U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why I Chose Intellectual History

Why I Chose Intellectual History

by Robert Greene II

[Editor’s note:  the following is a guest post by Robert Greene II.  Robert is a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina. His  areas of study include memory, American political history, intellectual history, and the American South in the Twentieth Century.]

My name is Robert Greene II, and I’m working on a PhD in history at the University of South Carolina. My interests over the years have taken several twists and turns, which I know is par for the course for many historians. When I began my Master’s program at Georgia Southern University in 2008 (which seems like a lifetime ago now), I first identified myself as an historian of the Reconstruction era. After a semester which included a course on working class history, though, I found myself intrigued with the Populists. My introduction to this group of Americans, struggling to deal with America’s transition to an industrialized society, was eye opening. In particular I could not help but think about Americans in the present day, dealing with economic, cultural, and social upheavals.

Now I’m in no way comparing, say, the Tea Party to the Populists of the 1890s. But I will say that researching the secondary literature on the Populists strengthened an element of historical learning that had first awakened in me when I read W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction as an undergraduate. The writing of history often cannot be divorced from the moment in which a historian is writing. This is no shock to any historian in any level of higher education, but reading the different interpretations of Populists from Richard Hofstadter to Lawrence Goodwyn to Charles Postel (and many, many historians in between) encouraged me not only to think about how history is written, but to think about the intellectual climate in which these various historians were writing.

So now I find myself looking more and more at recent American history, picking up with the various crises of the 1960s and stretching to the 1990s. Specifically, I want to look at the use of memory of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements by the American Right and Left in the decades after the Sixties ended to understand how American politics have been shaped by disparate views in a post-Martin Luther King, Jr. era. Of course with a topic like this, I’ve had to read a great deal about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power era, the New Deal/Great Society liberal coalition, and the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s. What has intrigued me, however, is the impact intellectuals played in these debates, and the obligatory influence these debates had on intellectuals.

At around the time I began delving into memory and intellectual history of the late twentieth century, I also discovered the USIH blog. I honestly can’t remember how I first came across the blog: perhaps a friend of mine shared on Facebook a blog post, but regardless, I was enthralled by what I was reading. “A blog devoted to the history of ideas?” I thought to myself. “Fantastic!” The history of intellectual argument, ferment, and discussion in America has become important to my own research, especially in understanding the rise of “color-blindness” on the American Right. Recent books such as William Hustwit’s James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation[1] is but one example of understanding the role former segregationists such as Kilpatrick played in fomenting ideas about color-blindness for conservatives still reeling from associations with racist ideology in the Sixties. Of course, this analysis of the secondary literature on race and intellectual history since the Sixties includes Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything[2], a long needed study of how white Americans in the South dealt with the Civil Rights Movement (and has been reviewed on this website as well). Other books, such as Gavin Wright’s Sharing the Prize, also take fresh perspectives on both the Civil Rights Movement and white Southerners during that era.[3]

Intellectual history has become a part of my tool box as a historian. The posts here on USIH have played a major role in what I’ve come to read as a historian, up to my asking for reading lists from other USIH members several weeks ago to shape my summer reading. In sum, the blog has helped me grow as a historian and as a thinker. I’m happy to be part of the ride.

[1]   Hustwit, William P. James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2013)

[2]   Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. (New York: Random House, 2006)

[3]   Wright, Gavin. Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013)

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the kind words. I just wanted to make sure I gave but one example of someone just becoming interested in intellectual history, and why I’d do so.

  2. Perfect post for Memorial Day.

    And don’t forget: no American history is complete, ever, if it omits the word “corporation.”

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