U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Best Essays in American Intellectual History

One of my teaching duties during my Fulbright year is to teach two weeks of “Philosophy of Science II: American Studies as Meta-Science.” This course is the second part of method/theory sequence required by all American Studies undergraduate majors. Each member of the American Studies faculty teaches two weeks of the course, on topics that speak to their expertise.

One of my assigned topics is “American Intellectual History.” Go figure. I’m to frame this topic as a general method, and assign a 40-page text that represents the method. I have some ideas about what to assign, but I’m interested in what USIH readers think are some of the best essays in American intellectual history. I’m looking for an essay that will allow me to discuss historiographical approaches. But, as opposed to an historiographical essay, I’d rather have students read a text that demonstrates one particular approach.

I know the lines are blurry here: historiography is intellectual history. So I won’t constrain the discussion by imposing any rules—as if you all would follow my rules in any case! Suggest away!

11 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This may say more about my milquetoast preferences than about U.S. intellectual history, but I think there’s a strong case for Trilling’s “Reality in America,” or “The Meaning of a Literary Idea.” It’s woefully traditional–white, upper-middle class, New York, Columbia–but I think provides a cohesive glimpse into the history-writing of a particular subset of the American left: literature has political meaning, and its political meaning is well-represented in a canon of progressive American novels. It might also be a good jumping-off point for discussing more contentious elements of American cultural history: whether the canon exists, who constructs it, and why that matters. It’s also a worthwhile entry point into a discussion of the divergent trajectories of American liberalism.

  2. Andrew–How about Bradford Perkins’ historiographical essay on The Tragedy of American Diplomacy?

    1Bradford Perkins, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy: Twenty-Five Years After,” Review of American History, 12 (March 1984): 15.

  3. Andrew, an essay that beautifully exemplifies the methodology it champions is Lawrence Levine’s essay on Shakespeare in America:

    Lawrence Levine, “Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation,” The American Historical Review 89, no. 1 (Feb. 1984), 34-66.

    This essay would work well in a transnational setting because of the subject matter. One supposes that Danes might have some familiarity with Shakespeare. And it would be interesting to discuss how Shakespeare has come to be viewed in Denmark, whether there was a similar “browing” of the Bard, and when/why that happened (or didn’t).

  4. I think the best essay I’ve read in American intellectual history is David Hollinger’s 1975 article: “Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentsia.” It’s from American Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, (May 1975), pp. 133-151. Might be a bit tough for undergrads, but maybe not.

  5. How about John Murrin’s “A Roof without Walls”? I’ve always liked Douglass Adair’s stuff. “Fame and the Founding Fathers” or “‘That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science’: David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist” would be good.

  6. How about Perry Miller’s “Errand into the Wilderness”, the first chapter of the eponymous book. It’s only 15 pages but it captures the exercise, I think.

  7. I think that one of the finest intellectual history articles remains John Higham’s “The Rise of American Intellectual History” (The American Historical Review, 1951). Gives a nice synopsis of the intellectual history method as well as its origins in histories of literature and philosophy. Obviously, nothing on race and gender in the piece, but if contextualized properly it can be a useful introductory article.

  8. Thanks everyone, for giving me a lot of great ideas (and thus, for making my decision that much more difficult). Although I love some of the older suggestions (Trilling, Miller, Higham), I think the students should read something that reflects more recent developments in the field.

    I’m very drawn to the Hollinger, Levine, and Lears suggestions. I’m going to think about those, alongside James Kloppenberg, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jun., 1996), pp. 100-138. The reason I like the Kloppenberg is because it takes recent trends in US thought (postmodernism/neo-pragmatism) and contrasts them with an older version of intellectual history (James, Dewey, etc). If I could pair this with something short written by James Livingston, who relentlessly argues that the earlier pragmatists anticipated all of these later intellectual developments, that would be perfect. But I think I’m constrained by the number of pages the students are expected to read.

    In any case, cheers.

  9. Andrew, you might try this book chapter:

    James Livington, “Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What Is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?” in John J. Stuhr, ed. and introd., 100 Years of Pragmatism: William James’s Revolutionary Philosophy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2010), 144-172.

    If you need something shorter, there are always his guest blog posts! This one might work: Near Dark at the Museum.

    All the suggested essays were excellent, and you have a surfeit of options. Of course I’m particularly glad you are leaning toward Levine, who is the most congenial of intellectual companions.

    Now, if you want a straight methodology/historiography essay, there’s always Wickberg’s “Intellectual History v. the Social History of Intellectuals.” His guest post / review of the MIH forum could also be interesting, but I think the former essay would be more immediately useful to students working through their own ideas about the processes and purposes of historical inquiry.

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