This week was a microcosm of modern African American history. When I wrote this, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) just opened its doors in Washington, D.C. A testament to years of hard work in getting the museum funded, the NMAAHC has already received considerable media coverage. It is also part of the Smithsonian’s system of museums–more than likely “the last great museum on the (National) Mall.” Intellectual historians will have plenty of time to consider the “civil religious” ramifications of a museum devoted exclusively to the Black experience (although it should not be limited to within the United States). But events to the south and west of Washington, D.C. put into stark relief the continuing irony of African American history.
David D. Hall on Charles H. Foster’s The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism (Duke University Press, 1954)
The challenge of identifying a work of intellectual history that merits reappraisal led me initially to Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939; 1954) and its sequel, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953). But this, I realized, would mean repeating what I have said elsewhere. Instead, I turn to a virtually unknown book, Foster’s The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism, which I had encountered at the beginning of the 1960s as a graduate student in American Studies at Yale. Much has happened in Stowe scholarship in the ensuing decades, not to mention all that has happened in and around “New England Puritanism.” Nonetheless, The Rungless Ladder remains instructive and, as I realized after returning to it, a book that altered my understanding of religion.
September has proven to be a fascinating month for fans of American intellectual history. Between the release of some important books of history, and several blogs running key events online, intellectual history has had a vibrant September. The following are just a few highlights.
Guest Post by Mike O’Connor
By most metrics, the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) dwarfed that which its predecessor Star Trek had received on NBC during its initial 1966-69 run. While the first show had to be rescued from cancellation after its second season by a viewer letter-writing campaign, its successor ran for seven years with solid ratings. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) substantially enlarged the core audience for Star Trek and eventually its characters and time-frame replaced those from the original series as the focus of the feature films. (Since then, the movies have come to feature younger actors playing the characters from the original series.) Yet TNG had a mission beyond delivering ratings and making money for its studio. Star Trek was more than a television show: it embodied a particular philosophy that was one of central aspects of its appeal. Gene Roddenberry, the auteur behind Star Trek who is widely credited for supplying the “vision” that characterized the Star Trek universe, described the show as his “statement to the world” his “political philosophy,” and his “overview on life and the human condition.”[i] (Roddenberry created TNG and worked on its first few seasons. His declining health and increasingly erratic personal behavior led to him being eased out of positions of authority before his death in 1991. The extent to which Roddenberry was personally influential on the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a subject for debate; but the larger significance of his philosophical and ideological blueprint is beyond question.) Media scholar Henry Jenkins explained that the new series “had to carefully negotiate between the need to maintain continuity with the original series (in order to preserve the core Star Trek audience) and the need to rethink and update those conventions (in order to maintain the programme’s relevance with contemporary viewers and to expand its following).”[ii] Philosophically, this meant that the later show had to distinguish between those ideas that were central to the ethos of Star Trek and those that needed to be modified or even abandoned to keep up with the spirit of the times.
On September 8, 1966, NBC premiered a science fiction series called Star Trek. Although it only lasted three seasons in its original iteration, that series has spawned hundreds of hours of television and movies, and in the process offered an inclusive and exciting vision of the future. Suffice to say, one would be hard pressed to write a cultural history of the United States since 1960 without talking about Star Trek and what it represented to the American public. The influence of Trek is also felt in the scholarly world, where numerous collections on Star Trek, and science fiction more broadly, have been a staple of cultural studies anthologies for years. And in regards to intellectual history, Star Trek is part of the zeitgeist of late twentieth century America, as much a part of it as discussion of nuclear weapons, rock and roll, or the Culture Wars (and most often than not, tied to those as well).
Caroline Winterer on Martin Rudwick’s Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World (Chicago University Press, 1992)
Martin Rudwick’s Scenes from Deep Time is not a classic of American intellectual history. It’s not particularly about America. It may or may not be intellectual history. But it has profoundly shaped my thinking over the last two decades about the need to incorporate material culture into the history of ideas. It’s a classic to me.
As I get ready for another fall semester at the University of South Carolina—finishing a dissertation and teaching a course on “the New South” of late 19th century and 20th century America—I decided to finally complete a book I have longed to read on my coffee table. James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul was released to considerable fanfare earlier this year. About the life and legacy of the musical legend, McBride’s book is a meditation on African American life during and after the age of segregation and Jim Crow (which, by the way, is a reminder that Tim Lacy’s series on Jesse Jackson is another reflection on that history). But beyond that, Kill ‘Em and Leave should leave any reader—certainly any historian—thinking about the places within America left behind by modern American history.
Jedediah Purdy. After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
The centuries-old objective, more recently taken up by postmodernists, to bridge the divide between nature and culture has finally been met, it appears. No, the success didn’t come, as many thought it might, from a breakthrough in the cognitive sciences. Nor was there a mass conversion to some New Age spiritual creed. Rather, it’s simply that nature has become so fully infiltrated by the processes of culture that nature no longer has any place to hide. We mark this success by christening our era the Anthropocene and maybe even finding a new name for our planet (environmentalist Bill McKibbon suggests “Eaarth.”)
This is a conclusion largely accepted by Jedediah Purdy in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard UP, 2015), though he would not put it quite this way. If you know Purdy’s writing, you know he can be lighthearted but not reckless. You know his measured tone and how he strives to play fair with the opposition. One of the reasons I was looking forward to reading this book was because I’ve used his book, A Tolerable Anarchy, numerous times with undergraduates. That book’s argument – that experimenting with order is an American tradition — speaks to the whole of a US history survey course, draws on sources students know from textbook and lecture, and addresses political matters relevant to the present day. After Nature shares these strengths.
This weekend’s festivities in Rio De Janeiro in celebration of the 2016 Summer Olympics are an occasion for me to combine two of my favorite fields of history: sport history and intellectual history. It is both a professional and personal connection. Down the road in my academic career, I want to pivot towards sport history and use it as a lens to understand American—and specifically Southern—history since the late 1960s. While this should include an analysis of college athletics, and the rise of pro sports in the region, Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games should not be forgotten. And being a native Georgian, it means studying those games takes on a personal outlook as well.
As with any era of intellectual history, the post-civil rights period (or whatever future historians will call this era) requires significant scrutiny of its works of art, literature, and general culture. Several novels have been released in the last year that offer great detail of the black experience across the African Diaspora. Covering genres as vast as literary fiction, science fiction, and alternate history, these novels will no doubt be studied by intellectual and cultural historians for what they say about what it means to be black in the early 21st century.