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?