What’s wrong with this vision of American history?

John Judis lists his top ten American history books.  “They’re my favorites; they’re not the best books, because I haven’t read comprehensively, especially in certain periods. It’s much heavier on the history of religion than on social history, and on the Progressive Era than on, say, the Civil War.” Everyone is entitled to her favorite writers and periods of history.  Fair enough.

See if you can guess why Historiann has a problem with this list (aside from the fact that the latest publication date on his list is 1988!):

  1. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, (1956).
  2. William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, (1978).
  3. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, (1969).
  4. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, (1988).
  5. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, (1909).
  6. Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916, (1988).
  7. Warren Susman, Culture and History, (1973).
  8. Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, (1967).
  9. William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History, (1961).
  10. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America, (1955).

Native American history?  Check.  Book on the so-called “Founding Fathers?”  Check.  African-American history?  Check.  Progressive (but certainly not Marxist–this was published in The New Republic, after all!) scholars and scholarship?  Check.  It seems like there was an effort (however modest and unconvincing) at representing certain kinds of diversity here for the benefit of the readers of The New Republic.  They would undoubtedly question a list that was entirely (instead of just mostly) lily-white.

According to this (admittedly personal and idiosyncratic) list, no women in American history have ever made or contributed to any achievement of note, and no woman historian has ever written a worthy book.  History is the purview solely of powerful male politicians and intellectuals.  (No wonder he calls his list “looking backward!”)

How Sisyphian our task is to get people to see history as something that centers on women as much as men, and as a genre that women have mastered.

17 thoughts on “What’s wrong with this vision of American history?

  1. *headdesk*

    You have to wonder whether he’s actually read any us history for the past 25 years. And is this for reading experience (I.e. Literary merit) or learning something new and revelatory? These top 10 lists are always capricious: if I’m listing my 10 favorite novels, do I include (for instance) War and Peace, which I haven’t read for 40 years or so, but which was really important to my intellectual development? And where do you draw the line?

    But perhaps your readers can help Judis by creating a list of books we would put in our top 10 that happen to be written by women?


  2. A friend posted the following on my Facebook page last spring:

    “I extended this challenge to a friend, and figured I’d give you a go. I want to learn US history: all of it. Like, enough to write and direct America: The Movie, covering every facet of the US of A from pre-1776, all the way up to today. So, let’s play a game: what books should I read to get a good idea of it all? Let’s assume I have zero background knowledge, but can easily pick up the basic facts (ie: what one could find on the internet). Let’s also limit it to 3 books.”

    My response:

    “Just three? Ugghhh. . . At the risk of professional suicide:
    Paul Johnson, A History of the American People
    James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me
    Howard Zinn, A Peoples History of the United States”

    What would your take be on this?


  3. Does an colossal country such as the US have “more” history than a small country the size of NJ? The answer matters.

    Growing up in a small country, I did know its history quite well (not as a historian). I can come up with a list of history books that conveys my knowledge.

    Can it be done in the US?


  4. Interesting that slavery doesn’t appear anywhere on that list. you think that David Brion Davis could have been included in a list with other white male authors? Perhaps a bit too much Marxism?

    If Judis had actually listed books that are currently influential/pathbreaking/whatever he would have been forced to include more women. (I can’t stop thinking about how Amy Dru Stanley’s From Bondage to Contract is one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read).

    Instead we get louis hartz.


  5. My condolences Historiann. Fortunately, even most intro textbooks published in the last twenty years do a better job of addressing the role of women, Native Americans, African Americans, Immigrants, and working people than this list does. I am inclined to think that Susan and Jon Booth are both correct, Judis hasn’t read anything recent.

    I am not an Americanist, but a passing acquaintance with H-Net and the AHR’s book review section suggests that a lot of interesting books about American History have been published recently, many of them authored by women. Some of them I keep meaning to read, after I get caught up on my own sub specialty, or by way of procrastinating… I think that with a little work I could have come up with a list that was less doodly.

    I hear Margot Canaday has an awesome book out, The Straight State?


  6. I am interested in Janice’s comment. It’s an idea that occurs to me immediately regarding diversity; diversity of methodology. I just don’t know enough history scholarship to comment.


  7. I am also made slightly ancy by the comments in a lot of places about this list that it’s ‘just out of date’, and that women would be there if he’d read more recent work. WOMENS HISTORY WAS ABOUT IN THE 70s and 80s! Mary Beth Norton published Women of America in 1979; Sara Evans Born for Liberty was 1989; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives was 1982; Marylynn Salmon’s Women and the Law of Property was 1986. And, I’m not an Americanist so I’m guessing they weren’t alone.

    As Historian’s Whig of History reminds us, historical forgetting is a very useful way of bolstering the conservative status quo.


  8. And if you might doubt the impact: I looked up *Crisis of The Negro Intellectual* on Amazon, and now Amazon suggests that I’d like to read everything else on Judis’ list…


  9. Ugh is right. In general it just feels dated — were these assigned to him, way back? — but I agree that is not a complete excuse; I still teach Christine Stansell’s _City of Women_ (1986) and I like the contrast(s), professional and personal, with Sean Wilentz’s _Chants Democratic_ (1984).

    But I do think we can cheer how many of the most influential books in recent years come from scholars beyond those listed here; for US-centered lists, both the Bancroft and Beveridge prize lists can provide a reader guidance, and they will meet Jill Lepore, Linda Gordon, Margaret Jacobs, Jacqueline Hall, Laurel Ulrich, Lizabeth Cohen, etc.


  10. Even for a retrograde thinker, this is a terrible list. I mean, I don’t just question his commitment to new histories of/by women, people of color, working men and women, and many others. I also question his ability to read even old-timey books about white guys well. Croly and Hartz? All of that Miller book? Not just an essay or two? Not his other, arguably more important books? All of Warren Susman? Really, cuz parts of that book are really not so interesting.


  11. I read City of Women in undergrad and really liked it. I have to ask, what is the statute of limitations on a book, no matter how good it is?

    I am teaching a class on Modern Russian and Soviet History for junior’s and seniors this spring. One of the problems we have is getting our students to identify arguments and apply the concepts they learned in Historiography to the readings in our upper division classes. So I am assigning two books on the Russian Revolution, Trotsky (1932) and Richard Pipes (1989), because both authors have obvious political and methodological axes to grind. I am hoping that the obviousness will help my students identify the arguments Pipes and Trotsky are making so they can understand the debates. We’ll also read a set of more recent articles that address the social history of the Russian Revolution.

    The problem is that both books are really old, and by no means definitive. (In fact I much prefer Sheila Fitzpatrick’s history of the Russian Revolution). But they do help make a historiographic point. I still wonder if I am going to end up with some students who never go beyond what they read in this class to pick up other books about the Russian Revolution.


  12. I’m a medievalist, so I’ve read literally none of the books that’ve been mentioned here, and don’t have a dog in the fight. So I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Of the books each of you is recommending, how many did you read after grad school? It seems to me that that’s when we’re both required and able to read broadly. I’ve observed that, once they’re on the tenure track, professors tend to read only what they have to to advance their research projects. That’s not ideal, but we’re all busy, and broad, casual reading doesn’t get included in a tenure portfolio (which is judged by people who got out of school even longer ago than you, and so are probably even more disconnected from current historiography). Is it possible this is a symptom of career pressure?


  13. It’s true, our interests narrow with time. But a reasonably curious scholar who keeps up with his or her field will surely encounter innovative work of women, whatever that field may be. I work on the history of classical and historical scholarship, from the Renaissance to the present. That sure sounds like a boys’ field, and once upon a time it was. But it has been totally transformed by Suzanne Marchand, Caroline Winterer, Mary Beard, Giovanna Ceserani, Miriam Leonard, Kristine Haugen and many others. Any list of my top reading hits would include all of them.


  14. Unfortunately, many of the books I remember are old. Some are certainly by women:

    A Diary from Dixie: The Civil War Diary of Mary Chestnut, 1905

    What is interesting here is the one fact not included in the book: Chestnut’s husband, James, was the largest slave owner in the United States with over 1,000 slaves.

    She goes on in lots of details about the privations, both major and minor, suffered by a South Carolina woman in Richmond for the war.

    The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward

    The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash, 1941

    Yankee from Olympus by Catherine Drinker Bowen, 1944

    The Course of Empire by Bernard DeVoto, 1952

    1846: The Year of decision by Bernard DeVoto, 1943

    Fighting Prophet by Lloyd Lewis, 1932

    Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (not so much for her book as for her unique life: the founder of modern social work, a founder of the NAACP and the ACLU, and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize).

    Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

    A best-seller in its time, Goodwin worked for LBJ off and on for a long time. he emerges here as crude, effective, caring, and self-centered. Yes, this is contradictory, but that was the point. LBJ was a mix of his mother’s culture and the crass politician who was his father. He gave Goodwin 29 electric toothbrushes with a Presidential seal because she made the mistake of saying she liked the first one.

    Men and Women of the Corporation by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, 1977

    Calling this a “history” may be stretching it but Kanter looks into the interplay of power, sexism (not mentioned by word) and gender roles within a mythical corporation. Yes, it is really sociology but then that is what some of John Judis’ books were. I loved this book and must have read it a minimum of six times.


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