Invisible Whiteness and the Curious Persistence of Elitism in American Intellectual History

Amy Kittelstrom

After spending my undergraduate years studying settler colonialism, African American literature, Haitian independence, and urban politics, and then reading on my own for a while, in 1997 I entered a doctoral program in American intellectual history rather than African American Studies because I did not want to exclude anyone and I wanted to see inside dead people’s minds. At first I thought I would write a dissertation on the pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), whose elegant depictions of Black American life answered D. W. Griffith with rich narration, but then something unexpected happened: I became captivated by the Anglo American philosopher William James (1842–1910).

Photographic portrait of William James

William James, Houghton Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was a bit of a crisis for populist me. James was so well-born, he got blessed in his crib by Ralph Waldo Emerson himself; he was hardly undiscovered. I had always bristled at men whose first and last name could be interchanged, and this one’s wealth came from English colonialism in Ireland and real estate in New York—i.e., more colonialism. His unearned privilege overflowed. I did not want to devote myself to him.

James asked a question important to me, however; the question of how to relate to those who differ from ourselves, and I liked his answer and wanted to know its source, which no James scholar had ever yet identified. Wealthy and well-traveled, James considered those who might not share his beliefs and values while urging his overwhelmingly Anglo Protestant audiences to comprehend the essential sanctity of every human vantage point, the innate worth of everyone—even “the Chinamen,” whom he expected his listeners to discount because of their “old narrow-hearted aristocratic creed.” Yet everyone, James insisted, had as much exquisite intrinsic worth as anyone else, for “this is indeed a democratic universe.”[1]

So I studied William James. I read everything he wrote, every surviving thing written to him, and as much as I could of what he read, especially the passages he marked in his library, well-curated at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.[2] I committed to a method of following his direct, lived intellectual connections so that I could network backward, forward, and sideways from his oeuvre and figure out what ideas he used to advance pluralism. This netted me other intellectuals involved in the conversation about difference in a democracy as well as some discomfiting observations.

I soon realized that committing to this method meant committing to an intellectually segregated world. In James’s entire life, he knew Booker T. Washington—they corresponded before sharing a platform at the unveiling of the monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment—and W. E. B. DuBois, who had been a student; he admired and hosted Swami Vivekananda after the World’s Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893; he read a book about what was then called Burma; he spent time with his brother-in-law William Mackintire Salter’s adopted Native child; and that is about it. The rest of his contacts, whether social, professional, or scholarly, were people of European descent. He wrote a letter against lynching, but did not otherwise think about the so-called Negro problem. Following his intellectual lead meant being drawn into an overwhelmingly white intellectual world.

Yet James did not call himself white. Addressing his audiences at various colleges and other settings, he adopted more specific language: “us Protestants,” or “we of the highly educated classes (so called),” or “we of the so-called better classes,” or “our Anglo-Saxon race.”[3] Distinguishing himself and his audience members from the lower sort, he made their whiteness invisible.

So, too, with my professors and classmates. We were all white, but no one ever spoke of this. The field of American intellectual history overall focused on white subjects, whom intellectual historians treated as race-free, as natural subjects. Perhaps because of the influence of David A. Hollinger’s seminal essay on the discourse of intellectuals, intellectual historians tended to choose bona fide intellectuals, who were circumstantially white because of the socioeconomics of the country, and affluent.[4] This made me uncomfortable.

Print shows John Adams, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right, in oval.

John Adams, Cornelius Tiebout, engraver (created between 1796 and 1799); Popular Graphic Art Print Filing Series (Library of Congress)

I wrote about this problem a number of times, but it was while reading that it became most vivid to me.[5] The research for my book had drawn me back from James’s era to William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), Mary Moody Emerson (1774–1863), and the young John Adams (1735–1826), whose connection to Boston-area ministers was vital to his developing democratic thought. I was immersed in New England and especially Boston, where so many Christian liberals thought so hard about the principles of equality and liberty. One vital figure was Rev. Charles Chauncy at Boston’s First Church, who opposed evangelical enthusiasms and aligned himself with “the first Reformers,” especially Martin Luther.[6] He seemed so forward-minded, but when my book was finally done I read Christopher Cameron’s To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (2014). Cameron showed me a Boston my method had prevented me from seeing, and showed me Chauncy naturalizing the low status of African Americans by objecting to any of them becoming exhorters of the faith.[7] From the extreme prejudice white Bostonians exhibited toward their Black neighbors to the Black Bostonians’ activist work petitioning the state government for their freedom using republican and Christian principles, Cameron’s book showed me a Boston I had never been able to see before.

photograph of Channing statue

William Ellery Channing statue, Boston, Mass, circa 1904. Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress)

The field of American intellectual history has changed a lot since I first started seeking the origins of pluralism, which I did not fully realize until Johann Neem invited me to write the introduction to this JER forum on “Expanding the Boundaries of Intellectual History in the Early Republic.” His intellectual courage and the contributions of all five participants in the forum suggest that the past circumstance of segregated American intellectual history may well be surpassed by a newer, integrated history that tells a fuller story of the American past.


[1] William James, Writings, 1878–1899 (New York, 1992), 1124, 1126.

[2] Ermine L. Algairer IV represents this archive in Reconstructing the Personal Library of William James: Markings and Marginalia from the Harvard Library Collection (Lanham, MD, 2019).

[3] Amy Kittelstrom, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition (New York, 2015), p. 199.

[4] David A. Hollinger, “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals,” New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. John Higham and Paul K. Conkin (Baltimore, 1979), 42–63.

[5] Amy Kittelstrom, “Against Elitism: Studying William James in the Academic Age of the Underdog,” William James Studies 1, no. 1 (2006), 1–22;  “Philosophy vs. Philosophers: A Problem in American Intellectual History,” American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times ed. Ray Haberski and Andrew Hartman (Ithaca, NY, 2017), 55–70; “The American Mind is Dead, Long Live the American Mind,” Modern Intellectual History 18 (Sept. 2021), 865–76.

[6] Kittelstrom, Religion of Democracy, 26.

[7] Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, OH, 2014), 26.

16 January 2024

About the Author

Amy Kittelstrom is a professor of history at Sonoma State University who specializes in modern thought and culture.  She is the author of The Religion of Democracy (New York, 2015) and is currently writing an intellectual history of James Baldwin while researching the history of slavery in Sonoma County, California.

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