We 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.