U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The S-USIH Book Award and the State of the Field

Note to readers: Kevin Schultz presented the essay below as part of the S-USIH 2014 Plenary Roundtable in Honor of the Annual Book Award Recipient and Honorable Mentions. The book prize committee selected Ajay K. Mehrotra’s Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929 as this year’s winner and singled out for honorable mention Raúl Coronado’s A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture.  In the essay below, Schultz discusses the field of entrants from which these two books were chosen.

State of the Field
by Kevin Schultz

In 2012, David Hollinger penned an article for Modern Intellectual History entitled “What is our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of their Field.” In the article, he described the process of soliciting opinions from faculty around the country on how the canon of American intellectual history has changed over the past thirty years, how he and his co-editor Charlie Capper debated requests for new entries. The article is a fun read, in part because it’s clear how much Hollinger and Capper have already thought about nearly everything you can think of that they should add, but also because they draw some summaries about our field, the most revealing of which, to me anyway, is that over the past thirty or so years, American intellectual historians have increasingly focused on political ideas and social theory at the expense of philosophy and literary culture. Hollinger cautions us against what he sees as an increasing focus on ideas-in-action because it risks, and I quote, “cutting off inquiries that are of great value to the profession and to the public that we ultimately serve, especially at a time when the studies carried out under the sign of ‘cultural history’ usually attend to only the most general of philosophical ideas and the most popular of literary works.”

I had this article in mind as I embarked on the process of reading this year’s entries for the Society’s Award for Best Book in American Intellectual History. I wanted to see if that thesis bore out.

This year we received just under forty entries, a good number, but one I think is still less than the actual output in our field. For instance, we did not receive W. Caleb McDaniel’s The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform from LSU Press, which won the OAH’s Merle Curti Award for Intellectual History. Not to say it would have beaten any of our top books, just that it should have been entered.

And on this point let me say that, while the onus is on the Society to get the word out about the prize, we need as much help as we can get, so if you have editors you’re friendly with, or think your book should be nominated in any particular year, please make sure your press knows about the award. Often we send out a mass email that goes into a general mailbox and then gets eaten by the monster of anonymity. If we have a point person at a particular press, the process goes much smoother.

Now of the forty or so books we received we were all sort of awed by the capaciousness of our field. As we met to discuss which book should win the prize, we were all surprised that the two books that rose to the top almost unanimously were not traditional books you think of you when you ponder intellectual history. I’ll leave discussions of those books — our winner and our runner up — to the next two presenters, but aside from them, there were books on art, books on slavery, books on Native Americans, books on a crazy guy named Noah who built a small raft, called it Noah’s Ark, and followed the official process of dignitaries down the Erie Canal at its opening. There were books on memory, books on rock and roll, books on American travelers to Europe, and books on antisemitism. There were not books on John Dewey and hardly any on pragmatism, only a few on science, and none whatsoever on women or gender — not a single book.

Within our field, it’s apparent religion continues to fare well. There was of course David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire, a collection of essays from the past twenty-five years that perpetually probe the theme of Protestant Christianity’s engagement with the Enlightenment, including a fantastic takedown of Reinhold Niebuhr at the end.

I was also really pleased to see two of the three mainstreams in the historiography of American religion admirably represented. The first is the insightful fleshing out of American evangelicalism, done admirably in Molly Worthen’s acclaimed book Apostles of Reason. By positing that the central quest of evangelical intellectuals was their effort to balance biblical inerrancy with rational thought, she gives us a good, humanizing glimpse into the thinking of a vital component of twentieth-century intellectual life.

The other central stream in the historiography of American religion is the rise and acceptance of American freethinkers, and here it was Susan Jacoby’s book on Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic, that stands up well. Being a short biography written in a popular idiom, Jacoby doesn’t break significant historiographical terrain in the book, but she does develop the fascinating idea that there are two strains in American free thought: that between Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and others, who prioritize love, and the Social Darwinists and the new atheists, who might win some points but they don’t approach their subjects with love, instead prioritizing the heartlessness in this world, and the need to recognize it. She also provides some great quotations for us to ponder, including, “Intellectual history is a relay race, not a hundred-yard dash.” I love that quotation.

One other theme in American religious history that comes up is one that I personally love: how wild the religious wilderness was in the early nineteenth century. Here, Eran Shalev’s American Zion shows how prevalent the Old Testament was throughout the antebellum era. Not only did many Americans see the United States as the New Israel, but they really did understand their world through the lens of the Old Testament. The prevalence of the Old Testament of course declines in favor of the language of the New Testament during the Civil War and the battle over slavery, but Shalev is really wonderful in rooting out the high level of Old Testament language in the early nineteenth century.

Beyond religious history, there were some really fantastic books on major themes in American thought. Among the best of these was Lewis Perry’s wonderful book, called Civil Disobedience. Perry takes the long view of the subject, seeing as fundamentally if not foundationally American. He claims the source of American civil disobedience as we’ve come to know it is not the American Revolution but instead a 1829 event when religious protestors performed a variety of acts of disobedience to protest Indian removal. From this he develops several themes, including the nearly perpetual religious component of civil disobedience and the peaceful tradition, which makes civil disobedience workable in a democracy. It is a rich and knowing book, and one of a few that I wish I didn’t have to consume within the restraints of book award committee.

Another book that takes as its subject a single theme over time is Joseph Kett’s book, Merit. In Merit, Kett argues that the idea that one could advance in American life because of merit was a foundational principle forged by Founding Fathers consciously envisaging a national culture absent any hereditary aristocracy. But achievement by merit was always an ideal that was going to have to struggle to survive, and Kett shows the attempts to infuse this idea in the early Republic military, schools, and testing. He then traces the ideal through the ages, concluding that, with the rise of things like affirmative action, merit as an ideal has come under attack. As he puts it: “Critics have argued that because we cannot choose our parents or our IQs, even the fairest application of merit-based selection cannot overcome the legacies of birth.”

One other broad theme worth mentioning is the effort to make sense of the intellectual transitions of the 1960s. Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround is a really interesting book that describes the origins of the 1960s counterculture imagery as deriving from a combination of the radical personality theorists of the 1930s, folks like Gordon Allport, Margaret Mead, and Erich Fromm, and the Bauhaus artists who came from Nazi Germany. The result was a massive collective reaction against Hitler and his propaganda machine into what Turner calls “the democratic surround,” a collaging of images and sounds that allows the individual to be immersed in the media, and make democratic choices. Although it’s mostly limited to an aesthetic exploration, the book does a marvelous job tying together the ideas of the 1930s to those of the 1960s, and perhaps could serve as a kind of model for that kind of long-range thinking.

David Wyatt’s When America Turned: Reckoning with 1968 is a problematic history book, focused as it is on trying to access a psychological change in the life of the nation, probing into what Michael Herr called “secret histories” in order to tell, as Wyatt puts it, an “imaginative truth.” But for all that nonsense, the book is a perceptive exploration of the major events of 1968, reading deeply not only of the factual histories but also the New Journalists to try to get at the essence of the question. It is a rich, if ultimately unsuccessful look at, as he puts it, why American turned in the 1960s. It difficult to see what America turned from and toward, but the book is a small treasure nonetheless.

Beyond the thematic, there were a few biographies of American thinkers, none quite as magisterial as some of the foundations of our field, say Westbrook’s book on Dewey or Steel’s book on Lippmann. Lawrence Friedman’s The Lives of Erich Fromm is good at showcasing the psychoanalytic world of the 1930s to the 1950s; Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O. Hirshman, called A Worldly Philosopher, is good at explaining the pulls and pushes of the twentieth-century social scientist and economist; and Tim Lacy’s Dream of a Democratic Culture, about Mortimer Adler, really gets at the ambition and importance of Adler and especially his Great Books idea as it transitioned through the years.

Two other books featuring central thinkers in American life take their subjects throughout the entire course of American history, and both, perhaps interestingly enough, deal with Edmund Burke. Yuval Levin’s book called The Great Debate looks at the parallel lives and thought of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and sees their differences on the relationship between the individual and society, on the issue of equality, on the issue of justice, as the foundation differences in American political thought. While I think the analogy is a bit strained, it is a fascinating portrait, and I didn’t even know Burke and Paine were friends.

A more useful book on Burke comes from Drew Maciag, whose Edmund Burke in America is a really smart book detailing the contested lineage of Burke’s thought in the United States, from the Founding Fathers, through the John Adams family, to Emerson, to the post-World War II conservative revival. Maciag shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people took what they wanted from Burke, distorting the man’s original ideas as they went along. Maciag shows confidence at every instance, and the book really sheds light on the varieties of conservative thought over two hundred years of American history.

There are a handful of other books well worth mentioning, that I liked but that might not have easily fit into these categories. Joan Shelly Rubin’s collection, called Cultural Consideration, continues her rich exploration between the development of midcult literature and the canon, and an essay on a battle between James Gould Cozzens and Dwight Macdonald is excellent.

Keeping with the literary theme, James Parins’ book on Literacy and Intellectual Life in Cherokee Nation was a surprising gem of book. Parins describes the creation of the written language in Cherokee nation, the product of Sequoyah’s syllabary, the only written language created by a single man, and which in some ways is far superior (easier to learn, quicker to use) than many of its Western counterparts. Parins then goes on to show how the development of this language allowed for a fluent literary culture, including legal briefs, constitution writing, fiction and poetry, and more.

A few other really good books included Erik Christiansen’s Channeling the Past, which looks at several post-World War II battles over how Americans wanted to remember the past. It was an incredibly rich moment in using and abusing the past, and Christiansen does an admirable job in probing how memory functions and what it can be marshaled to do.

Michael Kramer’s Republic of Rock does a great job of showing how rock ‘n roll served as a vehicle for political thought in the 1960s, one that could encroach on any given number of areas, including labor strikes, Ken Kesey’s protests, and even as a form of protest in Vietnam—by Vietnamese.

Una Cadegan’s All Good Books are Catholic Books, provides an insightful exploration of Catholic literary culture from the end of World I to Vatican II, showing how, through literature, a large number of Catholics slowly but surely came around toe embrace modernism.

I could go on, but I won’t.

So where does this leave us viz a viz Hollinger and Capper’s conclusions that our field has moved away from philosophy and literary culture in favor of political ideas and social theory? On the one hand, based on this admittedly insufficient sampling, I do think the study of philosophy is less vital a topic than perhaps it used to be. In some ways, it might be that most of us in the field today are the students Hollinger mentioned, who aren’t solidly grounded in philosophy or philosophical questions and so miss much of the arguments in that arena — and now we’re shaping the field. So there were no books on Rawls or Rorty. None on gender theory. No “philosophical turn” among these selections.

On the other hand, I’m slow to see the decline of literary culture as a topic. For one thing, there are a lot of non-historians encroaching on this turf, and so the subject has a richer base of adherents, and when those literary folks make their historical errors, we’ll be ready to pounce. For another, the decline of the vitality of literary culture in American life as described in Henry May’s classic book The End of American Innocence, means that those of us interested in American history since, say, the end of the 1950s, have little literary culture to work worth, or at least one that is markedly fading in importance.

Nevertheless, one of the most potent features of this year’s crop of books is the way in which certain authors tied together various themes. For instance, our winner studies political philosophy, then shows it morphing into social science, all before it becomes political and policy. And our runner up spends the vast majority of his huge book outlining the contours of a literary culture in what is today Texas where ideas take shape — before they become political.

And it is to those two books that we’ll turn to now.

Thank you.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I really appreciated the way that Kevin and the award committee took a competition and turned it into a kind of communal celebration of the field—not a superficial celebration, but rather an engaged and concrete sense of appreciation and characterization (and a nice touch of critique here and there) that identified where the field of US intellectual history stands right now. This is the right way to do these things!

    A lot of labor went into making that shift and I for one really deeply appreciated the tone and spirit of the panel. Thank you to Kevin and to the other committee members. You created a precedent and model for future award presentations I hope.

  2. Thanks so much to Kevin for allowing us to run this essay, and thanks to the entire panel for their outstanding work. One of them likened the task of reading through those 40 books to reading for comps. Clearly, to willingly and conscientiously take on such a task out of service to the discipline and the profession was an extraordinarily generous work of all the panelists, and we are all the better for it.

    I second Michael and many others at the conference who were so impressed with the well-considered scope and substance of the remarks. I think last year’s panel on Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book set a precedent for this kind of approach — a format that would consider the state of the field (including some insights especially useful for graduate students), discuss the field of entries a whole, and focus on the selected books. And this year’s book prize panel, chaired by Leslie Butler, with Kevin Schultz and Margarat Abruzzo, really took that model and ran with it, and ran well.

    I hope we will eventually start posting a list of all the books submitted each year for the book prize. In the meantime, as Kevin exhorts us in this fine and fun essay, let’s all do what we can to make sure that editors, publishers, academic departments, and authors are aware of this opportunity to find a fine critical hearing for their work.

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