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THE NEW AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY BrnceTucker E. Brooks Holifield. Era of Persuasion: American Thoughtand Culture,1521-1680. Boston: Twayne, 1989. 200 pp. Robert E. Shalhope. The Roots of Democracy:American Thoughtand Culture,17601800 . Boston: Twayne, 1990. xvii + 190 pp. Jean V. Matthews. Toward a New Society:American Thoughtand Culture,18001830 . Boston: Twayne, 1991. xi + 187 pp. Twenty years ago a series of books on American thought and culture would have been unimaginable. During the 1970sand 1980sAmerican intellectual historians questioned not simply the form and method of their craft but its very existence. Indeed, in 1977, a gathering of intellectual historians at Racine, Wisconsin, debated both a rationale for their craft and an array of methodologies by which it might still be practised. Their deliberations led to the publication of New Directions in American Intellectual History, an influential book of essays, and to the founding of the Intellectual History Group, an organization which has sought to bring some coherence to the discussion of method in the practice of intellectual history. The Intellectual History Newsletter has offered readers a cross-section of that discourse as it unfolded in ensuing years, but it should also be read as an artifact of the angst which has pervaded intellectual history during the past two decades.1 How then are we to explain the launching of an entire series whichin the words of general editor Lewis Perry seeks to "survey intellectual and cultural life in America from the sixteenth century to the present" (Foreword)? The authors, Perry suggests, examine critical issues in the history of American thought and culture, as well those issues which have persisted into our own time. Change, diversity and conflict so dominate the American past, editor and authors agree, that a single, consistent interpretation of American intellectual history is impossible. On the basis of Perry's introduction so far, we might simply conclude that after several years of fragmentation, American intellectual historians are seeking to emphasize diversity and conflict within American intellectual traditions. This project 92 Bruce Tucker would make a good deal of sense because an older version of American intellectual history based on consensus and homogeneity is no longer compelling to most historians. 2 Perry suggests another reason, however, for the appearance of these first three volumes in Twayne's series on American thought and culture. He notes that the publisher has launched this series at a time when the very notion of an American culture is the subject of a fiercely partisan debate. Some academics have lamented the decline of a common American culture and contend that self-identification in the United States today has been fragmented by ethnic, gender, racial and class consciousness. They assume that a homogeneous definition of American culture existed in the past. Most American Studies specialists in the past twenty years have not shared this assumption, however, arguing that cultural diversity has been the hallmark of American civilization since the founding of the Colonies. The past has become a contested terrain, a battleground for commentators who are concerned about the definition of contemporary American culture.3 Brooks Holifield's Era of Persuasion not only assumes the diversity of American culture in past time, it seeks to reconstitute our understanding of early American history along pluralist lines. In this endeavour, the author is largely successful. Distinguishing between the articulation of ideas for the purpose of persuasion and the dispassionate pursuit of ideas for their own sake, Holifield opts for an instrumentalist view of intellectual history. He focuses on "the function of thinking and writing" in the Colonial period and argues that "when men and women dealt with ideas, they were usually trying to persuade somebody to do something" (Preface). This approach enables him to offer the reader penetrating explications of language, texts, iconography, ceremonies and architecture in order to explain Europeans' expectations of North American environment and cultures, the reactions of native North Americans to European initiatives, and the formation of colonial modes of perceiving and organizing social experience. At its best, this book recharts the map of early American intellectual history, suggesting that recent work in ethnography has not only added to our knowledge of the colonial past but has brought previously marginalized cultures...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 91-100
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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