This historical study of intellectuals asks, for every period, who they were, how important they were, and how they saw themselves in relation to other Americans. Lewis Perry considers intellectuals in their varied historical roles as learned gentlemen, as clergymen and public figures, as professionals, as freelance critics, and as a professoriate.
Looking at the changing reputation of the intellect itself, Perry examines many forms of anti-intellectualism, showing that some of these were encouraged by intellectuals as surely as by their antagonists. This work is interpretative, critical, and highly provocative, and it provides what is all too often missing in the study of intellectuals--a sense of historical orientation.
Dutiful, dullish coverage of an impossibly vast subject. "Intellectual life" as Perry (Indiana U.) describes it seems to occupy an ill-lit border region between sociology and intellectual history. Perry supplies a lot of information (and helpful suggestions for further reading) but neither clear thumbnail sketches of individual intellectuals (Franklin, say, or Emerson) nor cogent analyses of major trends (the Great Awakening, Transcendentalism, pragmatism, etc.) nor satisfying explanations of the link between culture and matters political/social/economic. Perry's besetting sin is vagueness, the habitually soft focus of his language: "If we contrast the modernist poets' search for unity inside the confines of a text with Dewey's groping efforts to coordinate intelligence with emotion and imagination, we see tremendous disparity in conceptions of intellectual life in this era." Perry is not so much obscure as loose. He will say things like, "In America, culture rose to prominence, first, as a celebration of individual growth and, only second, in criticisms of society's failings" - which makes little sense until one realizes he means "the term 'culture' first rose to prominence in the 19th century," etc. Perry's study is strongest as regards the evolution of the American university, where he offers both useful statistics (no more than 10 percent of the population ever attended college during the 1800s) and sensible generalities (the "free-lance intellectual" has nowadays either moved into academe or died). But all too often a blurry, unexciting overview. (Kirkus Reviews)