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.
Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century. By Joseph F. Kett. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. 332 pages. $29.95. Hardcover.
Review by Bradley Baranowski
As the title of his work indicates, Joseph F. Kett provides a sweeping history of the concept of “merit.” Starting with the American Revolution, Kett traces the various permutations and developments in the idea up to today. Two conceptions of merit bookend his study: essential merit and institutional merit. The former, writes Kett, has rested on “an individual’s visible and notable achievements and/or performances, [and] is most than the sum of achievements/performance.” In this mode, achievements “are seen as an accurate reflection of one’s inner merit” (2) and promotions in status are a just reward for good character.
Adam Laats, The Other Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015)
Review by Mike Wakeford
With The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education, Adam Laats advances the intellectual histories of American school reform and the modern conservative movement. Organized around case studies of four schooling-centered controversies, Laats’ book identifies a strain of reformism that he calls “educational conservatism” and tracks it from the 1920s through the 1970s. Challenging scholarship that ascribes the prevailing traditionalism of American education to institutional inertia, Laats focuses on an “underexplored impulse” (8), the sustained influence of articulate individual and organizational voices in promoting conservative approaches to schooling. He sees a core stance running through the decades—he calls it “the tradition of defending tradition itself” (13)—and treats that prevailing commitment as a consequential player in the past century’s discussion about how schools shape society.
Daniel R. Huebner. Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 349 pages.
Review by Nicholas Strohl
George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is remembered as a foundational figure in the field of sociology but, if placed before a tenure review committee today, he might struggle to pass muster. Recognized in his lifetime as a brilliant thinker and formidable public speaker, the University of Chicago philosopher apparently was loath to publish. “Historians will never know” the extent of Mead’s contributions to his field, one scholar has lamented, “because Mead had crippling psychological blocks that prevented him from being either an especially good teacher or writer.” Friends and colleagues suggested the same. The philosopher T.V. Smith wrote that “conversation was [Mead’s] best medium; writing was a poor second best” (32). John Dewey added that Mead was “reluctant to fix his ideas in the printed word” (36-37). Fittingly, perhaps, Mead’s best known and most frequently cited work, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (1934), is a posthumous volume compiled from notes and transcripts of his course lectures.
Matthew D. Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) 276 pages.
Reviewed by Drew Maciag
Matthew Tribbe’s engaging and highly readable No Requiem for the Space Age tells two interconnected stories in parallel. The tangible tale in the foreground is about NASA’s mission to beat Soviet cosmonauts to the moon and the subsequent winding down of that ambitious program; the less-tangible drama in the background (the one that will be of greater interest to intellectual/cultural historians) concerns the climax and ultimate decline of America’s faith in techno-rationality. By the time Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific in 1969, the modernization ideal that had been so ascendant just a few years earlier when John F. Kennedy launched the “space race” had already been undermined by its fallibility in the face of racism, poverty, alienation, injustice, pollution, and war—among other earthly considerations.
Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D Savage, editors. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Review by Lilian Calles Barger
When thinking of black women in history, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, or Pauli Murray may come to mind. Going further back into the nineteenth century, we may think of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, or any number of authors of slave narratives. Their actions impress us. However, we are less likely to think of these women as forming a subfield of intellectual history. Black women usually show up alongside white women and black men fighting for political rights and rarely stand alone as a group of thinkers. Mia Bay and the editorial team of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women want to change that. They have brought together a strikingly good collection of essays presenting us with a sampling of a neglected field of thought. The collection came about through a series of interdisciplinary meetings begun at Rutgers University in the spring of 2002. All sixteen essays focus on black women in the diaspora of North America, the Caribbean, and Africa as subjects of critical thought and articulators of ideas. In defining this focus, the authors demonstrate the particularity of black women’s thought at the intersection of race and gender. The aim of the editors is to bring attention to a stream of thought that remains largely unrecognized in intellectual history.
Carl E. Schorske. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (New York: Random House,1979)
Review by George Cotkin
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Such was the case with Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle, published in 1980. The cover featured a lush gold-colored background, with a vertical rectangular form imposed on it that looked like a bookmark or bookplate. At its top was a Gustav Klimt illustration, which had appeared in the first issue of the Austrian secessionist magazine Vera Sacrum in 1898. Below this image of a helmeted woman with some demon’s head just below her neck, was blank space, allowing perfect balance for the title and author’s name at the bottom. The typeface, of course, suggested the secessionist style. Opening the volume yielded additional delights, with many black and white images interspersed within the text, as well as two sections resplendent with color plates. This feast for the eyes would quickly translate into munificence for the mind.