Winterer, “American Enlightenments”

f91c0ad896d2f4ffe39f2cfa7861d6ddIn yesterday’s book post, I noted that the American Revolution was more complicated and contingent an event than commonly understood. If one or two battles had gone differently, the Crown might well have prevailed, with all that implies for, among other things, church and state in America. And conventional wisdom errs in assuming that the Revolution was a straightforward project of the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment itself was a unified movement. A book released by Yale University Press last month, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, by Caroline Winterer (Stanford), argues that the Enlightenment had many different, competing, not always consistent streams. The author apparently thinks the Cold War is responsible for our exaggerated sense of the unity of our Revolution and its Enlightened character, which seems doubtful. But the main theme of the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A provocative reassessment of the concept of an American golden age of European-born reason and intellectual curiosity in the years following the Revolutionary War

The accepted myth of the “American Enlightenment” suggests that the rejection of monarchy and establishment of a new republic in the United States in the eighteenth century was the realization of utopian philosophies born in the intellectual salons of Europe and radiating outward to the New World. In this revelatory work, Stanford historian Caroline Winterer argues that a national mythology of a unitary, patriotic era of enlightenment in America was created during the Cold War to act as a shield against the threat of totalitarianism, and that Americans followed many paths toward political, religious, scientific, and artistic enlightenment in the 1700s that were influenced by European models in more complex ways than commonly thought. Winterer’s book strips away our modern inventions of the American national past, exploring which of our ideas and ideals are truly rooted in the eighteenth century and which are inventions and mystifications of more recent times.

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