The following is a gust post by Jeremy C. Young, assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
In early 2005, the fundamentalist minister Douglas Wilson announced that he was publishing a revised version of his notoriously pro-slavery book, Southern Slavery as It Was – now under a new name, Black and Tan. The original book (co-authored with League of the South founder Steve Wilkins) was famous both for being partially plagiarized from Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross and for repackaging the most outrageous lies about slavery – that it was easy for slaves, that many slaves enjoyed it, that masters were kind and generous – in an easily-readable narrative intended for high school students. Wilson’s decision to reissue the work surprised no one; after all, Wilson is a shock jock who has defended marital rape and described marriage equality as far worse than slavery. What shocked the historical community was the endorsement on the back cover of the book. (more…)
The Seventies (long, short, and in between) has emerged in recent years as an object of intensive scholarly investigation. Many historians of the twentieth century now see that decade as a watershed. It is the focus of books such as Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade. It is the start of Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture. It’s the fulcrum of Robert Self’s All in the Family. It is the star of Rick Perlstein’s tomes Nixonland and Invisible Bridge. I’m one of two members of my department currently writing a book on the decade. But what’s the place of the Seventies in U.S. intellectual history? What works from the Seventies have made it into the USIH canon? What works should?
Two things have me thinking about these questions this week. First, I finished the second volume of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition — which is, among other things, an exercise in canonization — in my lower-division Honors intellectual history course. For the first time, I used the 7th edition of this volume, which was published last year. And the Seventies as a distinctive moment in American thought are largely absent from the volume. The book contains fifteen texts written in the 1960s, but only two written in the 1970s. And these two – a selection from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Nancy Chodorow’s “Gender, relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective” (1979) are from the end of the decade. And both point toward the five following works from the 1980s, which are focused, broadly speaking, on questions of identity and postmodernism. The last of the Sixties readings, Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was published in 1967. So the book skips eleven years, the longest gap in time between any two readings in the volume.
Every two years, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture holds a remarkable conference. If there was an equivalent of “must-see tv” in the world of religious studies, this is it. The conference does well because it consistently hits the trifecta for these kinds of events: it invites dynamite speakers, it organizes discussions around fascinating topics, and it uses a format that encourages intelligent, sustained exchanges. Of particular note to the S-UISH gang, this year’s speakers include Matt Hedstrom, Melani McAlister, Paul Harvey, Tisa Wenger, Marie Griffith, and Katie Lofton (the 2014 S-USIH conference keynote). If you are in striking distance of Indianapolis, get thee to the Biennial! (more…)
Edmund Wilson was incredulous about his friend John Dos Passos’s left-to-right political U-turn. He expressed this in verse:
On account of Soviet Knavery
He favors restoring slavery.
Like Wilson before me, I struggle to understand what compelled so many 1930s left-wing thinkers to become conservatives by the 1940s and 1950s. Below I grapple with an explanation for the left-to-right trajectory by way of a brief intellectual biography of James Burnham. Consider this a cautionary tale.
Burnham is a key thinker among the anti-Stalinist left that Alan Wald has written about in his 1987 book The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. Burnham, along with Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, and Will Herberg, is also one of four people analyzed by John Patrick Diggins in his 1975 book, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History. (Note: these two books pair well together precisely because their ideological perspectives are vastly different. Diggins, who remained a Cold War liberal well past that ideology’s expiration date, wrote that his book “could be called a study of progress,” made apparent by the book’s title. The leftist Wald, on the other hand, calls the conservative turn taken by the left-wing intellectuals he studies “The Great Retreat”—he might have called it “Down from Communism”—and writes that Burnham had by the mid-1940s “settled upon a vulgar anticommunist ideology that would sustain his increasingly banal writings for the next forty years.”) (more…)
In early March of this year, the AHA’s Sadie Bergen reached out to members of the S-USIH blog community for help understanding the history of history blogs. Bergen was working on an article for Perspectives. The original prompt focused on the work that goes into producing a collaborative blog, contributions from graduate students and early career historians, and “how blog writing fits into the work of being a historian today.” I don’t know how many of us replied to Bergen’s inquiry, but I did. In retrospect, my answers only helped with part of the prompt—which probably explains why only a brief quote from me made it into Bergen’s final piece (do read it!). That said, and to be fair with myself, Bergen’s more specific follow-up questions caused me to think more about the history of this blog and S-USIH generally. With Bergen’s permission, I’ve reproduced those questions and my answers below. Caveat: These are my answers alone. Other long-time S-USIH members will most certainly provide other perspectives. – TL
Bergen: What led you to start the USIH blog? What was the experience like getting it off the ground? For instance, how did you recruit contributors? [Also,] where were you in your career when you began the blog and how did you fit your work for it into your other professional responsibilities?
Last week I wrestled with Rick Perlstein’s reassessment of the historiography of conservatism, and particularly with his worry that in trying to throw off a tradition of writing condescendingly about conservatism, historians had effaced the record of right-wing extremism and its bizarre but significant place in the history of the conservative movement.
One of the most famous such instances of condescension—which Perlstein quoted—is to be found in the preface of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination—you probably remember it for the backhanded slap at conservatism as a series of “irritable mental gestures.” The notoriety of Trilling’s glib dismissal of conservatism has often overshadowed his more detailed but not really less acerbic demolition of liberalism’s flaccidity and lack of, well, imagination. One lesson we can take from Trilling’s arrogance—the lesson Perlstein took—is that condescension toward conservatism is dangerous: it risks underestimating the visceral appeal of many of conservatism’s core elements. But the more important lesson, I think, is that a critique of liberalism as a superficial ideology lacking in both passion and vision is equally plagued by a kind of eager blindness, and it bears its own dangers.
In the rest of this post and some that will follow, I want to try to make good on that claim. I do so not in the interests of defending liberalism per se, but because I have grown frustrated with the cramped conventions of leftist critique of liberalism and neoliberalism. This response is not meant to be polished or final in any way but rather a sort of thinking aloud, a mumbling as I try to pick my way through an increasingly unstable political landscape of acrimony and irritability. (more…)