Wilentz, Sean 1951–
Wilentz, Sean 1951–
ADDRESSES: Home—Princeton, NJ. Office—Princeton University, 134 Dickinson Hall, Rm. 129, Princeton, NJ 08544.
CAREER: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of American studies program.
AWARDS, HONORS: Albert J. Beveridge Award, American Historical Association, for Chants Democratic: New York and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850.
(Editor) Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787–1848: Documents and Essays, D.C. Heath (Lexington, MA), 1992.
(Editor and author of introduction, with Michael Merrill) William Manning, The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, "a Laborer," 1747–1814, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
(With Paul E. Johnson) The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor, with Greil Marcus) The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
Andrew Jackson (biography), Times Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, American Scholar, Le Monde, and the Nation, and to Web site Salon.com; also author of liner notes for the Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964—Concert at Philharmonic Hall by Bob Dylan. Contributing editor, New Republic.
ADAPTATIONS: The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad was adapted as a sound recording, Columbia/Legacy (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Sean Wilentz is a professor of American social and political history, with a particular interest in the early years of the nation and in Jacksonian democracy. His work reflects these preoccupations, focusing primarily on late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century American politics and history. His first book, Chants Democratic: New York and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850, starts with the ratification of the Constitution and traces the development of the working class in New York City until the middle of the nineteenth century. Wilentz discusses how class distinctions developed along political lines, and not just economics, after the Revolution, as well as how industrialization during this time period affected the rise of working class people. New York City was particularly productive, with smaller scale industries such as clothing manufacturing and printing making up a large portion of available work. In an article for the New Republic, Herbert G. Gutman called Wilentz's effort "the best book yet written about the emergence of New York City's working class and a major contribution to American working-class history." Gutman went on to conclude that "no one has written more searchingly about how the rapid intrusion of market capitalism split artisan republican ideology and led working men and women to redefine their political and economic status by remaking older American beliefs."
In The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, "a Laborer," 1747–1814, which Wilentz edited with Michael Merrill, readers are allowed to take a look into the mind of Revolution-era farmer William Manning, who defended Concord in 1775. Wilentz and Merrill provide an introduction and translation of sorts that shows the viewpoints commonly held by people regarding class around the time of the birth of the United States. Linda K. Kerber remarked in a review for the Nation that "they offer us Manning as evidence that class consciousness developed in the revolutionary era and that the struggle to build a plebeian democracy persisted long after the Revolution was over." She went on to note, however, that despite having knowledge of Manning's wife and family, Merrill and Wilentz fail to "inquire into the ways in which eighteenth-century laws of domestic relations—laws that even the most radical revolutionaries took care to keep in place—gave husbands control over their wives' persons and property and even, occasionally, adult sons control over their widowed mothers' persons and property," an oversight that reflects on the social and class structure of that time period.
The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America, by Wilentz and Paul E. Johnson, takes a very different look at American history and social structure than that of Wilentz's previous efforts. The book examines the rise of a small religious cult in New York City in the 1830s, the Kingdom of Matthias, which was led by Robert Matthews, a carpenter who set about creating a new religion with himself as its central figure. While the cult itself served as fodder for the tabloids of the day, it also was part of a major religious revival in the United States that saw the birth of the Mormons and the spread of Baptist and Methodist denominations. Journal of Social History contributor Perry Bush called the book "a marvelous tale that not only knits together some of the major interstices of the national scandal it became—salvation, sex, murder—but also reveals much about the sexual and economic underpinnings of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism." The critic added, however, that "at times the authors appear to squeeze the sources too hard, and cloud the account with isolated bits of tedium." On the other hand, Nation reviewer Michael P. Johnson considered the book "an elegant and provocative narrative, composed in ways that illuminate the odd angles at which their characters approached one another. It takes literary skill as well as historical mastery to stay responsible to the current of incurable loneliness that informs this and other American religious experiments."
With The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, Wilentz revisits the development of the United States from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, offering a narrative history of the nation. His primary goal is to illustrate how the foundations of the country were not firmly entrenched in democratic principles, but how the seeds of the concept gradually spread until they formed the broader policies of the country that were challenged by and survived the Civil War. Malcolm Jones, in a review for Newsweek, found Wilentz's book to be "a magnificent chronicle, the life of an idea that, although it is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, nevertheless slowly elbowed its way into the heart of American life." A contributor for the Economist called the volume "a dense, authoritative and well-written study. It has been ten years in the making, and brings together an impressive accrual of detail."
Continuing with his focus on the development of American democracy, Wilentz's biography Andrew Jackson, provides a history of Jackson's presidency and all of its controversies. Library Journal reviewer Bryan Craig declared the book "a great first read for students and general readers because of its affordability, new assessments, and writing style," while a contributor to Kirkus Reviews concluded that "Wilentz does a solid job of explaining the contributions of the Jackson presidency."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Heritage, December, 1994, review of The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America, p. 126.
American Prospect, November, 2005, Alan Taylor, "Democratic Storytelling," review of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, p. 42.
American Scholar, autumn, 2005, Richard E. Nicholls, "Power to the People: Winning the Revolution Did Not Assure Ordinary Americans a Role in Governing Themselves," review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 134.
Artforum, December, 2004–January, 2005, Andrew Hultkrans, review of The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, p. 28.
Booklist, April 1, 1994, Brian McCombie, review of The Kingdom of Matthias, p. 1409; November 15, 2004, Ray Olson, review of The Rose & the Briar, P. 542; September 15, 2005, Vanessa Bush, review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 23; December 15, 2005, Ray Olson, review of Andrew Jackson, p. 16.
Choice, April, 2005, R.D. Cohen, review of The Rose & the Briar, p. 1410.
Economist, October 29, 2005, "The People's Road: American Democracy," review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 89.
Journal of Social History, spring, 1997, Perry Bush, review of The Kingdom of Matthias, p. 739.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2005, review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 841; November 1, 2005, review of Andrew Jackson, p. 1180.
Library Journal, October 15, 2004, David Szatmary, review of The Rose & the Briar, p. 65; September 15, 2005, Steven Puro, review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 76; December 1, 2005, Bryan Craig, review of Andrew Jackson, p. 142.
Nation, July 19, 1993, Linda K. Kerber, review of The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, "a Laborer," 1747–1814, p. 108; November 14, 1994, Michael P. Johnson, review of The Kingdom of Matthias, p. 588.
National Review, November 7, 2005, Michael Knox Beran, "Telling No Tales," review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 51.
New Republic, July 9, 1984, Herbert G. Gutman, review of Chants Democratic: New York and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850, p. 33; October 17, 1994, Lee Rust Brown, review of The Kingdom of Matthias, p. 52.
Newsweek, October 31, 2005, Malcolm Jones, "America from Tom to Abe: A Hip Historian's Take on How Democracy Took Root," p. 56.
New Yorker, December 6, 2004, review of The Rose & the Briar, p. 108; October 24, 2005, Jill Lepore, review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 80.
New York Times Book Review, November 13, 2005, Gordon S. Wood, "A Constant Struggle," review of The Rise of American Democracy, pp. 10-11.
Publishers Weekly, April 18, 1994, review of The Kingdom of Matthias, p. 53; October 18, 2004, review of The Rose & the Briar, p. 58; August 1, 2005, review of The Rise of American Democracy, p. 57; October 31, 2005, review of Andrew Jackson, p. 42.
Sing Out!, spring, 2005, Michael Tearson, review of The Rose & the Briar, p. 107.
Princeton Packet Online, http://www.princetonpacket.com/ (March 15, 2006), information on author.
Princeton University History Department Web site, http://his.princeton.edu/ (March 15, 2006), author profile.