U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is “American”?

Seventy-five years ago this month, in June 1943, in the middle of World War II, Merle Curti published his masterpiece, The Growth of American Thought, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

There are many things to say about this work, but in this post I will focus on a key feature of Curti’s approach and his argument, a feature that is too easily overlooked in the stories that we historians of American thought and culture tell or hear about our own discipline.

First, though, I would like to say a word about the wordplay of the book’s title.  Curti was exploring “American thought” understood in two ways.  First, he was sketching a sweeping survey of the development and transformation of intellectual life, work, and work(s) in the United States – “thought in America” – from “lowbrow” to “highbrow,” from elite to popular. Second, he was able to sketch that survey by following an overarching theme:  the emergence and evolution (a key term) of the concept of “Americanness” or “American” as a distinctive descriptor, a distinctive identity.  Curti opened his first chapter with – of course – Crevecouer’s question, now an old chestnut for our field:  “What then is the American, this new man?”

For me, the key feature of Curti’s project is how he answered this question by grounding his account from the beginning in pluralism, in what we would call “multiculturalism.” This is not to say that Curti wrote or spoke in terms that we would embrace as scholars today.  In many places his terminology is retrograde; it is colloquially racist.  At times he refers to Native Americans generically as “the red man” – so he reflected some of the most prevalent racist thinking of his time.

But he also pushed against it. Curti included both Native Americans and African Americans as integral the development of American thought and the distinctly American cast of mind.  He argued that the exceptional, distinct nature of American thought and American identity derived from the diverse admixture of so many different cultures, languages, religions, and folkways in a new “environment,” an environment that was social and physical and geographical as much as ideational. “The ideas and attitudes represented by so many cultures—indigenous, African, and European—not only were modified by interaction with one another,” Curti wrote.  “They were still further modified by factors that resulted from the physical environment.  The two intimately related forces—cultural interaction and environmental selection and modification—were changing the ideas and attitudes of all the peoples living in America, were creating a new civilization” (24).

The word “civilization” was a loaded term in 1943, as it is still today.  And in 1943, the claim of American intellectual history as a nascent discipline – at least as represented by the work of Merle Curti, who stands as a foil for (say) the work of Perry Miller – was that American civilization was from its very outset a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural project.  Against the pale and pathetically brittle notion of some “racially pure” ethnostate, Curti arrayed a vision of American identity as robust and bountiful and many-rooted and variegated in its origins and its expression.

Curti  foregrounded cultural, ethnic and racial diversity.  In a section on “Colonial Towns as Intellectual Centers,” he notes that “almost every American seaport of any size numbered among its residents people of various ethnic backgrounds, a fact which made American towns and their intellectual life unique” – unique, that is, in contrast to the Colonial backcountry, which Curti discussed in another section (38). In laying out the beginnings of his account, Curti’s pluralism, his careful inclusion of not only Native Americans and Blacks, but also Spanish and French Catholic influences, stood – and still stands — as a sharp rebuke to notions of some “pure” or “European” or “white” origin or essence of America as a nation or Americanness as an identity.

As I said above, Curti’s book is hardly flawless when it comes to racism; far from it. In that, he very much reflected a great deal of “American thought” in his time.  But he made an early, crucial claim:  Americanness has never been a question or a product of racial purity or ethnic homogeneity.

That was a crucial truth to stand for and stand upon in June of 1943, and it is a crucial truth to stand for and stand upon today, seventy-five years later, in June of 2018.

7 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. There were, of course, plenty of popular and propagandist mentions of America as pluralist or multi-racial during World War II in part to show contrast to what the Nazis were promoting. During times of war we promote ourselves as the opposite of those who we are fighting. During World War II our enemy demanded racial purity and absolute fealty to authority so we promoted our pluralism and our democratic society. In the second half of the 20th century we emphasized anti-communism, even to the point of aligning our nation with dictators and brutal regimes as long as they were openly against the Soviet Union. What should we take from the most recent wars? We are told our enemy demands religious purity and promotes fear and hatred of outsiders, but rather than embrace once again our plurality, religious freedom, and long history of immigration, we have done the opposite and become more like our enemies. As intellectual historians we always these questions, why this idea and why now?

  2. Lora, it is great that you’ve written a post on Curti. Skotheim introduced me to him but your post has given me a fuller picture of him. I believe taking Curti away from Skotheim’s condescending attitude towards his “radicalism” is something that you’ve done well. I’m impressed with the fantastic job of historians highlighting the diversity of our Puritan and colonial past in the vein of Curti. Skotheim, of course, wants to see one side of the Puritans and historical writing about them unique to his context, and Curti another. Again, as I’ve said before, the Puritans are good to think with in American intellectual history. Thanks for your thoughts and the post.

  3. Bryn and Jacob, thanks for your comments.

    Bryn, you’re so right about the different choices Americans are making now. It’s not like white supremacy and white nationalism weren’t a thing in America in the 1940s, but the mainstream political will of the country chose to align itself with a different set of aims, and American pluralism was viewed as a strength and an asset and an ideal to uphold. The Cold War saw a different external enemy, but the same internal battle against the forces of racism and McCarthyism — I’m thinking of the “That’s Un-American” Superman poster, the Star Trek series, etc. And again, the mainstream political will of the country aligned behind liberal pluralism.

    How to explain today’s shifting currents? The Southern Strategy’s backlash, the concurrent mainstreaming of “Evangelicalism” (as a form of white identity politics, not as a set of theological beliefs), the end of the Cold War, the triumph of “the market” as the arbiter of all value(s) — these new conditions, to borrow from Curti, have created a much different environment. It’s like they’ve changed the pH content of the soil or something, so that noxious weeds once mostly held in check have been given a foothold and are taking over the American garden (Henry Nash Smith, wherever you are, take a bow).

    Jacob, thanks. It’s funny to re-read not only Skotheim but also Bailyn after looking at Curti. Everything that Bailyn argued for in a history of American education was something that Curti had already been doing, especially in terms of range of sources and breadth of conception of what counts as “education.” But, as Milton Gaither points out in his revision/challenge of Bailyn’s historiography (which Andy Seal flagged for me) Curti was lumped in with “educationists” — by his own choice, and by others’ (mis)characterization of his work. (I haven’t finished reading Gaither — I just now did an index dive to see what he said about Curti.)

    Anyway, I think it is important to realize the extent to which we have not “moved beyond” any of our forebears in this field. We are often engaging in some of the same epistemic battles — idealism v. materialism, idealism v. realism, idea v. context, social v. individual, agency v. environment. We just wear the costume and convey the style of our own era, which will some day seem as dated as some of Merle Curti’s prose. If we seem half so generous-minded in seventy-five years as Curti does now, we’ll be fortunate indeed.

    • I agree much more with Professor Upton’s view. I am curious how you, Professor Burnett, view Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore’s great little article “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History.” They argue that the “new currents” and “noxious weeds” have been there all along. Check out the article, it’s full of historical deliciousness. I’d also like to share Rogers Smith’s Civic Ideals,
      It examines the long view of American identity. The concept of “Americanism” is a social construct and like all social constructs are constantly contested.

    • Interesting. What you mentioned about Bailyn strikes me as important, because it perhaps illustrates how much the memory of WWII and the Cold War colored the historiography of the late 60s-80s. I believe certain historians such as Curti got short shrift in favor of ones who fit into such a narrative, if Skotheim is representative of the historiography of his time. Is he? I’m not well-schooled in late 20th century historiography. Memory in historiography is such a fascinating angle. As a historian of higher ed, reading Bailyn’s concept of education and Gaither’s historiographical study of higher ed ( though I’ve read Gaither’s excellent history of homeschooling in America) is new goal for me since I had not heard of either of those prior to your mention of them.

      Your reflection on not “moving beyond” our predecessors is great. Postmodernity provides a great opportunity for growth in humility in contrast to progressive hubris. What was human then is still human now.

      • Jacob, I’m working on a historiography of USIH — it’s my second book project, currently in the form of a long review essay that needs a home. [I have some leads.] I will read Skotheim again before I answer your question about Skotheim. But I think it’s worth noting that the scholar who came up with the name “consensus history” *and* troubled the narrative of consensus history was one of Merle Curti’s students, John Higham. [Cue various diatribes against John Higham as an enemy of the Left / the Revolution / all that is Good and Pure in American politics.] I think our vision of historiography during the Cold War needs a re-examination.

        That said, I’d remind you (and all the rest of us) that the 1980s were not just shadowed by the *memory* of the Cold War but were very much in the thick of it. Indeed, one of my challenges / aims in my current book project [help!!!!] is to give the Cold War its proper due as a condition of the times that no longer obtains. [This is not to say that “Moscow” is not still a problem for the US — but perhaps it is a problem precisely to the extent that Americans believe the U.S. “won” the Cold War. If America’s enemy was Soviet communism, then sure, the US won. But if America’s enemy was Stalinism (“totalitarianism”?), I think a declaration of victory might be premature, even now.]

        Okay, I’ve said enough to tick off everybody, so I had better leave things be for now.

  4. I didn’t suggest that the noxious weeds haven’t been here all along — I speculatively pointed to a number of changes in the national ecosystem that have allowed them to flourish anew where for a while they were held in check. I don’t disagree with Bryn either — he made explicit the point that was implicit in my post. Merle Curti (like all of us) was writing history responding to the burning questions of his time. I think his answer then — pluralism is our strength — ought to be our answer now, and I am outraged that it is not. I don’t see what’s so controversial about that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.