Review Essay: Paul Conkin’s ‘The Uneasy Center'

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Department 1

Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



Until the "linguistic turn" in the late 1980s, hardly any subdiscipline in American history had been as browbeaten for elitism, methodological anachronism, and, worst of all in the Sixties and Seventies, irrelevance as intellectual history. In 1979, in an effort to assess the damage their specialty had suffered since the heyday of Merle Curti, Ralph Henry Gabriel, and Perry Miller, a conference of American intellectual historians produced a remarkable volume of essays on New Directions in American Intellectual History, which at many points unwittingly documented intellectual history's problems-its naive conception of textuality, its weakness for determinism, its uncertainty in the face of the new social history rather than proposing solutions. As an editor of the book, Paul K. Conkin, was so dissatisfied with the meanderings of conference participants that, in a searching afterword, he asked whether the conference had managed in any meaningful way to define "the broader use or role of intellectual history," to tie together language and ideas, or even to define rationality. Conkin was most clearly aggrieved by the failure of intellectual historians to attempt the sort of grand synthetic treatment "of a national mind or character" exemplified by Richard Hofstadter and Miller and for "leaving this to the inadequate caricatures of the textbooks." [excerpt]


Original version is available from the publisher at: http://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/browse_toc.cfm?issue_num=52_4

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