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Journal of American History

Writing, Producing, and Using College-Level American History Textbooks

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses
Daniel J. Cohen

Reflections of a Longtime Textbook Author
Mary Beth Norton

An Interview with Alan Brinkley

Textbook Publishing: An Ecological View
Steve Forman

The Challenges and Rewards of Textbook Writing: An Interview with Alan Brinkley

On Becoming a Textbook Author and Taking Over American History: A Survey

When I was a graduate student at Harvard University in the 1970s, my adviser was Frank Freidel, one of the three original authors of American History: A Survey, a very successful book in the 1960s and 1970s. Shortly after I received my Ph.D. in 1979, Frank approached me about the possibility of assuming responsibility for the book. To test out my suitability, he asked me first to revise his other textbook, America in the Twentieth Century, and it was a good experience. It was my own field, I was just starting out in the profession, and it was a great way to think through how I wanted to approach the twentieth century. I revised the book quite substantially. Everybody seemed to be reasonably pleased with it. Knopf published the book, and I went on to the big book.1

By then, T. Harry Williams had died; Frank was no longer participating actively; and Richard Current, who was maintaining the book, no longer wanted to do so. The question was whether the book would just expire or whether we would try to keep it going. The book had a distinguished history and an established market. First published in 1959, it had been called A History of the United States and was twice as long as it is now--a huge book in the mold of the 1940s and 1950s when the massive two-volume Morison and Commager was the standard.2 At that time there were fewer universities; they were more elite and more traditional in their curriculum. It was realistic to expect students to read a huge two-volume textbook. But by the time A History of the United States was published, it was already almost obsolete. Two years later, the authors condensed it into what became American History: A Survey--with a title that was supposed to differentiate it from the longer book, which ceased to be published very soon after.

It may seem strange to think that a textbook that made its appearance in the late 1950s could survive through the extraordinary changes in scholarship we have seen since then. I think this book survived in part because it was written by people who were outside the northeastern, consensus school type of scholarship that dominated the 1950s. The three authors had all been graduate students together at the University of Wisconsin, and had, one way or another, all worked with William Best Hesseltine, to whom they dedicated the book. They were part of the old Wisconsin school Progressive tradition. The book was built around conflict, around battles over power. It wasn't polemical--it wasn't like reading Charles Beard--but it was different from the other textbooks of its time. And this made the book more compatible with the world of the 1960s and 1970s.

I took the book over in the early 1980s. Although there were lots of things missing, the basic framework actually held up reasonably well in the areas it did cover. It was not a book that needed to be jettisoned; it needed to be augmented and revised. It was, as most books of the time were, overwhelmingly a political and diplomatic history with a little intellectual history, and just a smidgeon of social and cultural history. It had to become more balanced. A People and a Nation had just come out, aimed at people who wanted the new social history. There was great pent-up demand for such a book, and there was an immediate and very strong response. But my book had an established constituency that I didn't want to alienate; it was a book for people who wanted to do the old history. It did very well in the Midwest, in the South, in Texas, in areas in which this old Progressive history was still alive. I knew then that one of the characteristics of the book would always be that it would take political history very seriously. But it couldn't be just political history; it had to incorporate very significant amounts of African American history, labor history, social history, and all of the other new areas of scholarship that had recently become important.3

So I set a schedule for myself, pegged to the four-year revision cycle. I planned something for each new edition. On two occasions, I have made women's history the principal focus of a major revision. One revision attempted to incorporate some of the new western history; another revision focused on Hispanic/Latino history and environmental history. In every edition I pick something that I want to emphasize: cultural history, history of technology and science; sometimes more than one thing; and that's how the book evolves over time.

Revising the book also means going through the existing material to see what needs to be updated. The scholarship doesn't change so rapidly that everything needs to be revised every four years, but there are always some things that need reconsideration. In these revisions, the political history, which was the core of the original book, kept getting condensed and condensed and condensed--because that was the only thing there was to condense. Political history still has a larger role in my book than it does in many books, but it is no longer even the majority of the book, so only relative to other books is it a political history book.

For each edition, four more years of history at the end must be incorporated, and I revise the last two or three chapters each time. There are now twenty-five years of very substantial history at the end of this book that did not exist when I took it over, and the book is not much longer than when I started. You naturally write at much greater length about recent events than you would write about something, say, forty years ago, because you write in part from memory. So for each edition I shrink and update these last chapters to make them more compatible with the rest of the book and more responsive to what scholarship there is on the very recent past.

In some ways, these may seem to be the least important chapters of the book, because most survey courses never get to them. But both teachers and students always look at these final chapters. They want to know what you have said about things they remember. This was particularly difficult for the most recent edition, 2003. I was finishing revisions on that edition in September 2001 in New York. I spent the first weekends after September 11 working at ground zero, serving food to rescue workers. This was traumatic for everyone in the United States, but particularly for those of us living in New York, and then to have to come home and write about it was really hard. I don't know how many students ever get to September 11 in class, but I've received more correspondence in response to what I said about it than I've ever gotten about anything else.

So this book is never stable; it is never fixed. If a textbook doesn't change, then it will die, or should die. If you look at the book I inherited and the book as it is now, I doubt you would find very much at all that is really the same.

Narrative, Voice, and Audience: The Distinctive Challenges of Textbook Writing

Narrative is a major issue in the historical profession. There seem to be three views:

First, there's the view that we should give up on narrative because any kind of narrative privileges one kind of history over another. Some historians have argued that we should give up the narrative line, at least for now, because new areas of historical scholarship are fragile, and the inevitable political narrative would crush those areas we are working to legitimize and expand.

The second view argues for an integrative narrative that brings all the various historical fields together. Liz Cohen's book, Making a New Deal, succeeded in bringing together labor history, cultural history, and to some degree political history, exemplifying an integrated history, albeit for a very contained period and framework.4 But no one has come up with a master narrative of American history that effectively integrates all of the areas of history across the vast expanse of time.

Many of my colleagues in political history take a third view: that political history is the only basis for narrative, and we should fit other things in as we can. I don't agree with that either. Yet, to the degree that my book has a coherent narrative line, it is more the political narrative than anything else. As I see it, this is a necessary device, but it is always an artificial and limiting device. Textbooks have to be readable. You have to have some kind of narrative line, providing a sense of connection between various things. But it's a very frail line.

It is common to criticize today's textbooks for the absence of a strong narrative and to claim that this is why they are not as easy to read as older books, which did have a clear, coherent narrative structure. And this criticism is often used by those who also believe that textbooks now lack a literary merit that many used to have. In my occasional reading of older textbooks, I find that some were indeed beautifully written, but on the whole I don't see any significant decline in the literary quality of the books over the past forty years. I think the narrative structure of recent books has perhaps become less cohesive. But that's the necessary price we pay for the different and much larger view of history that we have embraced over the last generation.

I balk at the notion that my "voice" is the core of the book. But you can't be completely neutral. I think I am more sensitive to alternative views of events in my textbook than I would be in my own scholarship. I am also inclined to reflect the scholarship I most admire. For example, the book was already pretty good on Reconstruction when I inherited it. Richard Current was an early revisionist scholar in this area. But the text was still heavy with Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, congressional Reconstruction, and presidential Reconstruction, with little sense of African American agency. My own view of Reconstruction was very much influenced by Eric Foner, whose book came out not long after I began my work with American History.5 And that has helped shape the view of Reconstruction I present. Similarly, on a wide range of twentieth-century topics, I do clearly have a point of view--the New Deal, dissent, the Cold War, liberalism, civil rights, the Vietnam War. I try not to present them polemically, but I wouldn't say I'm neutral.

At the same time, though, I try at least to suggest options and to create a certain degree of openness in how readers might evaluate things. I avoid language that seems too directive or opinionated. I at least gesture towards the existence of alternative views, sometimes in the text and especially in the feature "Where Historians Disagree." I inherited this feature, but in my time on the book, I've substantially rewritten the existing ones and added many new ones, in part in recognition that any book--and certainly this book--has a point of view but that there are other points of view. I want to help students understand that what they are reading in my book is one view of the past--but a view, like all views, that can be contested.

You have to be aware of who your audience is. These are not books that are going to be sold in Barnes and Noble, and they are not books that many scholars are going to buy and read. These are books that are going to be force-fed to tens of thousands--or even hundreds of thousands--of undergraduates who didn't choose the book themselves. Their faculty chose it for them--and the teachers are in marketing terms the most important audience. But presumably there is a relationship between how teachers choose the book and how students respond. Teachers won't continue to use a book that students don't like. As I write, I try to think about the students who will ultimately read the book, and I try, imperfectly to be sure, to be aware of what they need to the degree that I can imagine it. I don't feel that I am a free agent. You have to keep your readers in mind.

The market for these books is 18- to 22-year-olds, and perhaps 16- to 22-year-olds, and their teachers, in a huge swath of the United States and in some other parts of the world as well. The adoptions range from Ivy League universities to community colleges to high schools. So the book can't be so simplistic as to alienate the top or so sophisticated as to alienate the bottom.

I don't want to exaggerate the degree to which I give deep thought to the philosophy of the textbook. When I write, I'm not usually thinking consciously about how this will work in a high school classroom in Texas, or in a community college in California, or at Oberlin College or Columbia University. But part of me is always aware of the ultimate audience. Nobody chooses to read a textbook. They read a text because they are told to; and I do think there is something about the purposes the textbook serves that works against an entirely good reading experience. As best I can, I try to fight that, try to make it as engaging a reading experience as I can given the many competing purposes that the textbook has to serve. I try to make it a book that presents diverse peoples within every area of history to help diverse readers see and understand their own experiences and their own assumptions. But I also try to make it something that people will feel comfortable reading. I get e-mail comments from students who say they really like reading the book. Many students who never write to me may hate reading the book. But I hope on balance the people who like it outnumber those who don't.

Questions of Control: Being a Single Author and Relations with Editors and Publishers

There are a lot of disadvantages to being a single author; I don't have equal expertise in all the areas I am required to write about, and there's a credibility problem with a twentieth-century historian writing about, for example, pre-Columbian history or a political historian writing about women's history. That's why in new textbooks the group of authors is determined not just by the periods they cover but by other specializations; these teams are designed to represent a whole range of scholarly points of view and expertise. I've never worked with other authors, so I can only guess what it's like; in some ways I'm sure it's easier--I can imagine how relieved I'd be if there were some other people doing parts of the books that are more difficult for me to do.6 But how do you bring together the work of four or five active authors? When I hear about the very significant roles that the editorial staffs of some publishing houses play in these books, I assume that they are necessary roles, because someone has to make the work of several different authors compatible.

I myself have never experienced any editorial interference from my publishers. I have never had the experience of editors saying to me "You should do this," or "You shouldn't do that," or "You can't say this," or "We don't like this passage and you should rewrite it." My editors do surveys of readers, and out of those surveys come suggestions, but it has always been up to me to decide which suggestions to take. I suspect that being a single author reduces the role of editors. I have really been left alone to do what I want, and I'm very fortunate never to have had any interference either from Random House-Knopf, the original publishers of the books, or from McGraw Hill, their successors.

Before each revision, I work with publishers to commission reviewers whose views I would especially like to solicit. I seek out reviews from people who don't use the book but have an expertise in some field I'm interested in--for example, early American history. In addition I use reviews from faculty who assign the book. In the introduction to my books, I invite students to respond, and I give them my e-mail address. They don't usually offer a general critique of the book, but they do point out errors or ask such questions as "I have to write a paper on ------; what should I do?" I receive a lot of e-mail from high school students, more than from college students, even though more than three-quarters of the adoptions for this book are from colleges and universities.

Packaging and Repackaging: The Short Version, Ancillaries, and Features

The Unfinished Nation was proposed by an editor at Knopf in the late 1980s, seven or eight years after I had taken over the big book. I was very resistant to the idea of a shortened version of the big book, in part because I didn't see the market for it. The only book on the market then that was significantly different in size and format was the Tindall book; it was lower in cost and smaller in size, and it lacked colored pictures and the multitude of features then common in larger books.7 I then had two textbooks in print, American History and the twentieth-century book, and I really didn't want to spend more time on textbooks. But I had gotten married, moved to New York City, and was having a child. Having extra income sounded appealing, and it didn't sound like that much more work, and so I finally agreed.

The goal was to reduce the size of the book by 40 to 50 percent, to use a new format, and to reach a new audience. I took the text of the big book and tried to rewrite it pretty thoroughly. I tried to give it a more coherent narrative, although without any illusions about how far I could go in that direction. I also worked on the writing. I thought that the process of condensation would be a way for me to bring my writing style more centrally into the book. I actually found it a rewarding process. I did feel that, for the first time, I was really making the book mine. I was reasonably pleased with how it came out. So doing The Unfinished Nation was part of the process for me of feeling that I was taking ownership of these textbooks. And when I went back to American History, I felt more confident, that I had a grasp of the whole of the book and where it should go. Now, in the cycle of revisions, I generally revise the big book and, two years later, incorporate a version of those revisions into The Unfinished Nation.

I have no relationship to the ancillaries marketed with the textbooks. I play no role in their creation; many of them I have never seen. That part is entirely in the hands of the publishers. The exception is the Web site, in which I don't play a large role, but for which I make suggestions. Over time some parts of the text have moved out of the book and onto the Web site; for example, the extensive bibliographies that used to be part of the book.

There are also features inside the book. At first, I fought against them, but gradually I found I actually liked them. One of the first I introduced was a feature called "Patterns of Popular Culture." I really enjoyed doing this. It was an area with which I didn't have any scholarly connection, but there was a lot of interesting material. I had some wonderful graduate assistants at Columbia University who helped me gather material and think about how to present it.

In the last edition (2003), I added a feature called "America in the World," which took events in American history and tried to place them in the context of the events of the world. For example, the American Civil War roughly coincided with wars of national consolidation such as the Italian and Latin American revolutions and German unification. I think these are useful additions given the character of our time.

Closing Reflections

I do sometimes feel that I'd be able to do more serious scholarship if I didn't do these books, and I worry about being drawn away from my scholarship. My own scholarship does play a role in the textbooks, but only in a very small part of them. On the other hand, I feel that writing these books makes me a much broader historian than I would otherwise be. I feel that I have an awareness of a much larger range of scholarly activity than I would otherwise be involved in, that I have a larger context for my own scholarship. I can't keep up with all the monographic literature, but I do read reviews of new books. And when important new syntheses come out, I read them. I ask my graduate students for their views. So writing textbooks certainly does interfere with my own scholarship, but it also benefits it. In addition, I don't think that there's anything that I do that reaches more people, that has more of an impact on the way history is understood, that has a greater influence on the lives of students. If part of being a scholar is to reach people and affect their understanding of the field, one could argue that this is the most important thing I do. Although I didn't realize it at the time, agreeing to move into textbook writing was a profound decision that shaped my life in very significant ways. But I don't regret having made that decision.

Alan Brinkley is professor of history and provost at Columbia University.

Brinkley was interviewed by Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser on July 9, 2004. The interview was audiotaped; the tape is in Kornblith and Lasser's possession. Lasser transcribed sections of the interview, suppressing questions. Kornblith and Lasser edited the transcript, occasionally reordering the flow of the text, and Brinkley made some further emendations.

1 Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, and Frank Freidel, American History: A Survey, 1st ed. (New York, 1961). Frank Burt Freidel, America in the Twentieth Century, 1st ed. (New York, 1960); Frank Burt Freidel and Alan Brinkley, America in the Twentieth Century, 5th ed. (New York, 1982).

2 T. Harry Williams, Richard Nelson Current, and Frank Burt Freidel, A History of the United States, 1st ed. (New York, 1959). Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, 1st ed. (New York, 1930); the fifth edition appeared in 1962.

3 Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 1st ed. (Boston, 1982). Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, Frank Freidel, and Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, 6th ed. (New York, 1983).

4 Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, Eng., 1990).

5 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York, 1988).

6 Editors' note: Brinkley is listed as a coauthor of two textbooks for students at the secondary level, but by his account his role in their development has been largely advisory.

7 Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 1st ed. (New York, 1993). George Brown Tindall, America: A Narrative History, 1st ed. (New York, 1984).