I recently read Timothy Messer-Kruse’s provocative and at times infuriating book The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 about the American branch of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), otherwise known as the (First) International. The topic of the book is inherently interesting to me, not to mention extremely relevant to my new research on Marx and America. But more than that, The Yankee International is intriguing because Messer-Kruse uses the history of the IWA to make a pointed historiographical and political intervention. I’m all about strong arguments, even when I disagree with them. Hell, especially when I disagree since they force me to fine tune my own arguments. Continue reading
Corey Robin’s recent post, “Why Does It Matter that Donald Trump Is Not a Novelty?,” is one of the most stimulating and intelligent pieces of commentary on the general election so far, and I hope that you have read it or leave this post and go do so now.
Robin critiques the habit—most prevalent among journalists and talking heads but occurring frequently among the historians who have gone record as well—of labeling the actions of Donald Trump as “unprecedented” or “abnormal.” Robin counters instead both with specific precedents for many of these acts dubbed “firsts” or “firsts in modern history” as well as with a more general rebuttal. This hue and cry over Trump’s abnormality, he argues, is only a result of a longstanding and widespread willingness among liberals and centrists to overlook the appalling frequency of “abnormal” behavior occurring among self-identified conservatives dating back to… oh, Edmund Burke. Liberals and centrists, Robin contends, only think Trump’s comments have stepped over a line because they have gotten used to filtering out a certain amount of activity that has always gone on “out there.”
I’m working on an essay that will, I hope, provide a genealogy of the left and leftist thought in the United States. Several colleagues recently read and gave me comments on a draft and raised a number of crucial questions that I need to attempt to answer as I make what are amounting to sweeping revisions of the essay. I will pose these questions below for us to think about in public. This is me spit-balling.
- What is a workable definition of “the left”?
Political categories are notoriously difficult to pin down. They are ceaselessly malleable and highly specific to time and place. Hard-and-fast distinctions between one category (the left) and another (liberalism, for example) are sure to fall apart when examined across divergent contexts. And yet we need such words to make sense of history, even if we also need to contextualize these words to make sense of history. The trick is to provide specific enough context for a word without parsing it into meaninglessness.
In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin defines the left as “that social movement or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” I like this, but I also think it is too broad. So I am looking for a more specific definition. Continue reading
[Editorial note: The following essay by Wesley R. Bishop is adapted from a paper he presented at the June 2016 Midwest Labor and Working Class History Conference at Purdue University. The conference’s theme was “Social Justice for a Global Working Class,” and the panel focused on the question of periodizing the Gilded Age.]
The Shape of an Age: The historian’s use of periodization and the question, “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?”
by Wesley R. Bishop
In the 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, the novelists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises?” The sentiment, and overall story, is of course, satire. Meant to mock the nouveau riche of the late 19th century, and their ability to influence politics, the book predated much of the period’s later issues with large scale industrial and corporate capitalism. The book is noteworthy because although the book was not well received critically, the title nonetheless went on to have a second life of its own, literally giving its name to the period of time from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the reform efforts of the Progressive era.
Yet, despite this second-life, the book itself, since it was authored in the midst of the Reconstruction era, missed many of the important issues that would animate the late 19th century. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today was, therefore, unable to address the U.S. labor movement, widespread strikes, and the unabashed aggression of various governments which curtailed working class movements. Instead, the story focused on a series of loosely connected narratives dealing with the issues of land speculation, lobbying Congress, and attempts of people to make it rich in post-Civil War society. As such, some historians have argued that the term “Gilded Age” is a highly problematic one, a name predating the actual period of study, and that we should therefore consider retiring it. This is further complicated by others who have accurately detailed the problem in using such a term in the first place. As Alan Lessoff, the former editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era has argued, the very term “Gilded Age” presents a problematic teleos where the 19th century’s Gilded Age gives way to an ascension in the Progressive era. As a result, the Gilded Age, its actors, and the span of time it traditionally encompasses is seen only as a period of greed, corruption, and shallow material gains. Lessoff has argued such imaginings ignore the real reform and radical thought that existed in the period. Similar to the frustration over the term “Dark Ages” which many Medievalists and Early Modernist scholars have balked at, the negative labelling of these periods of time serve to establish the supposed victory of the Scientific Revolution, or the coming of the New Deal. Therefore, should we retire the term from popular use, and instead adopt a competing term, such as “Long Progressive Era”? Understanding this historical background is vital in order to answer the more pressing question in the present of “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” And, if we are living in a Second Gilded Age, what does that mean for our society? I believe these questions have a direct impact on both the way we think as scholars who study the late 19th century, and how we go about conceptualizing our own actions and activism in the various reform movements of social justice in the 21st. As such, the question “Are we living in a Second Gilded Age?” is not merely idle intellectual banter. It has the potential to radically alter the way we think and speak about our actions in the present.
The question itself has garnered no shortage of attention. Historians such as Richard Schneirov, James Livingston, Thomas Sugrue, Glenda Gilmore, and Alan Lessoff have all contributed widely to the debate arguing various well researched and reasoned positions. Likewise, the question has gained even more consideration outside of academic circles with Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and various journalists wondering, and answering, the question “Is our period a Second Gilded Age?”
Yet, before we can hope to answer such an inquiry we need to first understand what we are doing when we answer such a question. Who is the “we” in the question of “Are we living in the Second Gilded Age?” And, more importantly, as Lessoff has shown, what do we even mean by the term “Gilded Age”? Also, what philosophical assumptions do we make when we argue that there could even possibly be a repeated period?
As many of you are aware, back issues of the old Intellectual History Newsletter have been digitized and are available to read through the good work of Ray Haberski, Thomas Bender, and Charles Capper. Looking back through some of those back issues, I noticed that one frequent feature was the inclusion of syllabi of intellectual history courses and related subjects, including a course in “Feminist Theory: Historians’ Perspectives” by Linda Kerber and one on “Culture Wars and American Democracy” by Charles Capper and Robert Ferguson.
It occurred to me that repeating this practice on the blog might be both a nice service for many of us who are or will be putting together similar syllabi as well as open up some conversations about what is being assigned, what works well when it is assigned, and so forth.
So, please, if you have a syllabus of a course you have taught that you would be willing to share with us, email me at email@example.com. Anything related to or overlapping with U.S. intellectual history is very much desired—our interests here, after all, are pretty catholic!
 These syllabi ran in Volumes 14-20 (1992-1998).
Every now and then, I’ll be in conversation with a colleague or friend and the authority of an analytical concept will appear in the debate. These concepts usually hold the weight of a long history of historiographic criticism and correction – they are the invaluable result of picking apart the assumptions of past scholarship. However, their value lies not merely in identifying an error, but pursuing a broader truth that often intertwines with a social value – the Dunning school is not merely wrong but wrong and racist, and the Lovejoy approach of a “History of Ideas” is not only ahistorical but anti-democratic.
Usually – as with the examples cited above – there is no need, in the course of a discussion with someone of a similar educational background, to elaborate further than merely referencing the concept and critique. When we call the “History of Ideas,” elitist, we know what we mean by that, and we are also working on a shared assumption, or value, that elitism is a suboptimal way of understanding and acting in the world. It goes without saying, in these cases, that therefore the argument being criticized is also wrong, because the moral weight of the category assumes it and precludes any further discussion.
I’ll stop being so abstract and provide some examples in common refrains you might have heard:
During the #BlkTwitterstorians chat on AAIHS a few days ago, we began by discussing what intellectual history is, as well as what it means to study African American intellectual history. The 140 character limit on Twitter, as well as the 15 minutes we spent on each question, did not allow me to answer as fully as I would have liked. I did offer a few thoughts on common approaches in the broader field of intellectual history but want to develop those just a bit.
My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.
By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches. Continue reading
The above title is a quote from Merrill Peterson’s not at all tedious—at least to this reader—The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). Not precisely a lost classic but not a popular citation of late in cutting-edge scholarship either, the book is as interesting for the model of scholarship that it represents as it is for its content: The Jefferson Image is, above all, useful, privileging collation over interpretation. While not as miscellaneous as something like Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought (which Paul Murphy luminously revisited very recently here on the blog), The Jefferson Image works because of its crowded canvas; one’s experience while reading it is primarily one of being informed, not necessarily of critical engagement. One pauses at the end of a page to consider the distance crossed and the details filled in rather than the arguments presented.
Which is not to say that the book lacks strong arguments, but rather that its arguments are the results of accretions of minutiae rather than the products of analytical set-pieces. As someone who is trying to balance the two in his own writing, this is very useful stuff. Continue reading
The following short guest post is by Mark Edwards.
The title of this post is a bit of a joke. Are the 1990s REALLY history yet? As a twenty-something during that era, I’d have to say no. But what about for my students? To them, the 1990s are like what the 1960s were for me in the 1980s. So, whether or not I (or we) “feel” like the 1990s are historical, they are; and we have to get busy making sense of them.
This is an especially timely issue for me as I begin work on a historiographical essay for the 1991-2001 era. When first offered this assignment, I thought I had no clue where to begin. The recent AHA panel (and blog series here) on the culture wars then came to mind. I realized I might know more about this time than I had initially thought. In fact, writing on the 1990s would give me the chance to work out some unanswered questions I have about the culture wars. Continue reading
I recently read Mical Raz’s excellent new book, What’s Wrong with the Poor?, which Trevor Burrows reviewed at this blog a few months ago. One of the many aspects of Raz’s book that strikes me as especially impressive is the way she meticulously details what Daniel Rodgers refers to as a “contagion of metaphors.” In nearly every field that touched on poverty – from linguists to social work to psychology – the trope of “deprivation” structured how experts understood the poor. Thus, social scientists and policy makers viewed poverty in terms of what the poor lacked, focusing their energies on treating the individuals suffering from this “condition” rather than attacking the structural inequalities that produced poverty in the first place. The experts working on poverty, moreover, imported this model of deprivation with almost no critical examination of the model itself, or whether it always applied to their particular research concern. Consequently, the framework of deprivation spread from field to field with seemingly no exception, only receiving serious pushback by the 1970s.
I found Raz’s account of the promiscuity of the meme of deprivation particularly useful because it seemed clearly anchored, in her narrative, to the political goals and agendas of those who embraced it. It makes sense, in other words, that the concept of deprivation proved so virulent – it offered the perfect solution to post-war liberals concerned about poverty but either unable or unwilling to look its roots in the face. Such a grounding pushes Raz’s book past a nearly documentary project – a report of her findings – and towards at least the start of an explanatory answer, or an argument about those findings. A former professor in my department once made this distinction in a conference, and I’ve never stopped appreciating how he gave me a clear way of articulating my discontent with historical studies that seem to conflate the two.