorized as the top of the field yet they examine completely different issues through very different approaches. But it is, nonetheless, fun to compare, debate, and, indeed, vote. This is designed to be fun, people, so once again: DO NOT TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY. (But we still expect the winner to add this great accolade to the top of her/his C.V.)
Once again, today we nominate books; tomorrow we start voting. Here are your rules for adding submissions in the comments below:
- Each person is limited, at least at first, to five books. If we are getting close to the end of the day and we are still sorely lacking in titles, we will open it up to more submissions.
- Books are eligible if they cover any period of American history up until and including the Civil War. Books that cover the entirety of American history, or go beyond the Civil War, are not eligible.
- Submissions will not count unless they are accompanied with a one-two sentence justification for their inclusion. (Ok, they will likely still count, but we will give you a stern look as a result.)
- Besides your five submissions, feel free to “second” other submissions if you think they are a great choice, or if you would have mentioned them had no one else already done so. This will help in our seeding process.
- Submissions from funny historic pseudonyms are not only accepted, but perhaps even encouraged. They may not make the cut, but they will at least keep this fun.
To get things started, I will offer my five submissions:
- Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990). This book changed the way history was done: its attention to the detail of a single document, its provocative questions, its broad archival and theoretical background, and its lyrical prose make it both very informative and superbly engrossing.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008). I was amazed at how this book is able to construct such a rich narrative of a family that hardly left a written record. But besides archival and interpretive brilliance, it offers a lot of lessons that transcend historiographical arguments.
- Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969). Ok, ok, anyone who has gone through graduate school in the last few decades has experienced the ritual of beating up this book and the accompanying “republican thesis” (not to mention the focus on white men). But no one can dispute its influence (how many other books command a roundtable twenty years after its publication?), and anyone who deals with the political culture of the revolutionary period is forced to familiarize themselves with the text.
- Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Phillip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998). Again, there are definite holes that the current generation of scholars like to point out, but I am still energized anew whenever I re-read this book. Her imaginative and innovative interpretation and mix of narrative and analysis is more engaging and makes me more excited about the field than most other books.
- Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Ok, so this book is brand-spanking-new, but it completely awed me when I recently read it that it is already in my pantheon of books. Plus, I wanted to make sure there was something on religion in my five, so this does the trick.
(Close runners-up, though I could certainly name many, include Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town, Foner’s The Fiery Trial, and Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox. And I ended up not going with classics like Beard’s Economic Origins of the American Constitution, Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness, or Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, but those should definitely be considered.)
Your turn. What are your suggestions for the brackets?
CATCH THE MADNESS!!!!!