America, Firsthand

Anthony Marcus, John M. Giggie, David Burner, America Firsthand, Volume Two Readings from Reconstruction to the Present. 9th Edition, Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Years ago I decided to experiment with a high school level history class and skip the traditional “textbook” as assigned reading.  The students would receive information about the “meat” or content of the time period we were studying in class lectures and their reading assignments were primary documents.  In addition, there were four assigned books, (one historical fiction), which focused on a discrete topic and were generally read one per quarter.

In general, students responded well to this arrangement, though it was sometimes a difficult sell to the parents, and there were times when students needed a bit more information than I had anticipated to make sense of the documents.  Overall though, I enjoyed approaching history in a different manner while teaching students about how historians construct history and historical arguments.  America Firsthand, now in its ninth iteration, is my textbook of choice for repeating this experiment with college level students.  It has been a few semesters since I taught this course, and the edition is a new one, so I started picking my way through the source choices about a month ago, and reading the book more in earnest this week.

The editors view the book as a grouping of personal views as to how Americans lived their lives and were a part of the path of history.  In addition, the text offers readers both context and credible sources.  An important point emphasized by the editors is that America Firsthand, “when used in conjunction with the supporting pedagogical apparatus, [can] evoke habits of inquiry and critical reflection that lie at the heart of historical analysis” (vii, viii).  It was (and remains) these ‘habits of inquiry’ and ‘critical reflection’ that I sought for students over the years.  My former high school students and certainly the majority of

All editions of America Firsthand contain the ‘points of view’ sections which give students multiple perspectives on a single event and questions, designed to spark conversation and inquiry about the documents themselves.  The documents are preceded by headnotes which contextualize material and over the years, editions have added so-called ‘gloss-notes’ to help readers with names, places, terms, and events.  There is an essay on how to use sources in the study of the past and a variety of visual portfolios, the latter of which I have found particularly effective for student consumption.

This particular edition has some new sources such as a lynch mob photograph from Indiana and an excerpt from Albert Parsons’ description of firsthand observations to the Haymarket Riot of 1886.  The lynch mob photograph should prove interesting as it gives me another contextual touchstone for an exercise conducted in class on lynching in general.  This exercise was adapted from the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America book and companion website by Jon Lewis.  The Parsons document is headed by an important question – “do you trust this account of the Haymarket affair?” (79)  Given Parsons’ involvement in the Knights of Labor movement in the years after the Civil War, a legitimate question about reliability should be considered by all readers.  While Parsons was a journalist, and had changed his opinion about a number of issues over time (serving on the Confederate side in the Civil War but becoming a Republican Party supporter and marrying a woman of mixed race after the conflict), his involvement in the labor movement gives his description of the event for which he was thrown in prison and ultimately executed a certain twist.  It’s a great opportunity to use the excerpt as a training device on reliability, historical source analysis, and examination of an issue which might not be studied at length by students in other situations.  Perhaps placed in connection with Martin Duberman’s work of historical fiction on Haymarket, this event could become a major interpretive moment in a class with a labor base.

America Firsthand is divided into seven parts or themes and while each of these might have been reorganized or included different types of documents, it works fairly well in dividing a course on post-Civil War United States history.  On the other hand, sometimes, there isn’t a direct relation between sources which instructors need to be cautious about (eg, points of view on the Battle of Little Bighorn followed by points of view on the African American experience in the “New South”).  Each part includes “for critical thinking” and closes with the aforementioned visual portfolios – one of my favorites in the new edition focuses on advertising that uses race in the interwar period of the twentieth century.  I’ll be interested to see how students respond to this portfolio given its obviously racist overtones.

As I make my final choices in organizing this course, I’ll need to carefully balance some of the readings in the ninth edition with some additional primary sources to enhance the opportunity for historical inquiry that the collection in America Firsthand promises.  Any collection of primary documents often challenges teachers with this task however, and it is one I enjoy pursuing.


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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

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