Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776-1865

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776-1865

Article excerpt

Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776-1865. By Gilman M. Ostrander. (Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1999. Pp. xvi, 379. $35.95, ISBN 0-945612-63-X.)

Gilman M. Ostrander, the author of this book, died in 1986. He was a Californian, was educated at Columbia and Berkeley, and taught in Canada at the University of Waterloo. He had tried to have Republic of Letters published in his lifetime, but it was refused by several houses as too popular for a university press and too scholarly for a trade one. Ostrander's book has now been issued, with a preface by a colleague, almost as an awkwardly postponed act of pieta. These circumstances make this a book difficult to review. To judge Republic of Letters by the standards of American intellectual history in the early twenty-first century would be supererogatory, but an assessment adjusted for the mid-1980s might be antiquarian, especially for a book so close in spirit and methodology to Vernon L. Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920 (3 vols.; New York, 1930). The main idea is that the United States between the American Revolution and the end of the Civil War had a collection of "uncommon men" (and occasionally women) who belonged to a "select society within the predominantly nonintellectual nation at large" (p. xiv).

This literary class was organized regionally. After an opening chapter that dwells on the importance of collegiate education to the formation of intellectual life and stresses the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, Ostrander gives over much of his book to cultural portraits of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and the South (the West gets short shrift). These profiles are dispersed chronologically upon the presumption that Philadelphia was the fading colonial world, Boston is the scene of the most accomplished intellectual order in the early republic, and New York represented the world a-coming. …

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