Was America Part of the Republic of Letters?

There’s an interesting take on early America in the new issue of Modern Intellectual History.  The article is an unusually layman-friendly essay on digital humanities, but it’s also an excellent essay on the importance of a spatial imagination to those of us who work on American intellectuals. And it challenges conventional thinking about the intellectual significance of the American Revolution, so I think it merits careful reading.

In “Where Is America in the Republic of Letters,” Caroline Winterer reflects on what modern digital tools can reveal about early American intellectual life. Specifically, Winterer discusses an ongoing initiative at Stanford called “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” There she is the lead researcher on a project to visualize Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence networks in the mid-18th century. In her new MIH article, Winterer tries to explain how digital projects like this can challenge or revise historians’ thinking.

Winterer contrasts two dominant ways of conceptualizing intellectual exchange in colonial British America. “Put bluntly,” she writes, “the Atlantic world has become an early Americanist’s category, while the republic of letters has become an early modern Europeanist’s category.” She suggests that this is due to Americanists’ nationalistic assumptions. European historiography, by definition, (and I’m embroidering a bit on her text here) starts from the the recognition that nations are contingent and porous, while Americanists, always conceiving of their subject teleologically as the future United States, struggle to recognize the limits of the nation at all. So for us, the British “Atlantic world” is useful as a rather grudging way frame and problematize the thing that was not yet the United States, while Europeanists are happy to follow the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” wherever it leads them, whether around the Mediterranean or into the Far East.

This may fall slightly off the mark, I think. The more important thing about the Atlantic world is that it’s a sneaky way to maintain a special relationship between Britain and the United States, preserving the privileged place of English law and ideology in our studies of colonial and revolutionary America while acknowledging the existence of other empires and constituent peoples. In other words, I think the Atlantic world is actually more about U.S. historians’ Anglophone nationalism than their American nationalism. Nevertheless, Winterer’s observation seems important. It is true that the republic of letters gets far more play in early-modern European history than in early American history, and this almost certainly means something interesting.

According to Winterer, one thing it means is that early American intellectual history needs to take a closer look at where the letters of the republic were actually going. “The big, broad idea of an Atlantic world” is a clumsy replacement for more precise locating of nodes in transatlantic intellectual networks. Mostly, she writes, the paths taken by writers and writing reveal that British America’s “Atlantic” intellectual life was really centered on England, and not just England but London (phenomena like the Edinburgh enlightenment and John Fea’s rural enlightenment notwithstanding).

Detail from Claire Rydell and Caroline Winterer, “Benjamin Franklin’s Correspondence Network, 1757-1763,” Mapping the Republic of Letters Project, Stanford University, October 2012

A second use for the concept of the republic of letters, Winterer argues, is to show that America’s revolutionary “philosopher-statesmen,” Benjamin Franklin in particular, weren’t really as new as certain historians have claimed. Franklin, Winterer writes, should not be seen simply as a producer of Enlightenment knowledge. His real importance lay in his function as a key node in Enlightenment literary networks, a sort of “human switchboard” who relayed ideas to and from his many correspondents. This sort of figure, Winterer says, was not exactly new to Europe, but it may also have been more common in colonial America than most people realize. Winterer points to Prospero’s America, Walter Woodward’s recent study of John Winthrop Jr., which reveals that the 17th-century Connecticut governor maintained a similar transatlantic correspondence network one hundred years earlier. The scale of Franklin’s literary output and scientific success was extraordinary, but he functioned as the literati had throughout the early modern era.

A harder problem, Winterer concedes, is what all of this means for the nature of intellectual cosmopolitanism and empire. For example, what was the relationship between centers and peripheries in the republic of letters — and is it appropriate to view early America as intellectually peripheral? The answer is unclear. On ordinary maps of correspondence networks, American letters appear as long lines crossing the vast Atlantic ocean. But does this mean that Americans were less firmly connected to London and Paris than provincial Europeans were, or more? Similarly, does mapping intellectual networks shed any light on the role of religion in carrying ideas? In the absence of well-organized missionary-intellectual orders like the Jesuits, were British America’s religious literary networks primarily a cause of empire or an effect? The concept of the republic of letters, Winterer suggests, opens these as important questions without resolving them.

Finally, and most importantly, Winterer argues that the concept of the republic of letters calls into question the significance of the American Revolution. “In fact,” she writes, “seen in the broader context of the republic of letters, the specific influences of the American Revolution and republicanism on the deep structures of US intellectual life become more difficult to assert with confidence.” In the first decades after the Revolution, the intellectual life of the new nation was not necessarily preoccupied with republican politics. Often, intellectuals in the early American republic were more concerned with the same sorts of questions that had long kept the public of letters humming — questions of personal refinement and honor, virtue in a prepolitical sense, and appropriate sensibility. So when the ground beneath American intellectual life shifted later in the 19th century, was this because of the Revolution and democratization, or was it because of a wider evolution in the modern republic of letters? Winterer clearly favors the second thesis.

To say that I agree with Caroline Winterer about the importance of visualizing early American intellectual networks would be an understatement. That’s true whether we’re discussing “visualization” in a formal sense, i.e., the sense of precisely representing large data sets as comprehensible graphics, or in an informal sense — meaning the presentation of stories about travel and communication that make it easy to imagine ideas as concrete, material, personal things rather than abstractions.

But I also worry about what Winterer’s model might mean for the study of “intellectuals” as people. The great virtue of the concept of the Atlantic world is that it reminds us of the enormous importance of ships (bear with me a moment) to literally every aspect of life in early America. Not just particular ships, like, say, the Mayflower or the Arbella— the special vectors of special people with special thoughts — but shipping in general. It puts many different kinds of exchange at the center of what it meant to be and think in colonial America. And it makes it increasingly hard to set apart ideas as a special kind of thought, or to set apart colonial intellectuals, a priori, as special people. Early American intellectuals may be distinguishable as unusually good writers and thinkers, but they were also full participants in a culture of exchange  that encouraged written representations of all kinds. Their ideas had meaning not only in the republic of letters, but also in a much larger public of letters — an enormous quasi-Habermasian commercial public sphere. So the concept of a watery world of exchange opens up intellectual history to new topics and new forms of relevance to other subfields, in ways that the concept of a relatively rarefied cosmopolitan republic of letters does not.

It seems to me that mapping the republic of letters will be most useful if it can help us represent that aspect of early American intellectual life. Benjamin Franklin’s thousands of letters traveled overwhelmingly between London and a handful of American cities. But who were the thousands of people who sent and received them? With whom else did those people correspond about the same questions? And how closely were “ideas” bound up with their daily pursuits? If we can find better ways to visualize these dimensions of intellectual exchange, we may find ourselves in a much better position to argue for the importance of the life of the mind to the wider history of early America.

[Note: This is reposted from U.S. Intellectual History under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to L.D. Burnett for arranging its publication there.]


A City of the Mind: Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Jacques Barzun on the cover of Time Magazine, 1956I woke up this morning to learn that Jacques Barzun, born in Paris 104 years ago, died last night in San Antonio.

Barzun was old (and European) enough to remember the Great War as a “shattering experience,” and to have published books denouncing racism and authoritarianism before the Second World War came to America. He was also old enough to have witnessed (and questioned) all three of the great twentieth-century transformations in the American academy: the rise of a new breed of leftist public intellectual, the integration of the university system into the total-war state, and the half-subversive, half-therapeutic insurgencies of the New Left and New Right, which challenged that entanglement.

He was also old enough to have appeared on the cover of Time, accompanied by the lamp of learning, its flame burning like the tail of a rocket, fifty-six years ago.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the kind of romantic intellectualism Barzun championed. On the one hand, I strongly agree with his condemnations of brutish partisanship and technocracy in the academy. I think it’s a little bit disgraceful that universities offer degrees in business — and I hold one — or operate graduate training schools for government functionaries — and I’m earning my doctorate from one.

On the other hand, I’m also the kind of outsider who never would have had a place at the academic table if ugly things like the SAT and GRE didn’t exist. And I just don’t have any inclination to support the conceits of metropolitans who confuse proximity with merit. To his credit, Barzun believed he had a high public calling and wished to make the life of the mind available to ordinary Americans. But there’s also more than a trace, in his record, of the notion that ideas are something ordinary people receive, not something they generate or resist. So when I read Barzun and people like him, I’m left feeling uneasily inspired, trying to sort out the romanticism of sanctity from the romanticism of privilege.

What is certain is that I will continue to draw inspiration from them.

The American Intellectual Tradition Tradition

For the upcoming USIH conference in New York, I’m finishing off a paper that comments briefly on how U.S. intellectual historians have treated the early American republic. To provide a pithy illustration, I mention that the current edition of The American Intellectual Tradition, the widely used sourcebook by Charles Capper and David Hollinger, contains essentially nothing from the four decades between 1790 and 1828. (Other than some late letters of Adams and Jefferson, the only essay included from that period is William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 but is probably useful in the modern classroom mainly for understanding what the 1830s were like in Concord.)

To me, this seems like a useful little observation, but for safety’s sake, if nothing else, I’d also like to be able to compare the contents of the sixth edition with previous editions, which go all the way back to 1989. Unfortunately, the only other edition I have on hand at the moment is the second.

I see that Amazon does show the tables of contents for the third and fourth editions. It seems pretty clear that Channing first appeared in the fourth edition, in 2001 — meaning that AIT has grown more inclusive, not less, over the years. But I’d really like to see the full run.

It’s not worth my time right now. But at some point, I think, I should make a collation of the contents of all six editions. It could useful as one way to judge how the field has evolved — or not — since the late twentieth century.

In the meantime, there’s Hollinger’s own essay on the making and remaking of the book: “What Is Our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of Their Field.”