Book Review: Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning, & Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century

Ray, Angela G. and Paul Stob, editors. Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning, & Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation Series. 249 pp. ISBN (hardback): 978-0-271-08087-1.

By Susanna Kelly Engbers, Ferris State University

In Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning & Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century, Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob examine the ever-changing ways in which we “think together,” focusing especially on how groups of people in the nineteenth century thought together outside the confines of higher education. They direct special attention to groups and individuals who were denied access to such education, noting that these people who gathered “considered the same questions that echoed through the nation’s great halls of learning—questions about justice, equality, career opportunities, entertainment, war and peace, life and death, heaven and hell, the nature of the world, and the nature of education itself. Yet they considered these questions while facing difficulties, uncertainties, and opposition seldom encountered by those in power” (4). The contributors look primarily at lyceums—that is, popular education that was advanced through civic debate and lectures in communal spaces—but they go beyond that strict focus as well to study a variety of ways in which nineteenth-century Americans gathered to converse and learn together.

Ray and Stob divide the volume into two broad sections: In the first, entitled “Disrupting Narratives,” contributors challenge common assumptions about how, and for what ends, popular learning occurred in the nineteenth century; in the second, the authors turn their attention specifically to communities or individuals (e.g., the Liberia Lyceum, various women of note, and the early Mormon Church) who demonstrated distinctive ways of thinking together.

Standout chapters include the first by Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, titled “The Portable Lyceum in the Civil War,” in which the authors explore the little-discussed period of lyceum activity during the Civil War. Having spent fifteen years transcribing materials such as “wartime diaries, letters, memoirs, and account books,” the authors add to our understanding of lyceum culture during this wartime period, a time during which lyceum activities have typically been ignored—assumed to have been discontinued for the duration of the war. Through this project of transcription, the authors have created the “largest body of data on Civil-War-era reading culture to date,” and the chapter seems like just the beginning of work to unpack the significance of their findings.

Also in the “Disrupting Narratives” section, Granville Ganter’s “Women’s Entrepreneurial Lecturing in the Early National Period” is notable for its examination of the careers of several women of the post-revolutionary period who have not yet “figured into accounts of American education” (43). Besides discussing the lecturers themselves, Ganter considers women as active audience members, noting how the lecture hall gave “respectable women” a way to participate in public intellectual life. Among other noteworthy examples, he cites the story of a Miss Wheaton, who was known to have given a “thirty-five-lecture series on geography in 1821 with no controversy about the lecturer’s sex or subject matter mentioned in the newspapers afterwards” (51). Part of the importance of Ganter’s chapter is bringing to light the “decades of ‘women thinking’ alongside men—an epoch in American history that existed in contrast to the gendered prejudices of later periods” (52–3).

The second half of the book, “Distinctive Voices,” consists of more focused studies of individuals whose gender, race, or religion shaped their experiences. This half begins with Bjorn R. Stillion Southard’s chapter “A Lyceum Diaspora: Hilary Teage and a Liberian Civic Identity,” a compelling study of a largely white-led project to bring freed slaves to Africa and the lyceum culture that ensued there. Southard describes these settler-colonists as people who, in general, wished not so much to separate from American life and culture as to access the intellectual fruits denied to them in their country of origin—the United States. In particular, Southard examines the work of Hilary Teague, founder of the Liberia Lyceum and editor of the Liberia Herald, and uses his example as a means of understanding the “interplay among lyceum culture, African American rhetorical practice, and the revisions to both undertaken by settler-colonists” as the lyceum culture went beyond mere duplication of the U.S. lyceum and sought to evolve its own culture appropriate for a colonial context and its attendant challenges (112).

Also included in the book’s second half is a study of the early Mormon Church and the means by which it developed a distinctive means of knowledge production; an examination of Gertrude Kellogg, whose success as a performer of dramatic prose reframed conversations about female identity in the nineteenth century; and a study of Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda and his role as a “pluralistic prophet” who was able to realize new connective pathways among various religions, cultures, and ideas.

In the introduction, Ray and Stob argue that their histories “can offer new insights and more nuanced perspectives on how difference enhances the human project of thinking together” (19), suggesting that the volume will have implications for thinking together in the twenty-first century as well. And indeed, it does; however, it would perhaps have been useful for Carolyn Eastman to expand further on those implications in her conclusion. Otherwise, the conclusion is excellent, pointing out the ways in which the book reaffirms the study of the spoken word as a “truly interdisciplinary field” (191) and sets the stage for an “invigorated study of platform culture” (199).