U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Baker’s Dozen Awe-Inspiring Cultural and Intellectual Histories

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from George Cotkin, Professor of Postwar United States Intellectual and Cultural History, California Polytechnic State University. Enjoy! – TL]

How often are we both propelled and burdened by great works of cultural and intellectual history? They serve as our models; they sing with their insight, style, and grace.

On my desk I have arranged a lucky thirteen titles. They mock me often and they make me want to stop my own work and read them. They are books that I admire, that I wish I had written.

They all deal with topics in our field. Only one of them is a biography of a single figure. There are other titles, outside the field of intellectual history, I admire equally or that have influenced my life. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, come to mind immediately.

Do these volumes share anything in common? I think that all of them escape the confines of the pedestrian or academic. Many of them fail but in a heroic manner. All of them ooze sophistication and deep learning. And all of them, in my view, are written with verve.

Here are my baker’s dozen of books that I hold in awe (alphabetically, by author):

Rachel Cohen, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967

Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties

Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s

Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

Peter Gay, Education of the Senses: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud

Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper

David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Robert Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885-World War I

I am sure that you are bewitched by your own set of favorites. Care to share them?

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence: A Study of First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917

  2. I’m not sure whether this qualifies as intellectual history, but it’s good enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt:

    Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics (2002)

  3. Two books that changed my life:

    David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770 – 1823 (1975)

    David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001)

    And my (current) favorite model for “passionate detachment” in historical inquiry:

    Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006)

    Thanks for this post, George. It’s a nice reminder of the debt of gratitude we all owe to those who have helped give us enough light to see by.

  4. I’ll try to add some of my own later, George. But I wanted to note that I was glad to see Menand appear in that august company. For some reason, bashing The Metaphysical Club has become something of a ritual at our conference.

    • Though I must admit it doesn’t surprise me to hear that people at our conference would complain about The Metaphysical Club, I seem to have missed all the panels at which said criticism has occurred. In a small attempt to balance out the scales, I’d like to go on record as saying that I find it to be one of the most interesting and informative works of scholarship I have ever read. The combination of depth and readability that the book exhibits is the model that I strive to imitate in my own writing.

  5. American religious history that’s also great intellectual history:

    Marsden, Fundamentalism & American Culture

    Noll, America’s God

    War history that’s also great intellectual history:

    Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation


    Hollinger, In the American Province

    Philip Gleason, Keeping the Faith

    Warren Susman’s book

    Anything by John Higham, but especially the essays on the 1840s and 1890s.

  6. This is bound to be idiosyncratic, but here are some texts that have really shaped my thinking but often get overlooked:

    John Owen King III, The Iron of Melancholy: Structures of Spiritual Conversion in America from Puritan Conscience to Victorian Neurosis

    James Hoopes, Consciousness in New England: From Puritanism and Ideas to Psychoanalysis and Semiotic

    Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W.E.B. DuBois and American Thought, 1888-1903

    Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Mind of the Master Class

    James Turner, Without God, Without Creed

    Bruce Mazlish, A New Science: The Breakdown of Connections and the Birth of Sociology

    Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

    Mary Jo Buhle, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis

    Philip Gleason, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America

  7. Anything by Peter Gay:
    The Enlightenment books
    Weimar Culture

    Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium

    Garry Wills, A Necessary Evil: The History of American Distrust of Government

  8. Forgot to mention a text I have touted on this blog before: Robert Genter’s Late Modernism. I can’t say enough good things about that book.

    And I would second Ben on Menand. I’d also add Menand’s slim (but not slight) reflection on the academy, The Marketplace of Ideas.

    Finally, having slogged through several hundred pages of the Genoveses in a couple of different classes, I can testify to the fact that they are not entirely overlooked. Nor should they be.

  9. Beyond many of those already mentioned (Schorske, Gay, Menand, Douglas, May, Buhle, Hollinger) a few more:
    * Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
    * Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance
    * Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality
    * Sam Moyn, The Last Utopia
    * Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America
    * TJ Clark, The Painting of Modern Life
    * Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight
    * Peter Novick, That Noble Dream
    I’m sure there’s many more that just aren’t coming to me…

  10. Great list of books. The Metaphysical Club is the book that US intellectual historians love to hate. Perhaps because it breaks so many rules and, in the end, relies on what many of us have already had to say. In terms of breaking rules: who would have a story about four intellectuals, with one of them not making an appearance in the book until page 234! And how many of us could imagine never defining a term such as metaphysical, nor getting to the Metaphysical Club until p. 201. Now that takes guts, or something.

  11. I like Menand, and it has influenced my own thinking and writing. And my book probably breaks some “rules” of intellectual history, too, so I can’t complain too much. Also, I think that _The Metaphysical Club_ is more appealing to those of us who have at least some American Studies in our pedigree/background.

    One of my favorite works of religious/social/intellectual history is John Brooke’s _The Refiner’s Fire_. I still learn new things every time I read that.

    Regarding Schorske’s _Fin de Siecle Vienna_, it possesses a special place in my intellectual library. One of my graduate school professors (Harry Liebersohn) was a Schorske student, and even though I learned a lot by reading the book, I think I learned even more just from listening to HL talk for twenty minutes about Schorske and how he conceptualized that book. It changed the way I thought about the modern era.

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