Salem to the Simpsons

America. Fourth Edition - Liberty, Equality, Power
February 26, 1999

America by George B. Tindall and David E. Shi (Tindall for short) and Liberty, Equality, Power by John M. Murrin and others (Murrin for short) are rival textbooks on American history. They cover in a chronological manner the antecedents and history of the 13 colonies that became the United States and of the US itself. They are best suited to survey courses that lay the groundwork for more specialisedwork later.

Each of the books is well written, clearly signposted, extensively illustrated and usefully appendixed. Both offer a number of accessories designed to hook whole classes onto the single product. They include: overhead transparencies (useful), online resources (could be bettered by imaginative teachers) and an instructor's manual (designed for the literal notthe literate).

Should these US-geared texts be used in UK universities? For some years, the 200 students following American History 2, a survey course at the University of Edinburgh covering the period 1607 to the present, have been recommended to buy Tindall or, as an alternative, the Longman/Penguin history of America by the British historian Hugh Brogan. The majority student verdict: Tindall is the more useful buy. The minority student verdict: Brogan makes you think.

Murrin is, however, superior to both. Though it has fewer pages than Tindall, it is bigger (2.4 kilos compared with 1.6 kilos), more detailed and more up to date in its scholarly viewpoints (Murrin first appeared in 1996; though revised, Tindall first appeared in 1984 and it shows). Murrin has its faults ("Articles of Confederation" does not appear in the index), and Tindall its moments of triumph (its treatment of Nathaniel Bacon sparkles; Murrin's is flat by comparison), but if you want your students to benefit from the sharpest account of the annexation of Hawaii, a less-than-prejudiced treatment of 19th-century labour history or a full awareness of the racial repercussions of the war of 1898, you should direct them to Murrin.

The appendices in Murrin are marginally better, the bibliographies are much better, and the illustrations are in full colour. Moreover, the Murrin illustrations are brilliantly chosen, and, from the film noir femme fatale to The Simpsons , provocatively discussed. But for its price, Murrin is the hands-down winner.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is professor of American history, University of Edinburgh.

America. Fourth Edition

Author - George B. Tindall and David E. Shi
ISBN - 0 393 97063 9
Publisher - Norton
Price - £10.95
Pages - 1,184

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