May 24, 2019

A History of American Ideas

“Works of intellectual history come in a few varieties. There’s the Salon Book, the story of a like-minded clique coming together to develop a new philosophy or sensibility, or at least to take down old ones. Louis Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club,” on the rise of pragmatism, is the ideal of the form. Then there’s the Book Book, arguing that one particular title remade the world, shaped the century, upended the cosmos. Think of Randall Fuller’s “The Book That Changed America,” about the impact of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” upon a nation verging on civil war. And there’s the Big Idea Book, painting a single, vital stroke across a vast canvas. Try Ibram X. Kendi’s relentless “Stamped From the Beginning,” on the arc of America’s racist designs from pre-colonial times to the new millennium.

These books are usually lengthy; intellectual historians have read a lot, after all, and they want us to read a lot, too. But “The Ideas That Made America” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is an anomaly in the genre. Its brevity is a point of pride, yet it aspires to do a little of everything. It covers various schools in America’s life of the mind, from transcendentalists to progressives, from the Harlem Renaissance to mid-20th-century conservatives. It dwells on the struggles of a young nation to affirm its own literary and academic traditions — to end, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s complaint, America’s “long apprenticeship to the learnings of other lands.” It highlights essential works and scholars, putting them in conversation across time, and it surfaces the recurring strains in American intellectual life. “There is no period in American history when thinkers have not wrestled with the appropriate balance of power between self-interest and social obligation,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, identifying a central theme not just of her book but of the republic.

It is a fraught enterprise, she acknowledges, to try to determine the intellectual motivations of history’s actors, to peek inside their heads. “Making the claim for the causal force of ideas is always a little risky,” Ratner-Rosenhagen admits. But it is a risk she is eager to take, and that willingness is infectious. “The Ideas That Made America” urges us to see intellectual trends as intrinsic to America’s story, not just equal to our political and social currents but, often, shifting the tides.”

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