U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Growth of American Thought

mcurtiBooks as large as Merle Curti’s 1943 The Growth of American Thought (over three pounds) are typically referred to either as a monument (honorific) or a brick (pejorative). Although monuments can certainly be made out of other substances, both nouns suggest stoniness—immutability and imperturbability. We use stone-related words in other contexts to describe writing or the products of writing (for instance, we might praise someone’s “lapidary” prose), but there’s something about a large book that we seem to want to imagine as a piece of rock—a mountain to climb or a boulder to try to push uphill.

There are probably few books less deserving of those metaphors than The Growth of American Thought, which has to be reckoned one of the humblest 900+ page tomes ever written—not mountain- or boulder-like at all. When Curti writes, “[This] is a task of such magnitude that the author has no idea that his labors are definitive. He hopes that they may furnish some suggestions to other historians who will explore this field, and that they may help some readers to achieve a fuller appreciation of our country’s past,” I am inclined to take him at his word and not see these disclaimers and invitations as false modesty. One can see from his work that Curti was above all a pluralist, and intended his work as open-ended and collaborative—ready for and welcoming to additions, emendations, and revisions by diverse hands. In some ways this book reads more like Wikipedia than like a synthesis by a master historian—and I mean that to be complimentary.

A good part of that open-endedness comes from the central conceit of the book: growth. Historians today might be quick to sniff out a Whiggishness in this title, but that misunderstands the nature of growth, at least how Curti saw it, I believe (I’m just reading around in the book now, not really going through it systematically or consecutively). Growth is not identical to progress—there is no assumption of directionality, just of increasing size. Here’s the first paragraph of the introduction:

An account of the growth of American thought involves, in the first place, a study of the growth on American soil of knowledge of the physical universe, of human nature, and of social relationships. Since man’s [sic] precise and tested knowledge of his environment, physical and social, and of himself has been at every point in time subject to varying limitations, he has speculated on that which he did not know. These speculative operations, sometimes casual, random, and entirely unorganized, have been transmitted from generation to generation as superstitions and folklore; sometimes they have been systematized as theology and philosophy. In either case such informal notions and beliefs, or organized ideas, properly belong to intellectual history. To knowledge and ideas must be added the values which men and women have held and cherished. The history of knowledge, of speculation and ideas, and of values cannot easily be traced without reference to the institutions especially concerned with making accretions to knowledge and thought and disseminating these. Thus the growth in America of schools, colleges, libraries, the press, laboratories, foundations, and research centers becomes an important condition for the growth of American thought.

In a second post, I think I’ll take up the question of what Curti thinks the content and method of intellectual history can be (I don’t say should be; he does not carry a strong normative judgment here), but for now I want to discuss his understanding of the mechanics or dynamics of “American thought”: just how does it “grow?”

In a 1981 Preface to a new edition of the work, Curti acknowledges implicitly that his approach to American thought is at odds with a Kuhnian model of succeeding paradigms. Growth requires a notion of expansion, in this case of knowledge. Knowledge, for Curti, accumulates.

But what does this mean? Does this mean that people today know more than their parents? Possibly, but that is not what I think Curti means. Rather, knowledge accumulation is not an individual process but a social process: not people know more, but more people know. “The gulf between the knowledge of the intellectual and that of the common people has always been wide, everywhere, but it has been less wide and deep in America than elsewhere,” he writes optimistically. “In this fact, perhaps, lies the unique characteristic of American intellectual history.” The central dynamic of US intellectual history, for Curti, is the relentlessly asymptotic process of closing this gap between elite and common knowledge, only for it to open up again, narrow again, swell again, diminish again. But all the time continue to grow. Growth is democratization, popularization, egalitarianization. Growth is contagion.

In Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972) a complicated virus called “Jes Grew” becomes the target of a secretive group who fear the products of its uncontrollable spread: dancing, independent thought, and a lack of deference to authority. Reed took the name from James Weldon Johnson’s description of the origin of ragtime: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew.’ Some of these earliest songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes.”

(As a sidenote, I want to call attention to the syntax of this last sentence, which is fascinating: the referent of “they” appears to change over the course of the sentence, so that the antecedent of the first verb (“sprang”) is “songs,” but the second verb (“earned”) seems to refer properly to the arrangers—the white men who took down the tunes of these songs. “The songs sprang into popularity and the arrangers earned small fortunes.” Here you have in the deviously ambiguous syntax of a single sentence the whole history of love and theft!)

At any rate, it would be misleading to draw too close a parallel between Reed’s Jes Grew and Curti’s Growth. There’s just not much dancing in his work, more’s the pity. But what is shared, I think—though often deeply buried in Curti’s generally pleasant account of intellectual history—is the intrinsically conflictual nature of knowledge: whether it spreads widely or pools in well-tended channels is a story of struggle. It is a story we are familiar with today, perhaps, in Stewart Brand’s mantra, “information wants to be free.” For all three—Curti, Reed, and Brand, a very unusual trio—there is a sort of animism in the way that “thought” or “knowledge” or “information” chafes at the efforts of elites to restrict it. Curti sees this phenomenon as exceptionally an American one whereas Reed sees US exceptionalism as one of the forces trying to tame or eradicate “Jes Grew,” but I think there is some astonishing common ground here.

As I said, I’ll be returning to other aspects of The Growth of American Thought in coming weeks. It’s a text that for various reasonable reasons (age and size, primarily) is not frequently assigned or read, but it is, I hope you’ll come to agree, well worth returning to.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, thanks for this. What a pleasant read.

    Lately I’ve been mulling over various “organic” metaphors for understanding how thought moves through culture, and moves it too. One of the things that (I think) I have to sort out in my own analysis, besides answering the question of “what ideas were at play here?”, is “where did these ideas come from?” But that’s tricky, because one can get caught up in an infinite regress that becomes less about the migration of ideas, or the growth of ideas, than about the evolution of ideas (sorry, organic metaphors everywhere).

    For my work, this is especially tricky because “where do these ideas come from?” was one of the key questions raised in the debate I am analyzing. It’s not that this shouldn’t be a key question as well for an historian — but sometimes it seems to pose a kind of mimetic peril.

    Anyway, I like very much your analysis. And yes, I think there should be less deference and more dancing.

  2. Great post Andy!
    I have long struggled with some of the ideas here; there are times when I see the elite trying to keep the masses at bay, holding knowledge for only those privileged few, but other times it seems that elites actively seek to share knowledge with the masses. I have tried to reconcile this with my understanding of anti-intellectualism, which sometimes seems anti-elitist and sometimes seems symptomatic of the tendencies and intentions of elites.
    We have evidence of a democratization of information, everything from selling encyclopedias door to door and the Book of the Month Club to Wikipedia and MOOCs, but this is not necessarily the same things as democratization of knowledge. The raw information that is so easy to come by in recent years has not made ours a more intellectual society (see; vaccination, Anti- or diet, paleo).
    I wonder if this is a top-down phenomenon, because elites do not want their ideas challenged so they allow the cacophony of data to overwhelm the masses, or is it bottom-up, people just want to believe what they want to believe and those with knowledge are marginalized?

  3. Thanks, both of you! I hope Curti can be of some use to both of you–I am also still trying to get a handle on his voluminous bibliography. Curti had an extraordinarily long career and kept publishing all through it!

    Can I ask why you’re drawn particularly to organic metaphors–I mean, I can intuit why “mechanical” metaphors (presumably the opposite) are undesirable, but can you say more about your inclination toward the organic when trying to find a language to talk about the origins and dynamics of ideas?

    Those are really complex questions, and I probably should read a lot more of TGOAT (which as an acronym is pretty awesome, as both David Foster Wallace and, I think, Jay-Z have separately introduced GOAT as “Greatest of All Time”) before I say anything conclusive about where Curti stands in regards to the historical shape of the struggle between elites and ordinary people in controlling the points of access to knowledge. But one thing I think is really interesting about how Curti frames some of this struggle is that thought–not ideas as units of thought, but the natural impulse of humans to think, and to enjoy thinking–is a really crucial dimension with its own kind of agency, almost. I’ll try to say more about the next time I post on TGOAT and Curti, but I hope that makes some sense now.

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