Cultural histories

I am scouring the internet this morning, looking for an introductory book on English and American cultural history. I want to use it as a companion to a first-year course that introduces students to the highlights of English and American literature in a thematic, chronological order.

A random week from the course would for example focus on discovery, colonisation and trade in the early modern period, and combine a reading of a literary text with, say, a contemporary travel report, with images of travel, colonisation and trade. Or, a week on the metaphysical poets would introduce the poems together with texts from Bacon or Hobbes, or images from Harvey’s publications on the circulation the blood. (Mmm, both these random weeks just happen to be early modern — the course ranges from Anglo-Saxon texts like Beowulf to the present.)

What I am looking for is a cultural history of England & America that takes a similar approach, focusing on themes, offering images, to give student a broad view of cultural historical developments, and not only of dates, wars, and kings and queens. As a student, I read F. E. Halliday’s England, A Concise History, but I remember it as rather old-fashioned. Halliday would say things like: “And England was mistress of the seas once again” — if I remember correctly. The book has been updated since, and is now even subtitled “From Stonehenge to the Atomic Age,” so perhaps I should reconsider my views? Do any of you know a book that is concise like Halliday’s, but has more attention to culture, also deals with America (1620s and later) and is a bit more modern – new historical – gender conscious – etc.? I guess I am asking for the impossible, but you never know!

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8 thoughts on “Cultural histories

  1. I think you might indeed be asking the impossible. I don’t know of anything like that that covers both England and America… and I can’t think of anything that comes particularly close even for one of them. Even for one of them, there are fewer and fewer scholars likely to venture into trying to write surveys, because a) the mass of research to be covered is now so vast and b) in important respects (eg, getting tenure or attracting research funding) this kind of enterprise is less valued than original research. When they do get written, they’re not exactly concise – Norman Davies’ The Isles comes in at about 1000 pages. On America, I remember liking Carl Degler’s Out of Our Past when I was an undergraduate, although I don’t remember if it paid any attention to gender… and I’m not at all sure whether it covers the pre-Revolution period (my old copy is hidden away in a box somewhere so I can’t check right now).

    If I think of anything later, I’ll let you know…

  2. Mmm, I thought so. I have been looking at course programmes at British and American Universities, and there are not many survey courses that deal with cultural history — so there is probably not much of a market for my dream book, either.

    Perhaps I should stick to something like A Very Short Introduction to British History (which doesn’t exist, but I love the Very Short Introductions from Oxford) and something similar for America as a backbone, and then do selected highlights of cultural history in the lectures. Thanks for thinking along!

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  4. The only things that come to mind are heavily focused on colonial history. I rather liked American Colonies (by Alan Taylor) when I read it as an undergrad, although it actually might not be Anglocentric enough for your needs, and I would describe it as more social than cultural. It was a remarkably good read, though.

  5. Wilson’s right that American Colonies is good, but it really is more social than cultural. Taylor’s earlier William Cooper’s Town, tracing the development of a town in upstate New York during the period of the early republic and ending with a discussion of William’s son James Fenimore’s writings is very, very good. It’s not a survey but it does start to get into American literature and connect it to social history through a sort of microhistorical/biographical approach.

    You might also try searching for syllabi on American and English cultural history and see what others are assigning (you’ve probably already done this).

  6. Hey eb — yes, done that, but there are not many of these big survey courses, or I am looking in the wrong place perhaps… Thanks to both of you for pointing me to those two books – even if they may not be exactly what we need, they seem just the ticket for my own preparations for teaching the course!

  7. Historical dictionary of the Elizabethan world : Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America / by John A. Wagner. (Phoenix, Ariz. : Oryx Press, 1999).

    This one probably isn’t exactly right either, but I think it’s the one I used as a quick reference in one of my classes a while back. By the time the semester was over, I remembered thinking that I should have ordered it and had everyone buy it. The entries are really pretty substantive, and you can assign several entries at a time. Obviously, it’s less of a “read straight through” and more of a “pick and choose” type of text–but I think there are some real virtues there. For instance, you can have different students read different entries and contribute to class discussion by sharing their entry.

    ALso, the fact that there’s no “main” narrative allows students to get a different kind of sense of history-making. I kind of prefer this fragmented understanding of things to a full-length study in certain classroom contexts.

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