Grant Wong

The art of history is all about exclusion. The historian’s craft necessitates, by design, the inclusion of certain evidence and analysis at the expense of others. Given the sheer vastness of history, it is mandatory to limit historical work (whether it be a book, article, blog post, museum exhibit, lesson, discussion, etc.) to best fit the arguments and scope of its subject matter. Periodization frames history by chronology. Analytical lenses, whether they be “politics,” “race,” “class,” or “culture,” work to similar ends. The intent of the term “area studies” is self-explanatory—its boundary is geography. Even world history has its limits; there’s a lot of detail lost when zooming out to a global scale.

It’s easy to forget that writing, too, is an art of exclusion. Every word is written at the cost of others. However, just as in the case of history, this is a necessity. As William Zinsser demonstrates in On Writing Well, a practical guide to non-fiction writing originally published in 1976, good writing derives its quality not simply by the skill and originality of its prose, but also by what it excludes. In other words, be concise. Be deliberate about what words you pen onto the page. Edit aggressively: remove extraneous words from your writing with extreme prejudice.

The result? Clear, engaging, unpretentious writing. “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author,” writes Zinsser. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” In keeping with the argumentative thrust of his message, he pulls no punches in his advice. “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he declares. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.” While Zinsser examines all kinds of writing conventions and genres over the course of his guide, this message is repeated throughout. Be exclusionary with your words, he implores, for your writing to embrace the personal feel of “humanity and warmth.”

As I train as a historian, I do so with a great sense of conviction and moral purpose. It is my firm belief that all history should be public history; therefore, it is my mandate to craft interpretations of the past that are meaningful, engaging, and insightful for the benefit of the public. To this cause, Zinsser’s lessons will serve me well. As I go back to school to start my PhD at the University of South Carolina, I aspire to craft histories that are as humane and warm as Zinsser believed all non-fiction writing should be.


Jenny Davis Barnett

As a native speaker of English, these 5 books on my bookshelf have received the most wear over the years: 1. A good dictionary: Spelling errors and incorrect use of collocation can quickly and easily be avoided by consulting a standard dictionary.  For native speakers of English in Australia or England, and for non-native speakers of English. A good thesaurus is also helpful. 2. The Elements of Style: I re-read this small work at least once or twice a year. It is timeless and indispensable for good mechanics. 3.The Craft of Research: The pain of trial and error can be reduced by setting down an organized plan for doing research. This book helped me transition from thinking like a student to thinking like a scholar. 4. The Elements of Academic Style: Academic English writing has expectations that are not always easily discerned. This book helped me change my writing from a level fit for English 101 to scholarly communication. 5. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: The adage “publish or perish” is the reality of careers in academia. This book helped me publish my first peer-reviewed journal article after receiving nothing but rejections for a few years. The author also runs a private discussion group.


Alec Israeli

Coming off a summer of blessed, elective pleasure reading, I have committed my final few weeks before the start of fall term to easing myself back into the realm of academic work. I began this transition with a recent anthology, The Worlds of American Intellectual History, edited by Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and the late Michael O’Brien. This 2017 collection serves as a kind of state-of-the-field report, with wide-ranging essay contributions from leading scholars of American intellectual history. The essays are organized thematically in five parts: Frames, Justice, Philosophy, Secularization, and Method. Of course—as Kloppenberg admits in his introduction—these divisions are purely heuristic. In my own reading, I found that the essays, however various, consistently complemented one another.

The book’s title speaks to a message unifying its pieces: a potentially infinite number of “worlds” (conceptual, temporal, spacial, political, etc.) constitute the entity that we provisionally call American intellectual history. Both the multiplicity and necessary porosity of these worlds is perhaps best displayed in the helpfully self-conscious essays by Daniel T. Rodgers and Sarah E. Igo, in the book’s section on Method. Entitled “Paths in the Social History of Ideas,” Rodgers’ essay challenges intellectual historians to take the lessons of academic history’s transnational turn and apply them to intellectual history within the bounded nation: ideas, carried by “parcels and persons”, move not only across the porous borders between nations, but also across the porous social and geographic borders within nations themselves. Building upon the material focus of histories of print cultures, he notes that published works frequently circulated more within particular regions of the US—or within particular sets of readers united by common interests, commitments, or identities—than circulated across the entire nation.

Rodgers closes his piece with the assertion that “knowledges are plural and socially inflected.” Igo’s essay, “Toward a Free-Range Intellectual History,” serves as an excellent follow-up. Drawing on her research into the history of the concept of privacy, she suggests that intellectual historians researching a concept have too often tied themselves to canonical or institutionally-endorsed texts (in the case of privacy, academic legal essays and court cases). Such an approach is limited, Igo argues, insofar as it often takes the meaning of the concept favored in these texts at face value, without considering the social forces shaping this particular usage. Here, then, the concept itself is not historicized, and attempted histories of the concept become histories of applied meaning (e.g. histories of a right to privacy rather than privacy as such).

As a corrective, Igo offers up an idea of “free range” intellectual history: a method “attuned to the shifting, open-ended, multivocal nature of the idea in question.” Igo endorses an “eclecticism” of sources—an examination of pop literature, periodicals, radio programs, various disciplinary journals, letters, etc., in conversation with canonical texts. Ideas, she holds, flow from low to high as much as vice-versa. As Rodgers reminds us: “the production of ideas goes on everywhere.” Igo similarly encourages us to search for “fresh pastures” in the popular realm as we study ideas that are “publicly claimed and, therefore, popularly shaped.”

Margaret Abruzzo’s essay, “The Sins of Slaves and the Slaves of Sin: Towards a History of Moral Agency,” exemplifies the kind of conceptual history Igo proposes. Rather than take “morality” or “agency” as fixed concepts, Abruzzo investigates how definitions of these ideas were contested and developed within antebellum debates around social reform and slavery; moreover, she holds that a history of morality must force us “to think about how moral ideas ranged more freely in broader discourses.” Free-range intellectual history indeed!

Long-standing theological debates over sin and free will, Abruzzo shows, filtered through contemporary political concerns, tackled by odd-ball reformers, pro-slavery zealots, and enslaved and formerly-enslaved people alike: To what extent could sinners—in reformers’ eyes ranging from drunkards to slaveholders—be saved or held responsible if they were “slaves to sin?” Did chosen sin compromise free will? For slaveholders: if they believed that slaves were prone to sin, and thus needed enslavement to ensure just conduct, to what extent could slaveholders hold themselves culpable for their slaves’ sins? For enslaved persons themselves: could they hold themselves accountable for sins they committed while bound in slavery, in which their actions as agents were conditioned by a state of domination? Could they, would they, have acted otherwise?

As Abruzzo demonstrates, freedom and moral agency were not, are not, the same thing. For my own research purposes, I found this chapter helpful in illuminating the moral-philosophical dimensions of contemporary political-economic debates: similar problems of freedom and domination were often considered at the time in the radical republican terms favored by the politicized free laborers who called themselves “wage slaves.”

Abruzzo’s translation of moral philosophy into a subject of material import has normative implications for intellectual historians: ideas and their interpretations, those of intellectual historians included, do not “float untethered to concrete moral engagement.” An essay by Sophia Rosenfeld—“On Lying: Writing Philosophical History after the Enlightenment and after Arendt”—offers a rousing call for the return of the intellectual historian engagé, one who can blur the lines between philosophy and history not by a rank, particularistic presentism, but by “[estranging] our audience from its and our own present,” and so being “invested in the present” and its challengeable political assumptions. In writing on lineages and constellations of ideas across time, unabashedly filtered by current concerns, impelled by an intention to estrange the present, the philosophical historian is “liberated” to “draw general conclusions” about our contemporary social life.

Rosenfeld’s program—and the many essays in this collection which seem to conform to it, whether consciously or not—is a tall order, but inspiring nonetheless. It certainly has reinvigorated me for the fall term ahead.


Shuvatri Dasgupta

Since the theme of this month’s reading recommendations is “Back to School,” I hope a bit of reminiscence will not be out of place. When I started my PhD at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, broadly identifying myself as a researcher in intellectual history, a course titled (History of) History of Political Thought (abbreviated as HHPT) was suggested to me as foundational, for working in the field of intellectual history. One of the first things I noticed about it was the fact that although the course claimed to be on the history of political thought, its focus was entirely and admittedly ‘Western’. Was the non-West then not a space which generated political thought? The other thing that caught my eye in the initial days was the fact that not only were the subjects of this history of political thought male and white: even the secondary literature that was recommended on them was of a similarly myopic nature. I remember sitting in that classroom week after week attempting to participate. I use the word attempting to draw attention to the fact that no one in the classroom was able to respond to and engage with my comments and thoughts on the readings. It was in that space that I realized the relevance and importance of decolonizing the curriculum at large, and decolonizing intellectual history specifically. 

As a young researcher trained in India before arriving in Cambridge for my doctoral research, I was immensely struck by how exclusionary the structures of education here were, and how they upheld (if not celebrated) the alleged maleness, and Eurocentrism, within the discipline of intellectual history. The epistemic violence of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy continued to remain enshrined and protected in spaces such as these. In formulating my critiques of the discipline as it is now, and charting a roadmap for the ways in which it can be transformed, I have returned to two of my courses from the Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata, titled ‘Global Intellectual History’ (I and II) designed by Dr. Milinda Banerjee. These remain fundamental to what I understand as intellectual history, which I believe as a discipline can offer the tools for an archaeology of concepts and ideas without being hierarchical and exclusionary. They brought to fore the radical possibilities of intellectual history by investigating the category of the “global” and opening the discipline up to histories of philosophies without a philosopher. They have hence proved crucial in my early days of doctoral research for thinking through questions of violence, exclusion, canonization, and the materiality and textuality of archives, amongst other things. I return to these readings time and again, in my ongoing experiments with intellectual history, as I attempt to recenter ideas and concepts from non-Anglocentric lifeworlds as subjects of historical investigation.  

Featured Image: Illustration taken from Robert Seaver, Ye butcher, ye baker, ye candlestick-maker: being sundry amusing and instructive verses for both old and young, adorned with numerous woodcuts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908).