The First U.S. History Textbooks: Constructing and Disseminating the American Tale in the Nineteenth Century

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9781498502153: The First U.S. History Textbooks: Constructing and Disseminating the American Tale in the Nineteenth Century

This book analyzes the common narrative residing in American History textbooks published in the first half of the 19th century. That story, what the author identifies as the American “creation” or “origins” narrative, is simultaneously examined as both historic and “mythic” in composition. It offers a fresh, multidisciplinary perspective on an enduring aspect of these works. The book begins with a provocative thesis that proposes the importance of the relationship between myth and history in the creation of America’s textbook narrative. It ends with a passionate call for a truly inclusive story of who Americans are and what Americans aspire to become.
The book is organized into three related sections. The first section provides the context for the emergence of American History textbooks. It analyzes the structure and utility of these school histories within the context of antebellum American society and educational practices. The second section is the heart of the book. It recounts and scrutinizes the textbook narrative as it tells the story of America’s emergence from “prehistory” through the American Revolution—the origins story of America. This section identifies the recurring themes and images that together constitute what early educators conceived as a unified cultural narrative. Section three examines the sectional bifurcation and eventual re-unification of the American History textbook narrative from the 1850s into the early 20th century. The book concludes by revisiting the relationship between textbooks, the American story, and mythic narratives in light of current debates and controversies over textbooks, American history curriculum and a common American narrative.

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About the Author:

Barry Joyce is associate professor of history and the co-coordinator of the Social Studies Secondary Education Program at the University of Delaware.

Review:

Joyce traces the construction of the story of America—the creation myth that celebrates US exceptionalism—in the textbooks aimed at children and families in the 19th century. Textbooks tried to unite the citizenry of the republic with consistent stories of providential events and near-divine heroes. A remarkable consensus—even plagiarism—marked these popular works until the overt sectional divisiveness of the 1850s. Some textbooks continued to ignore or downplay slavery; others termed slavery a ‘dark stain’ on the national fabric. Southerners—even teachers in Southern schools—chafed at the dominance of the North in the story and called for a version that honored Southern values and traditions. Although they never achieved that goal during the Civil War or Reconstruction, textbooks again found remarkable consensus by reintegrating the ‘redeemed’ Southerners at the end of the century. A consensus on white supremacy replaced the emphasis on divine will. In the 21st century, the story has fragmented, but even teachers who delight in exposing myths will recognize the ways they repeat the narratives and keep alive many of the characters of those first textbooks. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. (CHOICE)

For those interested in American education and the nature of textbook publishing, this book is an interesting contribution. (Journal of American History)

Joyce’s work connects well with students and scholars in the history of education as well as future teachers of history and social studies. Political scientists exploring the relationship between citizens and the political zeitgeist of a period will also find it of interest. The book is skillfully written in readable prose. The author includes numerous substantive examples from different textbooks to demonstrate the evolution of the creation narrative balanced against a sometimes humorous expository thread. (Journal of American Culture)

The past is not only what happened, but the stories told about what happened. In this well-researched and engaging work, Barry Joyce shows how nineteenth-century textbook writers fashioned an American vision. Their efforts helped establish fundamental myths that continue to resonate today. (Louis P. Masur, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University and author of Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series, Rutgers University)

This book should be read by anyone who either currently is or one day will teach history to future generations of students. By reading this book, and really understanding Joyce’s argument about the role that U.S. history textbooks played in creating and promoting the 'true' American story, readers will clearly see that these history textbooks were political documents used to train students to view their nation in a very specific light. Joyce goes on to make an excellent argument about how important the teaching and learning of history in schools was, and cites examples of how students learned about American history in school may have helped cause them to hold certain perspectives and opinions about other major events in the 1800s. In short, Joyce makes a strong argument for why history education is so important, both in the 1800s as well as today. (Kyle Ward, St. Cloud State University)

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