In search of a usable past: Conservative thought in America: Jennifer Burns

Modern Intellectual History 7 (2):479-494 (2010)
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There is no conservative thought in America, only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, thus providing a generation of historians with a convenient set piece to demonstrate the inadequacies of mid-century liberalism and its blindness to the nascent conservative intellectual movement gathering strength and purpose just as Trilling wrote. Two excellent new books about American intellectual history cast this quote in yet another light. Patrick Allitt's The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History carefully documents a centuries-long tradition of conservative thought in America, from the founding era through the end of the twentieth century. In The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, Michael Kimmage asserts that Trilling himself be considered a source of conservative ideas in postwar America. Taken together, the books by Allitt and Kimmage indicate that a new cycle of writing about conservative thought has reached full flower. For far too long, the field of conservative intellectual history has been dominated by the figure of George Nash, author of the classic 1976 The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. These books provide an updated and more critically sophisticated way to examine the terrain Nash strode alone for so long. More significantly, they indicate that intellectual historians are ready to consider conservatism in dialogue with liberalism, bringing new balance to the study of American ideas. Furthermore, both books, Kimmage's in particular, suggest that some of what we are calling conservative and liberal might be flying under the wrong flag. The key to sorting out the confusion will be drawing a more careful distinction between conservatism as a “movement” and as a body of ideas, and looking at both conservatisms as part of a typically American response to historical change, rather than as an exotic and abberant specimen.



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