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.
John D. Wilsey on W.E. B. Du Bois’ The Soul of Black Folk (1903)
Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. Edited by Nathan Huggins (Library of America, 1986)
The Souls of Black Folk, completed in 1903 by W. E. B. Du Bois, is a profound American work of cultural assessment and critique. Lyrically written, it is piercing in its observations and wise in its prescriptions. The work strikes at the heart of racial prejudice, and its author is courageous in his critiques of the leading African American figures of the day in their failure to grasp that the problem of the color line was not a problem for the South alone or for black people alone. Du Bois’ emphasis on the humanity of black people—a foreign concept for a culture in which white supremacists did not know how to blush—is the touchstone of the work, bringing unity to the many themes he describes, argues, illustrates, and explains throughout the work. Every American—particularly now in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement—should sit with Dr. Du Bois and be his student in taking up and reading Souls of Black Folk.
Jonathan Zimmerman, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) 202 pages.
Review by Richard Hughes
In 1947, just six years after Life Magazine declared the rise of the “American Century,” the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) distributed sex education materials to 47 different nations and over 60 organizations across the globe. Formed in the Progressive Era and now combined with the political, economic, and military might of the United States in the early years of the Cold War, the ASHA and similar groups reflected the rise of sex education in Europe, the United States, and eventually the non-western world throughout the twentieth century. Scenes of educators, government officials, and health care workers unpacking sex education films and written materials for classrooms in places such as East Asia, Africa, and Latin America symbolized the rising hopes and influence of western sex educators after World War II.
Daniel Wickberg on T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981)
Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace was published nearly 35 years ago. I stumbled across it in a Berkeley bookstore in the Fall of 1983—a callow 23—and as I stood reading in the aisle, found myself redirected to a way of thinking about history that has shaped the direction of my career and thinking ever since. It was, in my personal biography, a book like Hayden White’s Metahistory, R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, Warren Susman’s Culture as History, and Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll—works that helped me conceive of history as a form of cultural criticism, as an act of the moral imagination. It provided a way to synthesize a growing historicism—my sense of the peculiarity and foreignness of the past—with a sense that there were pressing cultural conditions of the present that could only be illuminated by seeing them as the product and extension of that past. History could reveal a set of lost alternatives, a world of otherness. The dominant strains of modern historiography had rejected the Nietzschean eternal recurrence, the cyclical history of classical republican theory, the swinging pendulum of reform and reaction, the idea that the past would return in the present; history, as a modern genre, insisted that conditions were particular, contingent, cumulative, unprecedented, unidirectional. And yet, an understanding of the past might provide us with the resources by which we could imagine our present—its cultural and social forms, its ethical dilemmas, its constitution of reality itself—as an alien might: particular and strange.
Review by James Livingston (Also cross-posted from Dr. Livingston’s blog here.)
Richard Hofstadter. The Age of Reform; From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955)
In the last semester of my senior year, I took a course in American history for the first time since high school because my comrades gently insisted on it—they figured it would lighten me up a little, make me less earnest about becoming a Bolshevik through fanatic study of Russian history and literature. I’d been accepted into the graduate programs at Columbia and Michigan; I was then leaning toward Columbia because I was already yearning to live in New York, although I’d never even seen the place.
The instructor in that 400-level course, Industrial America, 1877-1901, was Martin J. Sklar, a legendary figure on the Left and a formidable presence in the classroom. The syllabus listed about a dozen required books, as I remember, among them W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935) and Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955).
Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
by Kevin M. Schultz
387 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
a review by Mike O’Connor
In the Showtime series The Affair, Noah Solloway is a high school English teacher, unsuccessful novelist and seemingly happy family man. In the manner of the middle-aged American male that he is, he attempts to find something that he believes himself to have lost by beginning a torrid affair. As the relationship blossoms into love, Noah destroys his home and family and even loses his job.
The turmoil provides the inspiration to write a second, sex-obsessed novel…about a middle-aged man who has an affair. The book rockets to the top of the best-seller lists and makes Noah a literary celebrity who now has difficulty staying faithful to the woman for whom he has left his wife. Noah is a destructive presence in the lives of everyone close to him, and the sexual obsession that drives his literary fame only underscores his immaturity and self-absorption. The show makes this point abundantly clear when Noah meets with a boorish Hollywood producer who wants to make a movie of the book. The producer expresses how impressed he is with Noah’s work, claiming that he courageously writes about sex in a way that is no longer welcome in our “politically correct” age. The climax of his catalogue of praise arrives when he calls Noah the “literary son of Norman Mailer.”
Stephen J. Whitfield on Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1951).
Even over the span of more than half a century, I can still vividly recall when The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) first came to my attention, as the gesture of a Tulane University upperclassman named Burt Channing. A gangly bohemian from Boston who had changed his family name from Cohen and had become a Unitarian, he showed me his paperback edition (1958), and told me how brilliant its author was. Channing was right, even though I could grasp the power of Hannah Arendt’s book only after devouring it a couple of years later. The psychic depths that this volume tapped in me undoubtedly mattered as much as the specific insights that Arendt seemed to offer on every page, even in every paragraph. My parents were Jewish refugees from Germany and Romania, and I can still remember the impact of the boldness of the first section of Origins: “Antisemitism.” She made it integral rather than peripheral to the history of Europe over the course of the previous century and a half. But her second section, “Imperialism,” resonated too. While studying at the Sorbonne in 1963-64, I had for the first time encountered Africans and Arabs; and flipping through pages of Jeune Afrique made me aware of the continent that Arendt would describe as a site for testing the totalitarian thesis of human superfluity. But it was the third section, entitled “Totalitarianism,” that recorded the danger and irrational disorientation that permeated modern politics. Even as the twenty-first century may well become known as the age of terrorism, marking places in accordance with the atrocities committed there, The Origins of Totalitarianism remains a work that testifies to something unhinged and perilous in Western history, a rebuke to the reassurances of faith and hope.