Why It's Time to Revive a Tradition of Intellectual History


Mr. Goetzmann's latest book is Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (Basic Books, 2009).

Some of today’s prominent American historians do not believe in intellectual ideas, traditions and cultural influences.  In some of my previous books, such as Exploration and Empire and New Lands New Men, a history of Americans and world exploration, I have intellectualized the process of exploration and the ideas behind it. Now I have just published a book, Beyond the Revolution: American Intellectual History from Paine to Pragmatism (2009) that resurrects some of the intellectual glory of an age of writing about complex thinkers. It is an intellectual and cultural history of nineteenth century America, many of whose best men and women were influenced by global ideas and visions out of which Americans hoped to form a cosmotopian nation.

Today there is nothing intellectual about so-called American history. Public schools teach something called “social studies” instead, and colleges encourage social history that is a combination of advocacy journalism and sociology. Few professors have a larger view.  An exception is Professor Richard (Kip) Pells, author of the incisive Not Like Us, How Europeans Have Loved Hated and Transformed American Culture Since World War II , who published an article ingeniously titled,  “Down the Up Staircase,” that concluded that we have taken the “history “ out of “history” in favor of social studies.

The social historian, Jesse Lemisch, who argued for “history from the bottom up” began to be important in the 1960’s. His view derived from Marxism and in the late 19th century Progressive Era of Reform. It followed the lead of muckraking novelists like Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser and such works as Ida Tarbell’s attack on Standard Oil and Gustavus Meyers’s History of the Great American Fortunes. So-called progressive social historians have always found problems with America that need correcting and they wrote history as a “usable past."

 As the great American fortunes, domineering railroads and commercial farming (see Hamlin Garland, Under the Lion’s Paw) rose to unchecked power, a new set of people called “intellectuals” and “radicals” arose to critique society from the point of view of economic determinism. Some were followers of Marx, other worshipped William Morris. Out of this was spawned the first great American Intellectual historian, a man from Emporia Kansas, Vernon Lewis Parrington, a Harvard graduate. He came to hate Harvard’s elitism as he became a teacher at variously, Emporia College, Oklahoma College and the University of Washington. A literary scholar, Parrington (besides being Oklahoma’s first football coach) worked on his great work, Main Currents in American Thought to 1920, that is still one of America’s classics, despite the fact that all of the writers in the treatise were classified according to their economic views: the further left, the better. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928. After Parrington, who died in 1929, intellectual history became more sophisticated.  Historians began to realize that American intellectuals and writers had more on their minds than Eugene V. Debs socialism.

With Modernism, Freudianism and Pragmatism, as well as much greater groups of new European ideas, intellectual history became a leading interest for historians, even though the 1930’s were the age of Marx in America. Harvard’s Perry Miller published the first volume of his magisterial The New England Mind in 1939. After service in WW II he returned to Harvard to write a second volume, The New England Mind from Colony to Province (1953). He also wrote a spate of works in intellectual history, including The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (1965). Miller received the Pulitzer Prize posthumously when he died in the midst of writing a third volume of The New England Mind. His life and works spawned a whole era of books in New England intellectual history such as important works on Jonathan Edwards.

Meantime, in 1940, Ralph H. Gabriel of Yale published another masterwork in intellectual history. His The Course of American Democratic Thought became a classic argument for democracy on the eve of World War II. Shortly afterwards, Wisconsin’s Merle Curti, who in 1943, during World War II, published his widely used, encyclopedic, The Growth of American Thought. Curti’s work which, included much social history, competed with Gabriel’s book for many years. They were the standard works.

Then came Alice Felt Tyler’s Freedom’s Ferment (1944). Shortly afterward F.O. Matthiessen published his masterwork in intellectual history The American Renaissance (1949). Like Parrington, he concentrated on great literary figures. A more recent classic directly related to Matthiessen’s work is David Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance (1989), which compares the popular literature with the giants of the same period. It is a great work on literature “from the bottom up.”

Other important works of the 50’s to the 70’s were Bernard Bailyn's The IdeologicalOrigins of The American Revolution (1941), W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South (1941) Clement Eaton’s The Southern Mind (1964) as well as Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey’s A History of Philosophy in America (1977), Bruce Kublick’s The Rise of American Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass. 1860-1930 (1977), Robert M. Crunden’s three volumes on Modernism’s salons and Norman Cantor’s flamboyant The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times (1997). These books began to end the fashion for such works as American historians saw themselves as a kind of political elite self-designated to solve what they regarded as America’s problems as political gurus. 

Just from a few citations however, it is clear that American intellectual history has required the ability to comprehend complex ideas rather than the journalism of sociology, which, when it tried  to become a true science, failed, as much of social history has bored vast number of students and other readers. For proof, look in your bookstores, or try to plough through usually badly written social history. Far from the bare trends and numbers and ersatz power trips of social history, intellectual history takes on the interesting people of the past who tried to confront their own contexts—and it is the kind of history we could use more of today. 

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HNN - 5/4/2009

My goodness: what a strange and fictitious account of the influences that led to "history from the bottom up." This kind of causality, drawn out of thin air, precisely illustrates what was wrong with much of intellectual history when I started on a different path in the early sixties.

Jesse Lemisch

Larry DeWitt - 5/4/2009

Excellent piece. It is refreshing to see that not all historians have become postmodenists who deplore intellectual history for political reasons.

Jim Hornfischer - 5/4/2009

An illuminating interview with Professor Goetzmann may be found here:


W.J. Elvin - 5/4/2009

I am on my way to Amazon to buy the book. Bravo.