Surveying U.S. History

One of the oddities of being a historian at The New School is that I don’t teach the typical survey courses that most historians at universities do. Students probably would enroll in the course but such surveys have been critiqued from many sides: these courses demand a narrative coherence that often masks the messiness of the past; they cover enormous swaths of time that favor generality over specificity; they sacrifice depth for breadth. These critiques have changed historical scholarship drastically so that more and more of us research and write about smaller and smaller topics.

To counter this trend, Jill Lepore has written a one-volume book of the past five-hundred years of U.S. history—just under 800 pages! Lepore has some clear goals. One of which is to place slavery and the enduring oppression of African Americans at the center of the story. She does this perhaps without enough attention to the critical and central role of Native Americans in that story as well. (A compelling argument for this perspective by Malinda Maynor Lowery appeared in Public Seminar.) She also writes women into the past consistently, in major and minor roles, throughout all epochs and topics. It’s a masterful effort that happens without (always) calling attention to these women as women. They are just there, as they always have been. Finally, she holds on to objectivity and evidence, while skewering political ideologies of all stripes.

I was interested to know what had changed in the overall story since I had last read a survey textbook in graduate school. The impact of Native Americans’ histories was particularly instructive in how much that shifts the foundation of the nation before slavery to settler colonialism. (I need to know more about this scholarship.) Lepore reframes the tale of immigration, too, by focusing on parts of the world other than Europe, especially the exclusion faced by Asians for so long as well as the changing perspective on migrants from Mexico. Finally, she changes the story of politics from one of presidents and personalities to focus on numbers (chapter 5!)—how to count representation and population—and communication, from the penny press to the rise of political advertising, polling, and big data.

It’s an inspiring book, in its research, writing, synthesis, and ambition. It makes me want to take more risks in a similar fashion—tackle a longer scope of time, synthesize more research, and write more grandly. But it’s also an incredibly dispiriting book as well. She begins by asking Alexander Hamilton’s question: can a people govern themselves by reason and truth? The answer in our current moment seems to be no.