Teaching: An Imaginary Course on Very Cool Books

Heather Cox Richardson

Yesterday, I killed some time creating an imaginary American history course. Its theme was not an investigation of some specific period of time. Instead, it was historiographical . . . in a peculiar way. It covered all the books that were revelations to me early in my career.

My course was chronological through my study of history. It started with Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, a book that has been criticized from every direction and yet still seems to me to have gotten the most important part of a book right: it tried to answer a crucial question that sits at the heart of the conception of America. How did men who owned human beings come to espouse a philosophy of human freedom?

The next, obvious, book for my course was Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, a book I’ve cited so many times it’s the one citation I know by heart. The idea that political ideology was a world view created from ideas and experiences was such a revelation to me that I have spent my life studying it.

Richard White’s Middle Ground held me so spellbound that I read the entire thing standing up in the middle of a room; I couldn’t take the time to sit down on the couch ten feet from me. Who knew that you could look at American History from a completely different geographic perspective and tell a story that made sense—even more sense—than one told from the coasts?

I read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale in that same house, reading it cover to cover through the night during a week when I was the sole caregiver for a toddler and an infant—a good reflection of the significance of the book, but not a good decision for an already sleep-deprived mother. That anyone could weave such a textured portrait of colonial life out of the jagged threads of jotted phrases proved to me how much could be done in history, if only one had imagination and dogged determination.

At this point, though, my enthusiasm for my course slowed. The problem should be easy to see, perhaps, but I hadn’t seen it until I actually taught White’s Middle Ground in a historiography class once. These books were such classics from the minute they appeared that their ideas have been incorporated into our general understanding of the past. While I was wildly excited about Middle Ground, my students remained unmoved. Finally, one of them explained that while the book must have been a revelation when I read it, they had never known any historical world in which what he wrote wasn’t common knowledge. They couldn’t get excited about something that was to them, as she explained, “wallpaper.”

So I went back to the drawing board for my fantasy course. This time, my “classics” would either be newer, or less widely known.

Elliott West’s Contested Plains makes the cut easily. It’s a thorough portrait of the relationship of humans to the environment through a close study of the Colorado gold rush of the 1850s, but West doesn’t stop there. His larger point is the immense power of ideas, and he steps out of the safe tower of the academic historian to suggest that it is imperative for humans to imagine new ways of living together.

Eric Rauchway’s Murdering McKinley is still my favorite example of just what strong narrative technique can do to illuminate history. His rip-roaring portrait of the search for just why Leon Czolgosz murdered the president does more to bring the late nineteenth-century to life than almost any other book I can think of. Hey, he even explains that Czolgosz was pronounced “Cholgosh.” For that alone, the book belongs on a list of classics.

Like American Slavery, American Freedom, Bonnie Lynn Sherow’s slim volume Red Earth asks the right question. If Indian, black, and white farmers all got land in Oklahoma at the turn of the century, and if they all lived under the same laws, why did the white farmers end up with all the land? Her careful, detailed study of the answer to that question has a number of surprises, and complicates our picture of race in America.

OK, here’s a surprise one: Robert Mazrim’s The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln is about archaeology . . . mostly, sort of. Mazrim is an archaeologist, and he puts the archaeological record back into his investigation of the human history of the Sangamo region of Illinois. The book combines history with an explanation of how archaeologists work and the meaning of what they find. And Mazrim has an unerring eye for the great anecdote or piece of evidence. Who knew a book about dirt in the Sangamo region could be a page-turner, but it is.

I’m going to leave this here, with four old classics and four new ones. But I’m not going to drop this idea (there is, after all, always time to kill). Other suggestions for books that introduce new ways to look at the historical world are most welcome.