Tea and a constitutional with the founding fathers

America - Liberty, Equality, Power - The American Past - Voices of the American Past, Volumes 1 and 2
December 6, 2002

In recent years, contributors to the Journal of American History have placed the textbooks of their field under special scrutiny. One consistent observation emerges from their analysis: they point out that these introductory texts usually treat their varying subject matter in very similar, almost identical, ways. Although there is no shortage of books attentive to the needs of introductory undergraduate courses in US history, the choice is not one of diverse approaches. To a market that would benefit from innovative ideas, the latest arrivals fail to supply them.

These textbooks share much in common with each other and with their competitors. They begin well before Christopher Columbus and end with an early assessment of the Clinton administration. In their aim to be comprehensive and accessible, they cover American history with punchy prose, served up in easily digestible sections. Pictures, maps, tables and chronologies further leaven the mix. Each textbook is a mild revision of an older edition, and each is supported by a useful website that includes chapter outlines, documents and student exercises.

Despite the similarities, Liberty, Equality, Power stands out as a particularly fine textbook. It balances clarity of expression with complexity of explanation, and it glitters with the thoughtful insights of historians who know well the latest scholarship within different subfields. The benefits of team authorship are abundantly clear. John Murrin and his co-authors achieve a sophistication unusual in textbook accounts. The book fully reflects the central preoccupations of recent historians in searching for the position of minorities and of women throughout American history. While political events form the backbone of the text, they do not crowd out valuable coverage of social and cultural developments.

America: A Narrative History is an abridged version of a larger book. George Tindall and David Shi's approach inescapably underplays analysis at the expense of description, but they nevertheless manage to fuse some compelling points of interpretation with their blow-by-blow approach to history. They also pay attention to aspects of history that defy events-driven narration, including sections, new to this edition, on popular culture. This attention is not always satisfying; the coverage of immigration is somewhat thin. America lacks the dynamic flair of Liberty, Equality, Power . Yet it has a potent strength of its own, its affordable price.

In The American Past , Joseph Conlin sets out to tell a good story. His writing is lucid and accessible, and Conlin has a keen eye for anecdotal detail. When recounting the politics of the constitutional convention, for example, he notes the number of occasions on which George Washington took afternoon tea while in Philadelphia to attend deliberations - 69. But the search for a story has a cost. Conlin seeks it by emphasising the role of great men, their personality and their activities. Despite the inclusion of some fascinating vignettes - on childbirth in the 18th century and on the development of the Jehovah's Witnesses, among many others - Conlin less effectively melds social history with his narrative of political history.

The American Past is particularly disappointing as a starting point for further exploration of its subject, while Liberty, Equality, Power and America are successful in this regard. Even with some recent additions to represent the latest scholarship, Conlin's bibliographies remain somewhat antiquated. The American Past is a competent overview, but its analysis does not dig deep.

The textbooks are generally effective at surveying the major events and developments of American history, but they are less successful as introductions to the discipline of history. Nevertheless Liberty, Equality, Power occasionally includes glimpses of a more stimulating approach to narrating a broad survey of history, one that introduces students to historiographical controversy as well as to historical detail. On the nature of Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism and on the reasons for the failures of the Great Society, for example, it offers beautifully concise explanations of key differences between historical interpretations. Such discussions are absent from Conlin, Tindall and Shi, and regrettably rare in the narrative of Murrin et al . The textbooks could afford to lose some facts in favour of reminders to students that history is a messier, more difficult, but more exciting enterprise than the recitation of chronological detail.

Intended to supplement a textbook, Voices of the American Past includes more than 200 documents. Almost a fifth are new to this edition. Raymond Hyser and Christopher Arndt have chosen the documents carefully and edited them intelligently. The collection achieves a good balance between political history and social history, and it encompasses a variety of voices. The section on the second world war, for example, includes an article from the Ladies Home Journal describing work opportunities for women, a diary of a Japanese-American reflecting on his life at an internment camp, as well as Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war. Voices of the American Past has promise as a resource for a survey course that emphasises the discussion of primary sources. But the work lacks some ambition. The editors produce manageable condensations of historical texts that are rarely more than two pages long to ensure the readability of the documents. The format undermines the possibility of encouraging students to grapple with primary sources of increasing complexity in order to develop their analytical skills.

Robert Mason is lecturer in history, University of Edinburgh.

America: A Narrative History

Author - George B. Tindall and David E. Shi
ISBN - 0 393 97442 1
Publisher - Norton
Price - £13.95
Pages - 1,308

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