U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Andrew’s Great Books in US Intellectual History Series

Thanks everyone for your excellent suggestions for my list of Great Books in US Intellectual History. I highly recommend everyone read through the comments section of my post—a thread that might easily serve as a primer for future comprehensive exams in our field. I certainly learned a lot.

So, without further ado, I give you my list of 24 books. These are the books that I plan to read and blog about over the next two years, on average of one per month, give or take. Based mostly on your suggestions, my original list numbered over 40. In other words, I had to make some hard decisions, most of which are particular to my needs and desires. I explain my method a bit below. The list is in order of publication date. Here we go—the list for Andrew’s Great Books in US Intellectual History Series:

  1. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941)
  2. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (1955)
  3. Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962)
  4. Richard Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (1973)
  5. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (1973)
  6. Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (1980)
  7. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981)
  8. John Owen King III, The Iron of Melancholy: Structures of Spiritual Conversion in America from Puritan Conscience to Victorian Neurosis (1983)
  9. James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Political Thought, 1870-1920 (1986)
  10. Thomas Bender, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1988)
  11. Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (1991)
  12. Anson Rabanbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (1992)
  13. Wilfred McClay, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994)
  14. James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1997)
  15. Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (1998)
  16. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1999)
  17. Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (2000)
  18. Jonathan Holloway, Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919-1941 (2001)
  19. Bruce Kuklick, A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000 (2001)
  20. George Cotkin, Existential America (2003)
  21. Nikihl Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2005)
  22. Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (2006)
  23. Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (2010)
  24. Andrew Jewett, Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (2012)

How did I choose my 24 books? Here are my criteria:

–Books that I have yet to read but have proven highly influential in our field: Bender, Ross, McClay, Davis.

–Books that seem destined to challenge my comfort zone: McCoy, King, Rabanbach, Stanley.

–Books about race in the twentieth century, one of my constant interests: Holloway, Singh.

–Books that might shed light on the relationship between the practice of intellectual history and the Cold War consensus: Hartz, Boortstin.

–Books I have yet to read by authors I enjoy: Matthiessen, Kuklick, Cotkin.

–Books I read in graduate school but want to return to now in light of my interest in the many strange valences of Post-Cold War Consensus Neo-Pragmatism (if that’s a thing): Lears, Kloppenberg, Livingston, Rodgers. (The fact that all four of these authors lay claim to a pragmatic tradition to some degree is weird, isn’t it?)

–Books about the left that relate to my next project: Pells, Jay, Brick.

–Recent books that come highly recommended: Genter, Jewett.

That about sums it up. The main goal is to better understand our field, and to have fun. I should say that one or more readers recommended almost every book on this list. So, again, thank you!

I don’t plan to read these books in any particular order. But, to allow those interested to read along, I will announce which book I am reading one month prior to blogging about it. The first book I will tackle is James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory. Estimated blogging date: end of April or early May. Let the games begin.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. P.S. I’m open to hearing comments and criticisms about my list and/or methods. One glaring problem that surely won’t go unnoticed is that there are only two women authors on the list. Perhaps a problem particular to me, perhaps a problem particular to our field. Based on the large list of suggestions on my post last week, it’s definitely a problem particular to the long historiography of our field. There are some recent women intellectual historians who have proven extremely influential, so hopefully things are changing–I speak about Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer Burns, and Sarah Igo, among others. I’ve given their books thorough reads recently, so I did not add them to this list–but they should be included on most lists of this sort. Cheers. AH

  2. Great list! Two minor corrections: Davis’s _Problem of Slavery_ was originally published in 1975 and Livingston’s _Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution_ in 1994. Interesting that your choices, with the exception of the first three, are pretty evenly spread over the period from 1973 to the present (with maybe a slight weighting toward the period after 2000).

  3. Woo! Both books I recommended made the list.Yay me!

    Someone on the previous thread said the exercise made them feel the excitement of being in grad school (or words to that effect). I’d say it’s not grad school as much as it is the excitement of learning new things. As Solon stated (at least according to Plato and Plutarch), “As I grow older I find there’s still much to learn.” Plato thought this a ridiculous idea, but at least here I think we should all take Solon’s side. As we grow older, we find there’s still much to learn. In some sense, that’s the whole point.

  4. Of intellectual history or historiography? This has been an [the?] open question hereabouts, and this list comes down firmly toward the latter, to wit, a work on William James is not the same as one by him.

    Even if we grant the latter, the use of “Great Books” here must be almost purely by way of analogy–these can be at best be very good books, because writing on Emerson is necessarily derivative of the Great Book itself. Allan Bloom would allow that he did not write a Great Book, for he didn’t attempt one.

    I suppose the question here is what makes for a Great Book…

    [There are cases of commentators surpassing their subject matter, of Great Thinkers using their source material as a jumpoff point, but I don’t believe your list here targets those instances, Andrew.]

    • I don’t actually believe in the concept of capital-“G” “Great Books”–certainly not in the way you spell it out here, Tom. My tongue is planted firmly in cheek. I thought that was assumed.

      Reading primary sources is always necessary. But for historians, so too is reading historiography. Historians aren’t originalists, or at least, they shouldn’t be.

      This list is about historiography. My desire is to better grasp how historians have written about this thing we call US intellectual history.

      • My tongue is planted firmly in cheek. I thought that was assumed.

        Thx for clarifying your viewpoint, Andrew. I confess I missed the joke.

        The concept of capital G Great Books seems worth a ponder, though. What of not particularly good books that nonetheless made intellectual history?!

        Historians aren’t originalists, or at least, they shouldn’t be.

        Another interesting thought, that the proper historian is more a journalist, faithfully reporting history, not making it. Thx for your kind reply.

  5. This is a wonderful list, and I’m glad to see Holloway made it! I’ll be keeping up with the list as well.

  6. For a guy who claims not to believe in canons, this looks pretty canonical… 😉

    I’d add:
    Gilroy, The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness
    Isaac, Working Knowledge : Making the Human Sciences From Parsons to Kuhn
    Igo, The Averaged American

    • Well, canons are social constructions, but that doesn’t mean they’re bigfoot.

      I recently read Igo (great book) and agree it should be on most general lists like this.

      I had Isaac and Gilroy on my larger list but since I had to make cuts they got cut. I read Gilroy in graduate school but want to return to it sometime soon. And Isaac is something I know I need to read at some point.

  7. Andrew – Good list, and I’ll try to read along.

    On race theory and the development of anthropology, sometime take a look at George Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution, 1968.

Comments are closed.