U.S. Intellectual History Blog

George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement and Communities of Discourse

When I picked up a copy of George H. Nash’s indispensable history of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 at the local used book store, I got more than I bargained for.

Sure, I got a pretty good deal on the book itself:  I paid $9.99 for a near-perfect hardback copy of the 1996 edition.  The pages are tight and clean, there is almost no shelf-wear, and the dust jacket is just ever so slightly bumped at the corners.  It’s a really nice copy.  This is because I haven’t started reading it yet.  I am a tough, tactile reader of the books I own:  I double-dog-ear pages, and I write rapid-fire marginalia like nobody’s business.  By the time I am done with George Nash, this book will look like cannon fodder — or, I suppose, canon fodder, as I bring Nash’s text into conversation with the other books on my reading list. 

What I didn’t bargain for when I bought Nash’s text was the window that this particular copy of the book would give me into a different kind of conversation taking place within and across distinct communities of discourse — to borrow and use David Hollinger’s apt and helpful mode of analysis.  I need to understand the relationship between the ideas Nash discusses and the way that Nash discusses them in the context of these overlapping discourse communities.  Thankfully, Dr. Nash himself was available to offer some insight via email, which I am glad to share with our readers.

Tucked inside the front cover of the copy that I purchased is what appears to be a hand-written note, along with a business card from Brent Tantillo, (erstwhile) Program Director for The Collegiate Network of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (founded, as our readers know, by William F. Buckley, about whom I have written here).  The ISI published the 1996 edition of Nash’s text.*

The note is written on 3.5″ x 4.5″ pre-printed cardstock.  At the top of the card is the ISI logo and name.  At the bottom is a pre-printed generic message — “This might interest you” — over Tantillo’s name.  The card, it seems, was designed to be inserted in complimentary copies of books.  Sure enough, in the blank space between the ISI logo and the pre-printed signature, Tantillo wrote, “Here is a book that I thought you would enjoy. Merry Christmas! Brent.”

The fact that there’s no addressee on the card leads me to believe that the diligent Mr. Tantillo probably hand wrote stacks of these cards to be inserted into ISI publications sent out as Christmas gifts.  But how many stacks of cards?  Which publications, besides this one? Which Christmas?  I don’t know, and I haven’t yet tried to find out.  I do know that Brent Tantillo is no longer with the ISI — per this profile page, he left that institution to co-found The Democracy Project, to which Wilfred M. McClay is also a contributor.  A simple email to Mr. Tantillo might answer many of my questions, and I may yet send such a message.  So far, everyone to whom I have written regarding my research has been more than happy to assist me, and I doubt Tantillo would react any differently.

However, what I really wanted to know was what George Nash might think about the relationship between his scholarship and the ISI’s mission.

So I asked him.

My colleague Andrew Hartman was kind enough to introduce me to Nash via email, and Dr. Nash very graciously agreed to answer my questions.

Here’s what I asked:

I’m working on a piece for the USIH blog about how books — the real, physical objects — occupy a unique place in the study of intellectual history, because they simultaneously testify to the history of ideas, the social/cultural history of intellectuals, the material conditions of intellectual discourse, and the shifting boundaries of various discourse communities.

The occasion for my post is a felicitous find I made at the local Half Price Books store:  a hardback copy of The Conservative Intellectual Movement (1996 reprint by ISI).  Inside the book was a business card and a hand-written note from an ISI staffer indicating that this particular copy of the book had been sent out as a Christmas gift.  

So I’m interested in thinking about the material history of your crucially important and influential text (which of course is on my exam reading list for US intellectual and cultural history), and the ways that this publishing/circulation history is part of the intellectual history of the very movement whose developments you trace.  

Specifically, here are some things I’m wondering about:  

-your choice to reissue the book with ISI rather than with an academic press.  This is an unconventional move, it seems, and I’d like to understand what kinds of factors you weighed in making that decision.  In what ways was this decision aimed at finding a wider audience, and in what ways was it aimed at finding a different audience?  Did the choice of this press as opposed to a university press or academic publisher come under criticism from the academy?  Should it have?

-the fact that your book was distributed by ISI not just as a significant work of history but (presumably) as a text that would further the mission/goals of ISI.  I am guessing that your decision to publish with them was taken in large part out of agreement with the basic aims of the organization.  In this sense your scholarship is formally and explicitly a part of the story that your scholarship tells.  This strikes me as an interesting dynamic, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

-your thoughts more generally on critically engaged history.  If you happen to follow the conversations on the USIH blog, you may have seen much recent discussion about the place of irony in history, the moral commitment of historians, etc.  Is publishing with ISI sufficiently indicative of your larger “moral commitment,” and do you see that as promising or problematic or really irrelevant to the larger project of your scholarship? 

Here is George Nash’s very helpful and informative reply, which he has granted me permission to share with our readers:

Regarding the publishing history of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945: as you know, Basic Books published it in hard cover in 1976 and in paperback in 1979. Basic Books kept the volume in print until 1988 or so, when I was informed that the book was no longer selling enough to justify its continuance in print.  I think the publisher and I thought that twelve years was a pretty respectable run.  In any case, in 1988 Basic Books let the book go out of print, and publishing rights (except for Spanish translation) reverted to me. 

In the next few years I gave some thought to reissuing the book with a new publisher, but I was quite busy with my multivolume biography of Herbert Hoover and did not pursue the matter too actively.

Then, in 1994 (as I remember), I was approached by a representative  of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).  He explained that ISI was establishing a book publishing division and would be honored to reprint my book as its first (or one of its first) offerings. I was already familiar with ISI, of course, since I had written about it in my book and had lectured a few times to academically oriented audiences under its auspices. 

The more I thought about this proposed publishing arrangement, the more fitting it seemed. First, ISI (founded in the 1950s) was an organization of long standing whose tone and clientele were broadly academic. As a prospective book publisher, it resembled my first publisher, Basic Books, in seeking to disseminate serious books aimed not only at a tiny coterie of specialists but at what my first editor at Basic Books called “the intellectually oriented general reader.” (In ISI’s case, these would mostly be college students.) Second, by the mid-1990s ISI had an expanding national network of thousands of affiliated professors, graduate students, and undergraduates.  It seemed to me that these were precisely the sort of people most likely, in the first instance, to read a new and updated edition of the book, nearly twenty years after its initial publication.  That is, the principal new readership of the book would probably be a rising generation of politically aware and intellectually curious college and graduate students of the kind ISI reached out to in its programs every year.  I suspected that ISI would produce a volume accessible to this emerging demographic (unlike many university presses that might be content to print just a small number of copies at a price well beyond the reach of most undergraduates or college course adoption.) 

I think my judgment proved to be correct.  In 1996 ISI Books published an attractive, reasonably priced, hardcover, new edition with updated material that I wrote for it.  In 1998 the paperback edition appeared.  In 2006 ISI Books published an updated “30th anniversary edition” in paperback.  During these years a growing number of politically minded students (and not just those who self-identified as conservative) discovered the book and found it pertinent to their interests. The book found its way onto reading lists for graduate and undergraduate study in the areas of American political and intellectual history and the rapidly developing field of “conservative studies.”  Major political phenomena of recent times ( the “Reagan Revolution,” the Tea Party, etc.) obviously have had much to do with the book’s continuing relevance and circulation. During this period the book has also appealed to a number of people (Left and Right) in the journalistic/commentary community, as E. J. Dionne, among others, has publicly attested.  I am not aware of any criticism in the academy of my decision to permit ISI to republish the book. 

ISI, as you probably know, has now been existence for sixty years.  Its motto is “To Educate for Liberty,” and it conceives its mission as educational and intellectual in nature.  In addition to conducting an energetic program of academic and “public intellectual”–type book publishing (in association, I believe, with the University of Chicago Press), it publishes intellectually focused periodicals (notably Modern Age  and the Intercollegiate Review), awards fellowships to graduate students, facilitates undergraduate study clubs and summer institutes focused on the Great Books and themes of western civilization (among other subjects), and sponsors numerous public lectures a year by its affiliated scholars. It has been called an “alternative university,” bringing to campuses ideas and perspectives that it finds too often underrepresented in American academic discourse.  I believe that approximately 60,000 to 80,000 faculty and students are in its network at present.

My own association with ISI consists of my being on its mailing list, writing occasionally for its journals, serving on the editorial advisory board for Modern Age, lecturing from time to time under ISI’s auspices (most recently to an undergraduate political philosophy study group at the University of Wisconsin), and publishing two volumes with ISI Books.  My name also appears in the new online ISI Speakers Bureau, which was announced a week or so ago. Here are two links to this:




As you will see, ISI’s affiliated academic lecturers include, besides myself, a number of persons probably familiar to the USIH blog, such as the historians Wilfred McClay and Brian Domitrovic.

Since it might be of interest to you, I also enclose a link to an interview I did for an ISI website a couple of years ago: 


As you can infer from the above, I think well of ISI and have been pleased to contribute, when invited, to its educational programs (time permitting).  This has bought me into acquaintance with a number of studious and impressive undergraduates and graduate students throughout the United States–mostly (but not exclusively) conservatives eager to explore their intellectual roots and civilizational heritage in a rigorous way.  As an independent scholar or (as I sometimes put it) an academic without portfolio, I have always been free to say what I want at ISI forums. I am not an ISI employee and in fact lecture widely at non-ISI gatherings as well (such as academic conferences).  I do not know where all this may rank in the scale of “moral commitment,” but as a historian of American conservatism (and other subjects) I have always aspired to write works that can be read with profit by people across the ideological spectrum, regardless of their opinion of the subject. In academia I am known as a conservative intellectual, and I willingly accept the designation. But this has not precluded my striving for fairness, balance, and objectivity in my professional work, both written and oral.  This has been part of my moral commitment as a historian. 

I am grateful for this thoughtful and thorough reply, and glad to share it with our readers.  The reply highlights some intersections and interconnections between distinct but overlapping communities of discourse — critical scholarly inquiry and conservative cultural advocacy — to which I will do well to pay attention as an American intellectual and cultural historian.  Further, it gives me a most welcome insight into the ethos of a particular, and particularly important, historian of this era in American intellectual history.  Finally, it serves to confirm my sense of the basic generosity and collegiality of the historical profession and of the academy more generally.

Without exception, all those to whom I have written in connection with my work, from the most junior scholars to the most eminent historians in the field, have been unfailingly gracious and generous in answering my questions and providing suggestions for further research.  In this sense, George Nash’s specific response to my particular inquiry is broadly, hearteningly typical.  His answer not only says a great deal about his own sense of his subject matter and his own ethos as a historian; it also exemplifies the ethos of the academy as a hospitable home to scholars from distinct yet overlapping communities of discourse.  As communities of discourse go, the field of U.S. intellectual history suits me just fine; I like where I have landed.  And the intellectual generosity of scholars like George Nash in answering the pointed questions of this inquisitive grad student serves as yet another reminder of why I  think I am in such good company.

And just think:  all this insight has come my way before I have so much as turned to the first page of Nash’s crucially important book.  There’s no telling where that text itself will take me — but I’ll no doubt be able to retrace my steps, one margin-note and double-dog-eared page at a time.

*In a follow-up email, Dr. Nash offered this helpful advice: “The 2006 edition, which I mentioned in my response, contains several new features: a new Preface, a new Conclusion, and a new Bibliographical Postscript.  Also, for the first time in the history of this book, its footnotes are placed at the bottom of the page–a feature I heartily approve. So you may want to take a look at the later edition at some point.”  Sold! The footnotes alone would be enough to convince me.  

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a very interesting post. These are questions I always wanted to see asked of Nash, so I appreciate you taking the time to do so and I appreciate Dr. Nash taking the time to reply.

    Also, and only because it seems relevant, I wanted to link a review I wrote of Nash’s collected works awhile back. In the review I try to think about Nash’s relationship to the academy and to the conservative movement:


    Jason Stahl

  2. Great post. I think that to people of my generation and discipline (philosophy) who have probably done more research from sources in Internet archives than from sources in physical ones, the fact that ideas and arguments don’t just leap from skull to skull across the world but are actually somehow embodied at their points of transmission is often overlooked. Finding evidence of something’s place in a distribution network, even if it’s long since left it, can be jarring if you’re as used to online research as I am, and seeing this kind of follow-up get as thorough a response is extremely heartening.

  3. In his essay remembering Eugene Genovese, Leo Ribuffo concludes that “Gene’s enormous contribution to the study of American history… was enriched rather than marred by his extracurricular ideological combat.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I think the same can be said for the also recently deceased Eric Hobsbawm. The historical profession would be better if more historians fell outside the ideological mainstream. I think the same thing applies with Nash, even though he is the furthest thing from an ideological firebrand. That Nash is conservative no doubt led him to his important topic sooner than anyone else. And it also no doubt had something to do with ISU re-publishing his book, which is an important point in the life of the book, as LD and Nash both point out in this fantastic post. In short, we’re all the better for Nash being a conservative and a historian. (Let’s persuade LD to make a series out of such interview-driven posts–fantastic stuff.)

    • And in no way do I imply Nash is outside the ideological mainstream of America, far from it. Rather, he falls outside the ideological mainstream of the historical discipline.

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