Such a brief book must, necessarily, be swift in its progress. But there is, as always, such a thing, as too much. Amply endnoted, it nonetheless feels shallow. The Enlightenment influenced thought behind America’s founding is dealt with in less than twenty pages. An opening chapter, which subtitled itself ‘Precontact-1740,’ managed to make most of what was said about indigenous people’s thought about Europeans proselytizing to them, which feels more than a little icky.
Transcendentalism, the second most interesting moment in American intellectual history, to my mind, after the Founding period, actually subsumed in a chapter about first half of the nineteenth century, so that an alien who magically read English, but knew nothing about American history, would think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than being a towering figure in the creation of a American intellectual tradition, was more of just a guy who was around and maybe wrote one or two essays that are pretty good.
I would say that the author has a conservative bent (even though she completely fails to give any details about conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and William Buckley believed, despite spending several pages on them), and perhaps because many of America’s most important thinkers were liberal (or even radical) in some way: William James, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.).
The most egregious sin, I think, is that it’s just an assemblage. The book advances no thesis, it just breaks up American intellectual into some distinct time period and gives a breezily brief description of each. Without that, how can you claim these ideas made America?
So,I guess it’s a nice, short primer of some kind, but perhaps not useful for much beyond brushing up on a couple of things to drop in conversation to make yourself sound smart (but hopefully, you don’t encounter anyone who actually read the thinkers, because then you might be caught out, because you won’t have learned that much).