Modernization and Intellectual Authority in US Literary Culture, 1750-1900

Symposium, July 2 to 5, 2009

Anglistisches Seminar in Cooperation with the Heidelberg Center for American Studies

Conference Location:
Internationales Wissenschaftsforum
Hauptstr. 242
69117 Heidelberg

Call for papers

Modern intellectuals grapple with conflicting strategies of legitimation: In order to authorize themselves as intellectuals (as opposed to political or religious campaigners) they are expected to reach a position of relative “disinterestedness.” At the same time their social credibility and their economic survival hinges on the perceived socio-political significance of their, well, “disinterested” work.

Cultural historians have tended to analyze the complexities of intellectual authority with reference to cultural particulars – attributing intellectual positions to the “logic” of the “age” (premodern moralism vs. post-romantic autonomy), national attitudes (American pragmatists vs. European formalists), class orientations (high-brow literary orchids vs. low-brow sensationalists), group identities (radical intellectuels vs. “scribbling women”) or even individual sensibilities (James the genteel aesthete vs. Howells the practical moralist).

While these approaches remain relevant enough, for this conference we want to shift the perspective towards the intellectual’s institutional grounding, exploring how the late-eighteenth-century print market revolution and the ensuing professionalization of literary culture shaped American concepts of “arts and letters,” as well as the self-conceptions and social status of those involved in these processes. We wish to consider how the cultural differentiation that began in the early republic and continued through the nineteenth century already anticipated the problematics of intellectual authority generally associated with later periods of more intensified professionalization (such as in the modernist avant-garde, or in the post-WWII institutionalization of criticism in the universities, or in the post-1960s “market place” of cultural theories). We therefore encourage reflection on how structural changes – the widening of the readership, resulting from rising standards of education and literacy, and the accompanying extension of print capitalism as well as the commodification of the book – affect late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of intellectual authority:
  • How, for instance, do these structural shifts affect holistic concepts of the “gentleman scholar” – a figure equally at home in the fields of politics, scientific inquiry, moral reasoning, aesthetic perception, and “polite” feeling?
  • How can one classify the different groups of writers and intellectuals that emerge as a result of the dynamization of literary production and reception (which produced not only literary intellectuals but also an array of professional journalists, magazine editors, religious or political pamphleteers, university professors, and pedagogues).
  • What is the place, in the more dynamic cultural market, of a new type of “men of letters” such as Emerson, Thoreau, Brownson, or Bancroft, who see themselves as engaged in the serious business of visionary world-making and cultural healing and seem more interested in peer recognition than political authority or economic success? (When and for whom does peer recognition become important? When and how does the refusal to cater to the rules of a commercial literary market itself acquire a market value as a trademark of intellectual integrity?).
  • How do popular (sensationalist, sentimental, domestic) writers claim intellectual authority, and where do they situate themselves along the intellectual spectrum? (How, for instance, do the various groups of intellectuals deal with their “feminization”?)
  • What is the function of gender and race with regard to intellectual authority?
  • How do these constellations and conceptions change towards the later nineteenth century? For instance, does the commercialization of “high culture,” in the course of which certain authors are granted celebrity status (Emerson, James, Howells, Twain), transform the self-image and public conception of literary intellectuals? We are also interested in the historical progression and spatial topography of the print market revolution, especially in earlier phases when cultural differentiation proceeds in fits and starts, producing “sites” of heightened professionalism that co-exist with older models of intellectual authority, on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, we wish to address the specific complications of the American scene, where intellectuals participate in a transatlantic “field” affected by local conditions (for instance, differences in the mode of literary organization and exchange that may have to do with region, group affiliation or literary tradition). We also welcome theoretical papers on how to conceptualize the American development of cultural differentiation (Bourdieu on the “field”; Luhmann on “subsystems”; Appadurai on “scapes”) as well as inquiries into how concepts of intellectual authority relate to the material phenomena and practical effects of the print market revolution (American history of book distribution, printing technology, copyright, etc.).
Günter Leypoldt
(University of Heidelberg)

Dietmar Schloss
(University of Heidelberg)