U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Nationalism, Regionalism, and Intellectual History in the MVHA

To honor the centennial of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and its predecessor, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), Richard Kirkendall put together a volume in 2011, titled The Organization of American Historians and the Writing and Teaching of American History. This sheaf of essays included two about the place of intellectual history within the century-long career of the organization, by David Hollinger and James Kloppenberg, respectively.[1] They are fascinating to read together in part because they disagree with one another rather directly, but in a way that is difficult to adjudicate or resolve.

Both Hollinger and Kloppenberg focus on the period of the MVHA (1907-1965), a period in which the organization was—as you can gather from its title—more regionally grounded. The most basic disagreement in their accounts seems to me to be over the relative prominence or stature of intellectual history within the MVHA and its journal, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review (MVHR), as well as the point in time at which intellectual history attained some measure of mainstream recognition within this community of scholars. Kloppenberg, whose contribution is quite brief, indicates a belief that intellectual history was always at the heart of MVHA members concept and practice of history in large part because until near the very end of the MVHA period, intellectual history was considered either a partner (at best) or a flavor (at worst) of social history. He writes,

The more rigid separation of the fields of social and intellectual history dates from the emergence in the 1960s of what was then called “the new social history,” or “history from the bottom up.” The combination of new methods of quantitative analysis; new emphases on understanding the everyday life of understudied people, including women, African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups; and new theoretical perspectives shifted the focus of many historians away from the relation between thought and culture to other topics of concern.

Hollinger, on the other hand, places the late 1950s as the point at which intellectual history broke through to general credibility among the historians of the MVHA. Before that, he argues, few articles that are recognizably intellectual history in method or content appeared in the MVHR and the books reviewed in the journal which might be classified as intellectual history were generally by professors of literature or philosophy.

Hollinger’s account stresses a couple of points about US intellectual history as it was practiced before the late 1950s. First, like Kloppenberg, he sees intellectual historians staying very close in their analysis of ideas to a social interpretation emphasizing broad societal conditions and key institutions in the formation and dissemination of ideas and the training and sustaining of an intellectual class. But Hollinger also contrasts this relatively low-to-the-ground intellectual history with a more high-flying, at times untethered history of ideas as practiced by Europeanists at the same time. Around the 1950s, American historians began getting the idea that they could at least selectively surpass social context as the arena for their reconstructions of ideas and, therefore, study frankly specialized or remote thinkers without regard to their representativeness. The quality or “seriousness” of the thought counted more than the thickness of the context surrounding it.

Secondly, Hollinger points out a parochialism or exceptionalism among US intellectual historians before the late 1950s, especially among the historians of the MVHA. We should, he asserts,

remind ourselves that the major organization sustaining the entire field of U.S. history was still called by the name of Mississippi Valley, conveying the implications, however anachronistic even for 1957, that the middle section of the country was more American than the parts of the country east of the Appalachians and west of the Rockies and that the study of things American was more appropriate for people from Cincinnati and Chicago and Nashville and New Orleans and Minneapolis and Madison than it was for those living in New York or Boston or Philadelphia or San Francisco.

Not only, in other words, were US intellectual historians ignorant of what Europeanists were doing methodologically, but they were also ignorant of what those histories of European thought said, uninterested in comparisons or cross-pollinations between European and U.S. intellectuals.

Hollinger’s story, in other words, is largely one of how U.S. intellectual historians grew up and got over their nationalist and regionalist myopia—a maturation that happened to coincide with (or perhaps determine) their entrance into a more prominent status among other historians. Kloppenberg, on the other hand, recounts a history of U.S. intellectual history that implies a primitive harmony among the two dominant fields of MVHA endeavors—social and intellectual history—or what he refers to as “a joining together [of] thought and practice, ideas and behavior, as aspects of the single, albeit multifaceted, reality that all of us American historians study.” While I don’t read his account as intended to be declensionist, there is a sort of wistfulness to it: he begins by noting that in his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College in the late 1960s and early 70s he was able to take a course still called “American Social and Intellectual History.”

The compatibility of these two images of what intellectual history should be—for that is after all what they are—is, it seems to me, up for grabs. The kind of intellectual history that Kloppenberg praises—that practiced by Merle Curti and John Higham and by many of the historians written about in Ellen Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980—was much more shut off from both the methods and findings of Europeanist intellectual historians for much of the first half of the twentieth century, and perhaps a little beyond. Hollinger, I believe, would see this exceptionalism as fatally linked to the very things that consummated the marriage of social and intellectual history as it was practiced by Curti: the beliefs in the holism of social life and in the commonness (in all senses—number, social status, and unity) of a people—in this case, the American people. Without this vibrant but brittle sense of commonness and holism, Curti’s synthesis of thought and practice, ideas and behavior, would have been lost.

I personally find that conclusion—which Hollinger doesn’t explicitly draw but which I think is a natural extension of his account of U.S. intellectual history’s internal development—both very true and rather pessimistic. He only really appears in a footnote of Hollinger’s essay, but it seems to me that the requisite synthesis to surmount the strictures implied by Hollinger (either you’re nationalistic/regionalistic and open to ordinary people’s ideas and social history or you’re transnationalist and open to sophistication and the history of ideas) would be a kind of synthesis of Merle Curti and H. Stuart Hughes.

It’s a neatly odd couple, especially if you think of the relative sizes of each man’s magnum opus—The Growth of American Thought alongside Consciousness and Society. Hollinger himself offers in a brief tangent one historian who may, to some extent, have effected that synthesis—Henry May—but it seems to me a kind of challenge, like writing the Great American Novel. How could one write a history that halves the distance from Curti to Hughes, from commonness to sophistication?

I’ll be at the OAH later this week: I hope to meet you in St. Louis!

[1] A different, earlier version of the Hollinger contribution can be found in OAH Magazine of History 21.2 (2007): 14-17.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I notice that Eileen Cheng, in a fairly critical account of Kirkendall’s collection [History and Theory May 2013] draws upon and reiterates Ian Tyrrell’s observation that historiography has been a relatively neglected field among American historians, in part because it has the potential of undermining its generally whiggish narrative of its own exceptional history.

  2. Bill, I think that’s right, although I don’t know if neglected is the word I’d use. There isn’t an abundance of historiographical studies of US history, but I’m not sure how many there are supposed to be. I know there are really great studies even fairly recently: Fitzpatrick, David S. Brown, Kerwin Klein, Robert Townsend, and the Tyrrell one you mention as well as wonderful bios of Herbert Bolton and Frederick Jackson Turner. I was just reading a fascinating history of popular historians by Gregory Pfitzer. I definitely take your point about the whiggishness, but I think the problem is less a supply issue than a demand one: I get the feeling that many US historians feel they’ve gotten all the historiography they need with reading Novick. But perhaps that’s what you (and Cheng) meant?

  3. Okay, and thanks for your response — but I wasn’t taking any position, only reporting what I took Cheng to be arguing about the Kirkendall collection.

  4. Ah, I see–sorry, I was confused. But I do think the question of whether Americanists are less interested in the history of their field than other historians in theirs is an interesting one. Thanks!

  5. Agreed, it’s an interesting hypothesis, and were it to be shown, one could ask why the demand, as you say, is weaker than elsewhere … and what benefit might be had if it were greater. My naive sense of it is that historians have a deep interest in practicing history at least “as if” they believed the field was in some sense progressive. [which isn’t to say it’s not]. Maybe one of the jobs of intellectual history – though not necessarily its most salient one – is to critically address that working faith by studying the shortcomings of the receding past.

  6. As an aside, I find Hollinger’s comments regarding the MVHA as interesting in light of some of the recent calls, in the context of US history, for the revival of regional histories. Some of those sympathetic to this idea have pointed specifically to the MVHA as a forum for regional history, and although this was not without its drawbacks, perhaps something like the MVHA is worth bringing back.

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