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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

Reflections of a Longtime Textbook Author; or, History Revised, Revised--and Revised Again

Mary Beth Norton

About three decades ago, I agreed to join a textbook team being organized for Houghton Mifflin by my friend and former University of Connecticut colleague Tom Paterson. When I signed the contract for what became A People and a Nation (APAN), it never crossed my mind that I would still be writing and rewriting the same book well into the twenty-first century, nor that our book would reshape the entire field of American history survey textbooks.

We--Tom, myself, Howard Chudacoff, Bill Tuttle, and, at the initial planning stage, John Blassingame--knew we wanted to write a textbook different from any then on the market. Already friends before we became a writing team, we had all attended graduate school in the 1960s. There we had been influenced by the growing emphasis on social history and by a critical stance toward American development generally and American foreign policy in particular. As young associate professors, we were all regularly teaching the survey course, and we liked none of the available texts, which uniformly stressed political, economic, and traditional diplomatic history. Therefore, from the outset we planned a different type of textbook.

In the mid-1970s the few social history texts on the market were all quirky in one way or another. Adopting any one of them would require an instructor largely to remake a survey course. We wanted to write a book that would be traditional in organization but untraditional in content--one that employed a standard chronological structure and included politics yet focused on the experiences of ordinary people and paid significant attention to race and gender. We planned a narrative that covered such subjects continuously, not episodically. Each of us brought a different scholarly emphasis to the project, and we thought it important to integrate our own pioneering research and analytical perspectives into the book. For instance, my growing interest in women's history led me to the belief, welcomed by my coauthors, that we needed to incorporate extensive discussions of women and the family throughout the book.

We made a number of decisions at the very beginning that have continued to affect the text ever since. We concurred that APAN belonged to all of us and that we would not be proprietary about our individual chapters. Every edition would be planned collectively. To the extent possible, we would read and comment on others' drafts, and we would not pull our punches if we saw a reason to criticize. We would share our areas of topical expertise by directing the others to relevant scholarship. We all detested the boxed sidebars that repeatedly interrupted the narratives of so many other texts, in part because those sidebars were often the sole vehicles for the incorporation of nontraditional material. We vowed to create as seamless a narrative as possible and to avoid such distracting features.

We planned to begin each chapter with an opening vignette focusing on a person or a group of people, using their story to introduce subsequent themes. We insisted that illustrations be contemporary and appropriate to the time period, a decision especially important for me because textbooks at the time often used misleading nineteenth-century pictorial reconstructions to illustrate colonial or revolutionary scenes. We would help select the illustrations, and we would write the captions ourselves rather than having them drafted by in-house editors; thus the pictures and captions too would become part of our comprehensive narrative.

We all had other projects underway when we signed the contract, so we did not begin to write the textbook immediately. John Blassingame, in fact, decided that one of his other projects took priority, and he chose to leave the team. Because our deadline was looming ever closer at the time he did so, we could not find one author to replace him; so we recruited two, David Katzman and Paul Escott, each of whom agreed to write four chapters. Howard Chudacoff and I each initially wrote seven, and Tom Paterson (the coordinating author) and Bill Tuttle each wrote six.

In textbook writing, developmental editors are crucial. Houghton Mifflin assigned one of the best in-house editors to that first edition. She helped us to pull the book together thematically, stylistically, and conceptually, for no amount of pre-edition planning could foresee all the problems we encountered while trying to write a book that varied so significantly from the norm at the time. In recent years, we have worked with free-lance developmental editors hired by Houghton Mifflin, but the process and the role of the editor remain as critical as ever, for each edition brings revisions that must be incorporated unobtrusively into the existing text. The editors assist in ensuring that our writing styles and interpretations mesh throughout the various sections.

The first edition, published in 1982, was so successful it surprised everyone, including the authors, Houghton Mifflin, and other publishers.1 We were relieved that we had correctly reassured a few nervous Houghton Mifflin editors who had worried about how far we were straying from the standard textbook content of the day: there was a huge demand for a text based on social history that nevertheless included all the usual political events, though not at such great length as in competing books. Other publishers soon recognized that their textbooks too needed to take such recent social history scholarship into account, and within the next decade many other new texts appeared on the market. We frankly never anticipated the alterations in U.S. survey textbook publishing that have followed APAN's success. We thought only of writing our book, not expecting it to cause a sea change in U.S. survey textbooks generally. With each revision, we try to maintain our leadership position.

Even with the great success of the first edition, Houghton Mifflin editors emphasized to us that the second edition, scheduled to appear four years later, would be crucial to the long-term future of the book. Despite our careful planning and our own experience with survey courses, problems had cropped up when people taught with our book. The publisher commissioned a number of reviews from instructors who had assigned APAN to help us with this critical first revision. In preparing the second edition, we had to fix the problems they identified in addition to updating material. In my own section, it turned out that the major difficulty was caused by the organization of chapter 2, which began in the middle of the seventeenth century. Convinced of the significance of the large-scale introduction of slavery in the following decades, I had decided to highlight that fact by starting with the slave trade. But students in many universities found the rest of the chapter confusingly organized. So, somewhat reluctantly, for the second edition I adopted a different scheme that began with the founding of the Restoration colonies in the 1660s and 1670s. That section still begins the chapter in the current seventh edition, but this time around I significantly reorganized the rest of the chapter once more.

Now, too, the chapter in question is the third, not the second. My section expanded from seven to eight chapters in the fourth edition, in the wake of the Columbus quincentenary in 1992, for I convinced our editor that I simply could not incorporate into seven chapters the flood of exciting scholarship on early European exploration and discovery and on Native Americans prior to Europeans' arrival and in the initial contact decades. Nearly simultaneously, users of the third edition told us that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries received more attention in APAN than they usually devoted to the subject, so Howard Chudacoff condensed his seven chapters into six. In the sixth edition--for which we were joined by our first new author, David Blight, after Paul Escott left the team--we significantly reorganized the antebellum chapters but did not change their number. For the seventh edition, in which Beth Bailey and Fredrik Logevall replaced Bill Tuttle and Tom Paterson, respectively, we substantially rearranged the post-1960 chapters.2 The last chapter in every edition is always completely redone the next time around, for obvious reasons. Since 1984, we have also produced a brief edition that appears two years after the long version; we have hired another historian to cut our prose, knowing we cannot do it ourselves. That historian updates the final chapter appropriately and receives coauthor credit on those volumes.3

Excerpts by Mary Beth Norton in A People and a Nation

4th edition

There were two reasons for the rapid end to the crisis. First, the accusers grew too bold. When they began to accuse some of the colony's most distinguished and respected residents of being in league with the Devil, members of the ruling elite began to doubt their veracity. Second, the new royal charter was fully implemented in late 1692, ending the worst period of political uncertainty and eliminating a major source of psychological stress. King William's War continued and, although the Puritans were not entirely pleased with the charter, at least order had formally been restored.

6th edition

In October, the crisis ended rapidly, for three main reasons. First, the colony's ministers, led by the Reverend Increase Mather, formally expressed serious reservations about the validity of the evidence used to convict many of the accused. Second, the full implementation of the new royal charter ended the worst period of political uncertainty, eliminating one of the sources of stress and regularizing legal procedures. Third, opponents of the trials gained the ear of the new governor, publicly disparaging the "hysterical girls" who had begun the crisis and casting doubt on their credibility.


7th edition

In October, the worst phrase of the crisis ended when the governor dissolved the special court established to try the suspects. He and several prominent clergymen began to regard the girls' descriptions of spectral tortures as "the Devil's testimony"--and everyone new the Devil could not be trusted to tell the truth. Most critics of the trials did not think the girls were faking, nor did they conclude that witched did not exist or that confessions were false. Rather, they questioned whether the guilt of the accused could be legally established by the evidence presented in court. Accordingly, during the final trials (ending in May 1693) in regular courts, almost all the defendants were acquitted, and the governor quickly reprieved the few found guilty.

Each of APAN's seven editions has contained many small and large changes, ranging from condensations of sentences to the creation of new sections. For each edition Houghton Mifflin commissions a large number of reviews of the previous one. Some reviewers have used the book; others are potential adopters; still others are subject specialists in areas at the cutting edge of scholarship we wish to incorporate into a new edition. The reviewers are asked what they would change, add, and subtract. Unfortunately, reviewers commonly request additions and rarely tell us what we should cut. They can, however, see things that we do not; a reviewer of the sixth edition, for example, pointed out that current Atlantic world scholarship would suggest the second major reorganization of chapter 3, which I indeed undertook for the seventh edition.

The key to planning all the revisions is the two-day author team meeting that Houghton Mifflin convenes at its corporate headquarters in Boston two years before a new edition is to appear. After studying the reviews, each author prepares for presentation at the meeting a plan for revision of his or her chapters, identifying emerging themes and topics, possible reorganizations, and vignettes or features that need replacing. Collectively we go over all the plans with our editor, discussing their ramifications and seeing how they accord with one another. In particular, we deal with reorganizations that involve more than one author--for example, when material is moved from one chapter to another or when chapters are reordered. One such re-arrangement occurred after I assigned APAN in the first half of the survey course, which I teach every few years in rotation with my Americanist colleagues. I realized from teaching with the then-current edition that some material was presented in a confusing sequence that needed correcting.

The meetings are intense and exhausting, sometimes producing significant differences of opinion that must be resolved before we leave. The remaining original authors were so accustomed to the highly charged give-and-take of these sessions that we were surprised by the stunned reactions to them of our newer recruits. Through it all, however, team members--old and now new--have maintained a firm friendship that continues to characterize our interactions. Historians usually work alone, or at most with one other person whose expertise is similar; our joint enterprise has created an unusual partnership we all continue to appreciate and enjoy.

Following the planning meeting, we prepare initial drafts of our chapters, a task that usually requires months of concentrated effort. The next stage is less demanding, being devoted to refining edited prose, working on illustrations and other graphics, proofreading, and the like. Still, from start to finish each edition takes a full two years to produce.

For a textbook author confronting a requisite steady-state universe, in which each chapter must have essentially the same word count as its predecessor in the previous edition, every word can be precious. (Thus the condensation of sentences; one or two words saved from each of a hundred sentences gives an author a new paragraph.) Simply updating an interpretation is easy as long as one can use the same number of words. (When Harry Stout's biography revealed that George Whitefield was not, after all, a Methodist, I just had to replace Methodist with Anglican.) But if an author must suddenly find room for a major scholarly advance, something has to go. That happened to me in the sixth edition when I had to incorporate a detailed discussion of colonial slavery based on important works by Ira Berlin and Philip Morgan.4 What went? A lengthy treatment of the Halfway Covenant and its gendered implications. Yet passages can also reappear, and the Halfway Covenant might eventually be reincarnated. A reviewer of the fifth edition called for an expansion of my treatment of the Enlightenment's impact in America; I concurred, and so I reinserted a revised version of a passage I had excised a couple of editions earlier.

I am often asked about how much of our revising is market-driven. The answer is: some. No reviewer, for example, told me that I should revamp chapter 3 to make room for the findings of Berlin and Morgan. I alone made that decision. On the other hand, we authors do respond when a reviewer writes, "I would use this book if it discussed x," and if we then conclude collectively that that reviewer has indeed identified an important gap in our narrative. We also pay attention when the Houghton Mifflin College Division marketing manager reports that sales representatives making calls on professors at a variety of universities are learning that people want more coverage of y, or that we could lose sales because competing volume Z is evidently handling a certain topic better than we are. Do I then rush to read and imitate that competitor? No, but I think about ways to improve my treatment of that subject in my chapters. In addition, the publisher learns about the market by occasionally surveying professors to ask how they teach the course, what texts they use, and what they like and dislike about those texts or others available to them. The marketing manager then shares the results with us. Houghton Mifflin always leaves it up to us to decide how to respond to any of these findings.

In short, the market for a basic college textbook consists of the instructors teaching the survey course, and we try to be responsive to what those instructors tell us they want. That does not mean that we abandon our own vision of APAN and what it should accomplish. We will not, for example, include boxed excerpts of primary sources in the text, despite some professors' requests for them, because of our general resistance to such features and because we do not think they advance students' learning, especially when so many primary documents are now readily available in their entirety on the Web. Yet we have added features over the years. For the sixth edition we developed the "Legacy" feature that ends each chapter and brings one story up to the present day. In our most recent revision, we decided to drop a feature introduced in the fourth edition, "How Do Historians Know," illustrations of sources with extended captions that discussed how scholars used them. In its stead we added to each chapter "Links to the World," a brief essay with a relevant global theme, because we wanted to broaden the subject matter of the book. These decisions grew out of a consensus among the authors and the publisher, driven in part by instructors' comments ("the market") and in part by our own understanding of recent scholarly trends.

One aspect of APAN, though, has been entirely market-driven, and that is the timing of publication. In the 1980s, new editions appeared in October; the assumption was that adopters would use the second volume for spring term classes and the first volume the following fall. Eventually, driven by the demands of adopters and college bookstores, we published APAN during the summer so that the new editions could be used throughout the academic year, but that meant professors had to assign the book without actually examining it. With the seventh edition, we have moved publication to late January, because potential adopters now want to see the new edition when they make decisions in March or April of the spring semester on book orders for the fall term. These timing changes have important implications for the authors, because they alter the due dates for final copy. Our deadlines have moved around the calendar, mirroring those changes during the year before the final publication date.

I have learned to think of APAN as a work in progress. What is not done in this edition might be done in the next. The accumulation of new scholarship over a period of years sometimes requires a major reworking of a chapter that can be predicted more than one edition in advance. As soon as one edition goes to press, I start to collect references for the next. By forcing me to revise my thinking every four years, APAN allows--even requires--me to change my mind in print, something that historians rarely do. I have to keep up with trends in scholarly literature covering the entire period before 1800, regardless of whether I am teaching a particular lecture course that semester. Although the process is occasionally tedious and always time-consuming, the imperative constantly to rethink the parameters of my field is what keeps textbook writing intellectually challenging for me. At the moment, the chief issue for me is how far to go in the "Atlantic world" direction; the seventh version of APAN contains more extended discussions of the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa than have previous editions. Do I go even further in the eighth edition? The scholarship that appears in the next couple of years will answer that question.

Working on the textbook has unquestionably made me both a better teacher and a better writer--being constantly concerned about clarity has never hurt a lecturer or an author of any type of prose. And the monetary rewards have been considerable. But there are trade-offs. Any textbook, no matter how innovative, commonly brings little acclaim from one's fellow scholars or one's own department. Consequently, writing a textbook is not a task an untenured professor should undertake. In many ways the textbook's four-year revision cycle (two years on, two years off) determines the rest of my scholarly life, especially now that with the seventh edition I have acquired the additional duties of APAN's coordinating author. My third monograph, Founding Mothers & Fathers, which took fifteen years from conceptualization to publication, would probably have been produced in a decade had I not had to set it aside three times during that period to revise the textbook.5

Yet simultaneously it is immensely gratifying to realize that hundreds of thousands of American college students (and high school students in honors or Advanced Placement courses) have read my version of early American history. Sometimes they write to tell me how much they learned from the book or to ask about an interpretation novel to them. I was thrilled when a young African American woman history Ph.D. came up to me at a professional meeting to tell me that our textbook, assigned in her sophomore U.S. history survey course, had inspired her to become a historian. Through APAN my ideas are having an impact far beyond my monographs and my classroom teaching. What more could any historian ask?

Mary Beth Norton is Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University.

Readers may contact Norton at <mbn1@cornell.edu>.

1 Mary Beth Norton, David Katzman, Paul Escott, Howard Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William Tuttle, A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 1st ed. (Boston, 1982).

2 Mary Beth Norton, David Katzman, David Blight, Howard Chudacoff, Fredrik Logevall, Beth Bailey, Thomas G. Paterson, and William Tuttle, A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 7th ed. (Boston, 2005). Authors who leave the team continue to be listed on the title page for one further edition.

3 Mary Beth Norton, David Katzman, Paul Escott, Howard Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, William Tuttle, and William J. Brophy, A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, Brief Edition, 1st ed. (Boston, 1984).

Changes in my account of how and why the Salem witchcraft crisis came to an end illustrate in a nutshell how my own scholarship has affected the contents of A People and a Nation. The fourth edition (written in 1992, published in 1994) adopted the standard interpretation. By the time I wrote the sixth edition language in 1999, I had begun researching the subject; I dropped a part I knew to be wrong and added two new explanations. The current version, published this year, differs from each of the other two, reflecting my conclusions in In the Devil's Snare (2002). Revisions drawn from other authors can be as dramatic but commonly only require one edition for full incorporation. Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, fourth edition, copyright 1994; sixth edition, copyright 2001; seventh edition, copyright 2005. Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Company.

4 Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, 1991). Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998).

5 Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York, 1996).