U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reception History: Lists, Lists, Lists!

I recently read Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s brilliantly argued, exquisitely written, long awaited book, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. Since I’m reviewing it elsewhere, and since Tim plans to give it the “Lacy treatment” here at the blog, I won’t go into much detail about the book, other than to say it should be required reading for all intellectual historians. Instead, I would like to use this space to ask you, dear reader, to help me generate a list of reception histories. I’m interested in such a list for at least four reasons:

1) I find reception history fascinating, for reasons Ratner-Rosenhagen makes clear when she “seeks to demonstrate that reception history can be more ambitious than simply enumerating the varieties of uses of a thinker or a body of thought in a new national context.” For example, she instead “argues that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself.” In other words, her book “is not a history of American ‘Nietzscheans.’ It is a history of American readers making their way to their views of themselves and their modern America by thinking through, against, and around Nietzsche’s stark challenges.” Lovely.

2) Moreover, such a list might help me put American Nietzsche in a properly broad historiographical context.

3) I’m considering teaching a graduate seminar on the topic of reception history.

4) I’m also considering whether or not my next book—after the culture wars book is written, by the end of this year, hopefully—should be a reception history of “Marx in America.”

So please list books that you know about, and also list projects in the works (for example, I’ve heard that Drew Maciag has a book coming out on “Burke in America”). And for God’s sake let me know if someone is writing or has written “Marx in America”!

I’ll get the list started. I’ve read some of these. Others I’m merely aware of. Some I cribbed from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s endnotes. Not all of them are explicitly Transatlantic. Reception history obviously flows in many directions, plays out in many contexts. These are in no particular order:

François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (which I blogged about here.)

Martin Woessner, Heidegger in America

George Cotkin, Existential America

Lawrence A. Scaff, Max Weber in America

James Ceasar, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought

Richard Wrightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

Steven Biel, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting


23 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What I want (to write, someday unless someone gets there first) is a reception history of Du Bois’s writings–social science, novels, and journalism.

    Terrible Honesty by Ann Douglas includes reception history of Freud.

  2. There’s a whole (newish) field called classical reception. As you can guess, it is about the reception of the classics in post-classical culture. This can range from things like “Rome in early America” to “Achilles in western culture” with lots in between. Instead of providing a bunch of tittles, I’ve pasted the link to the first page of Google Books search results for “classical reception.”


  3. Would Merrill Peterson’s books about Jefferson and Lincoln in American culture count as reception histories?

  4. [b]Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis[/b] by Mary Jo Buhle might count as a reception history, although I’m not sure if Buhle intended to write it as such. It’s mostly about how US women’s movements reacted to Freudian psychoanalysis in the 20th century. It’s very good, imo.

    Looking up “Freud in America” on Amazon, it seems like there quite a few books about Freud’s reception/legacy in the US, including a forthcoming collection of essays, “After Freud Left: A Century of Psychoanalysis in America” edited by John C Burnham, which appears to be compiled as a reception/intellectual/cultural history kind of deal.

    Hope this helps. I’ll try to find some more examples. Gotta run to school now, though!

  5. There’s a great book to be written on Churchill in America. And someone ought to do Tocqueville…perhaps someone already has?

    Some other people and movements that could benefit from the reception-in-America treatment (some more significant than others, but all interesting and important enough to warrant a monograph): Hegel, Kant, Locke, Shakespeare (Lawrence Levine covered some of this), Hayek (and the Austrian School more generally), Keynes, Adam Smith, Darwin, “Eastern Philosophy” (Confuscianism, Buddhism, Theosophy, etc…since it has, in its reception tended to get lumped together), the French Revolution, Thomas Aquinas (and scholasticism more generally), Zionism (the actual political movement, not the popularly used colloquial pejorative).

  6. Ben, what do you think about adding Comte to your list? Comte came up unbidden in class today (I had thought about talking about Jane Addams’ understanding of positivism, but decided to stick to her social gospelism instead, but then a student brought up Comte anyway).

  7. Lauren: in fact, I almost put down Comte! He certainly belongs. Blame my 20C bias, as he’s obviously much more important in the 19C (at least in the US).

  8. To all: My plans for the “Lacy treatment” are not meant to be exclusive of other reviews. Indeed, I’d be willing to subsume my review in a USIH round table. Write if you’re interested in the latter (timothy.n.lacy-at-gmail.com). – TL

  9. Good idea re a book about Churchill in America (if not already done). Btw I noticed that GWU is opening a Churchill Center (or should that be Centre?). Piece in WaPo about it a week or two ago.

  10. This is a tall order! Are you talking about the reception of particular works or thinkers? Or the broader behaviors constituting “reception,” such as reading, listening, or viewing? Literary historians have much to offer in both areas (from, say, Robert Darnton’s “Readers Respond to Rousseau” and Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes to more recent studies like Thomas Augst’s The Clerk’s Tale or Judith Pascoe’s The Sarah Siddons Audio Files). There are also a number of works on reception history in art history, media studies, musicology, and theater studies. I sum up the growing field of reception in the Introduction to Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, if that might be of any help. You might also check out the Reception Study Society; their recent conference had some great papers–I don’t remember anything on Marx, so you are safe, there, I think.

  11. What the heck! I have managed to make it this far in my graduate career without ever being asked to think about Comte, and now twice in one day his name flits across my radar screen.

    So, yes, someone please write a reception history about Comte.

    In the meantime, here’s a snippet from what I am reading today, “Women and Philosophy” by Michele Le Doeuff (in French Feminist Thought: A Reader, edited by Toril Moi, 1987):

    ….The other position which we have equally good reasons to avoid adopting is dominated by a feminism of difference which is apparently unaware of how much it owes to Auguste Comte. Some women say: ‘We have been forbidden access to the philosophic realm; rightly understood, this is something positive, and we do not demand any such access; this discourse is riddled with masculine values, and women should not be concerned with it; they must seek their specificity, their own discourse, instead of wanting to share masculine privileges.’ We need not always and completely reject a feminism of difference. But when we can see in it the echo of a philosophy, namely Comte’s positivism, of the discourse on women produced by a masculine philosophy, we must recognize that this kind of feminism may do the opposite of what it claims, that it may be misled by schemas produced by the very structures against which it is protesting….

  12. Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi by Sudarshan Kapur

    The Oriental Religions and American Thought and Vedanta for the West by Carl T. Jackson

    Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India by Nico Slate

  13. Cynthia Eagle Rusett, Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response (I think this is out of print, but I actually prefer it to Degler’s book. Honestly, I don’t remember why anymore–I read it in grad school. The point is only that the fact that it’s out of print should not be taken to mean that it isn’t any good.)

    Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought

    Literature and media people have been doing reception studies for a long time. Though their methods and goals are different than those of intellectual historians, their work might be of some value in conceptualizing your project. I don’t read a lot of this stuff, but two that come off the top of my head are:

    Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire

    Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture

  14. This was one of the first things that really stood out to me when I was looking into the reception of marx. I don’t know if this is too obvious or cannon or anything, but it seems really prescient.


    A chapter from Ernest Mandel on the reception of Marx in history. It’s the last chapter from “The Place of Marxism in History.” I remember hearing some good things about it, but I haven’t really gotten around to reading all of it yet. Might have to read the rest of it this week. I love marxists.org. Good luck with this project!

  15. Rodden, J. The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of “St. George” Orwell (Oxford, 1989)

  16. If you don’t exclude Europeans….

    H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society

    Jardine and Grafton, “Studied for Action: How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy” Past and Present Volume 129, p.3-51 (1990)

    or, recently,
    Greenblatt, The Swerve

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