- The First U.S. History Textbooks: Constructing and Disseminating the American Tale in the Nineteenth Century by Barry Joyce
Barry Joyce has written a remarkable, timely, necessary, and fun book about early U.S. history textbooks. He has taken what might have been a boring slog through outdated texts and brought them to life. Packed full of evidence and insight, Joyce's narrative helps us see how the American creation story came into being. He does for the American narrative what Jeffrey Pasley in The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, VA, 2001) did for political parties, looking closely at the often ignored textbook authors who, in ways that are sometimes less than pristine, assembled a national story that, in time, became The Story.
Most contemporary scholars of American textbooks have tended to excoriate early U.S. history textbooks for their falsehoods. Not Joyce. If anything, he criticizes modern scholars for misunderstanding the purpose of public history. In his acknowledgements, Joyce thanks his "many friends among the American Southwest Indian cultures for inspiring me to value all creation stories everywhere" (vii). Drawing on the work of scholars of folklore and myth, Joyce argues that every tribe—and why should Americans be excluded, he wonders—needs a creation story that places its members into a larger framework of meaning.
Most scholars would find themselves appalled by this idea. Previous [End Page 373] studies of textbooks—such as Ruth Elson's Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln, NE, 1964) and, more recently, François Furstenberg's In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York, 2006)—portrayed efforts to put together a national tale as a form of social control. Many scholars condemn the historians that helped promote national identity, seeing nations as archaic at best, a form of social violence at worst.
Joyce instead embraces what William McNeill has called "mythistory." Mythistory, McNeill wrote in the American Historical Review, exists at the intersection of historical truths and audience: Historical claims must be made "credible as well as intelligible to an audience that shares enough of their particular outlook and assumptions to accept what they say."1 Joyce agrees, arguing that mythistory is a necessary enterprise for society to sustain its collective life.
To make his case, Joyce focuses on first the form and then the content of early history textbooks. Textbook writers like Samuel Goodrich, Benson Lossing, and Emma Willard, Joyce writes, were the early United States' storytellers. It is a conceit that other tribes have storytellers but not Americans. And it is equally a conceit that we ought to respect the myths of other tribes but not our own, Joyce argues provocatively.
Early textbooks' ability to carry America's creation story depended on their form. They offered narratives that brought young Americans into a common story in which the American past was a shared "inheritance" that fostered shared obligations in the present (28). The story took because it was a story. American textbooks—like other creation stories—told of the origins of an exceptional and unique tribe. The textbooks were not analytical history (like many are today, Joyce notes), but narratives, and they were often narrated by fictional characters. The iconic character is Peter Parley, the fictional storyteller created by Goodrich. He was America's tribal elder, guiding untold numbers of Americans from past to present. Joyce takes seriously the epistemological importance of narrative. Creation myths are stories and stories require storytellers. Early textbook writers thus often spoke in the first person. As "storytellers," they "enabled the child to relive the story, locate himself [End Page 374] within that story, and vivify the overall, tribal narrative for ensuing generations" (87).
The content of the narratives was complicated and subject to serious public contest. Before the sectional crisis, narratives converged on a quest for American unity. They tended to relay the same stories because...