U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Month (So Far) In Intellectual History

September has proven to be a fascinating month for fans of American intellectual history. Between the release of some important books of history, and several blogs running key events online, intellectual history has had a vibrant September. The following are just a few highlights.

Our friends at the African American Intellectual History Society have just completed a fantastic forum discussion on the Movement for Black Lives and their demands, listed here. The AAIHS blog team has assembled a who’s who of African American history experts, including Gerald Horne and Clarence Lang, to provide some historical criticism and context for the Movement for Black Lives’ list of demands. The blog series is a good corrective for anyone unsure of what, precisely, the Black Lives Matter campaign is fighting for. Also, it provides another example of the rich history of African American intellectuals tackling social issues through their scholarship—something Andrew Hartman wrote about on the blog just a few days ago.

The release of Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood in the Water, on the Attica Strike of 1971, has also been an occasion to reflect on the recent history of mass incarceration in the United States. The Attica incident, which lead to the deaths of numerous prisoners and hostages, left an indelible mark on the way in which Americans talk about prisons, prisoners, and the “carceral state.” It should be a moment to think deeper about the ways in which the 1970s have influenced recent American history—reflecting a turn in modern American historiography towards the 1970s as an important decade, seen in Stayin’ Alive, Pivotal Decade, Rightward Bound, and Invisible Bridge. This can also be seen in intellectual history, especially in books such as Daniel Rodgers’ The Age of Fracture or some of the formative sections of Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Works on the rise of mass incarceration in America, such as The New Jim Crow, The First Civil Right, Black Silent Majority, or From The War on Poverty to the War On Crime, all also focus on the 1970s as an important moment in the history of the growth of the carceral state.[1] Intellectual historians would do well to consider how the rise of the “carceral state” has an impact on American—and transnational—intellectual history.

Finally, I wanted to point out a couple of interesting articles as well. Here is a piece on the efforts to make a historic site in the state of South Carolina the showcase for Reconstruction memory in the United States. Some of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina have had a hand in work like this, as the South—and the nation—continue to wrestle with the legacy of Reconstruction. A piece from The Nation’s website on the life and legacy of Jurgen Habermas is worth reading. His theory of the public sphere, along with his thoughts about the past, present, and future of Europe are covered in this lengthy essay. Finally, The New Yorker’s list of books up for the nonfiction category at the National Book Awards shows several works by historians. This includes the aforementioned Blood in the Water, Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning, and Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause. There’s a definite trend among many of the books on the National Book Awards’ shortlist—many of them dealing with the themes of either race or foreign policy, guiding concerns in this year’s presidential race.

[1] Although it is worth noting that The First Civil Right argues that we need to look back to the 1940s and 1950s to understand the origins of mass incarceration, and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime also spends an extensive amount of time detailing how the Great Society’s programs of the mid-1960s fit into the rise of the carceral state.