New textbook takes narrative approach to history

UChicago Press publishes two-part volume by Assoc. Prof. Jane Dailey

When Jane Dailey set out to write a new history of the United States, she envisioned something more than the standard textbook.

“Textbooks are written by teams of people without any narrative line beyond chronology,” said Dailey, an associate professor in history at the University of Chicago. “I wanted a consistent voice, and a narrative that has characters and plot and suspense as well as argument and interpretation.”

The result of a decade of work with co-author Harry L. Watson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dailey and Watson’s two-volume Building the American Republic (University of Chicago Press) comes at a time when civic discourse is a topic of great debate.

Building the American Republic is a political history,” said Dailey, a scholar of American political history since the Civil War. “When we began, we had civics in mind, and what things you really need to know to be an informed citizen. We wanted people to understand the origin and development of democratic government and the Republic.”

“Now more than ever, we need an American history that combines a fundamental commitment to inclusion with a clear understanding of public choices and public power,” Watson said.  

In a departure from traditional textbooks, Building the American Republic is one of the first American history textbooks published by a university press that is completely free in digital form.

“Offering Building the American Republic free to all students aligns perfectly with the mission of the University of Chicago Press,” said Garrett Kiely, director of the Press. “We always seek new ways of extending the availability and accessibility of knowledge. At a time when textbook prices continue to rise, we are honored and pleased to make these outstanding, peer-reviewed volumes freely available in digital form.”

Dailey stressed the need for affordable, scholarly introductions to American history, and that the free digital version can provide an alternative to the typical textbook which can be financially prohibitive for many students.

“The largest number of Americans in college today go to community college,” Dailey said. “When I was writing I had this kind of student in my mind—a little older, holding down a job, maybe with some kids. A lot are veterans, immigrants, older people who have come back to school—adults who are really motivated to learn. Both books emphasize what individuals and groups of individuals can accomplish, whether it’s the American Revolution or the civil rights movement.”

Even an online book has word limits, and while not everything could fit in the narrative political history, Dailey said there was room in Building the American Republic for creative entries to fit alongside more traditional moments.

“Things that had to be in it were elections and Supreme Court decisions, wars, social movements, large-scale demographic change, big economic events,” Dailey said. “But important shifts can be illustrated with colorful examples. I use comic books, for example, to talk about the consumer power of teenagers in the 1950s, which was really new and meaningful. Teenagers didn’t have money in the 1930s and 1940s, during the Great Depression and World War II, but they did in the 1950s, and they spent it on comic books and record albums, and jumpstarted an industry and pop culture.”

Building the American Republic is available for download here.