Comps Notes: American History Textbooks; Brinkley, Zinn, Tindall and Shi

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Fourth Edition, 2004. 

Alan Brinkley 

The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People stands as David Brinkley’s attempt to amend the narrative of traditional American history, conventionally taught in schools and universities, so that it fully recognizes the diverse character of American experience and celebrates those experiences that Americans share in common. Brinkley is, by training, a New Deal historian and also a known promoter of progressive issues. As a progressive, it can be assumed that Brinkley is also more inclined to perpetuate liberal political and philosophical ideals. Brinkley also imbues his work with a great deal of optimism. Although, he admits that the new approaches to history can often uncover the dirty underside of society, unlike Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, Brinkley leaves little question that he believes that the United States is a great country with an extraordinary past and a “remarkably stable and enduring political system.” (xxxviii) He also believes that history is still a flourishing discipline that has a great deal to offer the general public.

Originally printed in 1993, the 2004 edition is filled with some of the buzz words of the twenty-first century, namely diversity and globalization. Brinkley states that the old narrative history almost solely contained the “experiences of great men and the unfolding of great public events.” (xxxvii) The “new” history that Brinkley intends to bring to the current generation of students is one that must both consider the global forces that have shaped and are shaping the U.S. as well as the varied experiences of the different cultural and ethnic groups that claim or have claimed America as their home.

Brinkley readily admits that attempting to tell such a complex historical account can lead to a choppy and fragmented narrative. Throughout Unfinished Nation’s chapters Brinkley provides crucial organizational tools that endeavor to alleviate some of the confusion that may ensue as a result of such fragmentation. “America in the World” is a feature in many of the chapters in which Brinkley highlights America’s global position during that particular time-period or event. Another feature scattered throughout the book is “Debating the Past,” in which Brinkley introduces the reader to basic historiographical arguments surrounding the events and theories being discussed in the chapter.

Comparing Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation to Tindall and Shi’s America: A Narrative History and Zinn’s A People’s History is most easily accomplished by looking at how each author tackles the same topic or historical period in history; in this case the Progressive Era. This method also more clearly and effectively brings out the uniqueness, bias, and style of each author’s version. Brinkley sticks very closely to the customary depiction of the Progressive Era as a time in which the people energetically rose up against corporate greed and in support of the rights of the common man, while also trying “to restore order and stability to their turbulent society.” (558) Brinkley does a much better job than both Zinn and Tindall/Shi of including women and African Americans in his narrative, while still giving governmental and political accomplishments their due.

Brinkley’s chapter on the Progressive Era is balanced and enjoyable to read, two characteristics that would describe the entire book. One gets the feeling that Brinkley has taken a great deal of time to ensure that his rendition of America’s history is complete. By including sections such as “Debating the Past” he gives the readers a fuller picture of the past, not one that is based only on his beliefs and assumptions. However, Brinkley’s optimistic nature and excitement for the subject still shine through, without painting an overly rosy picture, providing the student with a pleasurable reading experience. Of the three books, Brinkley’s portrayal of American history is the most desirable for an entry-level college course.

 

America: A Narrative History: Volume II, Sixth Edition, 2004 

George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi 

George Brown Tindall was a historian of the South, who did not support a sycophantic description of the South’s past. In his academic work and public life, Tindall was a defender and champion of African-American rights and anti-discriminatory practices. America: A Narrative History was originally published in 1984 with Tindall as the sole contributor. David E. Shi joined Tindall as co-author in later editions. Shi is an United States intellectual and cultural historian.

The main aim of America is to introduce a more a complex historical narrative to the reader that includes many of the groups, such as women and African Americans, that Brinkley also endeavors to incorporate while simultaneously presenting this information in a manner that is easy to understand and accessible. Tindall and Shi state that their objective is “to provide a compelling narrative history of the American experience, a narrative animated by human characters, informed by analysis and social texture, and guided by the unfolding of events.” (xix) Each chapter is organized in the same manner, with highlights such as timelines and learning objectives, making the book fairly easy to navigate, particularly for an inexperienced student.

Despite Tindall’s background and the stated intention of providing a history brought to life by human characters, America is still a very traditional narrative that focuses exceedingly heavily on important men, politics and governmental events and issues. For example Supreme Court cases play a much bigger role in America than in Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation and Zinn’s A People’s History. Additionally, Tindall and Shi provide a detailed account of every presidential election, suggesting that these elections are more effective at illustrating the atmosphere of the country at these junctures than the discussion of a more socially bound topic.

This emphasis on the political is particularly apparent when one looks at Tindall and Shi’s chapter on the Progressive Era. From the very beginning of the chapter, Tindall and Shi link progressive activities to the presidents that were in term at the time, Roosevelt and Wilson. They paint Roosevelt in a much better light than both Brinkley and Zinn. When discussing the origins of the muckrakers, Tindall and Shi write:

Theodore Roosevelt compared them to a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “A man that could look no way but downwards with a muckrake in his hands.” The muckrakers were “often indispensable to…society,’ Roosevelt said, “but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.” (782)

In this quote, Tindall and Shi suggest that Roosevelt often admired the work of the muckrakers. When addressing the very same topic, Brinkley portrays Roosevelt much less positively. “They became known as the ‘muckrakers’,” he writes, “after Theodore Roosevelt accused one of them of raking up muck through his writings.” (Brinkly, 558) With a slight change of wordage, Roosevelt goes from a good-natured, although cautious, supporter to an annoyed and hostile opponent of this kind of activist journalism. Tindall and Shi do a great deal to emphasize the forward-looking and public-minded nature of Roosevelt and his accomplishments. They give little playtime to the “regular” people, probably due to the fact that they believed that “much of the public policy of the time came to be formulated by experts and members of appointed boards, not by broad segments of the population.” (808)

Despite celebrating Roosevelt and Wilson’s improvements to the nation, Tindall and Shi express much more skepticism towards the Progressive Era than Brinkley. They refer to the initiative and referendum as “supposedly democratic” and describe the efficiency and bureaucracy of the era as “much-ballyhooed.” (808) Even when addressing the Vietnam War in their chapter “The Tragedy of Vietnam,” (a chapter that is rather unremarkable in its treatment of the war) Tindall and Shi continue to express a kind of sympathy and deep-seated respect for the presidents and other authority figures that would certainly not be applauded by Zinn. An instance of this kind of sympathy occurs when Tindall and Shi discuss Lyndon Johnson’s involvement in the war. Although people can now look back on his actions with disdain due to the advantage of hindsight, they express that one must remember that the actions that Johnson took were in line with the foreign policy decisions that had been made by all presidents since World War II.

Although a fine effort in writing the United States’ history, Tindall and Shi’s America falls a bit short of its intended goal. The narrative tends to get bogged down in the disproportionate coverage of political events and politician’s decisions, which can make even the most industrious student squirm a bit. The consistent organization techniques used throughout the chapters is the book’s strong suit. The amount of visual pointers throughout the book, something that Brinkley also does well, furthermore engage the reader and bring added interest to the narrative. This rendition of America’s history would go well with a more political science-minded crowd.

 

A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, 2003 

Howard Zinn 

Howard Zinn was a Political Science professor at Boston University and a prolific writer. His works were largely centered around the themes of labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements. He was a known as a fighter for the little guy and a critic of authority figures. Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present because he felt that traditional history textbooks were far too limited in their scope and that the perspectives of minorities and the working class had been unjustly ignored.

Indeed, Zinn does an amazing job of weaving letters, songs, interviews and other first-hand accounts of these “little” men and women into his narrative. The breadth of primary and secondary sources that he uses is remarkable. However, his fixation on honoring the lives of ordinary people and unlocking the unpleasant past surrounding their experiences has a tendency to feel lopsided. Instead of evening the historical playing field, Zinn instead passes the weight almost entirely to the “new” players in the narrative. Additionally, Zinn personal cynicism regarding the government and other authority figures has a tendency to darken the narrative to the point of despair.

These leanings are quite evident in Zinn’s chapter about the Progressive Era. Just from the title of the chapter, “The Socialist Challenge,” is obvious that Zinn is not going to treat the time period in the traditional manner. Instead he paints the era as a time period where socialism was trying to poke its way into the popular psyche of the masses. Zinn writes that all reforms that were accomplished during the era were to soothe the angst of the working-class and to fend off socialism. A hefty percentage of the chapter is dedicated to labor unrest and a kind of class warfare. Mention of the term Progressive Era does not occur until one is over twenty pages into the chapter, and, even then, Zinn only grudgingly mentions it in order to emphasize that the whole concept of the era is only a social construct created by white academics. “What was clear in this period,” Zinn writes, painting an opposite picture to those written by Brinkley and Tindall and Shi, “to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the ‘Progressive Period,’ the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” (349) Writing in the same vein as Gabriel Kolko and Richard Hofstadter, Zinn is certainly not a champion of Roosevelt ardor and certainly does not define the period based on his accomplishments. Focusing on the labor chaos during the period, Zinn paints an arguably unjustifiably bleak picture of this usually celebrated time in history; resultantly, the very people that Zinn claims to support are stripped of their agency and lost in the shuffle.

On a purely entertainment-based level, Zinn’s A People’s History is the most interesting of the three text books. However, when gauging its effectiveness as a learning tool, Zinn’s account leaves something to be desired. In an effort to give voice to the underdogs, he often sways the story too far to the left, leaving out key political factoids that are often crucial to understanding America’s past. A student with very little knowledge of American history could very quickly feel lost in Zinn’s narrative because there are not the traditional flag points that typically structure such accounts. Furthermore, Zinn’s book is not organized in a textbook manner. There are no headlines breaking the chapters into easy-to-read snippets or photographs to break the monotony, again making it less desirable and perhaps boring for an inexperienced student. If used in the classroom, A People’s History belongs solely in more advanced classes, such as a fourth year seminar. Certain chapters, such as Zinn’s account of the Vietnam War, would also make superb supplementary texts for more conventional accounts, like those found in An Unfinished Nation and America: A Narrative History.

Feature Photo, From Lomax Collection: 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s