U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Brief Reflections on Intellectual History and Memoir

Today’s post will be a bit of a detour from the series of posts I’ve written so far on Black intellectual history in the late 1960s. Instead I’d like to think about ideas of intellectual history and how memoir can influence those ideas. Such thoughts have been sparked by recent books that speak to a unique moment in African American, and indeed American, historiography.

Jonathan Holloway’s newest book, Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940 is primarily about the creation of memory of racism and segregation for Black Americans from World War II until the present. His chapters detail problems that African Americans essentially tried to “forget”, or at least not talk about. Those problems include humiliation (especially when it came to traveling in the South and being careful of where one stopped) and the experience of Black scholars in the academy. That latter section, of course, caught my eye, and what Holloway has done is re-examine Black American media and intellectual history since the 1940s through the lens of memory.

This post isn’t intended as a review. Instead, I hope to provoke some thought about the ways in which we can write intellectual history while also speaking to a broader audience. Professor Holloway is an interesting case study here. His first book, Confronting the Veil would be more of a “traditional” intellectual history. In Confronting the Veil Holloway examines the research and writings of Abram Harris, E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche from the 1920s through 1941. While a well-done, and much needed, work of intellectual history, Confronting the Veil asks different questions from those posed by Holloway in Jim Crow Wisdom.

It occurs to me that, in thinking about memoir and intellectual history, the culture wars that prove to be a recurring topic on this blog offer themselves as a unique opportunity to examine memoir, memory, and intellectual history. The culture wars are a relatively recent phenomenon, and most historians writing about the era lived through them as either graduate students or junior faculty members. And, in thinking about the culture wars, it’s interesting to think about the personal stakes for so many on either side of the debates. For academics and intellectuals on the left or liberal side of the spectrum in the culture wars, part of the animating spirit behind those clashes was the sense of holding on to newly gained power within the academy. This power was visible in Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and other programs and departments that showed new ways of thinking about groups and individuals often ignored in the humanities. For people on the other side of the debate, however, a feeling of losing connections with the past (whether through the loss of a common narrative in American history, or having to make more room on the “Great Books” lists that once dominated literature departments) could have just as much an animating fact as the newfound academic liberation for others in the culture wars.

This isn’t to suggest that all intellectual historians should embrace memoir in the writing and construction of intellectual history, especially of the intellectual history of the last forty years. And, as a younger scholar still finding his way in the academy, I definitely won’t explore memoir any time soon, until I feel comfortable (or rather, comfortable enough, as very few people in the academy ever feel “comfortable”) with my own skills as a writer and constructor of historical narratives. Nonetheless, I always feel a pull towards thinking about the 1980s and early 1990s in a different light besides as a historian. After all, I was born in 1986 and I only have the vaguest of memories about the Persian Gulf War or the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Those two events have, in many ways, shaped the modern era more than anyone has admitted. And I hope to examine the 1992 riots with the detachment of an academic, but with the realization that many potential readers of my work will have their own memories of that event.

Memoir can be a tool in the historian’s academic work shed, but it has to be used with great care. Holloway’s book achieves that balance. And since I’ve dived into the field of intellectual history relatively recently, I’d like to hear about other books that use some personal memoir as part of their framework for reconstructing the intellectual atmosphere of an era. Regardless, Holloway’s work (not to mention the work of so many other intellectual history scholars) is a showcase for the versatility of the intellectual history genre.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s _After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present_ is a wonderful book that uses personal examples not only to explore German history, but also to reflect on world-historical transformations in and outside the academy during the second half of the twentieth century. Though experimental in ways that would likely be unacceptable to many, what Gumbrecht achieves is remarkable and unique. In _After 1945_, for example, he reconstructs the atmosphere of postwar Germany by focusing on a range of intellectual and cultural texts, each of which, he argues, registered a fundamental change in our (and his-hence the memoir part) sense of time. By exploring these texts and their non-linear views of time, Gumbrecht traces a history of what he believes has been his and his generation’s failure to either achieve a future different than the present or to leave the past behind. As a young scholar (hopefully) beginning my career, reading _After 1945_ is not simply an opportunity to peak inside the life and mind of one of my favorite writers. Reading _After 1945_ is also a chance to understand the mentality, the disposition of the group of academics (of which Gumbrecht is but one example) who deeply shaped and were in turn shaped by “theory” during the late twentieth-century.

  2. Ah, very fascinating! I’ve never heard of that work, until now. It makes sense to look at post-war Germany in this method. After all, German humanities scholars and social scientists who came of age after the war were shaped by that conflict in a variety of ways.

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