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 and 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?