U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Books That Changed Their Minds

From The New Republic

From The New Republic

What were the most influential books over the years 1910 to 1940? Hold on, you’ll have a chance to answer in a bit.

In late 1938, The New Republic began running a feature, edited by Malcolm Cowley, in their books section on “Books that Changed Our Minds.” Cowley was inspired by a prior TNR symposium on US fiction that had been published the year before as After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers Since 1910. The scope of this new series was much the same—“works of the last thirty or forty years”—only restricted to nonfiction. The criterion for selection was “works… that have contributed something new to American thinking,” a formulation that today seems rather guilelessly question-begging: shouldn’t a better understanding of what “American thinking” is be the product rather than the premise of such a symposium?

At any rate, Cowley and his fellow TNR editors canvassed a wide variety of US intellectuals to ask for their suggestions. Over two issues—December 7 and December 21, they printed some of the responses from figures like Carl Becker, Morris R. Cohen, Thurman Arnold, Kenneth Burke, and I. F. Stone. (Notably, all the quoted respondents were white men.)

The tone as well as the contents of the replies varied, but what is fairly consistent is the cosmopolitanism of the books suggested: far from sticking to books by Americans, a quite high proportion of the suggestions were in translation or were from Great Britain—a fact which was, apparently, considered unremarkable and perhaps even presumed, as Cowley’s query itself took as natural that the books which shaped “American thinking” were international in origin. Here’s what Cowley sent out to his potential respondents:

What are the books in this category that have really impressed you and in some measure changed the direction of your own thought? So far the titles most frequently mentioned have been ‘The Education of Henry Adams,’ ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class,’ ‘An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,’ ‘Experience and Nature,’ ‘Main Currents of American Thought,’ ‘The Significance of Sections’—and among the European books, Sorel’s ‘Reflections on Violence,’ ‘Croce’s ‘Esthetics,’ Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West,’ Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams,’ Pareto’s ‘Mind and Society,’ and perhaps one of the books by the ‘new’ scientists. But what are your suggestions?

So while Cowley divided his initial list into US and European titles, he took for granted that the two literatures worked in concert toward the formation of US intellectuals. And, more interestingly, he did not assume, at least at this level of generality, that Americans had any trouble seeing the applicability of European texts to American conditions—an intuition that conflicts interestingly with the emphasis Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has placed on the high degree of self-consciousness of US intellectuals as they tried—and worried they would fail—to make Nietzsche a home in America.

A great deal of insight could be drawn from the inclusions and the omissions contained in the lists these respondents submitted—what they tell us about the fortunes of different thinkers at this moment in time, what they tell us about the specific intellectual formation of a given person. And, rather proud of their idea, Cowley and his fellow editors did give this parlor game some play across these two December issues, but ultimately they came to a final decision.

These eleven books (now almost exclusively American) were the works selected for full-length treatment in later issues of The New Republic:

  • Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (essay written by Lewis Mumford)
  • Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (George Soule)
  • Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (Max Lerner)
  • John Dewey’s work in general, with special attention to Studies in Logical Theory (C. E. Ayres)
  • Franz Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man (Paul Radin)
  • V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (Bernard Smith)
  • I. A. Richards, The Principles of Literary Criticism (David Daiches)
  • Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History  (Charles Beard)
  • The Education of Henry Adams (Louis Kronenberger)
  • William Graham Sumner, Folkways (John Chamberlain)
  • Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (Rexford G. Tugwell)

The essays were published together as a book in 1939, and to the eleven listed above was added an essay on Lenin’s The State and Revolution by Max Lerner.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on this list. I’m also intrigued by what we could do with it today. Is it just an artifact, a snapshot of 1938-1939, among a relatively specialized readership? Or is there a way we could improve it? Not so much by correcting the editor’s omissions with the virtue of hindsight (i.e., it would turn out that the most influential book from that time was…) but by remaining absolutely historicist and saying, well, actually, a different group of people at that time was reading this, and it belongs in the discussion.

I’d like to run a recurring feature on just such a question, much like Andrew’s Great Books in US Intellectual History. I’ll write about some of the books suggested in the symposium as well, but about once a month I will try to write about a “Book that Changed Their Minds.” Not necessarily a book that continues to shape our minds today, even one that shapes our minds about 1910-1940, but a book that was an important part of the intellectual landscape at that time.

With those parameters, what were some of the books that changed their minds? That is, what should I read?

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, this is going to be a great series.

    Here’s a question — will you consider “negative” mind-changing books? IOW, books that prompted/provoked a strong response against their arguments/assumptions? Or is some of that already built into the TNR list/fora?

  2. Great question. In the book version of this forum, Cowley wonders if Mein Kampf should have been included–for just that reason. Cowley writes, “By forcing us to defend the ideas that we once took for granted, he has affected us more deeply than many authors whose opinions agree with our own.”
    That’s certainly a dynamic I would like to include in the series: books that help clarify the outer limits of the kind of intellectual consensus Cowley and his fellow editors generally took for granted.

  3. Very interesting Andy. Here are some notable texts that I might have expected to find on this list:
    William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)
    T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (1920)
    Walter Lippmann, either Drift and Mastery(1914) and/or Public Opinion (1922)
    H.L. Mencken, The American Language (1919)
    Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)
    Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (1929)
    Adolph Berle and Gardiner Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932)
    Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (1934)
    Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown (1929)
    Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Times (1937)

    One wonders, for instance, whether the inclusion of Boas on the list obviated the need to include his students, although it can be argued that both Mead and Benedict had a much wider readership, and that their views really shaped the appropriation of the cultural relativism through the culture-and-personality school. And the idea that Dewey could not be defined by one book, and so had to be included “in general” suggests that authorship (e.g. Freud) might have been more important than the specific text selected. One might also note the dates on the texts chosen. I don’t think any of them were published within a decade of the list’s formation (that is in the 1930s), suggesting that it’s very hard to see recent published works as “mind changing” in the way one can when evaluating them from some historical distance. Most of the texts on this list were published in the first ten years post-1910, and some of them (like Turner’s Frontier essay and Adams’s Education actually antedate the 1910 start date in terms of their composition).

    • Dan, those are excellent points. I’ll have to read the essay on Boas to know more about the specifics of his inclusion (and the non-inclusion of either Benedict or Mead). But it seems their choices tended much more toward the ‘pioneer’ figures, rather than those who had the greatest direct impact.

      As for Turner, I was surprised that in his initial query, Cowley singled out Turner’s book on sectionalism rather than his book on the frontier. Again, once I actually read the essay I may know more about the reasons behind it, but it’s well worth noting that Turner’s work of the 20s was still seen as pathbreaking–his inclusion wasn’t a lifetime achievement award, but a recognition of his continuing importance to the formation of intellectuals in the 20s and 30s.

    • Also, thanks for the list! As you can see from the fuller list of recommendations I posted a link to below, you were right on the money!

  4. Great post Andrew! Dan beat me to the punch on Margaret Mead but I was wondering about cumulative work too, for instance, Margaret Sanger and her “What Every Mother Should Know”, (1920) and subsequent books and pamphlets. Further suggestions include Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” which was published in 1905 but wasn’t translated into English until 1930, and Dale Carnegie’s, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” came out in 1938 which probably didn’t influence the intellectual landscape but certainly the cultural one with an optimistic individualism.

    • I think Weber really took off in American thought in the 1940s and 50s when Talcott Parsons (who translated Protestant Ethic) and C. Wright Mills (who co-edited with Hans Gerth a collection of Weber’s writings) staked out the range of sociological thought, both of them drawing heavily from Weberian perspectives, so it’s not surprising that Weber, along with Karl Mannheim, whose Ideology and Utopia was translated in 1936, don’t appear on this list–their acceptance as major influential thinkers really came in the period after WWII.

  5. Interestingly, this is a very un-“cultural front” list. I would have expected to see Arnold’s Folklore of Capitalism, Wilson’s American Jitters or Axel’s Castle, Sidney Hook’s Marx book, or one of Kenneth Burke’s early works… Is it relevant that though everyone was reading (and to a large degree writing about) each other, the chosen texts are from outside the immediate US Left milieu?

    • I think your reading is very right: the shortlist is (or would have been by 1938) acutely mainstream, even to the extent that–despite the inclusion of Tugwell as a contributor–there’s effectively no recognition that the New Deal happened!

      The longlist does have more contemporary works, and especially works by left intellectuals of the 1930s, but the skew of the shortlist away from that is surprising.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for the comments! I just scanned the appendix to the version of the BTCOM symposium that was published as a book: it contains a list of the books recommended to Cowley and the other editors. It may not be a full list, but you can view it here.

    • This is awesome. For some reason, I am most surprised to see Michel on the list… and I think we need to think about why Pareto was so on everyone’s minds! Lots of similar thinkers (and many American economists who quarreled with VP) not included… someone is going to have to call Tim Shenk on the batphone and demand an answer to this mystery.

    • I’ll be reflecting on this list when I compose my next post on Dorothy Day—whose thinking and great books sensibility was well-established by 1940. – TL

  7. Two quick comments on the list of titles considered (which is a very interesting list):

    1. Not a single text solo authored by a woman. No Mead, no Benedict, no Jane Addams, no Margaret Sanger, etc., etc. Helen Lynd is on the list as a co-author of Middletown, and I think there was perhaps one other.

    2. It looks like the chronological frame is 1900 forward, rather than 1910. Which would put James’s Pragmatism and Varieties of Religious Experience on the list, but clearly not the final list. Beat out by William Graham Sumner (1906)!

  8. Giving the historicist questions you ask about both the “then” and the “now,” it might be worth bearing in mind that Cowley inidicates a couple of respondents stressed not individual books but varied reading or general awareness of political and cultural events.

    Kenneth Burke asked “how much is done by individual, outstanding books, and how much by a general body of thought. Not some one work that jolts, but a steady pressure, supplied largely by periodicals.” Thurman Arnold said his concern was with “what literary ideas…you find reflected in the mine run of economic, scholarly and legal literature.” And Carl Becker offered the provocative observation that “many books have influenced my thinking, or at least clarified ideas already had (which is about the only way books influence thinking anyway).” [New Republic Dec 7, 1938, 135-136]

  9. A few scattered thoughts…

    I think it’s very interesting that the books shaping American minds about Asia (until 1940!) were anthropological. It seems to demonstrate to me the persistence of a Western/civilized v. non-Western/uncivilized paradigm. It would be interesting to see how American experiences in Asia and the Pacific during World War II would change this list.

    I wonder where Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” would fall on this list. Though a work of fiction, it shaped American public opinion of China far more than any other book. Like Mead’s anthropological accounts, Buck’s fiction was informed by her experience living in China and her love of the Chinese people.

    A couple other influential accounts of Asia by American authors worth mentioning are Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” (1937) and Owen Lattimore’s “Inner Asian Frontiers of China” (1940). Both were more influential after the war, but remain widely read.

  10. Bill, that’s an excellent point. Arnold also argues that the consistency of the influence exerted by magazines is both broader and far more powerful than any singular impact made by a book. Arnold said, “I have lived in three sections of the country: the Far West, West Virginia and Connecticut, and I have read The Nation and The New Republic consistently during all these years. I can tell what my liberal colleagues are going to say tomorrow by reading articles in these two publications today. In this country, periodical literature has been more important than books” (qtd on pp 8-9 of the book version).
    On the other hand, what we have here is less sociological–less about genuinely trying to trace diffusion patterns of common ideas–and more memoiristic. Thus, what is emphasized are events–and the reading of some books certainly are events, as we’ve seen over the past few days with so many moving reflections on “when I first discovered García Márquez.” There’s value in that as well, although it’s important to keep in mind the effects of more long-term currents of thought.

    Matthew, that’s a very important omission/limitation to point out. Clearly, “American thinking,” whatever it was, did not see Asia as an influence or, really, as a necessary contrast.
    Have you run into Emily Hahn’s work from this period? She’s a very interesting figure, writing from around the world, but based for awhile in Shanghai. Another cultural mediator of note was Lin Yutang, a popularizer (and Westernizer) of Chinese philosophy. His books were bestsellers and unlikely to show up on a list like this, though.

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