Title Reviewed:
American Intellectual Histories and Historians

Author Reviewed:
Robert Allen Skotheim

Robert D. Marcus


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 67-68

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Intellectual Histories and Historians. By Robert Allen Skotheim. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Pp. xi, 326. Notes, appendices, index. $6.95.)

American Intellectual Histories and Historians is the first book-length study of the writing of American intellectual history. Skotheim offers a review and analysis of the backgrounds, methods, interpretations, and ideologies of all the major academic historians of ideas in America from the pioneering efforts of Moses Coit Tyler to currently active writers such as Daniel Boorstin. Although very much an exercise in professional self-consciousness, this intellectual history of intellectual history is valuable as a careful and scholarly examination of an enterprise which, since its beginning at the end of the last century, has assumed sizable proportions and has had an important influence on over-all interpretations of the American past.

Skotheim's analysis stresses ideology rather than methodology. He believes that the approach to ideas which historians have taken has depended more on their images of desirable public policy or ethical standards than on specifically methodological considerations. Their stance as men and citizens has determined in large measure their attitude as historians. He sees two broad traditions. One, exemplified in the work of Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Carl Becker, Vernon L. Parrington, and Merle Curti, is dedicated to reform, pacifism, pragmatism, and an ethics based on science rather than religion. This "Progressive Tradition" sees ideas largely as the product of the social and economic environment and therefore serves as a critical weapon in the reformer's hands by reducing religious, social, and political ideas to defenses of vested interests. The second tradition, appearing in the writings of Samuel Eliot Morison, Ralph Henry Gabriel, and Perry Miller, tends to a greater political conservatism, a respect for tradition, an interest in religion, a belief in the martial virtues, and a scepticism about the perfectibility of man by any process of social reform. Methodologically it is distinguished by an interest in ideas for their own sake and imputes a causal effect to them rather than reducing them to reflections of the environment. Skotheim argues in a short final chapter that these two traditions, after a generation of mutual conflict, have been "converging" since the 1940's as younger men try to borrow from the strengths of both traditions and to apply them carefully to narrow, specialized topics.

In this survey of the fairly short past of intellectual history as a specialized discipline, Skotheim offers many useful insights into the way that such twentieth century events as the two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism have affected historians' judgments of the values and ideals which Americans have held in the past. On the other hand, his emphasis on ideology tends to sort writers into categories which sometimes do far less than full justice to their achievements as historians. The treatment, for example, of Perry Miller, the greatest American intellectual historian, simply must be called inadequate.

Poor writing is the main fault of this useful book. Long quotations are juxtaposed to even longer paraphrases, and key points are repeated page after page with minimal verbal alterations. Sometimes a quotation is exactly repeated within a few pages. (See for instance pp. 206 and 210; 224 and 225). It takes rather too much patience to read through the book. But if one does, he can learn a great deal. It is certainly essential reading for anyone interested in either intellectual history or American historiography.

Indiana University

Robert D. Marcus

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.