A HIDEOUS MONSTER OF THE MIND

A HIDEOUS MONSTER OF THE MIND

by Bruce R. Dain
     
 

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The intellectual history of race, one of the most pernicious and enduring ideas in American history, has remained segregated into studies of black or white traditions. Bruce Dain breaks this separatist pattern with an integrated account of the emergence of modern racial consciousness in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. A Hideous Monster of the

Overview

The intellectual history of race, one of the most pernicious and enduring ideas in American history, has remained segregated into studies of black or white traditions. Bruce Dain breaks this separatist pattern with an integrated account of the emergence of modern racial consciousness in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. A Hideous Monster of the Mind reveals that ideas on race crossed racial boundaries in a process that produced not only well-known theories of biological racism but also countertheories that were early expressions of cultural relativism, cultural pluralism, and latter-day Afrocentrism.

From 1800 to 1830 in particular, race took on a new reality as Americans, black and white, reacted to postrevolutionary disillusionment, the events of the Haitian Revolution, the rise of cotton culture, and the entrenchment of slavery. Dain examines not only major white figures like Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Stanhope Smith, but also the first self-consciously "black" African-American writers. These various thinkers transformed late-eighteenth-century European environmentalist "natural history" into race theories that combined culture and biology and set the terms for later controversies over slavery and abolition. In those debates, the ethnology of Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott intertwined conceptually with important writing by black authors who have been largely forgotten, like Hosea Easton and James McCune Smith. Scientific racism and the idea of races as cultural constructions were thus interrelated aspects of the same effort to explain human differences.

In retrieving neglected African-American thinkers, reestablishing the Europeanintellectual background to American racial theory, and demonstrating the deep confusion "race" caused for thinkers black and white, A Hideous Monster of the Mind offers an engaging and enlightening new perspective on modern American racial thought.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Are racial differences the result of disparities in environment and social position or innate biological variations? This question loomed large in early America, and this fascinating work of intellectual history revisits the race debate in the years between the Revolution and Civil War. History professor Dain explores shifting conceptions of race in the writings of public intellectuals from Jefferson to Frederick Douglass, including those of neglected African-American writers like Phyllis Wheatley and James McCune Smith. The fundamental issue for all sides of the debate, Dain argues, was "whether slaves and ex-slaves were capable of citizenship in a republic." Arguments ranged far afield in theology and historiography; racists invoked the Biblical Curse of Canaan to show God's ordination of slavery, while abolitionists pointed at ancient Egypt as an example of an advanced black civilization. Always there was the backdrop of scientific and pseudo-scientific theory as it developed from the 18th century "natural history" tradition of classification to a 19th century "hard racism" that saw races as something akin to distinct species. Dain traces the interplay of these positions and the responses of black and abolitionist writers: some believed that racial characteristics were a mutable continuum, some used the concept of distinct races to imply the natural "cruelty and hypocrisy" of whites and some argued that race was an ideological and psychological construct, a "hideous monster of the mind" rather than a physical fact. Dain's broad research, nuanced analyses and skillful writing make this an indispensable introduction to early attitudes about race. (Feb. 27) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
From the outset, American thinkers have grappled with the problematic nature of race. Dain (history, Univ. of Utah) provides a welcome synthesis and critique of writings from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. Analyzing primary source material, he considers the contemporary European thinking on natural history, classification, and race that influenced American writers. He assesses Thomas Jefferson's conflicted ideology and Frederick Douglass's critique of ethnology and illuminates lesser-known figures, including the African Americans James McCune Smith, a physician and intellectual, and Hosea Easton, a minister who developed a systematic theory of race. Dain ably limns multiple influences on race theory, including pro- and anti-slavery movements and foundational but evolving scientific, religious, and societal beliefs. He does not shy from expressing his viewpoints about the intellectual honesty or rigor of his various subjects, but he attempts to be neutral on the issue of race itself within the historical context. Some background in early American history and/or race theory is required, and the book assumes familiarity with teleology and other philosophical ideas. Still, this scholarly review of white and black thinkers is a notable contribution to American race studies. For academic collections but also suitable for public libraries where scholarly interest in race or American history is strong.-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674030145
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
06/30/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
334
File size:
543 KB

Meet the Author

Bruce Dain is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah.

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