The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

the ideas that made america

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interview is based on her new book, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History?

JR: An editor at Oxford University Press approached me about writing a survey of American intellectual life for their popular Very Short Introductions series.  At first, I demurred, thinking that no intellectual historian in her right mind would try to sum up the entire sweep of American intellectual history from contact to the present in 35,ooo words (the length of their VSIs).   But this editor knows how to charm an author: all she had to do was dangle some of the superb VSIs in front of me to show me what’s possible with the form.  I came to see that this word limit on the grand narrative of American thought could, in fact be liberating for me as a writer and more enticing for a general reader.  So I agreed to try drafting a proposal, and doing that really drew me into the project.  I found myself writing sentences like “a historical consciousness is not only the core of our academic discipline but also the discipline of an educated citizenry” and really meaning it.  I came to really feel the urgency of a book that welcomed general readers into the beauty and messiness of the ideas that made the United States what it is today.

Apparently the editorial board of Oxford University Press felt the urgency, too.  They decided that they wanted me to write the book first as a freestanding trade book, which is now Ideas that Made America and then to eventually edit it down to be a VSI on American thought for their series.   And so this is my modest effort to imagine what intellectual history might look like were it to try to speak to general readers like my mailman, my political representatives, my children’s piano teacher, my hairdresser, and my mom.  I wanted to see if I could channel the energy and excitement of the history classroom onto the page.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History?

JR: How about 2 words? Ideas Matter.

JF: Why should we read The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History?

JR: There is not a single major debate in contemporary American life—whether it’s about racial equality and racism, individual liberty and social obligation, or what it means to be an American—that hasn’t been debated, in some form or another, time and again, for centuries.  Current political questions (is government the source of or solution to our problems?), economic concerns (is there an invisible hand directing the market or rather the finger of the 1% tipping the scales?), and moral controversies (does a woman’s uterus belong to her or to God?) all have histories.  Putting current intellectual problems and commitments into longer historical perspective doesn’t minimize their felt urgency for us today, but it does allow us to keep company with generations of Americans who struggled with—and through—them in the past.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JR: I got drawn into American intellectual history—almost by accident– when I was a 19-year old undergraduate at the University of Rochester. At the time, I didn’t realize my good fortune of having stumbled into a course taught by one of the premier intellectual historians and cultural critics of the late ‘70s and ‘80s—Christopher Lasch (whose most influential work was his Culture of Narcissism [1979], an important book for President Jimmy Carter). Lasch got me hooked.  He was the one who first exposed me to the possibility of approaching the past by way of powerful ideas and intellectuals.  After that, I greedily took whatever courses I could with him and with another extraordinary American intellectual historian Robert Westbrook (who still teaches there today).  The two of them turned me from a student with zero interest in history into one who decided to make the study of it her life’s work.

Another way of putting this is to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In “Circles” (1841), he wrote: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet.  Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.”  The same is true when the great God lets loose a masterful teacher in the classroom, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

JF: What is your next project?

JR: My next book is on the ideas about—and quest for—“wisdom” in 20th-century American life. While it traces  different notions of wisdom and the means by which Americans sought it, the book also hopes to show that the study of history is itself a way to wisdom. According to Lord Acton: “History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”  I rather like this bit of wisdom.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

Intellectualism and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter still looms large in any discussion of anti-intellectualism in America

Here is a taste of Adam Water‘s and E.J. Dionne‘s recent piece at Dissent: “Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Intellectuals are not entitled to special privileges, and “intellectualism” should not be seen as a superior way of life. But the intellectual project, involving the search for truth and understanding with some independence from the pressures of both the state and the market, must be defended. And it is a project that citizens who do not have any formal status in the academy or think tanks can join.

Intellectuals are integral to the battle against falsehood, but they need to work as part of a broad democratic enterprise involving citizens of every background who are concerned about what Trump and his cronies’ systematic denigration of facts means for the vitality of our democracy. There is no magical political strategy for building this coalition, and in the range of priorities for progressives, this would not rank as a central cause.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Adriaan Neele

before jonathan edwards

Adriaan Neele is the Director of the Doctoral Program and Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What inspired you to write Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: In Before Edwards I seek to balance the recent academic attention to the developments of intellectual history after Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, the recent rise of Edwards scholarship and eminent reflections on Edwards’s “uniqueness” in American religious history, his Puritan sermon style and substance, and the appropriation of his thought in the courses of New England theology gave me to pause to offer another study on the preacher, theologian, and philosopher of Northampton. On the other hand, the rise of another scholarship—at the same, that on Protestant scholasticism and Reformed orthodoxy of the early modern era rarely coincides with studies on Edwards but offers consideration to re-assess and re-interpret Edwards’s theological relationship to the early modern era. The publication After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney— “a groundbreaking study of a neglected topic,” however, became a further stimulus to embark on a more comprehensive study of providing a broader background of Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodoxy and Protestant scholastic sources in the context of the challenges of his day. The longstanding trajectories of classical Christian theology are indispensable to discern continuities and discontinuities of his theological thought.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: The theological and philosophical sources of the early modern era have contributed to Edwards’ thought through his resourceful appropriation in biblical exegesis, formulation of doctrine, polemical response, and explication of practical aspects of Christian theology.

JF: Why should we read Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: This volume will present the first comprehensive study of Jonathan Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodox and Protestant scholastic primary sources in the context of the challenges of orthodoxy in his day. It will look at the way he appreciated and appropriated Reformed orthodoxy, among other topics. The book studies three time periods in Edwards’s life and work, the formative years of 1703–1725, the Northampton period of 1726–1750, and the final years of 1751–1758. A background of post-Reformation or early modern thought, but with particular attention to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706)—Edwards most “favored” theologian, is offered for each period enabling readers to assess issues of continuity and discontinuity, development and change in Edwards. Since there has been limited research on Edwards’s use of his primary sources this study analyses the theological ideas of the past that found their way into Edwards’s own theological reflections. The book argues that the formation, reflection, and communication of theological thought must be historically informed. The teaching, preaching, and practice of theology must be rooted in the classical curricula, methods of preaching, and systema of theology. Inherited theology must be evaluated on its own terms, historically and theologically, so that meaningful answers for the present can be constructed. Tracing Edwards’s discerning engagement with past ideas exemplifies how theology unfolds in an era of intellectual, religious, social, and political transition.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AN: My training in Protestant scholasticism, Reformed orthodoxy and concentration in the early modern era of ca. 1565 – 1750, and my work at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University offered an opportunity to examine the writings of the sage of Northampton, and situates Edwards in a world more European, classical, and biblical-theological than the one taken for granted by most of his interpreters.

JF: What is your next project?

AN: Book: Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Text, Context, and Interpretation (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2019)

Chapter: Early Modern Dutch Biblical Exegesis: Renaissance and Reception (UPenn, 2019)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in Africa (OUP, 2020)

Book: The Reception of Medieval Rabbinic exegesis in Reformed Orthodoxy (2020)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in the Netherlands (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2020)

Chapter: Jonathan Edwards and Prolegomena (T&T Clark, 2021)

Article: Hyleke Gockinga (1723-1793): A Woman, A Bible Commentator, and A Translator of Puritan Work in the Dutch Republic (2019)

JF: Thanks, Adriaan!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel Rodgers

9780691181592_0.pngDaniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?

DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.

I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?

DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.

JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?

DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.

At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

 

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

American Lonesome

Lonesome BruceI just learned about Gavin Cologne-Brookes new study of Bruce Springsteen’s music, American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen.  LSU Press will publish it in November.

Here is a description from the LSU Press website:

American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen begins with a visit to the Jersey Shore and ends with a meditation on the international legacy of Springsteen’s writing, music, and performances. Gavin Cologne-Brookes’s innovative study of this popular musician and his position in American culture blends scholarship with personal reflection, providing both an academic examination of Springsteen’s work and a moving account of how it offers a way out of emotional solitude and the potential lonesomeness of modern life.

Cologne-Brookes proposes that the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, which assesses the value of ideas and arguments based on their practical applications, provides a lens for understanding the diversity of perspectives and emotions encountered in Springsteen’s songs and performances. Drawing on pragmatist philosophy from William James to Richard Rorty, Cologne-Brookes examines Springsteen’s formative environment and outsider psychology, arguing that the artist’s confessed tendency toward a self-reliant isolation creates a tension in his work between lonesomeness and community. He considers Springsteen’s portrayals of solitude in relation to classic and contemporary American writers, from Frederick Doug-lass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson to Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. As part of this critique, he discusses the difference between escapist and pragmatic romanticism, the notion of multiple selves as played out both in Springsteen’s work and in our perception of him, and the impact of performances both recorded and live. By drawing on his own experiences seeing Springsteen perform—including on tours showcasing the album The River in 1981 and 2016—Cologne-Brookes creates a book about the intimate relationship between art and everyday life.

Blending research, cultural knowledge, and creative thinking, American Lonesome dissolves any imagined barriers between the study of a songwriter, literary criticism, and personal testimony.

Marx in America

0c3e4-marx

The U.S. Intellectual History blog is running a fascinating interview with historian Andrew Hartman about his current research on Karl Marx’s influence on the United States.  The interview was conducted by Slagmark, a Danish intellectual history journal.

Here is a small taste of the translation:

Slagmark: Let us go back to the 1850’s then and start our little journey through the history of Marx in the US with Marx himself. It is well known that Marx wrote articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as its European correspondent, and even exchanged letters with President Lincoln. How did people in the US receive Marx’s ideas in his own lifetime?

Hartman: For about four years in the 1850’s Marx wrote for a New York newspaper and this was his main source of income for those years, and he really relied upon that. He was, as you know, a poor man living in London. He was mostly writing about European politics and his articles were well received. However, the people in the US reading those articles did not necessarily think of him as a great revolutionary philosopher, more as a knowledgeable reporter on European affairs and politics, which was largely what he wrote about. But then when the civil war began in 1861 – and even in 1860 with the rise of the crisis when Lincoln was elected – he was fired from that position, because there was not a lot of money and the newspaper had to dedicate all their resources to reporting on the crisis. That was when he got the position to write for the Austrian paper, Die Press, and that is when he started writing about the civil war for a European audience, particularly for a left-wing radical European audience. I will argue that in his civil war writings, which make for great reading, he was extremely smart about the US civil war and extremely well-read on American politics. A lot of this had to do with his conversations with Engels who was very fascinated with the war, particularly the military aspects of it. But it was also because Marx had long standing correspondences with some of the German 48’ers, his comrades who had emigrated to the United States following the revolutions of 1848. What I will argue is important about these civil war writings are a few things.

The first argument is, that they helped convince a European audience of radicals that the Union was worth supporting. Because many European radicals up to that point either had no interest, or because they had a sort of politics of self-determination, a national determination that was in part grounded in the struggles of Ireland. They were not in favour of the Union, and sometimes they were even arguing in favour of Confederate self-determination. Marx convinced them that the war was about slavery first and foremost, so there was a moral imperative not to support the Confederacy. But he also convinced them that Union victory would be good for the cause of the working-class struggle because it would destroy slavery and so the working class in both Europe and the US would not have to compete with slave labour, so they could better organize working class consciousness. So, he was hugely convincing to a European audience.

 

Read the entire interview here.

Missionaries in the “Era of Good Feelings”

The Author's Corner with Emily Conroy-KrutzOn Tuesday, we called your attention to Sara Georgini’s series on the “Era of Good Feelings” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog.

The series continues with a piece by Emily Conroy-Krutz of Michigan State University. Some of you may recall that Conroy-Krutz visited the Author’s Corner in September 2015 to discuss her book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic.

In her post at the USIH blog she discusses “Missionary Intelligence and Americans’ Mental Map of the World” in the Era of Good Feelings.

Here is a taste:

Throughout its history, an important part of the foreign missions movement was communicating what they termed “missionary intelligence,” sharing information about the world with their domestic supporters who might never leave their home communities. By the 1830s, missionary promoters were convinced that it was only American ignorance about the world that prevented the mission movement from receiving the high levels of support that they felt it deserved. The solution to such a quandary was for the foreign mission movement to continue to educate the country about the world at large. Geographic, ethnographic, and political information about the world made up much of the published materials of the mission movement of this era.

This educational role reveals the ways that missionaries saw themselves as important mediators between the world and the nation. Like trade and commercial networks of the same era, the foreign mission movement connected the United States to a much larger world. If we want to understand the mental map of early 19th century Americans, the foreign missions movement provides us with a helpful point of entry. And if we want to understand the diplomacy of the early republic, we ought to think more about these missionaries.

Read the entire post here.

The Society for U.S. Intellectual History Releases 2017 Conference Schedule

Plano

As usual, it’s a great lineup.  The meeting will take place October 26-29, 2017 in Dallas.

Good to see so many friends of The Way of Improvement Leads Home on the program.

Here are the plenaries:

Opening Plenary:

“Public History and the Future of the Past”

Moderator:  Sara Georgini, Massachusetts Historical Society

Brenda Tindal, Levine Museum of the New South

Valerie Wade, African-American Library at the Gregory School

Krishna Shoy, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Whitney Stewart, University of Texas at Dallas

Friday Plenary:

Toward Democracy as Faith or Doubt”

Moderator: Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Caleb McDaniel, Rice University

Amanda Porterfield, Florida State University

Manisha Sinha, University of Connecticut

Daniel Wickberg, University of Texas at Dallas

Respondent: James Kloppenberg, Harvard University

Saturday Plenary

Annette Gordon Reed:  “Slavery, Family, and Memories of Monticello”

Other presenters include: Emily Conroy-Krutz, Kate Carte Engel, Peter Cajka, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Paul Murphy, Lillian Calles Barger, Adam Shapiro, Heather Cox Richardson, Ethan Schrum, John Wilsey, Hilde Restad, Fred Beuttler, Lauren Turek, James Livingston, Nicole Hemmer, Ben Wright, Tim Lacy, Kevin Schultz, Susan Ferber, Johan Neem, Manisha Sinha, Seth Cotlar, David Greenberg, Jeremi Suri, Caleb McDaniel, Amanda Porterfield, Daniel Wickberg, James Kloppenberg, Paul Gutacker, Ray Haberski, David Mislin, Robert Abzug, L.D. Burnett, Erin Bartram, Andrew Hartman, Amy Wood, Robert Greene II, Phillip Goff, Cara Burnidge, Molly Worthen, Daniel K. Williams, Leslie Butler, Gail Bederman, Elesha Coffman, Ben Alpers, Ben Park, Matthew Bowman, Sarah Handley-Cousins, Lindsay Chervinsky, Stephanie McKellop, and Daniel Roeber.

Wish I could be there.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

The Mind of George Washington

HayesHistorian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner.  I can’t seem to find an e-mail address.  Thanks).

He gives us a preview of George Washington: A Life in Books at the blog of Oxford University Press.

Here is a taste:

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.

No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:

Surviving books

Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.

Marginalia

With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.

Read the entire piece here.

Plenary Sessions Announced for the 2017 Conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History in Dallas

Kloppenberg-Toward-Democracy-200x300The folks at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History have been putting together some great annual conferences of late.  The 2017 meeting in Dallas is shaping up to be a real intellectual history-fest.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel proposal for this conference, but I decided to decline in order to avoid the embarrassment of this happening again.  For the next several years my travel to conferences in late October and early November is going to be limited.

It was recently announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed will be one of the plenary speakers.  And just the other day L.D. Burnett announced this:

…we’re pleased to announce our Friday plenary session, “Toward Democracy as Faith or Doubt.”  We have assembled a panel of outstanding scholars who will be interrogating and at times no doubt challenging James Kloppenberg’s argument in his most recent, remarkable book:  Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (OUP, 2016).

Christopher Cameron of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will chair the discussion.  Joining him will be W. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University, Amanda Porterfield of Florida State University, Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut, and Daniel Wickberg of the University of Texas at Dallas.  James Kloppenberg will also join the conversation, responding to his readers’ comments and questions and perhaps posing some questions of his own.

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency.   Here is a taste:

True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.

And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.

“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches.  His usable past is a complicated one.  Grossman is correct.  Obama thinks like a social historian.  He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.  But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian.  He is a historian of ideas and ideals.  When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition.  He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.

In the end, Obama used the past a lot.  But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.

Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education.  For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history.  Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.

Are You an Intellectual?

kendiIbram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Last week he delivered the doctoral commencement address at the University of Florida where he teaches in the history department.  His address, titled “Are You Intellectual,” is worth reading in full.  He has posted it to the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Here is a taste:

The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

Read the entire address here.

An Intellectual Historians Reflects on the Chicago Cubs

cubs

Tim Lacy is one of several scholars responsible for the resurgence of the field of intellectual history and the establishment of the Society for United States Intellectual History.  Lacy is also a Chicago Cubs fan.

I was not cheering for the Cubs in the World Series.  I have a hard time rooting for National League teams other than the New York Mets (unless those teams are playing the Yankees). But as a baseball fan who has written more than a few posts about the Mets at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I have great respect for the kind of fan loyalty Lacy shows in this post at the blog of SUIH.

Here is a taste of Tim’s post:

What Would Christopher Lasch Think?

lasch

If you are a fan of cultural critic and historian Christopher Lasch you may want to check out this interview at the University of Rochester website with a 2015 Rochester Ph.D named Jeff Ludwig.

According to the article, Ludwig is working on a two-volume biography of Lasch.  Sounds like a great project, but Ludwig is going to have to work hard to top Eric Miller’s award- winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.

Here is a taste of Ludwig’s interview:

Q: Do you wonder what Lasch would think of the current state of politics?

Ludwig: I met with Mrs. Nell Lasch, his widow, a couple of years ago and she said that she is often asked, “what do you think your husband would say about the X, Y, and Z that’s going on right now?” She always gives a version of this answer: “Kit [Lasch’s nickname] isn’t here to tell us and it’s tricky and dangerous to try to make assumptions based on what he wrote 20 or more years ago and fit it into modern debates.”

Lasch gets cited a lot during election cycles because much of what he had to say is still relevant—especially given the debate about the place of the privileged and of elites in American life. But, I always thought it striking that Nell said to me, “he’s not with us,” cautioning us against trying to find his voice in events that are well beyond his time by force-fitting him into modern debates. Even in his lifetime, people of all political persuasions—from radicals to far-right conservatives—could read into something from Lasch’s corpus of works that appealed to them. He’s been claimed by the left, right, and center, though in the end I think Lasch was advocating for a total paradigm shift away from these labels and the social order they buttressed.

Q: Lasch was a social critic over a span of forty years. Did his interests shift overtime?

Ludwig: That’s the thing that is tricky about Lasch. He never stayed on one topic for very long. His historiography shows that he was as interested in writing about race as he was about popular culture, and entertainment as much as sports. He was a celebrated writer for the New York Review of Books because they could hand him a subject and he would form an articulate, and often scathing and well thought out opinion of it. But that’s also why it took me 800 pages to just do volume one of his biography for my dissertation.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Caroline Winterer

americanenlightenmentsCaroline Winterer is Professor of History at Stanford University. This interview is based on her new book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write American Enlightenments?

CW: It’s been 40 years—40 years!— since a major book on the American Enlightenment was published. That was Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America (1976), which arrived with the United States bicentennial. While May’s book has many virtues, it was becoming clear to me—and to my students—that we need a wholly new reassessment of the American Enlightenment, one that assesses it from our vantage point of 2016.

My book shows that the concept of a unitary, patriotic “American Enlightenment” was invented during the Cold War era as an ideological shield against the totalitarian threat. The myth-makers came from a broad swath of American society: they were journalists, historians, artists, and politicians. Among the most influential was the historian Adrienne Koch, who published the first book ever to be titled The American Enlightenment (1965). Koch singled out what she called the “Big Five” founders—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—for embodying what she called the “vision” and “spirit” that still undergirded the “free society” and “democratic civilization” of twentieth-century America. For Koch, the political drama of the American Revolution formed the center of this new, mythical era she was calling the American Enlightenment. She argued publicly that Enlightenment ideals remained of the utmost relevance in the mid-twentieth century. We should appreciate our American Enlightenment, she seemed to say, the way we appreciate vaccines and other modern wonders that protect us from very bad things like viruses and communists.

By the era of the American bicentennial, theory had congealed into fact. In 1976 and 1977, no fewer than three books appeared that confidently assured readers that there had been an American Enlightenment, and, moreover, that it was most clearly embodied—in fact it was realized—during the political struggles of the American Revolution.

These bicentennial books also popularized a second feature of the myth of the “American Enlightenment”: diffusionism. The diffusionist theory of the American Enlightenment held that its major ideas were hatched in Europe, especially in France, in the minds of airy philosophers like Voltaire. These abstract ideas had then traveled like immigrants to America, where they were forged into real, hard facts by pragmatic American revolutionaries. As the historian Henry Steele Commager put it in his book The Empire of Reason (1977), the Old World “imagined, invented, and formulated” the Enlightenment; the New World “realized it and fulfilled it.”

As a result of the books, magazines, and images created by these mid-twentieth-century opinion makers, we all assume today that there was a discrete golden era in the American national past called the “American Enlightenment,” and that its most brilliant flower was the American Revolution. The American Revolution-centered American Enlightenment gives a satisfying, triumphal narrative trajectory to the history of ideas in the United States. It soothes our fears that compared to Europe we’re a little weak in the Big Idea department. Europeans may have Newton, Voltaire, Kant, and Spinoza, but Americans have an American Enlightenment that realized the inspiring but ultimately abstract promises of the European Enlightenment.

We should care about this modern myth because this triumphal, nationalistic, and politicized narrative of an American Enlightenment obscures the reality of the eighteenth century by holding people in the eighteenth century to our own modern standards of what counts as enlightenment. If we listen to the voices of eighteenth-century Americans themselves, we discover that never talked about something so grand and triumphal as the “American Enlightenment,” a shining bauble of national greatness whose truths shine forth undimmed today. Instead, they talked about their elusive, never-completed quest to become “enlightened” (small e).

What did it mean to be “enlightened” in eighteenth-century America? Two things mainly. First, people who hoped to become enlightened believed that human reason rather than superstition and biblical revelation would help them to understand the world around them. Second, they believed that instead of getting worse, as the Bible narrative of the fall from Eden announced, human societies were in fact constantly getting better. These eighteenth-century people were the first people in the history of the world to believe that human reason would lead to what they called progress.

But here’s they takeaway. None of these Americans thought that enlightenment had ever been achieved: it was a constant process, ongoing, upward, never ending. Where we see an era, an admirable thing that is already done, the people who lived in the eighteenth century saw a process, never completed because human reason was always fallible. They were never sure exactly whether enlightenment had been achieved; there was always room for improvement. They were the most hopeful and optimistic people in the history of the world, but also highly uncertain and questioning about their own abilities to achieve perfection.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Enlightenments?

CW: Overturning out cherished assumptions about the “American Enlightenment”—in particular its links to modern American nationalism and its alleged diffusion from European salons—this book shows that enlightenment was instead an international conversation that emerged in part because of the new questions, context, and problems generated by the New World. Stripping away our modern mystifications of the national past, American Enlightenments explores the many and fascinating pathways—through science, politics, art, religion, and economics—by which eighteenth-century Americans strove for an elusive state they called “enlightenment.”

JF: Why do we need to read American Enlightenments?

CW: To better understand our national legacy. The legacy of enlightenment for Americans is not so much of providing definitive answers and being sure about the rightness of our political ideals, as the narrative of a grand “American Enlightenment” proposes. Instead the legacy of enlightenment in America is of asking important questions about our world–about nature, society, and government—and of being modest about our abilities to agree on what is true and good for Americans and for others. It seems to me that this is a more useful version of enlightenment for Americans today than a dusty mausoleum of self-evident truths. I’ve written a recent article in Aeon magazine about how the founders were actually much more uncertain (in a good way) than we give them credit for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CW: I first had to give up my dream of being a paleontologist, which is what I’d wanted to be since I was about 5. I took a bunch of terrific medieval history courses at Pomona College (thanks Professor Kenneth Wolf!) and my eyes were opened to the wonders of distant times (even if not quite so distant as the Jurassic). I think of myself as a late medieval or early modern European historian who happens to work in the New World context. I’m very interested in how people in the period roughly 1400-1800 made sense of their world. How did they think about rocks, trees, plants, society, politics, literature, art—basically everything? I like re-creating the mental worlds of people who lived a long time ago. It’s like traveling to another planet.

JF: What is your next project?

CW: While the little grey cells recharge, I’m focusing on directing the Stanford Humanities Center.

JF: Thanks, Caroline!

Vernon L. Parrington and Oklahoma Football

Parrington in Office 1905

Parrington in his University of Oklahoma office, 1905

If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography.  Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought.  Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.

But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?

Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.

Read the entire post here.

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition

DuBoisThis looks like a great conference.  Here is a taste:

The upcoming year promises to be an exciting one for the African American Intellectual History Society. Not only is the organization undergoing a period of tremendous growth, it is also hosting its first conference, New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. A two-day event taking place on March 10th and 11th, 2016, the conference will feature sessions on all aspects of the black intellectual tradition. The program includes panels foregrounding new perspectives on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights, as well as new directions for intellectual history in the age of social media.

The conference will kick off on Thursday March 10th with a session on “Performance, Space, and Movement in Africa and the Diaspora” featuring bloggers Greg Childs and Jessica Marie Johnson and another panel on nineteenth century black political and social thought. Those who have been following the latest campus demonstrations and the #Mizzousyllabus will find the session on black youth and campus activism informative. Later that day, participants will hear from AAIHS bloggers, and new and established scholars, on several central themes including racial identity, historical preservation, and black intellectual leadership. Other panels will include papers on transnational blackness, Pan-Africanism, and liberated spaces.

Participants interested in black feminism and black internationalism will enjoy the Thursday afternoon screening of Audre Lorde- The Berlin Years, 1984-1992. Chronicling an untold chapter of Lorde’s life, the film reveals her influence on local culture and politics and highlights her influence on German ideas of racism, homophobia, and classism.

The day will end with a keynote address from Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. The Executive Committee welcomes conference participants to attend a reception immediately following Dr. Neal’s talk.

On Friday March 11th, participants will hear from new and emerging scholars on secularism and black intellectual life and African Americans and print culture in the Civil War era. AAIHS blogger Keisha Blain will join Adam Ewing,Robert Trent Vinson, and Frances Peace Sullivan on a panel about Global Garveyism and the black intellectual tradition. In the afternoon, presenters will speak about the theory and praxis of African American education, black women and internationalism, and race, performance, and cultural production. Conference participants will also have an opportunity to attend a roundtable on #Blktwitterstorians, an online community of historians, students, and fans of African and African American history. This panel will feature the creators of the hashtag–Joshua Crutchfield and Aleia Brown–as well as historians Stephen G. Hall and Robert Greene II–two scholars who have been active in the monthly #Blktwitterstorians’ chat. The panel will also offer the opportunity to speak about the relationship between black intellectual history and social media.

Check out the program here.