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)