Monday, April 14, 2008

The American Intellectual Tradition: Volume II - 1865 to the Present

This book is incredible; David Hollinger and Charles Capper have edited a collection of essays that deserves prominent placement on any bookshelf.

The second volume of an anthology, a quick glance at the table of contents reveals a superstar line-up of American intellectuals: William James, George Santayana, Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, Thomas Kuhn, Martin, Luther King, Jr., and more. Essays from the Greats are arranged chronologically to provide the reader with a rough sketch of the development of American thought. In addition to the work from the household names, many impressive essays from lesser-known writers are included. In fact, some of my favorites were written by them. It just goes to show that popularity is not necessarily an indication of quality--Nicholas Cage is a star.

What continually struck me while reading this book was the quality of writing and clarity of thought. George Santayana (pictured at right) contributes an essay titled "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" that left me in awe. Composed with apt metaphors and picturesque imagery, the essay stands in stark contrast to the dry, pedantic works that dominate philosophy today. His poetic prose is complemented well by the humorous and insightful works by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and H.L Mencken. Both of these men exude a powerful intellectual acuity made rich through personal experience.

The range of voices in this book demonstrate the disparate ideologies that have formed our modern consciousness: Woodrow Wilson appears evangelical in his conviction to save the lesser nations; Malcolm X comes across much more petty and much less intelligent in his personal writing here than he presented himself, with the help of Alex Haley, in his autobiography; Randolph Bourne contributes an essay on pacifism that rings as true today as it did when he wrote it during WWI.

I highly recommend this book to everybody. Everybody should read this book. If 500 pages of essays seems boring, choose a few that intrigue you. You won't be sorry that you did.

No comments: