U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Classics Review: *The Growth of American Thought* Revisited

Paul Murphy on Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1943)


I bought a copy of Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought as a graduate student at one of the library’s massive sale of discarded books.[1] Mine came from a residence hall library; the pages had yellowed a bit but were otherwise pristine. University students had evidently left this 900-page tome on the shelf as did I for many years. My interest in one of Curti’s students, Warren Susman, who claimed to have read the book’s preface over and over to the point of almost being able to recite it verbatim, and in Curti’s relationship to liberal humanist thought brought me to take a serious crack at the book. It is not, in fact, especially helpful in the typical ways one would like—preparing lectures or understanding particular thinkers—and yet it forces big questions about the nature of thought in history, the way to study ideas, and the purpose of the field.

Curti intended the book as a social history of ideas, but this did not entail any particular attention to ideas themselves, either as complicated concepts, systems of thought, or linguistically complex artifacts. Ideas and thinkers are treated in summary fashion, usually with no more than a paragraph of general description. The book is a bit of an encyclopedia manqué, with minor popular writers and major philosophers jammed together indiscriminately and neither systematically nor comprehensively treated. Curti touched on numerous fields (education, religion, science, law, economics, politics, literature, philosophy, social thought) but only inconsistently and intermittently. On the whole, his broad survey is rather idiosyncratic and ultimately limited by the reliance on secondary scholarship. He avoided exploring the “interiors” of ideas or systems of thought (vi) in favor of their social relations; Eric Goldman observed in a review that only “one type of intellectual history is excluded, and that explicitly—the analysis of ideas.”[2]

There is a question as to whether The Growth of American Thought merits classic status, for arguably Curti’s venerable masterwork fails to meet the essential criterion of the “Classic Series”—having “endured” and “stood the test of time.” It certainly did not shape my development as a historian nor that of my peers, so far as I can tell. Robert Dawidoff declared in 1986 that the book was “no longer standard classroom fare” and observed, for growth of american thoughtgood measure, that it was “superannuated,” bland, and consisted mostly of “masses of information within an unexciting framework of explanation.”[iii] According to Kenneth Lynn, the book had “considerable merit as an encyclopedia but very little as a history, for it has no governing argument, no unifying theme, no reason for being other than the author’s methodical desire to ‘cover’ his subject.”[iv] There is a point to Lynn’s comment; reviewers at the time noted the breadth of coverage, which they took this as evidence of Curti’s erudition. Curti was an indefatigable researcher and a voracious reader; he was equipped with a wonderful memory and, as Susman noted, excellent files. However, Lynn was off the mark on both counts in his statement: The book is not especially useful as an encyclopedia and its “governing argument” is evident, compelling, reflective of his times, and challenging to our own.

Dedicated to Frederick Jackson Turner, the book did much to create the field of intellectual and cultural history. In 1925, according to Paul Conkin, Curti created the first course ever offered on American thought while teaching at Smith College.[v] In a Turnerian sense, Curti believed that thought grew, organically, shaped by the social environment in which it evolved. Thought takes various forms, he declared in his introduction. There is: (1) knowledge of human nature, society, and the universe, but there are also (2) speculations or guesses about what lays beyond human apprehension and systematized theories of the world. Finally, there are (3) values, which guide human action. Institutions such as schools, colleges, libraries, the press, foundations, or research centers provide the conditions for thought to occur; they are (4) the “agencies of intellectual life” (v-vi). Curti heeded each of these elements in his survey but, in particular, the fourth. In self-consciously analyzing how American thought grew from the seeds of European thought, he followed his old master, but his determination to write a “social history of American thought, and to some extent a socio-economic history of American thought” (vi) and heeding, in particular, the function of the agencies of intellectual life, signaled his departure.

Curti’s governing argument was that the growth of thought represented the democratization of American life. Democratization meant not only the American development of Enlightenment ideals of humanitarianism, natural rights, equalitarianism, scientific reason, rationalist religion, and democracy but also the spread of thinking itself to the “great mass of common people” (xii). He devoted much attention to folk culture, hailing the significance of songs, jokes, stories, proverbs and almanacs and signaling the importance of lyceum lectures and the Chautauqua movement to the diffusion of ideas.[vi] In Curti’s narrative, democratization occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, “the golden day of progress and optimism,” as knowledge became democratized (vii). Democratization meant self-culture. At root, the growth of American thought meant not so much folk culture as the spread of education and the increasing ability of ordinary Americans to partake in the specialized capacity of reasoning. The heart of his narrative is the emergence of an educated and self-reflective middle class. Innovations like common schools, academies, and technologies of mass communication were the vital agencies of intellectual life. These agencies as well as evangelical reform, urbanization, and rising philanthropy propelled a movement for the “popularization of knowledge” that “was also an expression of the growing power of the people in all walks of life,” Curti observed. “Their desire to ‘know,’ to share more fully in the life of the mind, reflected an awareness of their growing power, their potentialities” (344). It was an age of reform but also, crucially, an age in which the “faith in reform as a law of nature” became fully realized. This was the Emersonian faith that “institutions exist to be improved, that man can improve them along with himself, that the law of human society, like that of physical nature, is one of change” (369). Industrial expansion, with its utilitarian ethic, worked with the romantic faith in the “idea of man as man” to lead to the full fruition of this movement and the other great movements of antebellum reform (372).

The Civil War marked the peak of this union of commerce and self-culture, only to be followed by its corruption. Materialism and the narrow competitive individualism of the businessman overtook the older dream of personal security and self-development. A second age of reform arose after 1875 and represented a great moment of democratic fulfillment. Deweyan instrumentalism became the culmination of the democratic intellect. Under progressive leadership, the maturing middle class self-corrected and exerted social control over private enterprise, vindicating the Emersonian individual by eschewing individualistic social theory and political economy. Curti gave pragmatism alone a sustained “interior” treatment as a system of ideas.[vii]

Instrumentalist ideas become themselves agencies of intellectual life, as the elements of Curti’s argument became reflexive: Democracy means the growth of thought among all members of society; the growth of thought was itself democratization. Democracy was thinking for oneself, and it was the development of agencies that allowed Americans to become thinkers that revealed the democratization of American life. By the eve of World War I, enlightened modernity lay open before America:

The road was at last open to new vistas of the mind and of society, and these vistas made of each something far less secure, far less absolute, far less static than men and women had long taken for granted. These vistas also suggested that, in a sense never before dreamed of, men and women could use their minds and ideas to make of society and indeed of nature itself something more congenial to their taste and their needs than even the Utopians had conjured up in their fondest dreams (579).

Aside from this governing argument, the book yields other rewards. It was immensely influential for the generations of historians who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, and the reader can see how the book served as a “seed catalogue,” to use Perry Miller’s scornful dismissal of it.[viii] Curti noted and commented upon African cultural survivals, the way that in music and folklore the slave “neither said all he meant nor meant all he said” (432), the role of Christianity as the “foundation stone of American intellectual development” (50), the tension between antislavery humanitarianism and capitalist enterprise in the middle class, the call for republican motherhood, the chronic “anti-intellectualism of the common man” (268), the popularity of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, the role of symbols and festivals in American nationalism, and the conservative implications of pulp magazines in the 1930s. There are also valuable nuggets of historical fact strewn throughout the book’s many pages: the nation’s first folk revival in the years after the Revolution led by a Boston tanner and Charlestown carpenter (139); the ungodly Yale undergraduates who tweaked local divines by nicknaming themselves after French philosophes (Voltaire, Volney, etc.) (199); John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) scattering Swedenborgian tracts along with his seeds (273); Charles Darwin citing the work of John James Audubon forty times (284); the first American treatise on birth control—Dr. Charles Knowlton’s aptly named Fruits of Philosophy (1832) (340); the nineteenth-century retail habit of “book butchering”—selling huge lots of “dirt cheap” books as loss leaders ( (599); and the Gallup and Roper poll data from 1948 suggesting that one-quarter of the nation’s population favored world government (795).

Curti’s approach to history became unfashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. As Paul Conkin cogently remarked, Curti focused primarily on “cultural arbiters” who were positioned to exert great influence on American culture—educators, journalist critics, reformers, novelists, philanthropists—and followed a standard method—“a wide sampling, and selective quoting and paraphrasing, of literate opinion, of journalists, correspondents, teachers, and ministers.”[ix] His progressive faith in middle-class intellectualism ill fits our age of cultural studies in which culture is a field of power by which the privileged classes repress the subaltern. Though present at the 1977 Wingspread Conference in which a cadre of intellectual historians defined a new type of social history of ideas, one focused on intellectuals and their professional and discursive communities, Curti could only look benevolently at a type of practice quite distinct from his own. Nevertheless, we would do well to attend to the strengths of what he accomplished in The Growth of American Thought: His navigation between popular and elite ideas through an awareness of the agencies that allow people to think; his contextualism not of language but of social and cultural manners; and his focus on the way ideas become historical forces when “socialized,” that is, when widely disseminated among a literate public. Democracy occurs when this happens.


Paul Murphy teaches at Grand Valley State University and is the author of The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (2012) and The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (2001). He is currently working on a study of American humanist thought in the first half of the twentieth century.

[1] I purchased the second edition, to which parenthetical page citations refer. Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). The first edition appeared in 1943 and received the Pulitzer Prize.

[2] Eric F. Goldman, review of Curti, Growth of American Thought, in New England Quarterly, 17:1 (March 1944), 111.

[iii] Robert Dawidoff, “The Growth of American Thought: A Reconsideration,” Reviews in American History, 14:3 (Sept. 1986), 474.

[iv] Kenneth S. Lynn, review of Curti, Human Nature in American Thought, in Journal of American History, 67:2 (Sept. 1980), 375.

[v] Paul K. Conkin, “Merle Curti,” in Robert Allen Rutland, Clio’s Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 26.

[vi] Curti’s discussion of lyceums and the Chautauqua are particularly engaging and revealing of his approach. See Curti, Growth of American Thought, 365-67, 595-98, 602-603.

[vii] See Curti, Growth of American Thought, 556-566.

[viii] Lynn, review of Curti, Growth of American Thought. 375. In a recent review, Bruce Kuklick casts Miller, “who was close to philosophical idealism,” and Curti, “who almost believed in the social determination of ideas,” as great rivals in the emergence of intellectual and cultural history. Curti won, in his view. Bruce Kuklick, “Who Would Have Thought?” Reviews in American History, 43:4 (Dec. 2015), 577.

[ix] Conkin, “Merle Curti,” 30, 32-33.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. “In a Turnerian sense, Curti believed that thought grew, organically, shaped by the social environment in which it evolved. Thought takes various forms, he declared in his introduction.”

    Is this another reason why Curti became unfashionable? Did his evolutionary approach to ideas suggest that Darwin and natural selection could explain intellectual history as well as the history of life?

    I don’t remember too many proponents of “historical Darwinism” cited in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, but I wonder if some of the pushback against the social history of ideas was for reasons that are similar to what today’s literature scholars find contentious. I’m referring to those who bristle at what “literary Darwinists” (like Joseph Carroll) are hoping to achieve.

    I’m currently reading Curti’s Human Nature in American Thought for my dissertation topic, so any insight you can give on this will be appreciated. Have there been any self-proclaimed “historical Darwinists” or is this just another name for methodological naturalism (which, I presume, most cultural and intellectual historians subscribe to, at least while crafting their narratives/analyses)?

    • Hi Mark:

      You raise an interesting question regarding “historical Darwinists,” and I have not read Curti’s Human Nature in American Thought, though I want to do so. It was Curti’s last book and seems to have been gestating from the 1950s. It obviously meant much to him.

      I would not consider Curti a “historical Darwinist.” I think he used the metaphor of the “growth” of American thought loosely and meant by it what Turner would have understood it to mean: That American civilization was in some way a unified thing, the product of social, cultural, and natural influences that changed over time. He saw society as unified and coherent, just as Turner did when he suggested American character and culture were the result of developmental forces on the frontier. I don’t think he meant to suggest that ideas, or intellectuals sponsoring those ideas, fought it out in a process of natural selection, though perhaps that is a logical implication. Rather, he focused very much on rising literacy rates, the growth of towns and cities, and the proliferation of agencies of intellectual life, such as schools and libraries and such things. The “growth” was the increasing capacity of American society to support a class of intellectuals and then the increased literacy and greater opportunity for intellectual life that came to millions more as American society matured. This was the point of the (really, rather thinly used) organic metaphor: Civilizations grow over time, like a plant or animal, and, as they mature, developed ever more sophisticated and specialized capacities for human endeavor, including the capacity to generate sophisticated thought.

      What was old-fashioned (for later scholars) about Curti was not social Darwinist assumptions but his holism — the same problem of the myth-and-symbol American Studies scholars of mid-twentieth-century America (of whom Curti was one — though he was a “social historian” of ideas, he was present at the creation of American Studies): They depicted American civilization as a single thing, a unified whole possessing an
      “American mind.” From the 1960s, a more demographically diverse profession found that this obscured more than it revealed.

      I am not aware of the literary Darwinists, so maybe there is more to think about in this comparison. Curti was a Deweyan progressive socialist and loathed such thinkers. One could accept Darwin and even believe social capacities were evolutionary in some way and reject the competitive model of human affairs smuggled into public debates via Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” ideas. It is worth noting that Richard Hofstadter wrote his dissertation, a debunking analysis of social Darwinist thought in America, as a student of Curti!

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response. Your post has motivated me to read The Growth of American Thought in conjunction with his later Human Nature to see what types of continuity and change are visible in his methodology.

        I’ve definitely been knee-deep in Social Darwinist historiography (to use another metaphorical phrase loosely), including my first exposure to the scholarship, Hofstadter’s early dissertation-turned-page-turner. I’m hoping to look at the cultural debates that seem to have been neglected in these studies (films, fiction, etc.).

        I’m curious if historians writing during the cold war intentionally shied away from these Darwinistic-leaning metaphors for fear of being tagged a “socio-biologist” masquerading as an “objective” historian (to refer back again to Novick’s book), and not because the imagery in question failed to capture what historians were trying to articulate about the “growth” of American institutions and ideas?

  2. Mark: I look forward to your study, as you raise a very interesting question. “Social Darwinism” became a standard interpretive point in analyzing the Gilded Age. Did Hofstadter play a major role in making that happen? I think of the phrase as a liberal shibboleth in denouncing pre-progressive social theory. But, when and how did liberals give up on organicist style social theory? I suppose the answer is out there to be found in the work of Dorothy Ross, Howard Brick, and many others, but much of it must be tied up in the general shift to culturalist modes of analysis (or to the kinds of sociological emphases that would lead to “social constructionist” theories of human development), including cultural relativism, and (the two are related) to the repudiation of racial prejudice and the increasing antipathy to racism and racial categories of analysis. As you say, sociobiologists faced a huge backlash, and maybe historians previsioned such a thing and avoided it. This presumes, however, that they were strongly committed to this type of organicist or Darwinist analysis. Your question of just how self-consciously historians repudiated social Darwinist modes of thought for political reasons and despite their own scholarly inclinations is intriguing, but it presumes that social Darwinist ideas would otherwise have been appealing or authoritative. I wonder if this was true.

  3. “. . .much of it must be tied up in the general shift to culturalist modes of analysis (or to the kinds of sociological emphases that would lead to “social constructionist” theories of human development), including cultural relativism, and (the two are related) to the repudiation of racial prejudice and the increasing antipathy to racism and racial categories of analysis.”

    I’m going to reread Carl Degler’s book soon; I’ll be sure to focus on this aspect. I also saw that Thomas Leonard’s new work (Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era) has a significant amount of coverage over Darwinism (“social” and otherwise).

    Thanks for sharing your expertise with me on this; I also look forward to your new book. . .

  4. Mark –

    Paul wrote – “Curti was a Deweyan progressive socialist and loathed such thinkers. One could accept Darwin and even believe social capacities were evolutionary in some way and reject the competitive model of human affairs smuggled into public debates via Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” ideas. It is worth noting that Richard Hofstadter wrote his dissertation, a debunking analysis of social Darwinist thought in America, as a student of Curti!”

    In a related context, George Herbert Mead, a progressive evolutionist closely associated with Dewey, referred to science as the evolutionary process grown self-conscious. The use of Darwinian and other evolutionary metaphors and models is by no means to be equated with Spencerian or Sumnerian “social Darwinism.”

    Good luck with your project.

    • Mead is definitely someone that keeps popping up; I will be looking at Gary Cook’s intellectual history as a starting point before diving into Mead’s primary writings.

      I’ve found Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plot’s suggestive for thinking about Darwin’s impact beyond the realm of scientific inquiry and practice. It seems that one causative factor in the Evolution Wars is the ambiguous language used by creationists and evolutionary biologists when trying to articulate what words such as “Darwinism, “evolution,” and “nature,” are signifying. In recent times, “Social Darwinism” has been thrown around with the same intent as argued in Hofstadter’s book: as an epithet.*

      Have there been any self-professed “Social Darwinists” (or “Social Spencerians”) today in the academic or intellectual spheres using that phrase with pride (accepting the problematic label in order to achieve certain goals)?

      *Ruth Conniff, “Social Darwinism Returns,” The Progressive 76, no. 7 (July 2012)

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