Books in the Early U.S. Survey

booksI’m teaching two sections of the first half of the U.S. survey this semester (which goes to 1877 here at BYU). I taught two sections of the same last semester. After nearly a five-year break from the classroom as I researched and wrote a dissertation, it was fun to be back in the classroom: to work with students, take a step back from the specifics of my own research, reflect on the broader themes and developments of early American history,  and to update my lecture/discussion notes and outlines with the vast amounts of excellent scholarship produced over the course of that five-year period.

I’ve changed quite a bit in the content, focus, and structure of the course, and updated both assignments and class policies to be more student friendly (fewer lectures, more discussions, making more effective use of technology, and experimenting with unessays, to name just a few such changes). One thing that has not changed, however, is the amount of reading I assign. In addition to their textbook, students read widely from primary sources (this semester features significantly more sources by and about women, thanks in large part to Sara Damiano’s January post here at The Junto). They also read four scholarly books over the course of the semester. 

Jessica Parr has written about the books she assigns and the assignments she crafts around them. Like Jessica, part of my motivation for assigning books in the U.S. survey is to “expose my students to good, well-written, accessible short monographs.” But whereas she intends the books to demonstrate for students what good writing looks like, my central aims are perhaps more modest. I simply want to demonstrate to students that well-written scholarly history exists and that it can be readable, engaging, and relevant. In evaluating what books to assign, I take into account several things, including the book’s length (typically no longer than 200 pp, and ~150 is preferred) and its price point (ideally, it is available in paperback with ample used copies available in both the university bookstore and from online retailers). Moreover, it needs to be readable. My experience suggests that biographies, microhistories, and narrative histories work best. The book needs to either shed new light on a person, process, or event the students have some familiarity with or introduces them to new people, places, and events that speak to themes they think they have a solid grasp of already. As a final consideration, I try to select books that speak to either the students’ interests or to current events.

While so much else has changed in my syllabus, I’ve assigned the exact same books the last two semesters that I did when I last taught this course five years ago. Those books, and my reasoning for assigning each, are as follows:

  • Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).

    • Townsend’s book provides a short (178 pp. of text), lively, and accessible biography of a historical figure almost all students have some basic familiarity with. It also has a provocative thesis about the nature of early European-Native American contact and interaction with one another. Because it is a book about a woman who left no written record of her own, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma also provokes interesting and important conversations about sources, evidence, and interpretation – in short, how we know what we know. I initially assigned this at William and Mary in 2011 because of its local relevance, but I’ve found it works just as well across the continent.
  • Randy L. Sparks, The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Slave Odyssey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

    • This book is likewise short (147 pp. of text) and accessible. It challenges students basic assumptions about the slave trade and sheds important light on the African slave trade, the experience of the middle passage, and evangelical religion and early abolitionist efforts. This is consistently the most divisive book I assign: students typically either hate it or love it. That usually results in spirited discussion, so I count it as a net positive. The book’s prologue does an excellent job of walking readers through the chance discovery of the sources on which the study is based, and (like Townsend), Two Princes of Calabar raises important questions about how representative its protagonists’ experiences are.
  • Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

    • Unlike Pocahontas, Robert Matthews is a name unfamiliar to almost all students. So, too, is the short-lived community he established in New York during the 1830s. The book (just 179 pp. of text) is excellently-written and uses its subject to shed light on much broader themes in antebellum American history, including religion, the market revolution, print culture, gender, and sexuality. I first assigned this book because I thought its subject matter (sex! violence! conspiracy!) would catch the interest of college students, and it certainly has. But it also resonates with students here at BYU because it intersects in important ways with the beginnings of the religious tradition to which more than 90% of my students belong.
  • Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).

    • The shortest of the several books I assign (just 83 pp. of text, plus a 22-page Appendix with various primary sources), this one is also among the most provocative. The first time I taught this (2011) came on the heels of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s controversial decision to resurrect Confederate History Month in the state (and the governor’s subsequent omission of slavery in the official proclamation). The book is nearly the lightning-rod for my students here in Utah that it was for my predominantly-southern students at William & Mary, but Dew’s short biographical introduction provides an important example of how historical evidence disrupts and challenges individual and community traditions and myths – something that seems to resonate far beyond the subject material of this particular book.

I like each of these books. They work well for my purposes and the students respond well to each. But I’d like to occasionally substitute one of them for another, especially if other books work better. The problem, of course, is that it’s not always easy to find books that meet my specific criteria (especially the length). Some I’ve begun considering for use in future semesters include William Harris’s The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Elaine Breslaw’s Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (New York: New York University Press, 1997), Alan Greer’s Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), and our own Ben Park’s current project on politics, polygamy, and the perils of democracy in the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois, though the latter is still at least a couple of years from seeing the light of day.

For those of you who assign books in the U.S. survey, what criteria go into your selection? What books have worked well and why? And finally, what books should I add to my own list? I would especially love recommendations for good, short volumes that speaks to contemporary issues, including executive power, immigration, partisanship and the press, or protest.

10 responses

  1. Thanks for the mention, Christopher. The Oxford New Narratives in History series is excellent for use in a survey course. They are short (200 pp or under), highly-readable and are in the $15 range. I’ve used maybe 4 or 5 books from the series, including James D. Rice, Tales From a Rebellion: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. One of the nice things about this series is that in addition to demonstrating that good history can be very engaging, the historians who have written for this series are obvious in their argument and use of sources. What I mean by this, is that they do such a great job of signaling and sign-posting, that they really lend themselves to great discussions about historical arguments and usage of evidence. And that means that students who may have limited previous exposure to history, or who are more on the captive audience end of things, feel comfortable that they understand what’s going on, and will contribute to discussion.

    • Thanks, Jessica. I stumbled upon Hoffer’s volume in that series on the Stono Rebellion the other day and was intrigued. I’ll take a closer look at the other titles.

  2. While I’ve not assigned it for the typical U.S. survey, I have assigned Michael Leroy Oberg’s The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians, for another introductory history course. I liked it because it challenges students’ assumptions about “contact” at Roanoke, it deals with a somewhat-familiar topic but analyzes it from a fresh perspective, and it introduces students to the role of imagination and speculation in early American history. The students *loved* it because of all of the above, but also because it was short and a compelling read. It sparked perhaps the most lively discussion of the semester.

  3. Yes! Reading engaging writing will benefit your students in many ways and is a thoughtful way to teach. Perhaps the writing assignments could be writing their own engaging essay based on a primary source document. (I don’t teach at the college level, but am thinking of my own, younger, students who are assigned that task.) Thanks for listing the books you’ll use. I am adding them my own reading list.

  4. Here are a few I’ve seen used well:
    – Rick Kennedy, “The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather”
    – George Marsden, “A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards”
    – Jill Lepore, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity”

    Pearson’s Library of American Biography Series also has some great possibilities. I like:
    – Edmund Morgan, “Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop”
    – Randolph Campbell, “Sam Houston and the American Southwest”
    – David Edmunds “Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership”

  5. This may not be directly related but has to do with the goal of seeking shorter books for courses generally mentioned by Garrett above. I like to include one week in each course where an entire book is assigned and use that week to allow students to practice “strategic reading,” which I introduce to them in class the week before. Afterward they have to write a >250 word critical summary but I also ask them to reflect on the process at the start of class. Perhaps most importantly, I frame it as not just a historians’ skill but a widely applicable skill since many will end up with jobs in which they will have to be able to get through lots of reading as quickly and efficiently as possible while still being able to summarize and discuss that material.

  6. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » Summer Reading Lists


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