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Writing Early American History

How is American history written? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alan Taylor answers this question in this collection of his essays from The New Republic, where he explores the writing of early American history.

Writing Early American History

Alan Taylor. Foreword by Christopher Clark

2005 | 280 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $26.50
American History
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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Christopher Clark

1. The Voyage In
2. Blood and Soil
3. Germ Colonies
4. 4. Martyrs to Venus
5. Sex and the City

6. In a Strange Way
7. Crucibles
8. A Seeking People
9. Midnight Ramblers
10. Worlds within Words

11. The Virginians
12. Devil in a Blue Dress
13. The Bad Birds
14. The Forgotten War
15. Power Shopping

16. For the Benefit of Mr. Kite
17. The Good Father
18. The Founding Swindlers
19. Pluribus
20. Clintonism

21. The Exceptionalist
22. Poor Richard, Rich Ben
23. Threads of History
24. Transformer


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Christopher Clark

Alan Taylor is one of today's leading historians of early America. In assembling this collection of essays, most of them published since the late 1990s in the journal New Republic, the University of Pennsylvania Press is making accessible some of the best short writings currently available on the history of the United States and its antecedents up to 1840. Trained in the 1970s, just as Americanists had turned towards the "new social history," Alan Taylor is among the first among his generation to achieve the kind of public recognition for writing in his own field that has long been accorded to senior scholars such as Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, and Joyce Appleby. Taken separately, each essay in this volume offers a trenchant and entertaining insight into the ways historians work. Taken together, the essays here provide readers with a lucid and informative commentary on early American history and on recent developments in the ways it can be interpreted.

Though they by no means claim to be a thorough survey of recent works in the field, these essays add up to an enticing and insightful introduction to early American history for students, scholars, and general readers alike. From the first English efforts to settle on the eastern seaboard of North America in the late sixteenth century, to the political career of DeWitt Clinton and the murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett in New York in the early nineteenth, the topics covered here range from the conventional to the unfamiliar, and from the first encounters of natives and colonizers to the social ills of "civilized" society. Alan Taylor writes about each of them with verve and purpose. Whoever reads these essays — and whether they follow the book from cover to cover, or dip into chapters at random — will find the rich abundance and variety of early American scholarship set out before them. Readers new to the field will grasp a sense of its expansiveness and possibilities, but seasoned scholars, too, will find here a feast of insights and possibilities that will engage, provoke, and inspire them.

Among his colleagues and students Alan Taylor has earned a formidable reputation for his wide knowledge, lucid prose, adeptness at analytical explanation, and his eye for a good story. All these talents are on display here. These essays are book reviews, and so belong to the most common, but also the most uneven, kind of writing in any scholarly field. From bookstore websites and short paper assignments in courses, to library journals and the slew of scholarly periodicals, book reviewing is the most routine and often least regarded form of historical writing. Yet, at its best, reviewing has long enjoyed a high literary reputation, and the offerings here enable us to enjoy the commentaries of a gifted historian at the height of his powers. Though Alan Taylor is modest to a fault about what he brings to the task of reviewing, these essays mark a standard for literary commentary in American history. Both as exemplars of critical scholarly writing and as a showcase for a wider readership, they provide a true service to the profession that the field of early American historians is fortunate to have.

Judging by these contributions, being reviewed by Alan Taylor must be an invigorating experience. His commentary is incisive, both about the topics that books cover and about individual historians' approaches. Yet whether he is bestowing praise or doling out criticism, he always provides a fair-minded and intellectually consistent rationale for his treatment. Among the virtues of his approach is that he is evidently prepared to offer either: if you are reviewed by Taylor you know that your shortcomings will be exposed, but that if you write a book that he thinks is good he will say so. Part of the interest of this collection for the reader is that it is rarely predictable at the outset of any review what the final verdict is going to be. The suspense commands engagement, but also reflects the fact that Taylor does not employ a standard formula for reviewing, and this helps give these essays their richness of style and tone.

If these essays are read as they are, in part, intended, as a commentary on the current state of early American history, they do on the face of it contain a big gap: Alan Taylor's own books are missing from them. His impact on the conduct of early American history over the past two decades has been considerable. Both from the examples of his writing and his inspiration to cohorts of undergraduate and graduate students, he has begun to have a measurable influence on the ways people look at the field. Few historians of his generation have matched the quality and quantity of writing that he has accomplished. In little more than a decade he published three books of expanding range and scope, an impressive body of article-length works, and numerous essays, of which those published here are a proportion.

One overarching theme in his writings has been Americans' encounters with their own continent, and with the appropriation and settlement of what is still usually called "the frontier." Superficially, this would seem to be a hackneyed and overworked subject, and indeed many of the first cohort of "new" social historians of the 1960s and 1970s did turn their backs on it to explore other themes. Characteristically, Alan Taylor embraced it, approached it from new directions, dug countless new insights out of the archives, and has done perhaps more than any other single early Americanist to revivify and redefine it. His three books reflect the unfolding of striking new perspectives on a familiar theme, perspectives that parallel many of those in the wider field reflected in this volume.

The first book, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, published in 1990, concerned an "eastern" location for a process of settlement always popularly associated with the "West." Maine in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a focus for land settlement and migration from southern New England that prefigured the better-known westward movement. In Taylor's adept hands, it also became the locus for a long, bitter, and almost-forgotten struggle between proprietors who claimed title to vast landed tracts and settlers who established farms and habitations on these lands. Drawing on a wealth of overlooked archival material, Taylor traced this struggle, with its political and sometimes violent ramifications, and set it in the context of the broader accomplishments of the revolutionary era. Turning then from Maine to the Northeast's first "western" frontier, he brought us to the heart of developments underlying some of nineteenth century America's most evocative writing. Having obtained access to the papers of the Cooper family, especially those of William Cooper, father of James Fenimore and founder of Cooperstown, New York, Taylor sketched a skillfully constructed account of the social and political developments that gave rise to the Leatherstocking Tales, to Cooper's most famous characters, and to the posturings and anxieties that his novels described and evoked. For the power and richness of this account in his second book, William Cooper's Town (1995), Taylor was showered with critical acclaim and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in History.

Both books were marked by the liveliness of Alan Taylor's narratives of human endeavor and human folly, elements that are very much in evidence in the essays collected here. But they had other characteristics, too, that pointed the way to the further development of his distinctive perspectives on early American history. Each book was firmly rooted in a locality — central Maine in the one case, Otsego County, New York, in the other — that enabled him to use records of specific events and processes to illustrate broader historical themes. In the best tradition of the "new" social history, they used such instances to explore big problems. They also breached the too-common distinction between social and political history: among Taylor's noteworthy contributions to his field has been his success at casting conventional political history in its wider social context and, by the same token, demonstrating the political dimensions of social processes and conflicts. So in no respect were these locally based studies "local histories" in the narrow sense. But Taylor's growing understanding of the complex issues at work in early American development led him towards an altogether wider canvas for his third book. Conceived as a synthetic account of the colonial period, American Colonies (2001) became in his hands the broadest discussion we have yet of early American history in its continent-wide context. Most conventional studies trace how thirteen mainly English-founded colonies progressed towards a successful bid for independence as the new United States. Instead, Taylor provided a sweeping history of the North American continent, its adjacent oceans and islands, its arrays of indigenous, settler, and enslaved peoples, and its subjection between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries to a succession of imperial ventures — Spanish, Dutch, French, and Russian, as well as English, and ultimately American also. In this view, the American Revolution becomes not the inevitable culmination of political and social maturity, but a sharp breach in a pattern of empire building and international competition that set part of the North American continent on a distinctive, new path.

But if Alan Taylor's own books are absent from this collection of essays, we still benefit handsomely from the insights that his distinctive and broadening range of perspectives on the North American past have given him. Many of these reviews were written, for example, while American Colonies was in preparation, and we can detect the influence of that project and of the critical reception it has gained on the comments made about other historians' work. From this and his earlier research several key themes stand out as hallmarks of Taylor's interpretations of early American history. His continent-wide approach informs his commentaries on environmental history and on the history of disease, as well as on political decision-making. His alertness to the diversity and conflict-ridden nature of early American society provides fresh insights into conventional topics and also lends them a pronounced degree of humane sympathy with men and women caught up in circumstances not of their own making. And while he is aware of the singularity of particular stories and patterns, he has become a trenchant critic of the more provincial forms of American exceptionalism, insisting that the continent's story, and that of the United States that grew up on it, be understood in broader, comparative and international perspectives.

Though the books reviewed in these essays tend to avoid some traditional subjects, such as high politics, constitutional law, or military history, in fact politics, law, and war are very much part of Alan Taylor's understanding of early America. He is interested in how societies worked, and how individuals, systems, or structures influenced or revealed each other. He is also very alert to the ways in which the passage of time and events helped generate perspectives on the more distant past, to create myths whose effects can so often do more to blur than illuminate our understanding. Stripping away these myths and categories of thought to construct new ways of seeing early American history has been one of the hallmarks of Taylor's published writings, and his critical faculties in this regard are very much in evidence in the essays collected here. For example, the attention he gives to biographical works about some famous Americans, and in particular to the recent revival of popular interest in the Founders, provides him with the opportunity to set these traditional subjects in the light generated by recent research. Readers will learn things from Taylor's remarks that are not readily available from the biographies themselves.

Together, these essays provide a fact-filled, lively, entertaining, and thought-provoking prelude to the vast array of riches now to be found in early American history. Alan Taylor offers sympathetic, but astutely critical observations on the works of some of the best American historians now writing, and a few that are perhaps not so good. What we all have to learn from Alan as we read his essays are his own high standards in appraising works about the past. He is a keen observer of historical context, and holds other historians to account for doing the same. He suggests that historical evidence, carefully and thoughtfully deployed, has an integrity that can be conveyed in historical writing. He is most admiring of other scholars who employ a range of sources, intelligently used, and who are frank about what those sources can and cannot tell us. He accepts speculative judgements, as long as they are presented honestly for what they are, and do not get used as (spurious) foundations for further argument. He prefers writing that has a clear sense of direction or line of argument to works that, in conformity with some (post)modern fashions, eschew either. Yet he is clear-sighted about the limitations of such writing if it achieves its internal consistency by ignoring contexts or being overselective. Indeed, in judging the merits of an approach, context is everything: if other evidence exists, then relying on a single source or set of texts is not good enough. But drawing evidence in small chunks from a wide range of sources is also unsatisfactory if the pattern that results is wholly the historian's invention. Good history, in Taylor's book (as in Taylor's other books), must make room for the perspectives of the men and women whose stories are being told: there must be some indication that the argument being advanced might have made sense to people in the past.

These essays do not chronicle the "new" Early American History systematically. But they do reflect some of the extraordinary range and diversity of recent developments in the field. Both in his own archival-based research and writing, and in these illuminating discussions, Alan Taylor has been in the thick of the effort to reshape and redefine a vital, and vitally exciting historical field. Here, he shows us a good deal about how that has been done.

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