This Long Conversation

Scott McLemee reviews Jenifer Ratner-Rosenhagen's The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History.

May 10, 2019

"In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" asked the Reverend Sydney Smith in The Edinburgh Review not quite 200 years ago. "Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue? … What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans?"

A literary historian called it "that classic paragraph under the sting of which the Americans writhed for so long" in an article published in 1929 -- although by then the old jeer at the cultural backwardness of the United States had boomeranged. For one thing, the article appeared in the inaugural issue of a journal called American Literature, the very title of which implied a rebuke to Smith's dig. So did the discovery of Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., the following year. American surgeons and chemists were holding their own. And in the same period, there appeared the third and final volume of Main Currents in American Thought by Vernon L. Parrington, which oddly enough did not quote any of Sydney Smith's aspersions on the United States as cultural backwater. (Parrington was too thorough a scholar for this to have been an oversight.)

The field of U.S. intellectual history was new enough for Parrington to announce with confidence that his concern was "with the total pattern of American thought -- the broad drift of major ideas -- and not with vagrant currents or casual variations." Ninety years on, that frontier is closed. Total patterns are rarely sought, and even an introductory text like Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen's The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (Oxford University Press) is cautious about defining the broad drifts. Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Madison, is also the author of an award-winning monograph on Friedrich Nietzsche's American reception -- a topic that barely caught Parrington's attention. The vagrant current or casual variation in the intellectual life of one era may be at the very center of another's.

But grand overviews have their place -- the classroom, for one, though Ratner-Rosenhagen's sprightly tour of six centuries of American thinking ought to be a go-to text for continuing education of a less formal sort. It is informed by recent arguments over the status and remit of intellectual history as a field without getting bogged down in them. The author frames American intellectual life as developing amid "crossings in all of their varieties -- between one cultural setting and another, text and context, secular analysis and sacred belief, and formal argument and emotional affirmation" occurring in institutions, publications and meeting places of all kinds.

Ratner-Rosenhagen has a knack for acknowledging issues that merit more attention while also keeping the tour among the exhibits moving. An exemplary instance comes near the start of the book, when she points out how early efforts to understand American history were influenced by "the medieval notion of translatio imperii (translation of empire), a vision of a grand historical imperial line of succession from Alexander the Great to Rome, from the Romans to Charlemagne's Franks, and so on," presumably culminating in the United States of America. But "all the explorers on behalf of European empires arrived on a continent of sprawling indigenous empires" incorporating an "estimated 1,000 to 2,000 distinct language communities," none of which had heard of India, much less named themselves after it. Ratner-Rosenhagen underscores "a crucial insight to be drawn from this situation," which is implicit throughout the rest of her narrative:

It is that, throughout history, people's ideas and ways of understanding sometimes lose their power or die out altogether, not because better ideas and ways of understanding proved them inadequate, but because they are silenced by means other than rational argument and reasoned debate.

That doesn't mean that the life of the mind grows out of the barrel of a gun, necessarily. But it does imply frequent shifts of attention between the "war of ideas" and conflict of the more tangible sort. Intellectual history "seeks to comprehend the factors that shape historical actors' intellectual options," the author says,

and to see how their moral horizons and habits of thought played decisive roles both internally in their acts of intellectual volition and externally in their actions in the world. What factors inhibited intellectual agreement? What ideas or viewpoints were available to some but not others? What is the balance of power between need, desire, fear, folly, sagacity and foresight in the making and unmaking of historical actors' intellectual worldviews? And how were their moral horizons constructed in the first place?

Moral and intellectual horizons tend to be difficult to distinguish from senses of identity (personal or national or both), which is where things get messy -- if not bloody. In the chapter largely focused on conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery forces and between Darwin's adherents and opponents, Ratner-Rosenhagen notes the decisive advantage of an established outlook: "The human imagination is extraordinarily deft at making new ideas jibe with prior intellectual and moral commitments," she writes, "and when the two cannot or simply will not be reconciled, it is almost always the prior worldview that wins out," at least in the short term.

But American intellectual history would be much simpler, and a whole lot duller, if that inertia were the only or even the main force at work in it. Sydney Smith's diatribe about American intellectual life in 1820 allowed for the existence of a few eminent exceptions -- namely, foreigners who had settled in the United States. What he did not consider was the possibility of the country absorbing such talents, and that new worldviews could emerge by cross-pollination. "Over the course of the centuries," the author writes in her concluding thoughts, "Americans learned and self-taught, native born and immigrant, religious and secular, left and right have contributed to this long conversation by offering new arguments and key terms … They only came up with provisional explanations and then posed new questions."


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