Contemporary culture loves origin stories. It’s not just that when we make our superhero movies, we always start with the origin—we even like to start the same franchises over and over again. For historians, the allure of the origin can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to see why. To borrow a phrase from David Marquand’s ecstatic review of Inventing the Individual, origin stories “persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from.” The idea of finding in the past the hidden meaning of our present can be the very thing that captivates people about history in the first place. Continue reading
Last week, I attended the annual conference for the Society of United States Intellectual History, this year held in Irvine, CA. It was a fun time, and I learned enough and met enough people to consider the conference a success (and worth the 12 hour flight from London!). Yet one thing struck me the entire weekend, and was reinforced by Mark Peterson who gave words to my thoughts during his session response: why is there a paucity of work on early America within the recent surge of interest in US intellectual history? Or, to ask a different, but still related, question, why do so few historians of early America do work on intellectual history, or self-identify as intellectual historians? Continue reading
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?