The final outcome of the Junto March Madness wasn’t really a surprise. Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery: American Freedom was the most heavily nominated book when we compiled the bracket, and no challenger really came close to defeating it as it stormed through the tournament like a juggernaut. Morgan’s easy victory invites reflection on why the book remains such a well-loved classic. Today, I am going to offer a few preliminary thoughts as to what we can can learn from the tournament, with all usual caveats about the unscientific nature of the process still in force.
One surprisingly constant feature of the tournament was the success of classics of the field against less road-tested rivals. Of course, this analysis only works up to a point—previous ‘”classics” of the field didn’t even make the first cut, with the field of 64 comprised entirely of books from about 1968 onwards. This probably isn’t too surprising. Works that remain widely read decades after publication, after all, are generally notable for quality research, elegant writing, and analytical sophistication. Yet it did make me wonder about how we think about recent scholarship. Academic book reviews frequently demand that readers in a variety of fields engage in new scholarship—the feedback loop before those insights really do have wide resonance in the field, however, seems considerably longer. I wonder if this is a product of how small the academic community can be at times—I’ve seen it remarked elsewhere how many ‘cutting-edge’ ideas become commonplace before publication, given the way in which works-in-progress are trailed at conferences, seminars and other locales where historians gather. At the very least, though, I will redouble my efforts to ensure that my teaching, in particular, takes account of recent developments in the field.
Recent books that went deep into the tournament included Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship and Daniel Richter’s Facing East From Indian Country. That reflects a profession that has made great strides toward greater understanding of the complicated histories of race, and the impact of cross-cultural contact on American historical development. The prevalence of these trends was reflected in the books that made it to the Elite Eight—by my reckoning, there were no books explicitly addressing political history that made it that far. (If you take a strict definition of political history, only two political books made it to the Sweet Sixteen). I’m going to need more time to come up with a good answer as to why that’s the case, but it does suggest, at the very least, that there should be fertile ground for political historians to take advantage of new insights in social and cultural history to reinvigorate their own fields.
On a further note about the success of Rediker and Richter in the tournament, both those books are more clearly aimed at general readers than some of their rivals in the tournament. I’ve used both productively in undergraduate teaching; I also recommend both to non-majors and non-historians when asked for general books on American history. Given that works of more explicitly ‘popular history’ were largely absent from the list of nominations, the success of these books does indicate the importance of well-written general introductions to a subject. I’m not suggesting that any of the books in the tournament lacked analytical depth, but the books that went a long way into the tournament generally had broader resonance than their rivals.
One final reflection, the two books in the final (Morgan and William Cronon’s Changes In The Land) are now long-established classics of the field. Neither of them, though, were written as the culmination of long research careers on the subject. Morgan was far more renowned as a historian of Puritan New England, but his pre-eminent book today came from a historiographical journey down South. Cronon’s book is famously (and remarkably) the product of a seminar paper written as a graduate student. There is a tendency for all professional historians—myself included—to define our works narrowly and to defend our territory staunchly. The results of the Junto’s March Madness suggest that we would do well to guard against developing and defending cults of specialism. If there’s one thing above all that I hope to gain from having observed and participated in this exercise, it’s to remind myself to keep reading widely, to keep challenging myself, and to tackle fields of history outside of my comfort zone. Some of the most popular, inventive, long-lasting and broadly-conceived works come from a fresh pair of eyes.