Ben Hufbauer, an art historian at the University of Louisville, has a really nice essay about his encounter with Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic, which was co-authored by Daniel Aaron and William Miller (1959; rev. 1970). It turned out to be Hofstadter’s final book, as he died just weeks after the publication of the revised edition in 1970. Go read–Hufbauer makes a compelling case for the clarity and freshness of the approach by Hofstadter et. al. to narrative history, especially as he encounters it in the mid-1990s in an unlighted Nigerian university library:
I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.
Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.
I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. “Old American flag Bailey,” as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.
Hufbauer makes a great case for how an old U.S. history text changed his intellectual life–but it’s not going to get me to start assigning textbooks to my students! However “revisionist” or revolutionary, they all end up reassuring students that there’s only one story to tell and that they’ve read it already, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I want my students to learn–even (or perhaps especially?) in my lower-level classes. I may however, borrow his article for my lower-level class next term, in particular the portions in which he compares the Hofstadter textbook to that of “old American flag Bailey.” Check it out:
A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:
Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.
Bailey sums up that the “discovery” of America was a “sensational achievement, “but states that “The American continents were slow to yield their virginity.”
Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:
When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.
Today “permanent occupation” probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, “catastrophic.”
Sometimes I wish I could just assign a textbook and be done with it, but teaching in the Age of the Great Fragmentation raises difficult epistemological questions. Hufbauer implies a number of these questions by situating his encounter with the book in a particular time in hiss intellectual life and place in the world. I’m sure that the majority of my students would be happier if I just chose a nice textbook and didn’t bother them with articles, monographs, or primary sources. But, I don’t think that making the majority happy is a terribly noble goal as a Professor or as a historian.