From the News column of the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
American History Now: An Apt Book for the Times from Temple University Press
Chris Hale, September 2011
Edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, American History Now has essays by Alan Taylor, Woody Holton, Seth Rockman, Adam Rothman, Robert D. Johnston, Lisa McGirr, Meg Jacobs, Kim Phillips-Fein, Erez Manela, Lawrence B. Glickman, John T. McGreevy, Stephen Aron, Sarah T. Phillips, Sven Beckert, Rebecca Edwards, Mae M. Ngai, Ned Blackhawk, and Kevin Gaines. Temple University Press, 2011 American Historical Association. ISBN: 978-1-43990-244-8. $34.95 (paperback). Available at Temple University Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Published by Temple University Press for the American Historical Association, American History Now is a thought-provoking follow up to The New American History, originally published in 1990 (with a revised edition in 1997). Like its predecessor, American History Now thoroughly examines the current states of American historiography, editing out certain areas or specializations that have lost favor since 1990 (such as social history) and emphasizing new ones at the forefront of current research (such as borderlands and religious history). With essays written by historians working at the innovative frontiers of their areas of research, American History Now deftly synthesizes current historiography in each specialization in a clear and concise style. As someone who has been out of graduate school for about 10 years and somewhat removed from historiography, I found this book to be an invaluable re-entry into many fields of research (some familiar and some very new to me) that have grown considerably since I graduated. This aspect alone makes the aptly named American History Now seem up-to-date and distinguishes it from its 21-year-old predecessor.
Besides its updating of historiography in the more familiar areas of specialization, American History Now also differs from The New American History by splitting its focus into two parts. Part 1, entitled “Eras of the American Past,” focuses on specific areas of American history, including colonial America, the Revolutionary War and the early Republic, Jacksonian America, and the Civil War. One of the more surprising and interesting essays in this part is Kim Phillips-Fein's “1973 to the Present;” which centers less on Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement, and more on the continued democratic aspirations of post-New Deal liberalism and how it evolved amid the growing influence of a new nationalism and a powerful new emphasis on free-market economics. In this essay, Phillips-Fein presents an interesting look at a burgeoning new field of study. Part 2, titled “Major Themes in the American Experience,” takes a more conceptual approach, looking at how innovative methodologies have influenced new work on previously explored areas of research and created some new ones. In this part, I found the most interesting essays to be Sarah T. Phillips's “Environmental History,” which is another growing and abstract field that Phillips synthesizes skillfully into a cohesive narrative, and Sven Beckert's “History of American Capitalism,” which deftly blends previous fields of American historiography—labor, economic, and political histories—with the history of capitalism. These two essays stood out to me mainly because the areas of research discussed in them are extremely new. I look forward to reading up on future works in both of their respective fields of study.
The most interesting aspect of American History Now—besides how fresh it seems—is how each subfield and methodology crosses over into each other, all of which exemplifies how the New Social History of the 1960s and '70s has become the keystone in the American historiographical pyramid. My only quibble with the book is its lack of maps and/or graphs and tables, which would have emphasized some of the points made—especially in Alan Taylor's essay “Squaring the Circles: The Reach of Colonial America” (a brilliantly written essay that makes you really want to see the Nasaw Map for yourself)—but that particular complaint stems really from my own penchant for graphics.
American History Now is a fantastic book that every student of American history should read. American historiography has changed a great deal—and quickly, I might add—since The New American History was first published. After reading American History Now I once again feel recharged and interested in a field from which I'd become somewhat distanced in the past 10 years. And I am even looking forward to pursuing some of the illuminating threads laid out by these 18 fine essayists to help chart our way through current research into the complex histories of our past.
Chris Hale is the AHA's production manager for publications. A version of this article first appeared on the AHA's blog, AHA Today, on July 25, 2011.