U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading Summaries: A Sample

As our regular readers know, I am making my way through my reading list in U.S. intellectual and cultural history.  Part of this process involves writing a precis/reading summary for each text.

These summaries are not designed for public consumption, and generally not fit for it either.  They’re not bad; they’re just idiosyncratic, composed entirely for my own use.

My process is to write a summary, without notes, as soon as I have finished a book.  If I have time, I go back later and make a list of the pages I’ve dog-eared and draped with marginalia, with a little note about what I found on each page.  But I don’t do a lot of note-taking while reading.  This process might not work for everyone.  Hell, it might not work for me — I’ll find out when I take my exams this fall.

In the meantime, on the off chance that it might be helpful to someone preparing for exams to see an example of how one might approach the task of working through the readings on a list, I thought I’d share a few examples.  Below are the reading summaries I wrote this past summer for Caroline Winterer’s studies on the history of classicism in America.  I hope they can be of use to someone, and I hope no one will take them to represent my finished or final word on anything.  They’re process writing, and I am very much in the middle of the process.


Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

This book looks at the history of classicism in America during the period — mostly the formal study of the classics, but also the wider cultural uses of classical languages and tropes.  

During the period in question Winterer traces a shift from a privileging of Rome to a preference for Greece, and from classical education as a prerequisite for a public or political career to classical education as a means of private self-improvement and a marker of elite status.  Classical studies became increasingly marginalized in the university, but classicists found a way to preserve the viability of their discipline as the beginning of a broader study of “civilizations” and as a cornerstone of “the humanities,” set over against modernist scientism.

In her introduction, Winterer lays out the book’s main “argument,” and then proceeds to describe the book’s narrative arc.  This puzzled me at first — that the book’s “argument” doesn’t consist of a central claim with supporting points, but an unfolding chronology.  How can story be an argument?  However, this seems to me to be an illustration of Mink’s distinction between the “detachable” conclusions of science and the “ingredient” conclusions of history:  “The significant conclusions, one might say, are ingredient in the argument itself, not merely in the sense that they are scattered through the text but in the sense that they are represented by the narrative order itself.  As ingredient conclusions they are exhibited rather than demonstrated” (Mink 39).

In the course of her narrative, Winterer exhibits the importance and then the relative obsolescence of the classics in American life.  They were central to formal education because the aim of the first American universities was to train learned ministers.  Further, the study of the classical languages themselves — grammar and pronunciation — was viewed as an important part of character formation, and a source of virtue.  The shift from “words to worlds,” from philology to literature, began in earnest during the Jacksonian era, when the usefulness of arcane languages was called into question.  As the university became a more open and inclusive institution — more middle and working-class students, more women, more blacks — classical studies became a marker of the intellectual elite.  Women gained access to the classical language in significant numbers just as classicism was waning as a way of thinking about society.


Winterer, Caroline. The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

In this follow-up to her earlier study, Winterer focuses on the place of classicism in the lives of American women.  The unity or contiguity of this narrative depends, I think, on familiarity with the earlier work.  Without having read Winterer’s first book, I might have found this volume arbitrary and insular.

Winterer begins by describing the place of classicism in the lives of well-educated (for their time) upper-class women of the pre-Revolutionary era.  Classical motifs and a smattering of classical knowledge — not of original languages but of history and literature — were a way to ornament one’s conversation or one’s home, a way to participate at a superficial level in a social discourse with men.

During the Revolutionary era, women appealed to the ideal of the Roman matron to characterize themselves as guardians of republican virtue who played a key role in shaping the character of America’s youth — specifically, America’s sons — and thus the future of the country.

In her chapter on the early Republic, Winterer traces the way women appropriated or understood three key motifs or myths:  the women of Sparta, Roman charity/the Grecian daughter, and the contrast between Minerva and Venus.  I had never heard of Roman charity; now I am scarred for life.  However, the myth, and its ready adoption by women (or by men talking about women?) says a lot about what women were expected to do and to be:  completely self-abnegating in the service of patriarchy.

Winterer’s chapter on Grecian luxury discusses the importation of “classical,” and specifically Grecian/”oriental” motifs into fashion and decorating.  Grecian dresses (white, flowing fabric, no corset, empire waist) were meant to make women look columnar; klismos chairs and sofas were meant to accentuate women’s life of leisure and repose.  The whole section on the sofa as a symbol of status and decadence is amazing, simply for historicizing what is surely by now a ubiquitous and completely unremarkable object.

At the same time that classical knowledge was being criticized as being irrelevant and elite, classicism was going mainstream for women (and the democracy in general) with the rise of museums and cultural venues that put access to the classical past within the reach of more people.  In “female academies,” women’s seminaries, and colleges, more and more women began to learn classical languages.  Winterer does not say if this increased access of women to the classics “caused” their decline in prestige or was a consequence of it.*  But she does point out repeatedly throughout the book the irony that women gained full participation in the tradition of classical learning when classical learning was no longer central to American public and political life.In her chapter on the Greek slave, Winterer discusses how classicism informed polemics about the place of women in society, and the nobility (or lack thereof) of female slaves seeking freedom.  In the last chapter, on Antigone, Winterer talks about how the play offered a vehicle to portray female heroism, but a heroism that was linked to gender essentialism in the 19th century.

*My thinking on contingency and the language of causality in the writing of history — like my thinking on pretty much everything else related to the discipline — is in process of development, and I would have written this (and much else!) differently were I writing it now.