Reading early America (for fun!)

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I am a reader. Since I was very young, I’ve had an affinity for libraries, for the smell of books, the crispness of their pages, and the music made by the words inside. As a historian, my career as a scholar compels me to read – both widely and deeply – in order to understand the conversations that other scholars are having about the past.

While writing my PhD thesis, I read for pleasure as often as I could. It became an escape for the days when I could not bear to think about the eighteenth century or Scottish emigrants any longer. I would pick up Terry Pratchett, Sarah Perry, Susan Hill, Neil Gaiman, and others to shut out the reality of writing. But I also found that reading fiction helped me learn more about narrative – how it’s crafted, woven, and formed into a story worth telling – something that I think is key to writing about the past.

As part of my research I also read tremendously. But I found myself less concerned with reading an academic book in its entirety rather than strangely dissecting its parts to uncover argument, evidence, and framework. It’s not always entertaining. After finishing my PhD, I started thinking about reading more scholarship from the broader field of early American history for my own enjoyment (gasp!) and to learn more about the craft of writing history.

Last year was a bit of a mess, but I succeeded in reading three wonderful books (don’t worry, I also made time for a bit of fiction a la Deborah Harkness). I read and reviewed Daniel Livesay’s Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 (Chapel Hill, 2018) for Reviews in History. It’s a fascinating look at the ramifications of race, colonialism, and legislation on the lives of mixed families in Jamaica and Britain.

I read Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York, 2014). Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin wrenches this woman out of the shadow of her more well-known brother and forces us to consider the harsh realities that women faced in early American society, including the heartbreak of losing children, caring for aging parents, and the struggle to make ends meet.

Finally, Erica Armstrong Dunbar provided a compelling read with Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York, 2018) — piecing together the story of Ona Judge and her own relentless pursuit of freedom. It’s a quick read that will sweep you up and make you reconsider the lives of the Washington family. BTW, Simon and Schuster have recently published Dunbar’s retelling of Ona’s story in a Young Readers’ version!

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This year I’m continuing my quest to read widely in the field of early American history. I’m especially interested in reading as I think about my own first book project (yikes!) and to enhance my teaching of early America. I just picked up Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2016) as I revise my teaching unit on the revolutionary era. I’ve also been consulting Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States (New York, 2014) and Colin G. Calloway’s First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Boston, 2019) for diverse voices.

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Here is what I’ve been eyeing to add to my “To Be Read” list for the upcoming year:

What are you currently reading and enjoying?


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