U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A truly canonical U.S. history list

A little over a month ago, I posted what I claimed was a canonical list for U.S. history after 1800 and asked readers for their feedback. The suggestions and questions were good, challenging the parameters of the list, questioning the lack of certain subspecialities (particularly diplomatic history), and offering books for addition and deletion.

But my overall take-away from that exercise was that the list was still too large. There was too much room for interest and specialization, for taste and for the happenstance of reading. The only way to get a truly canonical list–by which I realized I meant a list that no one could possibly quibble with, that everyone should have read, that provides paradigmatic exemplars for multiple fields–would be to shorten the list. At first I thought fifty books would be enough, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought that fifty books still left too much room for idiosyncrasy. So I’ve shortened the list to thirty books, added some that I inexplicably left off before (such as William Appleman Williams) and deleting a whole bunch more.
The general criterion for inclusion on the list is that it is ground-breaking and paradigm creating–that all the books written after the canonical book would feel the subtle force of its magnetic field. Roll, Jordan, Roll might be the quintessential example of the kind of book I have in mind. Even though it is now old and much has been written since then, I don’t think that many would claim that its paradigm has been overturned and even those who want to move beyond it must still contend with it. That is a canonical book. There are some others that are not as clear. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson is a less clear example. On the one hand, the force of book is still felt in the way that people understand the antebellum United States, so much so that almost any discussion of the period implicitly begins with assumptions arising from his work. On the other hand, his inattention to women, African Americans, Indians, and his real disinterest in the Whigs, has become so egregious that it is hard to turn to the book as a credible secondary source anymore. Fortunately, the still salient parts of his paradigm have been updated in a new synthesis by Sean Wilentz in The Rise of Democracy, so The Age of Jackson can be dropped from the list.
There are some other questionable choices that I am not entirely comfortable with: contrary to the suggestion of Dan Wickberg, I’ve left off Hofstadter’s Age of Reform. Can I justify this? I’m not sure. My impression is that Hofstadter is widely viewed as wrong in his separation of populism, progressivism, and the New Deal from one another, and in his connection of each with a portion of the population at each movement’s apex. I think (and I could be wrong) that Rodgers’s book, Atlantic Crossings, has superseded Hofstadter’s, by showing how each movement fed into the next and by placing this moment in a trans-Atlantic context. I also could have put on James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, so I’m not entirely comfortable with the choice.
The resulting list is somewhat odd, not aiming at chronological coverage, exactly, and not attempting to incorporate all subdisciplines, but simply attempting to come up with thirty books that everyone should have read because of their ability to shape historical writing after them. This is a list of books that a graduate student approaching comps would have heard of and probably would think, based on his or her other reading, that they should have read. But if this fictional graduate student’s training was anything like mine, he or she will not have read these books because the books most often assigned in seminars are newer books that are still responding to the canonical books without quite overcoming them.
Since this is supposed to be a fun(?) historiographical exercise, let’s keep the rules in place from last time. Whether you think my list is totally wrong-headed, flawed in the particulars, or spot on, feel free to register your thoughts in the comments section. But if you suggest additions, suggest an equal number of deletions. And, of course, we have to keep in mind that there is a certain absurdity to all of this (of which I am aware). As Joe Posnanski pointed out in an article on what he called “The Willie Mays Hall of Fame” (a truly brilliant piece, by the way), in coming up with such a list the principles of selection are still idiosyncratic and, when we are forced to articulate them, verge on the ridiculous. So now that I have undermined the exercise, here is the really, truly, super, duper canonical list in U.S. History!!

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (2007).
Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2005)
Eugene D Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household (1988)
Nancy Cott, Bonds of Womanhood (1977)
Dave Roedeger, The Wages of Whiteness, Rev. Ed. (2007)
Eric Foner, Reconstruction (1989).
Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (1998)
David Blight, Race and Reunion (2001)
Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1995)
William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991).
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (1982)
Robert H Wiebe, The Search for Order (1968)
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow 3rd ed. (1974)
Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings (1998)
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place for Grace (1981)
Warren Susman, Culture as History
Michael Kazin, Populist Persuasion (1995)
George Chauncey, Gay New York (1994)
John Higham, Strangers in the Land, 2nd ed. (1992)
Henry F. May, End of American Innocence, Columbia University Press Morningside edition (1992).
Lizbeth Cohen, Making a New Deal (1990)
John Dower, War without Mercy (1986)
Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority (2006)
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound, Rev. ed. (2008)
Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996).
Bruce Schulman, The Seventies (2001)
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors (2001)
William Appleman Williams, Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959)

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s a good list, David. The fact that I’ve read all but 3 of them makes me feel pretty good about my cultural capital. I love the inclusion of Susman and WA Williams. But not a single Hofstadter book feels wrong. I wish I could think of a better book than McGirr’s on conservatism. But I guess it best represents the discipline’s so-called rediscovery of American conservatism.

  2. It is interesting to see “canonical” being used to mean a text which defines the state of art in its field, as opposed to a text which has defined the parameters and practice of the discipline of American history. By the latter standard, there’s no way on Earth you could leave off Schlesinger, or the likes of Bancroft and Turner, either of which is more influential and “canonical” than just about every book on the list above. Which is to say, perhaps canonicity is not the standard one should be using in trying to define a graduate student’s comprehensive exam reading list.

  3. Mind, I’m not criticizing the list itself. As someone who stops studying America about 1800, I’m in no position to do so. I mean, I’ve read exactly one of the books on the list, and I own I think one other. I’m simply objecting to its descripton as “canonical.”

  4. Varad, you have raised some intriguing questions, and I want to hear more.

    Specifically, are we dealing here with different literal senses of “canon”? Is there a way that “canon” is used figuratively?

    I think you’re correct — canonical usually means something like “normative,” “parameter-defining.”

    But when we use the word “canon” as something like a metaphor to describe “a list of books everybody should be familiar with,” what other meanings are we porting over with the metaphor?

    One of my exam fields deals with the idea of the Western literary canon and the tradition of canon criticism from the 18th-20th centuries, so your comments and the questions you’ve raised are particularly interesting.

  5. Two things I would be curious to have people comment on; first, how many of these books have you read (especially if you are an Americanist), and second, what one book would you add to the list.

    So one might say 18 and American Slavery American Freedom. Or 21 and Battle Cry of Freedom.

    So what do people have to say?

  6. I posted this link to my Facebook page and my friend, the historian Virginia Scharff pointed out that other than Cronon none of the books deal with history west of the Mississippi (I would add McGirr of course). Does this list, then, reflect an east coast bias inherent in the discipline?

  7. I know you’re not aiming for full chronological coverage, but shouldn’t there be a few more books on the 1950s and 1960s (besides just Homeward Bound)? For starters, I would probably add Ellen Schrecker’s Many are the Crimes and Doug Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity.

    On the Cold War more broadly, I would also include Odd Westad’s The Global Cold War (even though it covers more than just the United States).

    For earlier periods, I would add Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision and Mai Ngai’s Impossible Subjects (both groundbreaking works that scholars in their fields will have to address).

    All that said, it’s easier to suggest additional books than deciding which ones to cut.

  8. Yeah, leaving off Battle Cry of Freedom is a curious omission. Apparently the Civil War never happened. American Slavery, American Freedom is a great book, but ends before 1800, so by definition doesn’t belong on the list.

    LD, I don’t think the issues are as complicated or intellectually fraught as that. A canon of American historical writing and a comp reading list are distinct entitites. We have been presented here with the latter in the guise of the former. That’s it. Or to put it another way, the headline is misleading, because the story is something else.

  9. Varad, the issues are indeed complicated and intellectually fraught.

    You say “canon” is the wrong word here, and “the headline is misleading.” But I am willing to give the blog post author credit for choosing his words deliberately, and probably meaning what he says (which, as the Mad Hatter would remind us, is not necessarily the same thing as saying what he means).

    Not counting the title, “canonical” appears in the post six times. The author, it seems to me, is in fact looking to define a “canon” of works of American history — the must-reads.

    I am interested in what is meant by the term in the post, and in others’ reaction to it. So far you are the only one who has objected to the idea of a “canonical” list, but you may not be the only person who finds the word unsuitable or misleading or problematic.

    So I’m interested, generally speaking, in what might be problematic about viewing this exercise as the creation of/agreement upon a “canonical list.”

  10. LD, I’m not objecting to a canonical list. I’m objecting to the idea that this list is such a one. It’s hard to take seriously, as I said above, a list of American historical writing that purports to be canonical which somehow manages to omit the likes of Turner, Bancroft, Schlesinger, Hofstadter, all of which have been vastly influential in defining the practice of historical writing in the US. Perhaps more influential than all but a handful of the titles on the list combined. And then it manages to omit any titles about the Civil War (whether or not that title should be McPherson is a different issue).

    This may be a list of “must-reads,” but only of titles one must read to pass a qualifying exam in 19th- and 20th-century American history. That’s it. There’s nothing canonical about it whatsoever. It’s the functional equivalent of me coming up with a list of canonical works on the French Revolution and leaving Tocqueville off of it. Such a list would be many things, but “canonical” would not be one of them, and it would therefore be a list no serious scholar of the subject would or should take seriously.

    As for the American West, surely canonical on that subject would be Bernard DeVoto: defined the field for years, considered a classic, and likely so at odds with current conceptions of historical scholarship that no one would dare assign it now, let alone admit to reading it. And, of course, no one does read it, because if “canonical” does mean anything, it means that no one reads the book in question.

  11. Varad, it’s interesting that your last comment here (“if ‘canonical’ does mean anything…”) seems to echo David Sehat’s wry observation about the “canonical” history list he is proposing:

    “But if this fictional graduate student’s training was anything like mine, he or she will not have read these books because the books most often assigned in seminars are newer books that are still responding to the canonical books without quite overcoming them.”

    So, if I read you rightly, your criticism here is basically that Sehat does not present what he proposes — that this list as composed/proposed is made up mostly of those “newer books that are still responding to the canonical books.”

    I think your dire assessment of this list is probably debatable. Indeed, that seems to me to be precisely why Sehat posted the list for discussion.

    But reading your observation alongside Sehat’s from the body of the post does beg the question: why has “canonical” come to (possibly) mean “a list of important books that nobody reads”?

  12. Good question. I have no idea. Also, you are right that the issue of canonicity is complicated and intellectual fraught. I just don’t think it is here, though, since I see this list as being an aggrandized grad student reading list, i.e., one reflecting whatever is current in the discipline, and not the actual range of historical writing over time. So you’re right that “[my] criticism here is basically that Sehat does not present what he proposes — that this list as composed/proposed is made up mostly of those ‘newer books that are still responding to the canonical books.'” You put it more succinctly than I did.

    I don’t think my assessment of the list is “dire.” As I’ve stated above, I’m not qualified to judge it. I stop caring about American history about the time John Adams leaves the White House, if that late. It may be a great reading list. I just don’t see it as being a “canon.” No more, no less.

  13. I would remove Michael Kazin’s Populist Persuasion (1995) and replace it with Mike Davis’s Prisoners of the American Dream (1986) or something by Howard Zinn.

  14. I would add Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand, and Postel’s The Populist vision. For Professor Hartman and “the West”, I nominate Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest.

  15. Andrew: Yeah, I’m ambivalent about Hofstadter, but which would you include? I suppose the American Political Tradition (1948) could be added, and Lassiter could (and should) be dropped. Not sure how Lassiter stayed on there, because his work is not canonical. Or maybe Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964)? As for the lack of Western books, it is certainly a result of my own Eastern bias, which I assume mirrors that of the profession as a whole, but I’m open to challenge on that score.

    One way to remedy the Easter bias would be to add Turner, as Varad Mehta suggests, but Turner now feels like a primary source to me rather than belonging in a list of canonical secondary works (same goes for Bancroft, etc). Actually, in addition to cutting Lassiter, I would also cut Lears on the assumption that Lears is working in the space of cultural history carved out by Sussman. That would allow room to add Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (1956), because he thoroughly internalized the frontier thesis to argue that the experience of the western frontier was a crucible for American individualism, which in turn dramatically affected American politics and American national character/culture. His book(s) (there are actually three volumes) would seem to fit my definition of a book that exerts influence even if now rarely read.

    Other thoughts: Several people have suggested adding Charles Postel and dropping Kazin, but to my mind Postel is too new and is himself responding to Kazin. Kazin, in turn, could be said to be responding to Lawrence Goodwyn’s Populist Moment (1978), so actually I should probably drop Kazin and add Goodwyn.

    As for the lack of Cold War literature (including, I just realized, the 1960s), this could reflect my lack of knowledge, but it is my impression that the Cold War literature has not produced all that many canonical works–a category for which I still lack a good definition other than important books that continue to shape debate even if they are not read–relative to the other periods represented in the list. To my mind Schrecker and Rossinow don’t qualify as canonical–I don’t necessarily see a new paradigm and they are also too new.

    As for Mai Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, that book also seems too new to me and not paradigm-shifting (though I could be wrong, and if so please elaborate), which leaves Higham’s Strangers in the Land as the canonical work in immigration history.

    Finally, for the Civil War there is a book on the list, David Blight’s Race and Reunion. I put it on the list rather than McPherson because when I first drew up the list I gave it to a colleague who is a Civil War historian and she promptly deleted Battle Cry of Freedom and added two other books. My impression is that Battle Cry is a good narrative treatment of the Civil War but doesn’t necessarily establish a paradigm, whereas Blight’s work does.

  16. Actually, I just looked it up: Susman’s Culture as History came out three years after Lears’s No Place for Grace (I had thought, without looking it up, that Susman’s book came out earlier). Since both were pioneers of cultural history, they would both need to stay, unless there is an earlier work of cultural history on which they are both drawing. Incidentally, here is where the arbitrariness of this exercise most manifests itself: why (without the artificial cap of 30 books) would a person want to be forced to choose between these two books?

  17. Where’s Leuchtenberg on the New Deal?

    Do you really need Wilentz if you have Howe?

    Also, I think your instinct to include McPherson as a canonical reference was correct – I’m not sure why “establishing a paradigm” is required. If it is, take a look at Gallagher’s forthcoming Union War (arguing that preservation of the Union was the primary motive for Northern soldiers in the Civil War and their understanding of the Union’s importance).

  18. Mai Ngai absolutely represents a paradigm shift away from Higham (which might be called the “old immigration history”) and towards what has come to be seen as the “new” immigration history.

    The “new” immigration history looks at migrants as part of a transnational context encompassing both their countries of origin and the United States. Whereas the “old” history (well represented by Higham) saw a teleological story from migration to assimilation, the “new” history recognizes the realities of reverse migration, the continuing influence of the Old Country on life in the New Country, the problems with imaging a “melting pot” ideal, etc. The new immigration history also takes seriously the process of racial formation for immigrants to the United States, rather than limiting it to simply a black/white paradigm.

    These, it seems to me, are just a few of the ways in which immigration history has, in fact, changed quite dramatically in recent decades. You can certainly mark the beginning of this shift earlier than Ngai, but I think that she should be the one on this canonical list because of her incorporation of law and policy as well as immigrant experience and because hers tells the most sweeping, national story with which others will have to grapple going forward (as opposed to other works in the new immigration history that look at particular communities or national origin groups in limited case studies).

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