Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Studies in Cultural History)

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9780674165557: Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Studies in Cultural History)
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What does it mean to be an American, and how have individual Americans consciously endeavored to create their own identity? "Self-improvement," "self-culture," "self-made man," to "make something of oneself"--all are terms that were used from colonial to Victorian times. The particular language that framed the quest has fallen out of fashion, but it was a powerful cultural imperative for hundreds of years. The quest, in all its "post" guises, continues. Daniel Howe considers the ideas Americans once had about a proper construction of the self. Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Bushnell, Horace Mann, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, among others, engaged in discussion about the composition of human nature, the motivation of human behavior, and what can be done about the social problems these create. They shared a common model of human psychology, in which powerful but base passions must be mastered by reason in the service of virtue. How to accomplish this was often itself a subject of passionate controversy.

The story reveals that Americans both distrusted individual autonomy and were enthusiastic about it; passions, reason, and moral sense collided on how to manage it. Howe is empathetic to all the quests--for elites and artisans, blacks and women--seeing in them a basic pursuit of identity. The author demonstrates that aspirations for "self-control" and "self-discipline," grounded in conservatism and evangelical Christianity, also shaped movements that branched leftward to promote social welfare, feminism, and civil rights.

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About the Author:

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History, Oxford.

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Making the American Self is at once a history of, and argument for, the process of self-construction. Focusing on selected American figures and their writings on the self, Daniel Walker Howe maps out a wide-ranging discourse on self-making running from roots in faculty psychology and the Scottish Enlightenment to the reincarnation of self-constructions in Romanticism and Transcendentalism. The writers whom Howe analyzes are a diverse lot, but he gives them collective coherence through his thesis, which he develops with striking erudition, deep conviction, and luminous clarity...Howe, it should be acknowledged, is a brilliant lumper whose explication of these diverse American texts on the self will help the reader see not only how the disciplined realism of faculty psychology created important boundaries for nineteenth-century liberalism, but also why such an amalgam might serve well today. (Norma Basch Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences)

Howe succeeds triumphantly in linking the cultural gestures of politicos like Madison and Lincoln with the formal systems of thinkers like Edwards, and middle-brow culture brokers like Mann, Emerson, and Fuller. His skill in dovetailing these otherwise angular and resistant minds illuminates landscapes of the American intellect that the pragmatic narcosis of American public philosophy had for long closed off to view. (Allen C. Guelzo Books & Culture)

Making the American Self is an important book...[Howe's] achievement...is hardly limited to fulfilling his stated goal of proving that a reexamination of 'the place of morality and the "moral sense" in the process of character-formation,' both individual and national, is long overdue. For along the way, he shows that this effort must not neglect the role of religion in the making of the American self. And in that, Daniel Walker Howe more broadly suggests that American history is a matter best not left to those who worship exclusively in the Temple of Reason. (K. P. Van Anglen Religion and the Arts)

In a thoroughly researched and skillfully written book, Daniel Walker Howe traces the faculty psychology fostered by 'classical learning, Renaissance humanism, Christian theology, Enlightenment science, and Scottish-American moral philosophy' in prominent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American thinkers...Howe [has] masterful insights for American intellectual historians who, in their efforts to show the dynamics of change, have perhaps drawn too sharp a contrast between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the romantic movement. In Making the American Self, Howe never minimizes the rich diversity of his subjects' thought, but he artfully binds the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers together with his theme and in the process offers convincing solutions to historiographical disputes about the influences of Europe on the American mind. (John W. Kuehl North Carolina Historical Review)

In this intellectual history, Howe explores how Americans have developed their individualism or, as Jefferson phrased it, their 'pursuit of happiness.' Howe...discusses figures like Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller...An erudite study. (Library Journal)

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