U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Underrated Intellectual History Classics

I’ve spent this summer reviewing for comprehensive exams in 19th and 20th century American history. I refuse to see it as a chore, instead viewing it as an opportunity to fill in gaps in my own understanding of the history of the United States. However, I’ve found myself also trying to bone up on my intellectual history reading as much as I possibly can. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I consider myself “late to the party”—starting out my career as a historian wanting to focus on the Reconstruction era, then switching to Populism, and ultimately settling on the latter half of the 20th century in American, and specifically American South, history. All of that has also included a slight shift from political to intellectual history, so in many ways I still feel I have much to learn about the field.

I’ve tried my best to expand my intellectual history horizons, always looking for new books leronebennettdeskand articles to read (or, more specifically, to put on a reading list for later). So I’d like to share just a couple of classics—written decades ago—that I think people here would find interesting. In the process, I’d also like to get a conversation going in the same vein as the ones we’ve had in recent days about works on the philosophy of history and recent novels that would be of interest to American intellectual historians.

What I’d like to talk about are, well, works in intellectual history that you don’t think are mentioned enough. They could be personal favorites of yours or books that, quite simply, you’ve never forgotten. While it’s sometimes difficult to precisely argue if a book (or, for that matter, a journal article or essay from a middlebrow publication) has been “given its due”, I’d like to find out what sorts of works you’ve come across that have said a great deal about intellectual history and, yet, may not receive the attention it deserves in debates about intellectual history from certain eras.

Earl Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans is an example of the kind of book that, frankly, I’m surprised I don’t see mentioned more often. First released in 1961, then re-released in 1970, The Mind of the Negro gives an excellent recounting of the history of African American intellectual thought in the United States since the founding of the nation. It offers plenty of primary documents from a wide variety of African American intellectuals, and I think it’s just as interesting precisely because it was first written in the early 1960s. I can’t remember precisely where I first learned of the book—although my memory hazily recalls an Adolph Reed essay—but it’s been a fascinating read.

Another book I’ll briefly point to is Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness. His book offered a call to arms to African American activists and intellectuals in the early 1970s. Like I’ve stated before, studying Bennett, and other African American intellectuals in that era, offers a chance for historians to delve into the rich diversity of voices speaking out on issues of race in the early 1970s, just as the “Black Power” era was coming into its own and the dream of integration was still being fought for by some African American liberals.

So that’s just my small stab at the question. What say you?

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South is one of my favorites. It is not standard reading in colloquia like Eugene Genovese, Linda Kerber, or Bernard Bailyn, all of whom published around the same time, but it is a great exploration of the diverse concerns of a small group of southern thinkers beyond proslavery ideology.

    I wouldn’t say this is underrated, but Edmund Morgan’s “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution” is a great article published in 1967 that explores how Puritan theology became secularized in the late-18th century. I generally assign this in both my Colonial America and American Revolution courses.

    • Ah yes, the Faust book is a really good one. It’s surprising that you don’t hear more about it, but like you said it goes well with the others you mentioned above.

      And Morgan’s article’s a good one, glad you mentioned it too!

  2. I’ll throw in a couple of underrated works that deal with early American history. I recommend Jack P. Greene’s The Intellectual Construction of America : Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800 and James L. Huston’s Securing the Fruits of Labor: The American Concept of Wealth Distribution 1765-1800.

    Although it is only a couple of years old, Seth Cotlar has authored an excellent book entitled, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic. For those who wish to understand the Jeffersonians, this is a book I cannot recommend strongly enough.

    • Thanks for these. Many of us here at the blog are always looking for works from the 18th and 19th centuries–these are certainly important works!

  3. One book that is under-read and will be of use to intellectual historians working in future decades is Beth Richie’s first book *Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women*. Many of the ideas that became prominent in the anti-prison/ anti-violence movements of the late 90s/ early 2000s (embodied in the organizations INCITE! and Critical Resistance) were explored in Richie’s book. (And she was in this milieu as well.)

    • This is a wonderful suggestion. And you’re right, a great deal of the discussion we have today about incarceration, etc. can be traced back, in some way, to this book.

  4. I really like James Block’s _A Nation of Agents_. It’s a big book, but, unlike some others with such a broad sweep, it has original arguments and a clear thesis woven throughout. I’m not sure if it’s underrated, but I don’t see it cited very often. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff, though!

  5. That’s definitely a fascinating choice–and I think you’re right, because it’s certainly a big book with big ideas. I can’t say I’m terribly familiar with the work but I know I’d like to change that very soon.

  6. I’ll add a couple to the list from the guy I studied under, Charles Alexander. Charley wrote two books in US intellectual history that I still return to, _Here the Country Lies: Nationalism and the Arts in Twentieth Century America_ (1980) and _Holding the Line: The Eisenhower Era_ (1976). The first book is one of its time to take the struggle among intellectuals over what we might call the dawning of American Studies and the role intellectuals play in critiquing and defining that thing we call America. The second book was among the first to see the Eisenhower era as a more than a period of dullness between the dawning of the Cold War and the Kennedy years. I am going to get Charley to our conference this year; he will enjoy hearing work that is similar to the stuff that got him interested in intellectual history in the first place.

    • Wow, those sound like great books. And I have to say, the thread so far is everything I’d hoped for, because I’d only dimly heard of a couple of the books listed so far.

  7. I’m glad Ray set the precedent by recommending books by his advisor because I’d like to do the same. Leo Ribuffo’s first book, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War was not underrated when it was first published, since it won the Merle Curti prize. But since studying the history of modern conservatism became trendy in the last decade or so, this work has often been overlooked, even though it’s still the best on the topic of the far right in the 20th century and includes some hidden analytical gems, such as the coining of the concept “brown scare” to describe how FDR cracked down on native fascists during WW2 and in the process built up the machinery of the national security state that was put to use against the left during the Cold War.

    Another underrated intellectual history that I’ve mentioned several times at the blog over the years but might as well mention one more time: Edward Purcell Jr, The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value. Recent books by Andrew Jewett (“Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War”) and Joel Isaac (“Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn”) might surpass Purcell (I haven’t yet read Jewett of Isaac but I have heard great things). Still, Purcell’s treatment of how the crises of war and depression shaped and reshaped epistemology remains incredibly valuable.

    Since we’re talking about great books in the field, whether underrated or not, I should mention that my Great Books in US Intellectual History Series is going to happen despite the delay. I sincerely hope to write my first post, on Kloppenberg’s “Uncertain Victory,” within the next month. It turns out working through book edits while moving back to Illinois from Denmark kept me too busy to keep to my originally planned schedule. Cheers.

    • I love these selections! In particular, Ribuffo’s is an important one, because like you said the current trend in studying conservatism in American history already had some precedent in Ribuffo’s work. As a matter of fact I recall his essay in the famous JAH 1994 issue on studying American conservatism, in which he said, “Hey, folks are ALREADY studying this, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

      • Indeed. That Ribuffo essay, which was a response to Alan Brinkley, was perfectly irreverent. For more smart Ribuffo snark about the field of American conservatism, click on my “trendy” link in my comment above.

  8. Such great titles–and thanks for the prompt, Robert!
    I would definitely recommend Rosalind Rosenberg’s Beyond Separate Spheres: The Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism, which I think is insufficiently read, as it nicely complements the (also incredible but more widely read?) work of Nancy Cott.
    Two other slightly older works which I think would repay a wider readership are Henry Yu’s Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America, which reveals the (generally ignored) fascination of Chicago School Sociology with Asians and Asian-Americans; and Andrew Feffer’s The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism, which (along with Eldon Eisenach’s The Lost Promise of Progressivism, mentioned on the S-USIH facebook page) I feel remains one of the best treatments of the intellectual dynamics of the Progressive Era.

    Finally, although it’s not really underrated, I think that Howard Brick’s Transcending Capitalism is insufficiently appreciated as essentially rewriting how we (should?) think about periodizing 20th c. US intellectual history and as breaking up our standard categorizations of intellectuals across midcentury.

    • These are all great suggestions! And I think you’re right about Brick’s book–it’ll definitely come to be appreciated more as time goes by, or at the very least should be.

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