U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Model Review Essays

A while back Andrew asked our readers to suggest some exemplary journal articles that model different approaches to intellectual history.  I have a similar request today, but for a different genre.

I would like some recommendations for exemplary review essays — both those that review single titles and those that review multiple titles.   I’m particularly interested in recommendations for review essays that model different structural solutions to the basic problem of melding “review” and “essay.”

Some review essays draw a rather sharp line — often visible in the typography of the text — between the author’s informed reflections on the subject at hand and his or her assessment of the book(s) in question.  Leo Ribuffo’s “God and Contemporary Politics” (JAH 79, No. 4, March 1993, pp. 1515-1533) provides a good example of this approach.  Other essays more deliberately blend an assessment of particular texts with the author’s consideration of broader questions.  Thomas Haskell’s “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality” (History and Theory 29, No. 2, May 1990, pp. 129-157) is a fine example of this approach.

In any case, I am tossing this inquiry out there for the intellectual history hive mind.   If you were compiling an anthology of model review essays in American cultural and intellectual history, what would you include?  What review essays do you assign to your students?  Which ones do you find yourself re-reading before you sit down to write one yourself?

I’ll compile the suggestions into a bibliography and publish it in a future post.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was pretty impressed Sean Wilentz’s essay “Who Lincoln Was,” published in the “New Republic” in 2009. (I can’t figure out how to imbed links in the comments section, so it is available at “http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/who-lincoln-was”.) Wilentz takes issue with a lot of contemporary scholarship on Lincoln, arguing that a) viewing him as a moral exemplar rather than the successful politician he was distorts our view of Lincoln, and of political possibilities more broadly. In advancing this thesis, he takes some potshots at writers who are not political historians drawing conclusions based on their misunderstanding of the demands of politics itself. The essay isn’t necessarily one that I agree or disagree with, but it does bring up a lot of important issues, including the relationships between scholarship and contemporary politics, between a political and an idealist/activist vision of political effectiveness, and between different disciplinary claims on historical truth. Not incidentally, I also learned a lot about Lincoln. (I was taken enough with it to write a fairly lengthy essay of my own, on this very blog. It can be found at “http://s-usih.org/2009/12/history-and-interdisciplinarityin-new.html.”)

  2. Thanks Mike.

    Question (for you, or for readers in general): what do you see as the most significant stylistic differences between historians’ review essays for NYRB or TNR and the essays that appear in professional journals of the discipline?

    Also, I got an email from a reader who wanted the link to Andrew’s earlier post, mentioned above. I added a hyperlink in the first paragraph of this post, but will also put a link here:

    Best Essays in American Intellectual History

    You can use simple html commands to add links, italics, etc., in comments. For the benefit of those readers who don’t know how to do that, here’s an example:

    The code for my link to Andrew’s post above is typed as follows:

    <a href=”http://s-usih.org/2013/08/best-essays-in-american-intellectual-history.html” target=”blank”>Best Essays in American Intellectual History</a>

    The <a opens the HTML command

    href= is where you put the full URL of the link, in quotation marks

    target=”blank” opens the link in a new window, so that the reader doesn’t have to back-arrow to get back to the current page

    bracket off that code with the > symbol, then type out the name of the link as you want it to appear in the text

    after you name the link, close off the whole HTML command with the </a> tag, and the link should work.

  3. A book review that I especially like is Guy Davenport’s “Charles Ives.” I first read it in Davenport’s collected essays The Geography of the Imagination . And maybe because of this generic context (actually, no context given), I did not know it was a book review until paragraphs in. It was a surprise to me. I thought it was one of Davenport’s intellectually weaving essay on a topic. I remember thinking after finishing it that if I were to ever write a book review, I would try to use this as a model.

  4. I just realized one of my favorite essays would fit here: Peniel Joseph’s “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field” in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of American History. I hope the link comes up for you all:


    Now, in addressing Ms. Burnett’s question about the difference between review essays in an academic journal versus those for more popular consumption (in middlebrow magazines for instance), I think the big difference is that the essays in magazines may have more freedom to deal with contemporary political topics and their influence on historiography—although that certainly doesn’t mean you don’t find that in the academic journals.

  5. Thanks all for the suggestions — please keep them coming.

    Robert, I got a 404 error on your original link, so I took the liberty of replacing it — now the link goes to a .pdf of the article, available for download from Peniel Joseph’s website.

    I think you are probably correct on the distinction in style / approach between writing a review for a general audience and one aimed specifically at historians — there’s probably somewhat greater freedom in the former case to digress or dive into the present in a way that might not be the case in professional journals of record. Present historiography, sure — but present politics might be more tricky.

  6. I think the main difference between academic journals and general periodicals like NYRB is the reviews are frequently sharply critical or maybe flamboyantly critical. Academic journals are usually more reserved or respectful of their subject (James Livingston “fuck you’s” notwithstanding). NYRB has had many a battle over the years between an author and his/her harsh reviewer. Gordon Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s book about the Tea Party might be an example. Since NYRB is trying to throw a wider net an in your face review will probably attract more readers.

  7. I just read a great one right here. Anthony Grafton reviewed (in, again, the New Republic) a book (David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition) on the intellectual construction of Jews throughout European history. I know nothing of the subject, but very much appreciate the way that the essay enlightened me about it broadly, while still establishing the issues about which scholars might argue and assessing the book itself.

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