An Alt Canon of Early American Primary Texts?

davidwalkersappeal-uncdocsouthWe hear a lot about the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative (and neoconservative, and Straussian anti-anti-liberal, and pre-New-Left liberal) critics raised the hue and cry against relativizing multiculturalism, which was replacing War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter on college reading lists with just any random thing that wasn’t written by a wealthy straight white man. Or, if you prefer, when left-wing critics advanced the radical notion that women, homosexuals, minorities, and the poor are conscious human beings too. Or when cynical politicians and self-important idealists conspired together to undermine public confidence in higher education and the humanities. Or whatever.

The canon wars never vexed historians as much as literary scholars because one needn’t debate whether, say, Phillis Wheatley was as “great” a writer as John Adams in order to find her work useful for teaching what life was like in revolutionary Boston. And it would take a strange sort of history teacher indeed to object to using “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” on the grounds that it doesn’t quite speak to the universal human condition as well as the Gettysburg Address.

Actually, that would be deeply weird.

Anyway, it’s hard to argue that a more inclusive history (within any given set of time or space constraints) is a bad thing. It’s also pretty hard to conceive of a European or U.S. history class actually omitting to mention wealthy straight white males. So I generally get the impression that historians—except for the few who believe history should be the study of human civilization’s timeless things rather than the changing of things in general (sort of like a geologist with an aversion to igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic rock)—always found the canon wars pretty strange. We do see some people complain perennially that the field is too dominated by raceclassandgender and that it needs a good old dose of G.A. Henty to set things right, but those discussions, when they aren’t a smokescreen, are (occasionally useful) debates about the mechanics of storytelling more than the intrinsic value of texts.

So, anyway. What I observe is that historians in the classroom tend to use a lot of the same texts even when they’re trying to introduce their students to funky new voices. And in many cases, they’re doing it on purpose; they believe that recent scholarship shows it’s important for their students to know about these texts or the sorts of people they represent.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Perhaps I’m thinking more of the secondary literature. Maybe we’ve inserted new figures into the standard survey without substantially changing the readings.

So I tried to come up with a list of candidates for an “alt canon” of early American primary sources. These are texts that I either suspect are widely taught (to the point that some instructors think students need to be introduced to them) or think maybe should become widely taught. Here are my early candidates:

  • Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution
  • William Moraley, The Infortunate
  • Phillis Wheatley, “On being brought from Africa to America”
  • Abigail Adams, “remember the ladies” letter
  • Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of
  • David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World
  • Black Hawk’s surrender speech
  • Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al., “Declaration of Sentiments”
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of
  • John Brown, “Provisional Constitution”
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

I chose these quickly, without much reflection. I’m not sure they’d all fit into the same course, but I would expect to find most of them in any college department’s full list of courses. Is this a plausible beginning for the list? Are there any emerging candidates for the alt canon sources being adopted widely in recent years, or which might prove more provocative than these?

What strikes me most—aside maybe from David Walker and John Brown—is just what a cautious and old-fashioned list this is.

8 responses

  1. Hold on to your hats, Americans. In Oxford, primary documents aren’t taught in survey courses at all. Instead, undergraduates in history must take two courses that are specifically framed around a set of sources. Currently only one of these is related to early America. It’s called “The Age of Jefferson,” and the prescribed sources are 90% writings by Jefferson himself; the other 10% are things like the Articles of Confederation, plus some Madison, some Washington, and some of the Federalist. Now to be fair, I think this course is soon to change. But I thought it might add an interesting perspective to the discussion of source canons. Maybe if the culture wars had happened here, things would be different?

    • You might be being a bit unfair here, Tom – the scope of readings at Oxford greatly exceeds that of an American undergraduate course, and I know that I was definitely encouraged (forced) to read primary sources in most of my courses, including those that didn’t have a direct primary source focus.

      In addition, I used a number of these primary sources when teaching at Sussex. Of course, there is a big difference in teaching in the US and the UK, which is that UK students generally have considerably less familiarity with the ‘canonical’ texts. That does make some greater ‘conservatism’ (for want of a better term) necessary when constructing syllabi.

      • You’re right, I should have said primary documents aren’t “necessarily” taught in survey courses – that’s not to say lots of tutors don’t use them. Is the familiarity problem just down to high school teaching, or is there something else, you think?

        • As a rule, students don’t do much US history before getting to university. I don’t know what the equivalent would be like for UK or European history. I remember doing a lot of document work, and still have my Nazi document reader from A-Level. Then again, I also was taught about Anglo-Saxons and Charlemagne at A-Level, so my primary sources were things like Asser and EInhard.

  2. I hate to be argumentative, Jonathan, but I tend to think this is so ‘cautious and old-fashioned’ that it barely qualifies as an ‘alt-canon’. There are few texts in this list that I don’t teach directly in my survey courses, and I don’t think that my approach to the survey is especially radical or alternative (my courses tend toward being politics-heavy). Other sources that would fit in here would be Tecumseh’s speech to the Osages (or to William Henry Harrison), or a copy of the Lowell Mill Girls’ Factory Association.

    Perhaps more to the point, though, I’m not sure that developing an ‘alt-canon’ would be a particularly helpful exercise. Surely the point of broadening historical inquiry is to demonstrate the breadth and the interrelated nature of historical experience? And if that’s the case, then Equiano has as much a place within the ‘canon’ as Winthrop’s City on a Hill or Franklin’s Autobiography. It’s not ‘radicalizing’ history or putting an agenda into teaching – it’s simply showing history as it happened.

    Yet by phrasing things in terms of ‘alternatives’ or ‘left-wing’, this sort of alternative source list runs the risk of allowing historians and teachers to be painted into a corner – that they’re not interested in teaching the past, but in teaching presentist ideology under another name. I think that’s dangerous.

    One other thought – I’m always amazed in teaching which primary sources capture my class’s attention. For example, I had the most energizing discussion over Bacon’s Declaration in the Name of the People, which I’d always thought was a fairly uninspiring mish-mash of Civil War ideas and naked self-interest. Another time, it was the Continental Congress’s letters to Ireland, Canada and Jamaica that launched into a fascinating discussion of the difference between Britain’s North American colonies and the rest of the British Empire. Creating a canon, however framed, would (I think) lose some of that spirit of exploration.

    • Thanks, Ken. I think that’s actually what I’m trying, in a roundabout and ironic way, to suggest — these sources are actually part of the canon, for teaching purposes. And have been for quite some time.

  3. That is interesting about Oxford- is that true of the UK generally do you guys think or Oxford in particular? I used a documents reader in my first semester of teaching the survey, and then did not the second. I’m going back. The discussion sources generate is too rich, whether they are canonical or not. In the past I have gotten the most out of looking at supercanonical sources in new lights- using the Library of Congress online to look at Jefferson or Madison manuscripts, for example, makes something students know tangible and open to rethinking.

    What about canonical historiographical sources? Maybe that is a different discussion, but I use Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition in my first year US History class (to 1865), and its great. His political realism still does good work for current readers. For it to be useful, though, students need to be reading Jefferson, Calhoun, and Lincoln, etc.

  4. Matt – it’s an Oxbridge thing more than a UK thing, though I can’t speak from too much experience. The courses I taught at Sussex were closer to the US model than the Oxbridge model, though most UK universities will have final year courses that rely on an intensive knowledge of primary source material.


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