U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Dorothy Ross, "American Modernities, Past and Present"

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 [1964]): “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.

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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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve only read the forum introduction (which is curiously unsigned), so I will have to get to Ross’ essay in due course. But based only on what is said here and what you say here, Andrew, I’m skeptical that the narratives of American exceptionalism and modernity are antithetical as Ross claims. I’d think they would overlap in some spots and in others be opposed.

    “But, as Ross shows, it [American exceptionalism] is also extremely important to understanding U.S. intellectual historiography.”

    Isn’t it important, sooner or later, to understanding all American historiography? I don’t know anything about historians since the ’60s turning away from it (not my thing), but I suspect that if you probe deeply enough, it will eventually turn up. Obviously it’s not dead politically. But is it really that dead historically?

  2. Varad: You’re right that American exceptionalism has never gone away, either politically or historiographically, and that modernity and American exceptionalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they only tend to be so. Ross deals with all of these complexities in ways that my short blog post could not–or, rather, in ways that I simply did not have time for this morning. For example, she addresses the somewhat ironic fact that Marxist historians kept the concept of American exceptionalism alive in the historiography in the 60s and 70s because they argued that the United States was that much more capitalistic than the other spots of modernity.

    An aside: Ross also describes the intense debate that resulted from Pocock’s republicanism revision of the national founding, which you discussed at length in the comments section of one of myprevious posts.

  3. I plan to go read Ross’s article, but I wonder if she mentions race in it? Some argue that the way race works in this country is exceptional. Others would say that modernity is built upon exploitation of people of color–the industrialization of Europe required raw materials from Africa and Asia. The economic growth of the United States and expansion of a middle class lifestyle required cheap products from China.

  4. Andrew: That all makes sense. The idea that historians in the ’60s turned away from American exceptionalism was news to me. I mean, I know the notion isn’t in favor nowadays and hasn’t been for some time, but that there was a reaction against it was something I didn’t know. But that simply is evidence of my general lack of familiarity with the contours of US intellectual history, both the subject and the historiography, after about 1815 or so. I look forward to reading what Ross has to say about Pocock.

    “Others would say that modernity is built upon exploitation of people of color–the industrialization of Europe required raw materials from Africa and Asia. The economic growth of the United States and expansion of a middle class lifestyle required cheap products from China.”

    Although it’s an error to conflate modernity and industrialization, a case can definitely be argued that there is a relationship between the latter and the exploitation of resources from outside Europe (though I’d argue against it being a strongly causal one.) On the other hand, the idea that US economic growth required cheap products from China makes little sense, as it fails to account for the first two centuries of American economic history. Cheap Chinese goods are a big deal now, surely. But the American economy became the world’s largest in the 1870s or thereabouts, and I’d venture they weren’t important then.

  5. Surely, the US was the world’s largest econmy by 1870 because of slavery? The exploitation of people of color?

  6. I mentioned industrialization because Andrew listed it as part of the definition of modernity. I wasn’t equating them.

  7. Yes, slavery, definitely. How big a factor it was the economic historians can argue; the answer seems to change regularly. I just found the Chinese goods claim fanciful.

    “I mentioned industrialization because Andrew listed it as part of the definition of modernity. I wasn’t equating them.”

    I didn’t mean to imply you were (or that you believed the Chinese goods thing). They’re usually thought of as a piece. That’s likely because that sort of structural definition of modernity is the most common one.

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