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Response to Review of Inventing the Egghead: the Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

It was my intention when writing this book to generate discussion and debate around a well-worn topic – anti-intellectualism in American history – that has too often come to seem both stale and closed to further conversation. I am pleased to read a review that engages Inventing the Egghead so energetically. In the main, I believe Professor Gitlin has nicely highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of employing a case-study method for writing cultural history, a method that has been foundational to cultural studies scholars (and subjected to a fair amount of criticism) since at least the ascendance of the Birmingham School. My academic training is, as Gitlin notes, in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies, and the methods defining that field inform my selection of material, as well as the way I approach textual analysis.

The method of close analysis I favor impels me to expend a great number of words (more than your average history book, but fewer than your typical literary criticism) on marginal texts such as Molly Thacher Kazan’s unsuccessful and mostly forgotten play, The Egghead (to say nothing of the ads and reviews surrounding its premier). Though the 1957 audience for the play was small, Kazan’s narrative nonetheless relied upon cultural literacy about a new social category (‘the egghead’) in order to make her critique legible. Alongside the emergence of the egghead there were, as Gitlin correctly demonstrates, many competing representations. Yet it was only the egghead that was unique to this historical moment, and it was precisely that representational shorthand which reveals something new about how brainpower was represented in Cold War American culture. Similarly, my fascination with Einstein – an interest that, as Gitlin notes, comprises roughly 10 per cent of my book – emerges out of a compelling ambition to understand why so many more than 10 per cent of Americans were interested in theoretical physics at a time when far fewer had taken so much as an introductory college math course.

The cultural case studies I select represent key moments when new popular discourses around brainpower emerged, not necessarily when competing ideas about intelligence disappeared. I wholeheartedly agree with Gitlin that American Studies methods sometimes indulge depth at the expanse of breadth, and I sincerely hope other scholars will take up Gitlin’s call for future and further work on the subject of brainpower from a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives. I am cheered to see that Gitlin has entered so enthusiastically into the lively – sometimes even boisterous – conversation about intelligence in American culture that I attempted to resuscitate with this book. I intentionally invoked the word ‘battle’ in my subtitle to acknowledge how much is at stake in these conversations, and to gesture towards the gravity of using intellectual tools to make arguments about categories such as class, race, and sexuality. Professor Gitlin has proven himself a well-equipped colleague who is unafraid to enter into the fray, for which he has been expertly prepared through his role as an important public intellectual for decades. I am electrified by his critique, and I hope his review sparks continuing conversations about the role of brainpower in American history.