What follows is a version of the talk Christopher Shannon gave as part of a plenary at the most recent S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis on the topic: “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship.” Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual and Culture in Modern American Social Thought and A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity. He has a forthcoming book, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History which he is co-authoring with Christopher Blum.
“What are our histories of culture, of civilization, of progress, of humanity, of truth, save the form of ecclesiastical history in harmony with our times—that is to say, of the triumph and propagation of the faith, of the strife against the powers of darkness, of the successive treatments of the new evangel made afresh with each succeeding epoch?” This shock of recognition comes not from a contemporary scholar engaging the work of George Marsden or Brad Gregory, but rather from Benedetto Croce in his 1920 work Theory and History of Historiography.  Croce’s rhetorical question came in the course of his reflection on just his own particular episode in the never ending crisis of historicism, which is in no small way related to the never ending crisis of ideology. A specter haunts the histories of both historicism and ideology, and it is the specter of religion—more specifically Christianity, most specifically Catholicism. (more…)
André Schiffrin memorial, Great Hall, Cooper Union, October 29, 2014
by Jesse Lemsich
An extraordinary event, which will be put up on the New Press website, where it will be worth watching. Random memories of this event:
I sat with Todd Gitlin, and I guess we had mutually decided to put aside our differences and resume being old friends. Todd laughed heartily when Bud Trillin described the Yale 1950s’ ideal of being “shoe” – that is, cool, with André the very reverse of that. I concluded from Todd’s reaction that the same term had been current at Harvard. He remembered “Jack Tar” and said that at one point he had thought of writing about the role of Isaac Sears in the NY Stamp Act riots. We got along fine, which I guess is one of the things that happen at memorial services. (more…)
What follows is a version of the talk I gave as part of a plenary at the most recent S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis on the topic: “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship.” I was joined on the panel by Susan Curtis, Michael Kramer, Rick Perlstein, and Christopher Shannon. Michael and Chris have agreed to have their talks published here as well, so look for those in the next few days.
Since this conference and society grew out of the success of an academic blog—yes, that’s how cutting edge we are—it’s fitting that the inspiration for this plenary came from a conversation that first took place at the US Intellectual History Blog. This conversation was started by the one and only LD Burnett, in her post “The Reluctant Historian.” LD reflected on Thomas Haskell’s charge that we as historians “bracket [our] perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.” In other words, we as historians need to somehow set aside our ideological commitments if we are to be fair to the past and to the truth. In the comments section LD extended this directive to our role as teachers of students: “It’s not my job to change their understanding about life in general, or politics, or religion, or whatever,” LD wrote.
In a follow-up blog post I took exception to this by arguing that the best teachers are often—though certainly not always—openly ideological because ideological teaching can be exciting. I cited my own experience as a student: my favorite high school English teacher was an admitted Ayn Rand objectivist and my favorite college professor was an avowed Eugene Debs socialist. I learned more from those teachers than most precisely because their honesty about their ideological commitments made me reflect on my own. (more…)
Editor’s Note: We continue our series of guest posts on panels from our recently concluded conference with this review of “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998),” the panel that included Richard King’s terrific talk on Kazin which we posted earlier today. It comes to us from Brad Baranowski, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation follows the career of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) from its inception to its reception.
Next year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Alfred Kazin’s birthday. An impressive figure in the history of twentieth-century American letters, Kazin’s legacy remains for many tied to his 1942 opus, On Native Grounds. As its subtitle suggests, the book provided “an interpretation of modern American prose literature,” covering roughly the period of the 1890s to the late 1930s. Today the work seems dated. Kazin’s selection of authors, for example, is problematic. Despite such rich literary movements as the Harlem Renaissance, On Native Grounds’s discussion of non-white writers is very limited. Yet as the panel that gathered at this year’s S-USIH conference to honor Kazin detailed, the literary critic’s writings continue to provide inspiration for interpreting American intellectual life.
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Wisconsin-Madison) chaired the panel, which was titled simply “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998).” Stephen Whitfield (Brandeis) delivered the first paper, covering Kazin’s relationship to the Holocaust. Kazin, Whitfield reminded his audience, loved words. He studied them intensely, devoted much care when writing them, and invested them with great power throughout his life. Yet this power had its limits. Kazin ran up against this boundary in his contemplations on the Holocaust. Whitfield noted the unspoken pain that the Holocaust caused Kazin, whose own Jewish identity rendered the meaning of the camps all the more salient. Yet, while he wrote the introduction to the American edition of Anne Frank’s diary, Kazin wrote comparably little on one of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities. Whitfield surmised that Kazin believed that language could say little about the Holocaust, joining other intellectuals who commented on the event through their silence.
The following is a guest post by Richard H. King, Emeritus Professor in American Studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of several books, including Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970, and a forthcoming book on Hannah Arendt in America. This paper was one of four presented at a panel “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998)” at the Sixth Annual meeting of the S-USIH. Next year is the centenary of Kazin’s birth and the panel was organized to call attention to various aspects of his legacy. Besides the papers offered by Stephen J. Whitfield, Richard M. Cook and Richard H. King, Michael Kazin offered some very appropriate comments and thoughts on his father. The panel, the comment and the ensuing discussion were presided over by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen.
Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds (1942) brought the intellectual history of 1930s America to a close on a distinctive and distinguished note. Though ostensibly a literary history of modern American realism as it became modernism, it was much more than that. Famously, Kazin was only 27 years old when this his first book was published. At the time, he had completed a BA from City College and an MA at Columbia in History, where his thesis dealt with the literary criticism of Edward Gibbon. His big book, originally titled The Years of Promise: Prose in American since 1900, was the product of over four years of passionate reading and written in a prose that was full of energy and intensity, a sharp eye for details, and ready ear for the authentic. As is often the case with a book that breaks a mould or redefines a genre, On Native Grounds was not the capstone of a long career but a bid for attention from a newcomer. It was, to use the term Kazin was himself fond of, a deeply serious work.  (more…)
Editori’s Note: This is another in our ongoing series of guest posts reporting on panels from the recently concluded Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference in Indianapolis. This is a review of the Saturday plenary session for the sixth annual S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, entitled “What is U. S. Intellectual History?” It comes to us from Gene Zubovich, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, entitled “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism,” analyzes the role of religion in the rise and fall of American political liberalism from the 1930s to the 1960s. In doing so, it revises the common understandings of both liberal politics and of religion in the mid-twentieth century. Zubovich is currently a resident fellow at Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. He has also served in the past reviewed books for this blog.
The plenary session, “What is U. S. Intellectual History?,” asked the speakers to consider two broad questions. First, what is not intellectual history? In other words, what are the boundaries of our field in relation to other historical subdisciplines and other related disciplines like literary criticism and the history of philosophy. Second, can and should we write intellectual history without intellectuals, or is the subfield bound to the intellectual as a category?
All of the participants agreed wholeheartedly on one thing: that intellectual historians should be “big tent” historians. Voices that desire the policing of disciplinary boundaries were distinctly absent. Precisely what big-tent history should look like was a bit more amorphous. Andrew Jewett suggested that arguments are the subject of inquiry for intellectual historians. We ought to follow these arguments wherever they go, even if they take place outside the academy, literary communities, scientific communities, or other traditional sites of study. Jewett appeared worried less about where these inquiries might take us and more on how history departments shape our inquiry. Political history is enjoying prominence these days and the desire to stay relevant and find jobs is driving intellectual historians toward political history. Instead, Jewett suggested, intellectual historians should be concerned about achieving some subdisciplinary autonomy so that we have leverage, communally, to decide what subjects we find worthy of study. (more…)