The current edition of The American Historical Review features a compelling forum on “Historians and the Question of ‘Modernity.'” Of particular interest to scholars of U.S. intellectual history is Dorothy Ross’s contribution to the forum, “American Modernities, Past and Present.” I won’t give away too many details–because all of you really need to read the essay for yourselves.
In short, Ross argues that most U.S. intellectual historians have framed the nation’s history through the lens of modernity–at least, since the historiographical renunciation of American exceptionalism in the 1960s. In fact, she contends that modernity and American exceptionalism are mutually exclusive visions of the nation’s history, because the former acknowledges a wider, transnational historical lens. She writes (of Leo Marx, the first intellectual historian to abandon the exceptionalist interpretation, in his The Machines of the Garden ): “to address modernity directly would require separating it from the exceptionalist national identity.”
The essay stands as one of the better historiographical analyses of U.S. intellectual history. Among others, Ross discusses the following intellectuals and intellectual historians in the text: J.G.A Pocock, Louis Hartz, Leo Marx, Henry May, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rieff, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, Michael Denning, Howard Brick, and James Kloppenberg. And this list does not even begin to deal with Ross’s footnotes, a dense thicket of U.S. intellectual historiography–a good place to begin compiling a list for a comprehensive doctoral exam.
Of note is also what, or who, is missing. Ross writes that, among U.S. intellectual historians, unlike counterparts elsewhere, “the postmodern narrative of rupture is not much evident. While American intellectual historians have been influenced by poststructuralism sensibilities and interpretive strategies, they have for the most part linked discourses of anti-foundationalism and racial, gender, and sexual diversity to modernism and modernity rather than seeing them as harbingers of a newer postmodern promise.” Although I agree with this as it applies to most intellectual historians, it doesn’t apply to someone like James Livingston, whose work is curiously omitted from Ross’s essay and from her substantial footnotes. Although Livingston might merit critique–I register mine here–he is formidable and should be addressed in such an otherwise thorough historiographic essay.
P.S. It would seem this year’s conference chair, Mike O’Connor, was particularly astute in organizing a plenary session on American exceptionalism (featuring Beth Bailey, Eric Foner, Michael Kazin, and Rogers Smith). Not only is the concept a hot political topic–Newt Gingrich has a new book on it! But, as Ross shows, it is also extremely important to understanding U.S. intellectual historiography.