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How America learned to think for itself

Review of ‘The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History’ by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

Attendees fill the main hall during the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
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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.

The American Revolution, for instance, responded to the ferment of immigrants, concentration of wealth and British taxation of the colonies, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes. But “before waging a fearsome war . . . a dramatic intellectual transformation had to occur first.” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” offered “the right words at the right time,” arguing that the colonists had the power to begin the world anew. A similar metamorphosis occurred nearly two centuries later, when the collected works of 1962, including Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” not to mention the Port Huron Statement, would propel America’s cultural wars. “The sixties — and the dramatic decades that followed — started in ideas,” Ratner-Rosenhagen declares, simple and persuasive. 1963 was no slouch, either, with Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” appearing that year, both a form of “prison writing,” the author notes, in one of her many sly asides.

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America’s enduring religiosity makes its intellectual evolution especially intricate. “What gave the Enlightenment ideas in America their distinct form,” Ratner-Rosenhagen explains, “is that America’s foremost thinkers were not hostile to religion.” For every intellectual revolution vaulting faith over reason, countervailing forces appeared. Transcendentalists sought to “bring religion in line with secular knowledge,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, while the pragmatists, buoyed by Darwin’s methods and theories, came to regard all beliefs and claims to truth as “nothing more than propositions that needed to be tested.” Yet thinkers of faith in the late 19th century tried to unlock the divine even within Darwinism, arguing that “fellowship and compassion, not greed and ruthlessness, were the human traits most necessary for racial progress and survival.” And after World War II, some New Deal-style notions of scientific and administrative advancement came to seem naive, “even a bit taunting,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes. “Intellectuals and educators wanted more assurances about moral universals.”

No surprise that terms such as “hopeful empiricism” and “sanctified reason” make cameos throughout this book. Ratner-Rosenhagen regards American intellectual life as a history of “crossings” across geography, time and culture — “between one cultural setting and another, text and context, secular analysis and sacred belief.”

At times, the religious origins of secular notions are easily forgotten or distorted. In his farewell address in 1989, President Ronald Reagan famously drew from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity” to fashion his “shining city upon a hill” as an ode to America’s unique purpose in the world. Except, as Ratner-Rosenhagen points out, Winthrop’s original sermon was focused on the fate of his particular faith community and its own moral mission. “More than two hundred years passed before Winthrop’s conception of the Puritans’ special charge would become refashioned as American exceptionalism.” Ratner-Rosenhagen devotes just a few paragraphs to that long transformation, whereas the recent book by historian Daniel T. Rodgers, “As a City on a Hill,” provides a more comprehensive look at the many uses and contortions the original sermon has suffered. But this is the appeal of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book: Even if it is a gateway drug for heftier works of intellectual history, it’s still a pretty decent hit.

More than a work of intellectual history, “The Ideas That Made America” is also a work on intellectual history. The author pauses to delight in her field, a daily opportunity to “eavesdrop on the past,” and offers a tutorial on its limits and possibilities. She is acutely cognizant of those left out of this history. Archaeological and historical inquiry may describe the daily lives of indigenous Americans before the 16th century, for instance, but “none of this reveals much at all about how native people made sense of the arrival of Europeans, not to mention how they made sense of themselves and their worlds prior to contact.” Intellectual evolution, like its biological counterpart, is neither predetermined nor admirable — it just is. It can be embraced, but also exploited or resisted to satisfy long-held beliefs, Ratner-Rosenhagen explains. “The human imagination is extraordinarily deft at making new ideas jibe with prior intellectual and moral commitments, and when the two cannot or simply will not be reconciled, it is almost always the prior worldview that wins out.”

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Although Ratner-Rosenhagen contends that the intellectual historian need not pass judgment on the moral decisions of the past, but rather “seek to comprehend how those actors came to their understanding,” she highlights her heroes and villains. The author’s admiration for 19th-century antebellum feminist Margaret Fuller and Progressive-era writer Randolph Bourne, for instance, appears boundless. By contrast, she emphasizes that activist Margaret Sanger and historian Lothrop Stoddard, through their advocacy of eugenics in the early 20th century, reveal the abuses of so-called intellectual progress. “Both used the authority of modern science to credentialize racial bigotry,” she writes. And she neatly captures the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson, whose “enlightened anthropology looked for escape clauses in its claims for a common humanity.”

Though foreign influences are essential to her story, this is a deeply American history. While Ratner-Rosenhagen lingers on the faddish fascination that mid-20th-century America had with the French existentialists, for instance, she stresses how writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright “were able to render a distinctly American existentialism by drawing on their own haunting experiences.” Such works are a critical part of the “struggle for moral identification,” a persistent tension in American intellectual life.

Ratner-Rosenhagen concludes with the early-21st-century battles over globalization and inequality. At first, I wished she had added a final section exploring the intellectual origins of today’s political and cultural divides. Yet I ended up respecting her reluctance to include a dutiful Trump chapter. She offers clues, lingering on the nation’s narcissistic impulses, its fights over identity politics and the naivete of thinkers who believed that globalization would break down nationalism rather than intensify it. For the intellectual historian, that can suffice. It is for us, today, to write the rest.

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