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Capsule Review

The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History

In This Review

The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History
The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History
By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
Oxford University Press,, 2019 240 pp. Purchase

Ratner-Rosenhagen teaches intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and if this concise book is any indication of what her courses are like, her students can count themselves fortunate. She offers a brisk walk through the American intellectual tradition, from New England Puritanism to modern pragmatism. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s determination to incorporate the full spectrum of American thought—for example, from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh—clashes with her desire to impose order on her procession of thinkers, and some of her assessments, such as the high place she gives the critic and journalist Margaret Fuller in American intellectual history, would be more convincing if she provided readers with a more expansive account of the work in question. Nevertheless, her curiosity about ideas, her determination to understand a diverse set of authors and points of view on their own terms, and her conviction that the messiness of the American intellectual tradition is an essential feature of American life make this book a stimulating read.

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