TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS
Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman
63: Leslie Butler, 8-13-07
Teaching Position: Dartmouth College, Assistant Professor of History.
Area of Research: American cultural and intellectual history, 19th-century Anglo-American liberalism
Education: Ph.D., History, Yale University, 1998.
Major Publications: Butler is the author of Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform, (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
which examines a group of liberal intellectuals who sought to remake public life in the second half of the nineteenth century.
She is the author of numerours book chapters including “Liberal Victorians and Foreign Policy in the Age of Empire,” in Steven Mintz, editor, The Problem of Evil: Race, Slavery, and the Ambiguities of Reform. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). “Reconstructions in Intellectual and Cultural Life,” in Thomas Brown, ed., Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. (Oxford University Press, 2006); “Investigating the ‘Great American Mystery': Theory and Style in Henry Adams’ Political Reform Moment,” in William Decker and Earl Harbert, eds., Henry Adams and the Need to Know, (University Press of Virginia, 2005). Butler has also written articles and reviews for a number of scholarly journals.
Butler’s current project tentatively titled “The Political Education of Victorian Women: Gender and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America” focuses on the thought of a group of British and American suffragists, male and female, who held expansive views about the connections between education and democratic citizenship.
Awards: Butler is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Reiss Family Faculty Research Grant, Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth, 2006-7;
Junior Faculty Fellowship, Dartmouth College, 2006-7;
Research Scholar, Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences, Dartmouth, 2005-6;
Intramural Research Grant Program, Michigan State University, 2001;
Faculty Research Development Grant, James Madison College, M.S.U., 2001;
American Antiquarian Society, Katherine J. Petersen Fellowship, 1998;
Massachusetts Historical Society Fellowship, 1998;
Mrs. Giles Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities, Yale University, 1997-8;
John D. Rockefeller, 3rd, Fellowship, Program on Non-Profit Organizations, Yale, 1995;
John F. Enders Fellowship, spring 1995 (for primary research in British archives);
Beinecke Library Summer Fellowship, 1995;
Mellon Predissertation Research Grant, summer 1994;
Yale University Graduate Fellowship, 1991-93.
Formerly Assistant Professor in Humanities, James Madison College, Michigan State, 1998-2003, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Reed College, 1997-98, and was a Graduate Instructor and Newhouse Writing Fellow, Yale University, 1995-97.
It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least it should be) that the longer you live with a project, the more relevant it becomes. This truth was certainly borne out by the project that became my first book.
I chose to study a group of nineteenth-century liberal critics. These men were ensconced in northeastern universities and media outlets; cosmopolitan enough to be comfortable on both sides of the Atlantic; and sharply critical of the venality of American politics and the shallowness of American culture. Denounced as effeminate cultural elites by their contemporaries (as well as by many historians), they were, in short, the original coastal-dwelling, Europe-loving men.
I had stumbled onto the topic serendipitously, running into several volumes of their correspondence and writings at a used book sale. Not really even knowing who these figures were, I found myself riveted by their broad-ranging and earnest (if still incomplete) efforts to reconcile their ideal of democratic public life with the often less inspiring reality they saw around them. I could spend years reading this stuff, I thought. And so I did.
From the moment I began my research in the mid-1990s, I heard echoes in our own political and cultural debates: over campaign finance reform, the media’s proper role in political discussion, and the seriousness of Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Had I published the book according to my (and my publisher’s) original time frame, however, I would have entirely missed out on what would become the most disturbingly salient echo.
In 2004, as I began a final draft of the book, what had always seemed like a compelling but safely distant episode took on new meaning and urgency. This was the liberals’ dissent from America’s (initially) popular wars of 1846 and 1898 and their insistence on the necessity and even patriotic duty of such wartime dissent. As entertainer/artists like Bill Maher or the Dixie Chicks ran afoul of America’s remarkably enduring patriotic speech codes, James Russell Lowell’s couplet kept rhyming in my head:
I loved her old renown, her stainless fame
What better proof than that I loathed her shame.
Of course, I couldn’t have foreseen any of this back when I first began the project. And I certainly don’t want to be seen here as advocating a disregard for deadlines. My experience simply suggests the importance of choosing a topic that engages your interest for the long haul. What echoes in the future will take care of itself.
By Leslie Butler
- “The liberal ideal of democratic politics attempted to combine unprecedented inclusiveness (of African Americans and women) with the elevation of the individual voter as a reasoning civic participant capable of thinking for himself or herself. … Recent attempts by political theorists to elaborate a discursive or communicative model of politics echo (unconsciously) the Victorian emphasis on speech and discussion as precisely the things that make … democracies democratic. In an era when only about 50% of Americans turn out to vote in presidential elections and much of the media seems set on thwarting rather than facilitating meaningful discussion, we might do well to reinvigorate the Victorians’ insistence on the ‘stimulating’ effect of civic participation as well as on democratic discussion. Though their normative ideal of citizenship may seem either naively optimistic or overly austere, it bespoke a respect for voters as reasoning individuals far removed from the current trends of endless ‘spin’ or deceptive ‘frames.” — Leslie Butler in “Critical Americans Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform”
About Leslie Butler
- “In this important contribution to transatlantic intellectual and cultural history, Leslie Butler skillfully resurrects the ideas of cultivation and cosmopolitanism advanced by Victorian critics long neglected or misunderstood. Joining a chorus of distinguished historians including Daniel Walker Howe, James Turner, and Jonathan Hansen, she demonstrates that these unfairly maligned partisans of liberal democracy battled against slavery and racism, championed women’s rights, and opposed political corruption and imperialism not because they distrusted ‘the people’ but because they wanted their nation to redeem the promise of popular government.” — James T. Kloppenberg, author of “The Virtues of Liberalism” reviewing “Critical Americans Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform”
- “In this beautifully written and fair-minded book, Leslie Butler overturns a century of debunking to recover, in the liberals of the Victorian era, experience instructive for America today. She demonstrates the continued vitality of her subjects’ reflections on democracy, race, and the role of the media, on party politics, overseas interventions, and, not least, the social responsibility of the arts.” — Daniel Walker Howe, author of “Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln” reviewing “Critical Americans Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform”
- “Butler is amazing! She’s extremely knowledgable, thought-provoking, and energetic. She’s now one of my favorite professors and has inspired me to become a history major”…. “Leslie Butler is one of the best professors I have had. Often younger profs compensate for age with condescension, but Butler actually listens to and interacts with us. I feel like she really appreciates our ideas. I never felt like I was just supposed to bask in her wisdom.” — Anonymous Students
Posted on Sunday, August 12, 2007 at 8:23 PM