U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Three Most Important U.S. Intellectual Historians?

Franz Fillafer, a research fellow at Leibniz-Forschungsstelle in Germany, is currently preparing an anthology of intellectual history for a prestigious German publisher, C.H. Beck. As Fillafer writes:

“The book is conceived as a reader which introduces about thirty intellectual historians from the 20th century with three to six-pages extracts from their work and brief essays placing them in their intellectual milieus and putting their styles of enquiry into context. Unlike other anthologies our collection will not present the much-rehearsed and reprinted pia desideria on method from Skinner to Pocock (although both will figure in this book), but it rather aims to present texts which permit the reader to follow the selected historians in applying their methods to the sources, to grasp what these methods mean ‘in practice.’”

Dr. Fillafer is looking for a contributor willing to introduce three twentieth-century American intellectual historians for his collection. He thinks that some of the following might be included: Richard Hofstadter, Perry Miller, Henry May, perhaps Louis Hartz. If you are interested, please contact Fillafer: franzfillafer (at) gmail.com

In the meantime, I think it will be fun to use this space to ponder which three U.S. intellectual historians should be included in such a collection. We might also consider which of their texts should be extracted for the anthology. Have at it!

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What about Vernon Parrington? I understand that his Progressive vision of historical movement is frowned upon today, but it seems like he blazed a trail which was later followed by Miller and Hofstadter. Also an intellectual history winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 was no small achievement given questions about whether it was possible to write an “objective” intellectual history.

    Arthur O. Lovejoy also deserves some consideration for founding the Journal of the History of Ideas and outlining an epistemology for the history of ideas.

    • Hah! Great minds think alike! I started writing my comment below before your comment went up.

  2. I need to think about this some more, but I was struck by the fact that all the names on Fillafer’s list wrote during the second half of the twentieth century. Surely one of the three should have written in the first half of the last century. The person who immediately comes to mind is Vernon Parrington.

    • I think Fillafer is looking for three intellectual historians _of_ the United States rather than three intellectual historians _from_ the United States.

      • I wondered what he was thinking. But then Arthur Lovejoy kept showing in this discussion. If we strike off every word Lovejoy wrote (or edited) about non US intellectuals would he still rank?

  3. What strikes me about this question is how easy it was to answer. Once I saw Hofstadter, May, and Miller, I really couldn’t put anyone else in their place. Why is that? Are there really just not that many truly great intellectual historians? Are we constrained by a sense of who is and isn’t an intellectual historian?

    • Oh, I didn’t realize we were supposed to suggest alternatives. I thought we were adding to the list. But if we’re just looking for a triumvirate, that one will do.

  4. Miller, Hofstadter and May continue to be read today. Some of the big names of an earlier era, like Merle Curti, Ralph Henry Gabriel, Henry Steele Commager, and even John Higham don’t get read. Others a little more recent, like David Brion Davis, are associated with particular areas of study (in this case, slavery). There are few historians writing in the last third of the century who had the large synthetic claims and approach that would render them equivalent to figures like Hofstadter. Perhaps James Kloppenberg or Jackson Lears might qualify, but neither seems equivalent to the mid-century figures. It’s interesting that the idea of what constitutes a “great” intellectual historian is wedded to a period (the mid-century) in which a certain style of intellectual history was in the ascendency.

  5. I’m not sure how you leave Beard or maybe Becker off this list. They had huge influences on Hofstadter, Stampp and the revisionists.

    • This might be where definition becomes a problem. I thought of Beard, too, but is he properly identified as an “intellectual” historian? I think so, but then who isn’t an intellectual historian?

  6. Mark, I’m with LD when it comes to utilizing the reply button so I’ll respond from here.
    My definition of “intellectual historian” is probably fairly pedestrian but I would say one who studies the history of an idea or ideas as they arise and develop and how they are manifested in the culture of a society. I would also add that contributions to historiography is a critical element of the discipline. The “That Noble Dream” essay by Beard would be one example.
    I know your question was related to examples but I took that rhetorically and that a definition, such as it is, would be a more helpful response.

  7. Du Bois?

    Aside from social darwinism and paradigm shift, it’s difficult to think of an intellectual category that has been more influential than “double consciousness.”

    • I think DuBois is one of the 3 most influential US historians of the 20th century. “Black Reconstruction in America” is simply amazing–and still reads so well. DuBois is also one of the most important intellectuals writ large. But even with him occupying both these categories–historian and intellectual–I’m not sure that I would label him an intellectual historian.

  8. Thanks a lot for the vivid discussion! I’d be be perfectly happy to receive nominations for a counter-triumvirate to Miller/Hofstadter/May, which, as many postings suggest, requires a definition of what intellectual history is. To give you an example: The French authors for our anthology include Lucien Febvre and Jean Starobinski, the latter a historian of philology, literature and the humanities in the broadest sense, the former a historian of ‘mentalities’. From this perspective DuBois and Vernon Parrington would certainly qualify for the list. Of course there are so many more to be included, but regrettably restrictions of space force me to pick but three authors for our anthology! Many thanks for the lively exchange!

  9. Richard Hofstadter is at or near the top among American historians but not among American intellectual historians. Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black and HarryJaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided are examples of really influential intellectual histories but their authors do not consistently write as intellectual historians. Overall, I’d name David Brion Davis, who has done sustained intellectual history along the way toward defining the centrality of slavery in our culture/tradition; Vernon Parrington, who has showed how to use literary texts as sources of intellectual traditions; and,third,..I can’t think of a third figure.

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