The publication Historically Speaking has magically been showing up in my mailbox for a long time. I’m not sure,however, if I’ve ever actually read any of it until this month. If the back issues are anything like the April 2009 edition I just finished than I’ve really been missing something. Unfortunately, it’s not online, but I would still like to thank Marshall Poe of the University of Iowa for convincing me to teach a class on History and New Media. I’ve got about nine months to figure out how to do it, and it will probably take that long so any suggestions left below will be much appreciated.
More urgently, there’s a piece in there by Edward Gray of Florida State with the fantastic title of “We Have Seen the Enemy and It Is Not David McCullough” which really has me thinking, and it’s not just because I like David McCulloch a lot. In fact, the part that’s got me thinking the most has only a tiny bit to do with McCullough:
[E]arly American history appears to be disproportionately represented among the history that most Americans read. A glance at the history titles that made the New York Times hardcover bestseller list during the ten years between 1997 and 2007 is perhaps indicative. David McCulloch’s two books, John Adams and 1776, spent ninety-four weeks on the list. Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and His Excellency spent a total of fifty-eight weeks there; Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin was there for twenty-six weeks; Ron Chernow’s massive Alexander Hamilton, twelve weeks; Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, eleven weeks, and two books by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea and The Mayflower, together enjoyed a thirty-nine-week run. When Americans read history, it seems, they prefer the history of their nation’s distant past.
This certainly aligns with my experience. I’ve been joking for years that the Teaching American History Grant program is nothing but a make-work program for historians eighteenth-century America. The question that I’m wondering which Gray doesn’t answer (and I’m not suggesting he should have) is “Why?”
I have two possible answers, one political and one not:
1) Conservatives hate Franklin Roosevelt In the middle of this long but fascinating post by Dave Neiwert I noticed that they’re going after Theodore Roosevelt now. Maybe they’ll only read colonial and revolutionary history because those are the only figures they respect.
2) History teachers for the last fifty years have never had enough time to get through all of American history, and since everybody likes to talk about the “Founding Fathers” they all start at the beginning and never make it far enough into the Nineteenth Century so that they’re now book-buying students have other figures to remember.
Other possible suggestions would be much appreciated too.