U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Higham’s "The Rise of American Intellectual History": A 56-Year Retrospective Review And Comment

[USIH exclusive content by Tim Lacy]

Why write a 56-year retrospective review of an article? Because the odd number was too much fun to pass up?! Perhaps. But seriously, John Higham’s essay on intellectual history’s rise is one of which all aspiring intellectual historians ought to be aware. Again, why?

Published by The American Historical Review in April 1951, “The Rise of American Intellectual History” provides an even-handed survey of the field’s characters and works as of the date of publication. More than a mere information clearinghouse, Higham’s article catalogued the deepest roots and major themes of the subdiscipline as it developed in the United States. If ever a collected works on the historiography of intellectual history were compiled, the exclusion of Higham’s article would be a travesty. [1]

Higham’s expertise in historiography and intellectual history, within the limits of his career, is unquestioned. He studied under Merle Curti, a prominent member of the intellectual history guild. With the 1951 piece and other subsequent essays, he worked on historiography from the 1950s to the 1990s. In terms of intellectual history, one of the highlights of his work is the 1979 essay collection New Directions in American Intellectual History. Edited by Higham and Paul K. Conkin, that book pulled together pieces from a December 1977 conference at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread house near Racine, Wisconsin. Contributors included notables such as Thomas Bender, David A. Hollinger, Henry F. May, Dorothy Ross, Warren I. Susman, Laurence Veysey. Higham earned a leadership position at that seminal event due to essays like the one being reviewed here. [2]

In his 1951 article, Higham divided the study of intellectual history into three phases. Divisions like these always contain, of course, a certain arbitrariness. But the three phases do contain identifiable trends with which the reader will find comfort. The first phase covered events up to 1926 and culminated, according to Higham, when the American Historical Association (AHA) hosted, in that year, its first panel session devoted exclusively to intellectual history. An important link to the professionals involved in phase one, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., participated in the panel (463-64).

Higham began his exploration of phase one with a look at Samuel Miller’s Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803), but explored several nineteenth-century “men of letters” and historians from John Draper (History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, 1863) to Schlesinger. Most of the important U.S. pioneers focused on European history, like Draper, and literature. An influential figure was James Harvey Robinson, as well as his colleagues and students. According to Higham, the circle of Robinson’s influence (clearly with some concentric aspects) included Carl Becker, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, and Schlesinger, Sr. Obviously not all those influenced by Robinson wrote on European history. Other, later professors operating in phase one and addressing U.S. topics included Moses Coit Tyler (literary historian), Edward Eggleston (social historian), and Vernon L. Parrington (literature professor). But as time moved closer to 1926, more and more also approached history from philosophy and the actual discipline of history (454-64).

One of the biggest obstacles to the development of intellectual history in this first phase, whether the subject was Europe or the United States – among historians and otherwise – was the “German seminar” approach. The German focus on “objectivity” and “facts” restrained historians from speculative, “airy assertions.” The zeitgeist was off limits. The study of the history of ideas and mental activity was considered too “subjective.” Robinson and his school attacked these limitations with a pragmatic, environmental approach to ideas. Higham described their rebuttal as follows: “They liked to think of ideas as instruments of adjustment to practical situations and needs.” That approach resulted, in part, in what historiographers have called the “New History.” Most applied those methods to social and economic history rather than – yet – the history of ideas. Due to his admiration of Beard and Turner, Parrington’s three-volume work, Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), falls in the “New History” purview (457-60).

The rise of “New History” neatly coincided with the wider intellectual revolt against genteel moral and aesthetic values in U.S. culture at large at the turn of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, according to Higham, “a rediscovery of American cultural consciousness” had occurred. The move toward “modern” values in American necessitated a rethinking of “American intellectual traditions.” A kind of “cultural nationalism” resulted. [3]

In phase two of Higham’s paradigm he asserted that “the foundations for a more widespread research interest in the field were firmly laid: a pragmatic theory which made thinking functionally significant in history; a cultural pride which made it seem intrinsically significant; a logical extension of the horizons of social history; and an interdisciplinary orientation.” This phase lasted from 1927-1940. In it a perceptible increase of intellectual historians in university departments of history and literature occurred (464, 467).

Perhaps the most important development of phase two was an increase in specialized study, resulting in monographs that deepened what Higham called the “scholarly solidity” of the subdiscipline. Although later intellectual historians would blanch at the broad “mind” studies of the 1940s and 1950s, Higham asserted that the 1930s saw the growth of more specialized studies compared to the pioneering efforts of phase one. In phase two Higham saw historians of immigration, for instance, as exploring “the ideas and attitudes of the humbler, less articulate groups in society.” Oscar Handlin earned his recognition from this group (464, 467).

Many existing and new journals began to host studies in U.S. intellectual history in phase two, including New England Quarterly, American Literature, Columbia Studies in American Culture, and the Journal of the History of Ideas (JHI). The last, JHI, is noted to have invigorated the field of European intellectual history by utilizing Arthur Lovejoy’s method of exploring “basic, individuated assumptions” – unit ideas (464-65). Particular manifestations aside, it’s clear that journal growth is a major attribute of Higham’s phase two.

But phase two also saw the movement of some established historians to intellectual history, such as Samuel Eliot Morison (most famous for his history of Harvard). Higham asserted that the “pioneering” work in this phase occurred with Merle Curti, Gilbert Barnes, and Richard Shryock (466-67). How exactly their work was pioneering Higham left somewhat vague. Still, Higham’s instincts seem were at least partially right – or least he left his article open enough about phase two to discuss developments in the 1940s. For instance, in the time since the article’s publication, Merle Curti’s Growth of American Thought (1943) has been widely acknowledged as a premier work in the field of intellectual history. Higham discussed the importance of that book at the end of his account of phase three.

In a few lines of aside about the phase two paradigm, the consequences of which would not be evident for decades, Higham noted the following: “By 1939 the American Historical Association’s annual convention was deliberating over the problems involved in a ‘cultural approach’ to history. The old guard scoffed politely, but the movement was making headway” (464). No kidding. Little did Higham know, in 1951, that cultural history would almost completely overshadow intellectual history by the 1980s and 1990s. In the later period, nearly all those studying intellectual history couched their work in cultural history terms. Even one of the three divisions in the New Directions was called “history of culture.”

Higham’s final segment, phase three, spoke to the years from 1940 to his article’s 1951 publication. The achievement of that phase, an achievement that would define intellectual history from the 1940s to the 1960s, was the comprehensive “mind” study. In Higham’s words: “At last, after a dozen or more years of relatively specialized investigations, scholars turned again to synthesis, drawing on the accumulated research of diverse branches of learning.” On top of Higham’s somewhat Whiggish “at last,” the article again conveys a celebratory feel when he cites historian Thomas Cochran calling intellectual history, in 1949, the “outstanding achievement” of the decade (467-68). Perhaps Higham regretted that Whiggishness during intellectual history’s later, somber years in the 1970s?

Although Higham has phase three beginning in 1940, he asserted that Perry Miller’s 1939 work, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, opened the period in style. Historians in this phase, according to Higham, wrote “in a spirit so ranging as to defy arbitrary divisions.” While their topics might seem more focused due to dates of concern and specific subjects (i.e. Puritanism, economics, philosophy, literature), their attention to thought brought them into the sphere of intellectual history (468).

Higham did not delve deeply into the particulars of how World War II moved intellectual historians into a synthetic frame of mind. But he did address the writings of Ralph Barton Perry, Charles A. Beard, and Ralph H. Gabriel, and each’s concern for “ideology” and the “idea of civilization.” All three sought the roots of a “distinctive, national tradition.” They wanted to know what was “unique” or “indigenous” about United State’s “intellectual heritage” (469). One might infer that their works, as well as concurrent and later “mind” studies, distinctly addressed concerns about democracy in relation to fascism and communism. Their concern was: What made the United States special?

As hinted at in the discussion of phase two, Higham concluded his study of significant intellectual histories by looking admirably at Merle Curti’s Growth of American Thought (1943). Higham described Curti’s book as follows:

“The book incorporated an immense body of knowledge within a coherent organization, subordinating the ideas of individuals to general patterns of thought and feeling. Complex and subtle, Curti’s interpretive schemes had always a tentative air about them; but more than anyone else, perhaps, he employed the pragmatic, relativistic approach out of which modern American intellectual history had in large measure arisen. . . . He continually tried to explain ideas functionally. . . . [Curti] studied ideas more in the light of their instrumental role in solving problems and stating social conflicts” (470).

It is abundantly clear that Higham saw Curti’s book as the logical culmination of the field’s development. Curti acted as a disciple of the James Harvey Robinson by utilizing a pragmatic approach to the history of ideas. Higham also seems to have seen Curti’s book as ‘the’ great book in the field of intellectual history as of 1951. This seems both subjectively and objectively logical for Higham, since Curti was his mentor and Growth earned Pulitzer in 1944, just a few years before.

In the final paragraphs of his article, Higham cautioned intellectual historians of his day on three points. In those cautions he at least mildly anticipated some problems that would arise later in the discipline. Higham noted, first, that some intellectual historians assume the “autonomy of ideas” and risk losing themselves in “abstractions.” He reminded them that they need to keep the particulars in mind. But Higham also asserted that the greater danger might be the opposite error: the historian’s “lively sense of the concrete” and exuberance for detail. That disposition mistakenly moves the historian, he wrote, toward “freezing a scheme of thought within the mold of environment.” Finally, despite his praise for mind studies, Higham also warned against “further comprehensive syntheses.” He noted that works of those kind “can scarcely hope to make very striking contributions” (470-71). The truth of this statement would be on full display at the 1977 Wingspread Conference.

I see a few problems with Higham’s article. His phase-based account includes some criticism of individual books (i.e. Parrington’s work) but, despite the future-oriented (to him) cautions above, there is no substantial, explicit discussion of the subdiscipline’s real, existing weaknesses. I suppose he simply couldn’t see any.

To me the real problem as of 1951 was the elitist nature of the field. Higham didn’t consciously realize how un-inclusive – in terms of race, class, and gender – that specialized work of the 1930s was, and how un-inclusive the next decade’s syntheses would be. Few historians saw this, or felt it deeply, until the 1960s, so it is perhaps unfair to judge him in this regard. But Higham did note the work of Handlin and other immigration historians in bringing to light the voices of the “less articulate.” So why couldn’t the principle behind their work have been extended into a broader critique in terms of inclusiveness? Why not explicitly acknowledge the elitism of the subdiscipline?

Although Higham hinted at it in his cautionary passages, he also didn’t fully anticipate the strong move toward “environment” and context (sometimes viewed negatively as historicism) by the field that would take place in the second half of the century. He might have anticipated this better with a full exploration of the AHA’s 1939 debate about culture. The move to context necessarily and forcefully rejected the “airy” parts of mind studies Higham praised. It is interesting, however, to parallel the context movement’s rejection of the history of ideas with the German, “objectivist” historians’ aversion to the same. Perhaps there’s something to learn here. Namely, that reading audiences value the way the study of the history of ideas synthesizes diverse events – even to the detriment of a historian’s coverage of every event in a period studied.

Apart from Higham’s potential or real failings in analysis, I do think it’s safe to say that, today, we need a detailed, comprehensive, and synthetic historiographic analysis of the subdiscipline of U.S. intellectual history. This work need not focus only on the discipline’s “problems,” but should definitely catalogue and analyze all of intellectual history’s phases in comparison to the general field of history. This new work should sum up the century of doings and happenings in intellectual history since Robinson’s disciples infiltrated the discipline of U.S. history. It’s been thirty years since the Wingspread Conference, and that conference was 26 years after Higham’s article.



Thanks to Joe Petrulionis for his comments and criticism.

[1] John Higham, “The Rise of American Intellectual History,” The American Historical Review 56, No. 3 (April 1951): 453-471. All subsequent page numbers in parenthesis refer to this article.

[2] Lewis Erenberg, “Introduction,” Mid-America: An Historical Review 82, Nos. 1-2 (Winter/Summer 2000): 7-20; Paul Conkin and John Higham, eds. New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[3] Higham, “Rise,” 461-62. This is covered well in Lewis Perry’s Intellectual Life in America: A History (University of Chicago Press, 1984).