Generally brisk but occasionally dense summary of American intellectual history from the Founding Fathers to the eve of the 20th century.
Proceeding chronologically from Thomas Paine, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Goetzmann (History and American Studies/Univ. of Texas; Explorations and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the West, 1965, etc.) covers both the familiar and the arcane. Into the former category fall analyses of the Stamp Act, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Lewis and Clark, Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln and the Civil War, among many other well-known events and personalities. These are supplemented by, for example, illuminating commentary on The Impending Crisis in the South (1857), a now-obscure tract by North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper that attacked the plantation class and sold more than 150,000 copies, though it was banned in the South. Goetzmann does not slight literary history either, offering substantial sections on Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville and other giants. The lack of endnotes can be frustrating, as when he contends that the teenaged Poe seduced a school friend’s mother, who became the subject of his lovely poem, “To Helen.” Readers cannot evaluate the plausibility of this encounter, which is not noted in standard biographies, since Goetzmann does not specify the source for his version. He does highlight some significant movements and moments in American cultural history, including the utopian efforts of the Shakers and the much lesser-known Modern Times settlement on Long Island. He also discusses the emergence of black intellectuals—Frederick Douglass, no surprise, receives major treatment—the rise of the women’s-rights movement, abolition and the post–Civil War realists in American fiction, with Twain and James representing the movement’s poles. Goetzmann ends with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, noting that “America had reached a plateau of self-definition.”
Chockablock with fact and figure, an intelligent, informed treatment showing the United States as a great laboratory of cultural innovation.