Top Young Historians: 92 – Kevin Mattson


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

92: Kevin Mattson, 5-27-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History, Ohio University
Area of Research: Modern American History, American Social and Cultural History, American Social Thought, American Political History and Thought
Education: Ph.D., Department of History, University of Rochester, 1994
Major Publications: Mattson is the author of the forthcoming Malaise: How Jimmy Carter Defined a Decade in a Speech that Should Have Changed America, (Bloomsbury USA, 2009); Rebels All!: A Brief and Critical History of the Postwar Conservative Mind, Kevin Mattson (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming, 2008); Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, (Wiley, 2006); When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Liberalism in Post-War America, (Routledge, 2004; reissued as 2nd edition paperback with new preface in 2006); Engaging Youth: Combating the Apathy of Young Americans toward Politics, (Century Foundation, 2003); Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-70, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).
He is the editor of Liberalism for a New Century, co-edited with Neil Jumonville, (University of California Press, 2007); Steal This University!: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement, co-edited with Benjamin Johnson and Patrick Kavanagh, (Routledge, 2003); Democracy’s Moment: Reforming the American Political System for the 21st Century, co-edited with Ronald Hayduk (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), and An Introduction to Mary Parker Follett’s The New State, with prefaces by Benjamin Barber and Jane Mansbridge, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).
Mattson is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: “The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” in American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Martin Halliwell (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). “What’s to Fear: the American Right, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Academic Bill of Rights,” in Stephen Aby, ed., The Academic Bill of Rights Debate, (Praeger, 2007); “Liberalism and Democracy: A Troubled Marriage,” in Liberalism for a New Century (2007). “John Kenneth Galbraith and Post-War Liberalism in America,” in Capitalism and its Culture, Edited by Nelson Lichtenstein (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); “Why We Should Be Reading Reinhold Niebuhr Now More than Ever: Liberalism and the Future of American Political Thought,” The Good Society, Volume 14, 2005; “Christopher Lasch and the Perilous Travels of American Liberalism,” Polity, April 2004. “The Challenges of Democracy: James Harvey Robinson, the New History, and Adult Education for Citizenship,” the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Winter, 2003; “The Historian as a Social Critic: Christopher Lasch and the Uses of History,” The History Teacher, Winter, 2003: “Between Despair and Hope: Revisiting Studies on the Left,” in You Didn’t Have to Be There: The New Left Reappraised, edited by Paul Buhle and John McMillian (Temple University Press, 2003).
He has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Nation, the American Prospect, Commonweal, the Baffler, the Common Review, the Washington Post Book World, Academe, and other publications.
Awards: Mattson is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Affiliated Scholar, Center for American Progress, Summer, 2006-Present;
Rush Rhees Fellowship, University of Rochester, 1990-1994: Tuition and full-time stipend for graduate studies.
Additional Info:
Formerly Associate Director, The Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), 1995-2001; Professor of American History for the Clemente Course in the Humanities, Bard College (New Brunswick, NJ), 1998-2001; Adjunct Professor and Advisor of Liberal Arts, Rutgers University, 1998-2001, and Part-Time History Professor at University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Monroe Community College (Rochester, NY), 1994-5.
Mattson has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, including NPR (Chicago, Boston, and Wisconsin); Public Television; Canadian Broadcasting; Fox News; German Television; Nation Radio; Tony Trupiano Show; New York Times, plus newspapers and magazines, both American and international.
Mattson was also a Consultant and Interviewed for “The Progressive Era,” a “Bill Moyers’ Journal” Show on PBS, 2007-8; Consultant, “A Time For Greatness” (about the 1960 Presidential Election) , 2005-Present; Consultant, Carnegie Corporation of New York: Wrote report on youth and political participation and then assessed proposals for projects in this area (2000-2001); Consultant, Open Society Institute (OSI), 1998, reviewed programs dedicated to American political reform and campaign finance.

Personal Anecdote

I’ll admit it: I didn’t always want to be a historian. In fact, I’m not sure when the idea of becoming one crossed my mind. Neither of my parents were historians or academics. I hated high school so much I thought I’d never go to college and didn’t go immediately. And still to this day when college students tell me that they want to become historians, I get suspicious and uneasy (OK, part of that’s because I know the realities of the job market).

In fact, I started life as a “citizen,” or more accurately, as a political activist, and I still think that’s a part of who I am. In high school, I helped form a student organization called the Student Union to Promote Awareness (which had the clumsy acronym, SUPA). That’s where I got most of my education on a variety of political issues (we organized after-school forums) and where I learned how to write (newsletters, flyers, the usual stuff an activist writes). I continued with that work after high school, forming a city-based youth organization that worked on a variety of political issues and that eventually had other chapters across the nation. Pretty soon, though, I realized that I didn’t know that much about American politics or how we became the country that we did.

Still, when I eventually attended college, I didn’t major in history but in social and political thought with a minor in historical studies. But I was trending towards history. And when I had to decide on graduate school, I thought history was the freest and most open of the academic disciplines. For what is not history?

When I finally got out of college, I was still teetering between activism and graduate studies in history. I threw in my applications and got accepted at the University of Rochester. But before packing my bags, I took a job as a community organizer.

Here’s where things turned really strange. The first day I worked for this organization, I was taken out for training by a young woman who seemed wired with energy. She took me into one of the worst housing projects in Brooklyn. There she proceeded to walk me through her rounds, carrying with her a clipboard and literature. At one point, she kicked in a door to the stairway of a particularly nasty building. “Gotta do that,” she said to me, “because sometimes there’s a drug deal going on and you don’t want to be shot so you have to give warning.” People wouldn’t open doors for her, so she had to shout into their apartments. And when we got to the highlight of the evening – a meeting organized to discuss what needed to be done to improve the elevators in the building – I looked around a big room with only four people there, including myself and this young activist, plus two residents who weren’t sure why they were there. Afterwards, she told me that she thought it would be good if an act of violence was taken against her so that she could learn the realities of what it meant to be poor and a victim. I was stunned.

The weirdest part was this: This young activist had just dropped out of the same history program I had just applied to. This too: her advisor would become my advisor.

I knew at that moment my mind was made up: I was going to graduate school and study to become a historian. But I was still animated by the world of activism and politics that I left behind and that I still remained engaged in. And I think that my writing still revolves around the questions I learned to ask as an activist. I’m reminded of George Orwell’s classic essay on “Why I Write.” He included in his list of reasons “political purpose – using the world ‘political’ in the widest possible sense.” I think that way too, as I think all of my work centers around broad political questions about democracy, citizenship, political philosophy, and how these themes intersect with American history.


By Kevin Mattson

  • “We are the party of ideas.” – President George W. BushThese words rolled off the lips of a man who calls himself a “gut player.” A man who when asked by the Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America JPG
    conservative journalist Tucker Carlson back in 1999 to name a weakness said, “Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.” A man who later shocked people and made headline news by reading a book by French existentialist Albert Camus. A man who toned down his prep school roots and campaigned as a Texas populist and who, in the words of one journalist, “has been quick about cracks about intellectuals and criticisms of institutions like his own alma mater, Yale University.” A man whose own speechwriter called him “uncurious and as a result ill-informed.” A man famous for mispronouncing words and looking flummoxed when off-script at press conferences. This president – a man who many describe as the most anti-intellectual president in postwar America – said he led a party of ideas.

    Odd? Not necessarily.

    The book goes on to describe why this is not so strange as it might seem – why conservative ideas are charged with a certain anti-intellectual tinge. — Kevin Mattson in “Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America”

About Kevin Mattson

  • “Ultimately Mattson challenges readers to reconsider contemporary conceptions of democracy that view citizens as consumers, and he contributes to contemporary discussions of ways to invigorate democratic practice. Highly recommended for all readership levels.” — Choice reviewing “Creating a Democratic Public The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era”
  • “In an era of quickening concern about citizenship and community in contemporary America, we have a lot to learn from the community-building activities of Progressive Era reformers. Kevin Mattson’s instructive account of their successes and failures is a timely contribution.” — Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University reviewing “Creating a Democratic Public The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era”
  • “The Progressive Era was filled with the rhetoric of democracy, but in recent years historians have found the meaning of progressivism rather in various hierarchies of power. Kevin Mattson’s considerable accomplishment in this fine book is to recover the era’s emergent democratic public and its localized activities, from adult education to political meetings. Mattson’s openly committed history is important for its more complicated rendering of progressive democracy, for its elaboration of a lively public culture, and for the encouragement it offers to the project of participatory democracy.” — Thomas Bender, New York University reviewing “Creating a Democratic Public The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era”
  • “Kevin Mattson’s book recovers one of the most important moments in the history of genuinely democratic reform in American history. A major contribution to the rethinking of progressivism, this book also offers a usable past to those struggling in the present to render our politics and culture more democratic.” — Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester reviewing “Creating a Democratic Public The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era”
  • “Kevin Mattson’s book will be welcomed by historians for the complications it introduces into our understanding of an important period of dissent and reform and by those who continue to struggle for a more democratic America for its unsentimental account of their inheritance.” — Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester reviewing “Intellectuals in Action The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970”
  • “By recovering the political ideas and commitments of this important group of left intellectuals working as intellectuals, he invites contemporary intellectuals into a workshop of political change. At a moment when liberalism again seems exhausted, it is a timely and important book.” — Thomas Bender, New York University reviewing “Intellectuals in Action The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970”
  • “A novel and revealing view of the early New Left as democratic intellectuals in search of a public.” — Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago reviewing “Intellectuals in Action The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970”
  • “Kevin Mattson’s new book is a superb and inspiring account of the sixties as a moment of public intellectual engagement. Mattson interprets New Left debates as continuous with earlier debates about the meaning of American democracy and the possibilities of a radical liberalism. His book is more than a history. For it seeks to remind us of the strengths and limits of New Left discourse so as to inform our own democratic engagements in the present.” — Jeffrey C. Isaac, Indiana University reviewing “Intellectuals in Action The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970”

Posted on Monday, May 26, 2008 at 12:20 AM

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