Tag Archives: Edmund S. Morgan

The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…

THE FIRST AND LAST

LYNCH AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING BOOKS FROM

MY GRADUATE COURSE REQUIRED READING LISTS

A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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Edmund Morgan, 1916-2013

We lost a giant yesterday.  Morgan was an incisive interpreter of the past, a profound thinker who grappled with great questions, and a wonderfully engaging and witty writer.  I don’t think we’ll see his equal anytime soon.

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Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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