The Best American History Essays, 2008

Article excerpt

The Best American History Essays, 2008. Edited by David Roediger for the Organization of American Historians. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. [x], 274. Paper, $29.00, ISBN 978-0-230-60591-6; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-0-230-60590-9.)

As a general rule, U.S. history operates as a "book field" both in the best sellers that dominate the popular marketplace and the prize-winning monographs that garner professional praise. There are notable exceptions, of course, that include classic concise essays used by C. Vann Woodward, Ulrich B. Phillips, Frederick Jackson Turner, and others to articulate central themes. Another body of vitally important work seeks less to pontificate than to circulate targeted research in articles published by peer-reviewed journals. The Organization of American Historians has lately drawn attention to this genre of scholarly activity with a juried annual series of what editors identify as "the best American history essays."

The 2008 edition of this ongoing project presents ten pieces that demonstrate the virtues of article-length historical scholarship. In the introduction to the collection, editor David Roediger explains how the ideal scholarly essay "lays out its sources, problem, and strategy in a way much more conducive to showing what historians do than the mega-book, and is therefore more likely to introduce readers to the craft of history" (p. 6). According to this criterion, being chosen to represent "the best" requires not only lucidity of prose and methodological innovation but also the compelling use of new primary evidence to reach targeted conclusions.

Each of this book's four featured essays within the field of southern history demonstrates this blend of interpretative clarity and focused archival research. In an article that first appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, Michael A. McDonnell assembles petitions, correspondence, and court testimony to establish the centrality of class conflict during the American Revolution. Such materials help him to show how the infamous proposal to provide each Virginia soldier with an enslaved African American was but one of many efforts to reduce social turmoil among white Patriots.

Jason Phillips's essay (originally published in the Journal of Southern History) also explores wartime experiences in a slave society. Instead of conflict, it is the unifying power of rumor among Confederate soldiers that furnishes his main theme. Building on those southern historians who have shown how a "grapevine" formed a communications network among black slaves (p. 204), Phillips uses soldier writings and newspapers from the last year and a half of the Civil War to reconstruct the rumors he has since revisited in Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (Athens, Ga., 2007).

Articles written by Beth English and Monica Richmond Gisolfi add to the rich literature on southern economic development. English delves deeply into the "exceedingly rare" correspondence between two female mill workers in late-nineteenth-century Virginia (p. …