In its commitment to promoting research, teaching and intellectual exchange on the historical study of American thought, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History offers a book review section that identifies new and significant historical monographs in the field of U.S. intellectual history. Book reviews facilitate informed dialogue on the current state of the field and raise interest in the political, cultural and intellectual project of writing history. Historical scholarship is the foundation of our profession and teaching its heartbeat; book reviews introduce our diverse readership to the creative and original questions and methodologies of scholars dedicated to the dissemination of historical knowledge and understanding. Thus, book reviews play an integral part in the collective intellectual project that is the writing and teaching of U.S. intellectual history.
Feminist scholarship is in an introspective mood attempting to save the feminist past for a liberating future. Within a narrative of onward and upward that is useful for inspiring social change a new wave of historiography is less concerned with triumph and more willing to admit its failures and embrace fragmentation and small scale. Historians have begun recovering forgotten women who lived out feminist ideas in their everyday lives as in the hope of offering relevancy to a younger generation. But other theoretical and cultural forces may make this task all but impossible.
Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016)
Book Review by Lilian Calles Barger.
Here is a podcast conversation with Caroline Winterer hosted by Lilian Calles Barger.
Caroline Winterer’s latest book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason looks among eighteenth-century Americans for multiple answers to Immanuel Kant’s famous question: What is enlightenment? For centuries, enlightenment had a religious meaning of the soul awakening to divine light; however, by the 1700s it came to mean using reason and empirical evidence as guides and exchanging tradition and divine revelation for a humanistic and historical view of the world. The aim was nothing short of the pursuit of happiness, an idea connected to communal wellbeing and largely lost to us today. Winterer’s insightful book gives us a glimpse into how Americans, as the “first prophets of tomorrow,” thought of enlightenment—both what it meant and how to achieve it (2).
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.
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.