U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Canon of U.S. Intellectual History?

In the spirit of Sylwester Ratowt’s comment on Tim’s “Defining the Intellectual Historian” post, is there a canon of U.S. Intellectual History to which people who claim to be U.S. intellectual historians should expect familiarity?  If so, what books make the list?  Leave a comment below listing some books, and feel free to be as expansive as you want.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I posted a similar query about a year ago. We got some good responses, but then the thread just petered out. It’s something I’d like to see continue; perhaps the blog could come up with a “canon” of its own.

    In any case, here are the collected recommendations of everyone who posted before, listed alphabetically by author.

    Appleby, Joyce Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination
    Bailyn, Bernard Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
    Beard, Charles Whither Mankind: A Panorama…
    Beard, Mary America Through Women’s Eyes
    Bender, Thomas (ed.) The Antislavery Debate
    Bender, Thomas The New York Intellectuals
    Bercovitch, Sacvan Rites of Assent
    Conkin, Paul Puritans and Pragmatists
    Eagleton, Terry Literary Theory: An Introduction
    Frederickson, George The Black Image in the White Mind
    Frederickson, George The Inner Civil War
    Haskell, Thomas Objectivity is Not Neutrality
    Higham, John (ed.) New Directions In American Intellectual History
    Higham, John History: Professional Scholarship in America
    Hofstadter, Richard The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It
    Hofstadter, Richard Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
    Hofsteadter, Richard The Progressive Historians
    Hollinger, David In The American Province
    Iggers, Georg Historiography in the Twentieth Century
    Jacoby, Russell The Last Intellectuals
    Kloppenberg, James Uncertain Victory
    Kloppenberg, James The Virtues of Liberalism
    Kuklick, Bruce The History of Philosophy In America, 1720-2000
    Langer, Suzan Philosophy in a New Key
    Lears, T.J. Jackson No Place of Grace
    May, Henry The Enlightenment in America
    Menand, Louis The Metaphysical Club
    Miller, Perry The New England Mind
    Murray, M. (ed.) A Jacques Barzun Reader
    Noll, Mark The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
    Novick, Peter That Noble Dream
    Parrington, Vernon Main Currents in American Thought
    Pells, Richard The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age
    Perry, Lewis Intellectual Life In America: A History
    Rodgers, Daniel Atlantic Crossings
    Ross, Dorothy Origins of American Social Science
    Tully, James (ed.) Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics

  2. This is a great start. I would definitely add:

    Denning, Michael, _The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century_

    Nash, George, _The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America_

    Purcell, Edward, _The Crisis in Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value_

    Wald, Alan, _The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left_

  3. I like the books listed already, from Conjectures of Order to Mike’s list above it. But I want to tackle the unexplored question in the post and add a few more points.

    There is little question that a canon of U.S. intellectual history exists. Period. This is seen already in the comments above and on Mike’s first weblog post on the subject last year.

    Evidence of the canon also exists in the commonality of readings suggested during field exams. Who can doubt that books by Higham, Curti, Conkin, Hollinger, Bender, etc. are on those lists? If you’re coming at USIH from the cultural side, then you’ve certainly at least read something of Denning, Higham (again), and Lears.

    Sure, every PhD candidate’s list will differ in its details, but I seriously doubt that he/she who is unfamiliar with several of these authors, and some of their works, will be taken seriously. Think of how many books here all of us agree on—despite our diverse backgrounds.

    But I want to ask some tougher questions:

    – What makes a great book in U.S. intellectual history? What are its defining, or minimal, characteristics?
    – Who vets intellectual histories of the U.S. for their greatness?
    – What are the ~undisputed~ greats covering U.S.I.H.? Are all listed here so far “undisputed?” Is that too high a standard?

    – TL

  4. Some more widely-read classics and/or celebrated volumes on their way to classicdom, old and new:

    Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science

    Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

    David Levering Lewis, WEB Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race

    Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty

    Ross Posnock, The Trail of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity

    Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the 20th Century

    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness

    Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism

  5. These are my candidates. I decided that the list didn’t mean so much unless a) I tried to make it complete, rather than naming all my favorite books off the top of my head, and b) I limited myself to a certain number of books, so that I would actually decide which ones are the most important.

    So I imagined that I had a Ph.D. candidate (that’ll be the day!) for whom I was assembling a list for comprehensive exams. I decided on 25 as the number, but kind of cheated by allowing myself another list in primary sources in U.S. intellectual history, which I will post shortly as well. (There’s even a third list, of literature and perhaps film, that I will probably not getting around to compiling any time soon.) Though I spent several days thinking about this to make sure that I didn’t forget any obvious candidates, the list still feels to me rather idiosyncratic. I’ll be curious to see what others think or, alternatively, to see different lists of books.

    Like Tim in his earlier post, I can only say I’ve read about two-thirds of these books. But how often a book comes up in other reading is a good test of how important it is to read, so I didn’t distinguish between books I’d read and those I had not.


    Appleby, Joyce; Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination

    Bailyn, Bernard; The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

    Beard, Charles; An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States

    Bederman, Gail; Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race, 1880-1917

    Bender, Thomas; The New York Intellectuals

    Curti, Merle; The Growth of American Thought

    Frederickson, George; The Black Image in the White Mind
    The Inner Civil War

    Gaines, Kevin; Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the 20th Century

    Genovese, Eugene; Roll, Jordan, Roll

    Hingham, John and Paul Conkin (eds.); New Directions in Intellectual History

    Hofstadter, Richard; Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

    Hollinger, David; In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas

    Jacoby, Russell; The Last Intellectuals

    Kloppenberg, James; Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920

    Levine, Lawrence; Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

    Lewis, David Levering; W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868 1919: Biography of a Race
    W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963

    Menand, Louis; The Metaphysical Club

    Morgan, Edmund; The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

    Russett, Cynthia Eagle; Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865-1912

    Turner, Frederick Jackson; “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

    Wilentz, Sean; The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

    Wills, Gary; Lincoln at Gettysburg
    Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

    Wood, Gordon; The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787

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