Cover image for Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning, and Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century Edited by Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob

Thinking Together

Lecturing, Learning, and Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century

Edited by Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob


$89.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08087-1

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08088-8

264 pages
6" × 9"
12 b&w illustrations

Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Thinking Together

Lecturing, Learning, and Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century

Edited by Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob

Thinking Together explores popular learning in the United States during the long nineteenth century through case studies of a broad multiplicity of lyceum speakers. Maintaining the particularity of each case, the volume vividly illustrates how distinct racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups and individuals not only educated themselves but also constructed a sense of belonging while forging spiritual and political communities.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Changes to the landscape of higher education in the United States over the past decades have urged scholars grappling with issues of privilege, inequality, and social immobility to think differently about how we learn and deliberate. Thinking Together is a multidisciplinary conversation about how people approached similar questions of learning and difference in the nineteenth century.

In the open air, in homes, in public halls, and even in prisons, people pondered recurring issues: justice, equality, careers, entertainment, war and peace, life and death, heaven and hell, the role of education, and the nature of humanity itself. Paying special attention to the dynamics of race and gender in intellectual settings, the contributors to this volume consider how myriad groups and individuals—many of whom lived on the margins of society and had limited access to formal education—developed and deployed knowledge useful for public participation and public advocacy around these concerns. Essays examine examples such as the women and men who engaged lecture culture during the Civil War; Irish immigrants who gathered to assess their relationship to the politics and society of the New World; African American women and men who used music and theater to challenge the white gaze; and settler-colonists in Liberia who created forums for envisioning a new existence in Africa and their relationship to a U.S. homeland. Taken together, this interdisciplinary exploration shows how learning functioned not only as an instrument for public action but also as a way to forge meaningful ties with others and to affirm the value of an intellectual life.

By highlighting people, places, and purposes that diversified public discourse, Thinking Together offers scholars across the humanities new insights and perspectives on how difference enhances the human project of thinking together.

Thinking Together explores popular learning in the United States during the long nineteenth century through case studies of a broad multiplicity of lyceum speakers. Maintaining the particularity of each case, the volume vividly illustrates how distinct racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups and individuals not only educated themselves but also constructed a sense of belonging while forging spiritual and political communities.”
“A highly original collection that introduces readers not only to diversity in subjects and approaches but also to the commonalities in aspiration and pleasure. Contributors do justice to both in essays ranging from a lyceum in Liberia to meetings of soldiers imprisoned during the Civil War to immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”
“In an era when we desperately need new ideas for reviving public deliberation, this interdisciplinary collection reminds us of a time when creative activists experimented with new ways to advance learning and promote moral and intellectual enlightenment. Extending beyond the lyceum movement, the volume recalls forums that empowered people excluded from formal education not only to speak, listen, and learn, but also to ‘think together’ about the crucial political and social issues of the day.”
“This collection calls attention to nineteenth-century contexts where unconventional modes of education were employed and exposes readers to alternative ways of thinking together, presented from multiple disciplinary perspectives. By looking at groups and individuals in a variety of settings, including lecturers, platform entertainers, journalists, and religious leaders, Thinking Together offers new ways to understand how we learn from one another.”
“Lecture platforms such as the lyceum were the true ‘social media’ of the nineteenth century, forging communities in pursuit of common understanding, insight, and wisdom. Ray and Stob have collected studies showing that the cultural practices of platform culture were robust even in the face of social disruption and among marginalized as well as mainstream populations. Each essay displays exemplary scholarship; together they illumine a vital but often neglected dimension of nineteenth-century public culture.”

Angela G. Ray is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and the author of The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth-Century United States.

Paul Stob is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University and the author of William James and the Art of Popular Statement.



Introduction (Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob)

Part 1: Disrupting Narratives

1. The Portable Lyceum in the Civil War (Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray)

2. Women’s Entrepreneurial Lecturing in the Early National Period (Granville Ganter)

3. Mobilizing Irish America in the Antebellum Lecture Hall (Tom F. Wright)

4. Authentic Imitation or Perverse Original? Learning About Race from America’s Popular Platforms (Kirt H. Wilson and Kaitlyn G. Patia)

Part 2: Distinctive Voices

5. A Lyceum Diaspora: Hilary Teage and a Liberian Civic Identity (Bjørn F. Stillion Southard)

6. Secret Knowledge, Public Stage; Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse (Richard Benjamin Crosby)

7 .The “Perfect Delight” of Dramatic Reading: Gertrude Kellogg and the Post-Civil War Lyceum (Sara E. Lampert)

8. Talking Music: Amy Fay and the Origins of the Lecture Recital (E. Douglas Bomberger)

9. Hinduism for the West: Swami Vivekananda’s Pluralism at the World’s Parliament of Religions (Scott R. Stroud)

Conclusion: Placing Platform Culture in Nineteenth-Century American Life (Carolyn Eastman)


List of Contributors


From the Introduction

Angela G. Ray and Paul Stob

Scholars long have gathered at colleges and universities, have organized conferences and symposia, have discussed ideas in person or remotely through communication technologies from letters to video conferencing, and have read about the latest intellectual advancements in books, journals, and periodicals. Yet the future of thinking together—that is, of people assembling to pursue knowledge and to forge collective understanding—now seems uncertain. Changes over the past few decades have raised serious doubts about the viability of these norms, modes, and practices. Technological advancements, neoliberal economics, increased expenses, decreased governmental support, and a widening chasm between academic and public cultures—such changes have prompted questions about the pursuit of knowledge in the twenty-first century. Established models of higher education seem outmoded to many, inciting a chorus of commentators calling for change. William Deresiewicz, for one, chastises existing institutions for “exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is as isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position—as the WASP aristocracy itself.” Richard and Daniel Susskind go even further by prophesying an end to collegiate education as we know it, particularly its system of certifying professional training: “In the long run, increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society” and decreasing the need for academically certified gatekeepers of knowledge. Such criticisms imply that in the future people will be thinking together in very different ways than they do right now.

Yet scholars of intellectual history are demonstrating clearly that people in the past also thought together differently than they do now. In the United States, for example, collective inquiry did not always happen according to the professional models that the Susskinds and Deresiewicz now see coming to an end. Certainly in the nineteenth century, the norms, modes, and practices of thinking together were far from established. Experimentation, in fact, was the norm for people and groups who wanted to pursue knowledge together. Sometimes experimentation was born of necessity: through overt oppression or covert limitation, many people did not possess what Frederick Douglass called the “favourable circumstances and opportunities” of schools, colleges, and the wealth to enter them. Whereas some people experimented with practices of learning because the doors of institutions were closed to them, the experimentation of others arose from a desire to extend or elaborate their formal learning. In consequence, nineteenth- century individuals sought insight in myriad ways and myriad places. Some participated in the creation of a distinctive literary or performance culture. Others envisioned associations for mutual learning as mechanisms for bringing intellectual or moral enlightenment to the world. Still others believed that a robust pursuit of knowledge could only happen through the creation of educational institutions designed for people long denied education. The histories of these and many other intellectual experiments suggest that the ways we think together are always changing, always in transition, always unsettled.

Today, as we face an uncertain intellectual future, we might find wisdom in the collective experiments of the past. This book takes part in that search, exploring some of the ways people in the nineteenth century, acting in community, tried to educate themselves, to deliberate about common problems, and to live intellectually rich lives. Perhaps the best-known instantiation of this search for knowledge was the lyceum, which involved a series of civic debating and lecturing associations created in communities across the country beginning in the late 1820s.4 This volume investigates lyceums, but its scope is more sweeping, as contributors study lecturing and learning writ large—not only lyceum activities but the many ways people got together in different forums to speak, listen, and learn. What’s more, the chapters that follow are especially interested in how people living on the margins of society managed to think together despite the many obstacles they faced. Due to their gender, race, geographic location, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation—or a combination thereof—they lacked access to institutions of higher learning and other traditional sites of intellectual power. Yet exclusion does not equal powerlessness; often people in challenging circumstances found ways to investigate the world together, on their own terms. They managed, to borrow John Dewey’s conception of education, to find that which “enlarges and enlightens experience,” that which “stimulates and enriches imagination,” and that which “creates responsibility for accuracy and vividness of statement and thought.” They did this by getting together, sometimes in unexpected places, to deliberate about their world, to share concerns, and to investigate common problems. In that way, they engaged in the kind of deliberative encounter that Robert Asen sees as central for democratic society—that is, an encounter with one another that “may pro- mote decision-making and collective problem-solving as well as helping us to discover a shared set of values.”

In pursuing the intersection of education and deliberation generally, this volume concentrates attention specifically on popular learning, a term that implies a contrast with the privileged learning that happened in established schools and colleges. Yet it is important to remember that the boundary between popular and institutional learning was permeable, and several of the individuals studied in this volume blended formal and popular teaching, formal and popular learning. Despite—or perhaps because of—their ambiguous relationships with established educational institutions, the people and groups who populate this volume created their own places, spaces, and discourses for sharing ideas, better understanding themselves and their world, and critiquing the society that surrounded them. For instance, letters that flew between the Civil War home front and battlefield reported news of books and lectures, linking distant kin in shared learning, while imprisoned Union and Confederate soldiers produced their own handwritten newspapers. Women teachers became educational entrepreneurs, entering the popular lecture hall to attract interest in their private schools. Immigrants gathered in great cities and small towns to ponder their relationships to the political and public cultures of the New World. African American women and men used music and theater to challenge the gaze of white eyes. In Liberia, settler-colonists created their own forums for deliberating about their new existence in Africa and their relationships to a U.S. homeland. On the American frontier, a group of Mormon believers who had been chased from the places they tried to settle came together for a message that blended inquiry, magic, and democracy. Back east, some white women learned to perform the words of others to entertain and edify diverse audiences while making careers for themselves. Others combined piano playing with popular lecturing, enthralling adults and schoolchildren alike. Near the end of the century, people gathered from across the world in the White City of Chicago’s World’s Fair to deliberate about religion, truth, and humanity, equipping themselves to navigate pluralism in a global context.

While it can be tempting to idealize these educational experiments, they were forged, to borrow Joseph F. Kett’s characterization, “under difficulties.”8 That is to say, they typically emerged because of exclusion, because of opposition, because the mainstream institutions of learning were never as welcoming as they should have been. To be sure, thinking together because of exclusion and opposition can lead to problems of its own: insularity, dogmatism, resistance to the insights of others. But this volume focuses more on delineating the ways that people, places, and discourses structured intellectual communities than on assessing the quality of knowledge produced. When the chapters do evaluate quality, they demonstrate a prolific range, from the instantiation of white supremacy to a progressive politics of inclusion. This volume thus aims not to romanticize the past but to show the many ways marginalized groups creatively navigated their circumstances and still pursued knowledge in community.

The argument that links the subjects treated in this volume is that people and groups in the nineteenth century, many of whom had limited access to formal education, pursued learning and developed knowledge useful for public life, whether they would deploy such knowledge in local voluntary associations, in entertainment venues, in religious institutions, or in political forums. They participated in the production and circulation of knowledge for myriad purposes, from economic betterment to social change, from personal growth to public action. Together they 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. Similarly, the practices of learning they adopted were consistent with their time but modified to respond to their own circumstances: they blended oral, scribal, and print production, as they debated, lectured, kept minutes of meetings, and wrote letters, diaries, essays, poems, stories, histories, town plans, and geographic texts. Their collective intellectual experiments reflect the profound value they placed on learning and offer salutary reminders of its many forms, functions, and results, reminders that may prove useful as we deliberate the future of education in our own time.

Before turning to the specifics of the collective intellectual experiments treated here, we need to explain three general dynamics of the forms of thinking together that pervade this volume—specifically, the dynamics of people, places, and purposes.


Historian David M. Henkin insists that “the heterogeneity of historical experience” is “the increasingly salient fact” about the past. Heterogeneity certainly characterizes the people and groups studied in this volume who pursued knowledge together in the nineteenth century. Even as the chapters demonstrate the ubiquity of knowledge seeking and knowledge production, they also show wide variation among participants. At the same time, by enacting their own form of collective inquiry, they suggest the utility of a multidisciplinary approach to an exceptionally complex and multifaceted history. The scholars writing in this volume focus attention at different scales, investigating the ways nineteenth-century learning practices contributed to widespread assumptions about national belonging or transnational alliances while also examining the distinctive features of learning communities, which sometimes flouted ostensible consensus.

Put differently, while the volume showcases variety, it also seeks patterns and connections—and not just across the chapters but across the range of intellectual practices that defined the nineteenth century. Consider the following example, which illustrates the interplay of particularity and generalizability at the heart of this volume. In July 1832 William Lloyd Garrison’s Boston-based abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, reported a speech delivered by Sarah Mapps Douglass, one of the paper’s contributing authors, at a meeting labeled a “mental feast.” The daughter of Philadelphia abolitionists Robert Douglass Sr., a hairdresser, and Grace Bustill Douglass, a milliner, Sarah Douglass was a twenty-five-year-old schoolteacher and a member of Philadelphia’s African American middle class. In 1831 she had helped to found the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia, in 1833 she would join her mother and other local women to organize the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and in the early 1840s she would participate in the Gilbert Lyceum, the first mixed-sex literary association in Philadelphia’s free black community. At an organizational “feast” in 1832, Douglass companionably addressed her auditors as “my friends” and “my sisters” and marked the significance of their assemblage: “How important is the occasion for which we have assembled ourselves together this evening, to hold a feast, to feed our never-dying minds, to encite each other to deeds of mercy, words of peace: to stir up in the bosom of each, gratitude to God for his increasing goodness, and feeling of deep sympathy for our brethren and sisters, who are in this land of christian light and liberty held in bondage the most cruel and degrading—to make their cause our own!” She merged personal experience and public action, detailing her own convictions about the sin of slavery, her increasing cognizance of the rampant threats to all black lives posed by the slave power, her sense of responsibility “to elevate the character of my wronged and neglected race,” and her faith in God’s help. Finally, Douglass offered procedural recommendations, suggesting that future “mental feasts” begin with Bible reading and prayer, that study and conversation be “altogether directed to the subject of slavery,” and that fare “for the body” be “simple,” the better to promote an imaginative affinity with “those who have nothing to refresh body and mind.”

(Excerpt ends here)