Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

The Tradition of Violence in the United States: A Multidisciplinary Survey (November 2014): Reference Works & Collections

By Scott Gac

Reference Works & Collections

Though violence is an ever-present and complicated factor in U.S. history, several reference works and collections provide excellent introductions to the topic.  The second edition of the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, edited by Lester Kurtz, traces violence within countless contexts from animal abuse and drugs to gangs, war, and popular media.  The outline of violence here is provided by scholars in anthropology, history, sociology, public policy, cultural studies, and biomedical studies, among others.  The entries, which feature valuable bibliographies, are written mostly from the perspective of the social sciences.  In the tradition of the best encyclopedic work, this edition offers students and general readers an entry point into scholarly discussions, such as “Human Nature, Views of” (is mankind innately violent?), “Family Structure and Family Violence,” and “Industrial versus Preindustrial Forms of Violence.”  The three-volume set is an impressive compilation of themes; however, it does not center on notable dates or events.

More focused is Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, which provides four themes as a means to comprehend genocide.  A predilection for ancient sects and agriculture along with ethnic hatred and the expansion of the nation-state undergird most incidences of genocide in world history.  Starting with the early modern genocidal impulse in Sparta, Kiernan traces such violent acts over time and space through the end of the twentieth century.  Chapters that cover the United States focus in depth on the relentless attacks on Native America.  With its emphasis on the thoughts and deeds of political elites in the United States, Kiernan’s book offers an up-to-date counterpoint to the 1992 classic War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, which looked at colonial violence from the perspective of indigenous populations.

A more theoretical overview of violence is found in the collection of primary sources edited by Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, titled On Violence: A Reader.  The questions that organize the book—what is and is not considered violence?  is humankind innately violent?  who gets to tell the story of violence?—document historical discussions over violence through the works of Hegel, Marx, Fanon, Gandhi, Hitler, Malcolm X, James C. Scott, and many others.  Despite the curious omission of Max Weber in the documents on state violence, this volume, with its insightful introductions to the primary source material, is a most impressive compilation.

Where U.S. scholars of slavery note a reliance of their work on understandings of freedom in the United States, scholars of violence often find themselves working within a similar dualism—to comprehend violence, one needs some perspective on peace or kindness.  Toward this end, the assortment of works in readers such as David Barash’s edited collection, Approaches to Peace: A Reader in Peace Studies, provides invaluable context.  Indeed, the opening segments of the book center on violence—war and terrorism, in particular.  The selections here, mostly from the likes of Margaret Mead, William Graham Sumner, and Al Gore, focus on the U.S. context of violence.  In this vein, Not in Our Name: American Antiwar Speeches, 1846 to the Present, a recent anthology brought together by Jesse Stellato, embraces the notion that to understand the violence of war, one must study the antiviolence of pacifism.  From Theodore Parker’s exhortation against the Mexican-American War in 1846 to Barack Obama’s 2002 speech against war in Iraq, this volume highlights how violence has been framed by those who have stood against it.

One of the pitfalls of using antiwar and peace studies to understand violence is a tendency to frame the discussion in terms of war.  Most scholars now define violence as endemic to Americans beyond state militarization and international conflict.  Yet compilations of documents centered on violence in the broadest sense are uncommon.  The 1970 American Violence: A Documentary History, edited by Richard Hofstatder and Michael Wallace, is the most noted anthology.  With updated categorization that includes colonialism, capitalism, violence against women, violence as entertainment, and several other themes representative of current scholarship, Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook, edited by Michael Bellesiles and Christopher Waldrep, is an important new publication.

The shift over the past forty years to understand history from the perspective of everyday Americans redefined the study of slavery in the United States.  In turn, the culture of honor and violence endemic to the American South received great notice.  Edited by Amy Louise Wood, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 19: Violence is a product of this development.  It presents forty-four thematic entries alongside more than fifty topical ones in three hundred or so pages to summarize the variety, depth, and unique environment in which southern violence has taken place.  More specific in focus, The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, compiled by editors John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, brings together documents that evaluate the history and legacy of John Brown.  When Brown and his cohorts attempted to lead a slave rebellion in 1859, they brought an apocalyptic vision to the fore that further alienated North from South, aligned violence with Northern moral fervor, and no doubt hastened the start of the Civil War.

Other recent worthy anthologies highlight particular aspects of violence in the United States.  The Death Penalty in the United States: A Complete Guide to Federal and State Laws, edited by Louis J. Palmer Jr., delineates the historical approaches to state-backed violence from a legal perspective.  The Sourcebook on Violence against Women, edited by Claire M. Renzetti, Jeffrey L. Edleson, and Raquel Kennedy Bergen, contains eighteen thematic essays.

Works Cited