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.