It’s hard to write about early American print culture or intellect without thinking a lot about geography. Scholars like Trish Loughran, Richard John, John Fea, John Brooke, and Mary Kelley have suggested, in all sorts of ways, that it’s often wise to understand “the” early American public as a web of fundamentally local reading and writing publics. Intellectual culture meant something different from what it means in an age of mass media. But tricky questions come up when you try to write a local history of ideas or culture. Just how local can we reasonably go? How much detail can we actually use in an intellectual map of the early United States without getting lost in coincidences and irrelevance?
The current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic includes Andrew Cayton’s SHEAR presidential address on the novel’s place in the postrevolutionary Atlantic world: “The Authority of the Imagination in an Age of Wonder.” The essay makes a case for the usefulness of period novels to early-republic historians. Cayton gives us three reasons novels are useful as historical sources:
- “The people we study paid attention to them.” Novels were significant parts of people’s lives, and they illuminate “the shifting structure of discourse and discourse communities” in early-nineteenth-century America.
- “They challenge our preoccupation with categories.” Novels were experiments in defining and redefining people.
- Novels reveal that many people conceived of liberty socially, “as a voluntary location of one’s self within overlapping social networks” (25-26).  Continue reading
Historians of early America often stereotype each other as being adverse to the use of theory. However, a closer look at the historiography of early America over the last century does not bear out that claim. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Progressives derived their materialist conception of history from Marx. The Progressive interpretation held for decades until the 1960s when a group of historians based at Harvard University displaced it with an interpretation influenced by the sociological theories of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. Even though postmodernism and postcolonialism, as theories, never took a strong hold on the field, there have been early American historians who have sought to incorporate, in a general sense, their broader modes of inquiry. The historiography of early America has hardly been devoid of theory over the last one hundred years.
Nevertheless, a deeper look into each of these examples shows us that early Americanists’ relationship with theory has been anything but obsequious. Perhaps, it is best defined as casual or, better yet, utilitarian. The Progressives appropriated the generalities of Marx’s historical materialism without embracing either his sociological analysis or his broader dialectic. Similarly, the ideological historians of the 1960s and 1970s used Geertz’s definition of ideology as the mediation of experience into the structure of consciousness without attempting to apply the rest of his intricately complex theory regarding cultural systems. Following in that tradition, early Americanists over the last twenty years, particularly those associated with the New New Political History, have loosely appropriated the Habermasian concepts of the “public sphere” and “civil society” while casting aside both small but fundamental details and the much larger particulars of Habermas’s argument. Continue reading