A Brief Morality Tale On The Foundations Of Scholarship
In writing about Bellow and racism a few posts back, I learned that he and Ralph Ellison were friends. The Chicago Tribune article I cited in the post went so far as to assert that Bellow was a great “encouragement” to Ellison—both before and after the publication of Invisible Man. Of course there are number of reasons for an intellectual historian to consider Ellison’s life and career, but that article put him further up the ladder of my interests.
So it was with great interest that I discovered, earlier today, this review of Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Written by Mark Greif and titled “Black and White Life,” this is a first-rate piece published by the London Review of Books. Like any review, it previews the uniqueness of Rampersad’s latest scholarly offering.
But in many ways Greif’s piece is also a review of an earlier unknown biography by Lawrence Jackson, titled Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (New York: Wiley, 2002). Here are some excerpts from Greif’s review that focus on Jackson’s intellectual history of Ellison:
– “The most revelatory part of Jackson’s biography was his demonstration of how much of Ellison’s intellectual underpinning and development came from the black Communist Party. In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison acknowledged his education: ‘my attraction (soon rejected) to Marxist political theory’. Jackson laid out, and Rampersad confirms in detail, how this education occurred within the circles of the New York Party. Ellison became a thinker, journalist and apprentice philosopher all as a Party loyalist, under the unique conditions of Harlem life. Ellison’s initial connection to black literary culture is still astonishing. Having left Tuskegee to try his luck in New York, unsure of his direction, he had only to come up from Alabama and spend one night at the YMCA on West 135th Street: he came downstairs into the lobby the next morning and ran into both Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.”
– “Locke had essentially established the Harlem Renaissance as a force in 1925, with his anthology The New Negro. He happened to have met Ellison on a visit to Tuskegee earlier that year. Hughes, meanwhile, was a complete stranger to Ellison. But he took the young writer up and immediately began helping him. He led him to read Malraux and Thomas Mann, and also to study political economy. ‘I don’t wish to be ignorant of leftist literature any longer,’ Ellison wrote to Hughes, hungrily. This was the reader in Ellison, who had devoured the Tuskegee library while still studying music. ‘workers of the world must write!!!!’ he was insisting not much later to Richard Wright, an up-and-coming novelist with whom Hughes put him in touch. Wright had arrived in New York from Chicago – young, self-confident, aggressive and Communist – and showed Ellison a new world from his perch as a writer for the Communist Daily Worker and founder of a new journal, New Challenge. Later, Wright trained Ellison as a novelist in the most direct way possible – by showing him Native Son in the process of composition, a masterpiece which Ellison read ‘as it came out of the typewriter’.”
This last passage evokes a fantastic image. It gives us a sense of connection between thinkers and writers that are often pictured, or portrayed, as merely great individuals.
Wright’s been on my mind quite a bit this fall because I’m teaching Native Son in a Newberry Library Seminar. Having also read Invisible Man, Jackson’s connecting Ellison to Wright makes much more sense to me than the Tribune article’s ideologically connecting Bellow to Ellison. Jackson rightly locates the common denominator: communism.
Greif’s review also reminds us of the foundations of scholarship. While many familiar with well-researched books on African-American historical figures know Rampersad’s name, few likely knew of Jackson. Greif takes the matter a step further: He chastises Rampersad for not engaging Jackson’s work. This reproof is not just nitpicking: Greif points out several instances where a Rampersad-Jackson conversation was either necessary or could have been enlightening.
With this post I want to thank Greif for digging deeper. We need more public reminders of the depth of work required to build accurate portraits U.S. intellectual history’s complex figures. – TL
Next month I’ll be a part of a roundtable/panel at the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association (SSHA). Since the session is titled “The Education of Labor Intellectuals,” I figured it would be of interest to USIH readers.
I’m pleased to be a part of a group including Leon Fink, Toby Higbie, Tony Michels, Caroline Merithew, and Elizabeth Faue. The meeting is in Chicago, and the session is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17, from 3:15-5:15 p.m. More is available at this link (near the bottom—you can click through for abstracts).
While looking up the information for my session I discovered other SSHA sessions related to U.S. intellectual history. For instance, JHI editor Martin Burke organized one titled “The Power of ‘Culture’: Culture and the Social Sciences in Twentieth-Century America.” It takes place the same Saturday as mine, but from 9-11 a.m. Here are the participants and paper titles:
* Martin Burke — Creator, Organizer, Author
* George Vascik — Chair, Discussant
* Jeffrey Sallaz — Author — “Diffusion and Distinction: American Sociology as a Bourdieuian Field”
* John S. Gilkeson — Author — “Eric R. Wolf and the Development of a Global Cultural History”
* Fred Beuttler — Author — “From Moral Absolutes to Cultural Universals: Social Science and the Moral Order in the Post-War World: 1943-1952”
* Martin Burke — Author — “The Geertzian Moment: Cultural Anthropology and American Historiography”
Again, you can go to this link and click through for abstracts (about two-thirds down).
Doesn’t the SSHA seem like an unusual place to find USIH work? I didn’t know that SSHA would welcome this subject until Caroline Merithew suggested it (confession: I didn’t even know about SSHA until Caroline’s suggestion). Of course our panel could be considered primarily one on labor.
I wonder what other unusual or intriguing places our readers have seen U.S. intellectual history panels? My hunch is that many more are out there. This gives me hope for a future USIH conference. – TL
[Updated/edited: 2/11/2015, 7:30 pm]
About a week ago the Chicago Tribune published a story, co-authored by Azam Ahmed and Ron Grossman, on Saul Bellow’s racial views. I do not know if the authors intended it this way, but the piece is really an introduction to Bellow’s place in Chicago’s intellectual life. This comes at the same time that Chicago magazine placed Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the top ten “essential” novels—great books I say—about Chicago.
The Tribune story, titled “Bellow’s remarks on race haunt legacy in Hyde Park” and dated October 5, is excerpted below with my interlinear commentary.
– “In a city whose streets commemorate fascist pilots [General Italo Balbo] and other controversial figures, it should have been a rubber-stamped request: a street, a statue, maybe a school named in honor of Saul Bellow, one of America’s greatest writers and a Chicago literary icon.”
– “The request, made several months ago to Mayor Richard Daley’s office by Bellow’s longtime friend and University of Chicago colleague Richard Stern, was sent along to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th.). The request was promptly denied, Stern said.”
– “Stern [down, right] said he received a letter from the alderman saying she had heard remarks from Bellow she considered racist and because of those comments would not agree to name something after the author.”
– “Bellow, who died two years ago at age 89 after moving to the Boston area, had a complex relationship with Chicago. His career was not without controversy over racial and ethnic issues, topics he explored in essays and books. Stern and other friends of Bellow said he wasn’t a racist. His thoughts and feelings about race and ethnicity were more complex.”
TL: But isn’t this the standard retort when considering the racial views of historical figures? You can’t treat Bellow like you would a Gilded Age figure: Bellow lived through the civil rights era in the U.S.
– “He feared the racial changes in his Hyde Park neighborhood, once filled with European immigrants and now predominantly African-American, Stern said.”
TL: Okay, but was he fearing the loss of immigrant culture or the nature of those incoming?
– “A letter to the editor of the Hyde Park Herald…revealed Preckwinkle’s decision, Stern wrote: “That fact that I know that Bellow was as far from being a racist as either Preckwinkle or myself does not alter the fact that here and there in his work are sentences which could be taken as Preckwinkle took what she heard and
about which I myself argued with him.”
– “But that doesn’t change the fact that Stern believes something in the city should be named in honor of the novelist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976. Several Chicago authors have places named in their honor in the city, among them novelist Nelson Algren and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Among the more notorious honorees is Italo Balbo, a pilot and military and political leader for the Italian facist government of the 1930s.”
TL: But this also doesn’t change the fact that race relations have come a long way since the 1930s. Algren and Brooks were not known for racism. And Balbo was honored for a singular event, not for his general life of “accomplishments.” Success with novels is not “event” oriented, although one might argue that all recipients of Nobel Prizes should have streets names after them.
– ” ‘We have a tradition of naming streets in Chicago for great writers — (German romantic writer) Goethe and (French poet Jean) Racine — so it seems appropriate to name something after him,’ Stern said.”
TL: But those streets were not named in the 21st century when a heightened sensitivity to racism is predominant (and appropriate).
– “It isn’t the first time that Bellow’s thoughts on race got him into trouble. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 1988, Bellow was quoted as having said: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them,” a remark that earned him accusations of insensitivity, elitism and racism.”
TL: Ah, context—how it can save the day. How does Stern explain away this?
– “James Atlas, Bellow’s biographer, said one couldn’t classify the complexity of the man and his work without examining the complexity and nuance of his books. ‘If you look at the black character who stalks Sammler in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, you get a sense that Bellow himself felt threatened by or could feel threatened by blacks,’ Atlas said. ‘On the other hand, he also expressed tremendous pain and sympathy about the conditions of blacks in the South and West Side ghettos of Chicago.’ ”
TL: Now we’re getting somewhere. But occasional empathy does constitute one’s general character and views.
– “The nostalgia of his literary vision, a love affair with a vanishing Chicago, was paralleled by a traditional way of educating. Bellow was an educator of the old school – and especially of the Great Books program established in the 1930s and 1940s at the University of Chicago by its President Robert Maynard Hutchins” [right].
TL: Now you’re seeing, in part, why I’m reflecting on Bellow here at USIH. But my real general interest is in the intellectual history of Chicago.
– “For Hutchins and Bellow, great books were essentially books written by Greeks, Romans and those who came after them in the Western tradition.”
– “Bellow headed the U. of C.’s elite Committee on Social Thought, and one of his proteges was Allan Bloom. Bellow encouraged Bloom to set down on paper his ideas that standards in American higher education were being sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism and political correctness. The resulting book, The Closing of the American Mind, made Bloom’s fame — and, in their opponents’ minds, also made Bellow an accomplice in the “culture wars,” as those curricular battles came to be called.”
TL: Wait, an “accomplice”? Are Ahmed and Grossman holding Bellow responsible for Bloom? If so, that’s a slippery slope: it’s weak. Encouraging an articulate firebrand to write is not the same as encouraging racism. Bloom =/ Bellow, even if their names hold a certain alliterative quality.
– “Bellow was a product of Chicago’s neighborhoods, who through his novelistic alter ego Augie March observed: ‘I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.’ Having grown up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Bellow was uncomfortable with subsequent chapters in the Northwest Side community. Years later, he recalled that the Polish and Jewish immigrants of his generation had been succeeded by migrants from Puerto Rico lacking, he thought, the work ethic of their predecessors. The streets seemed shabby and neglected, he said.”
TL: Okay, we’re back on solid ground with the racism charge.
– “On Thursday, Studs Terkel, another venerable Chicago writer, said: “I don’t think he was a racist; I think he was a bit more scared of black-skinned people than he should have been.’ ”
TL: With all due respect, Mr. Terkel—and I mean that—fear of people on the basis of skin color ~alone~ is sine qua non racism.
– “But Bellow was close friends with Ralph Ellison, the African-American novelist. The two were roommates during the 1950s, and Bellow was a constant source of encouragement both before and after Ellison’s now classic Invisible Man.”
TL: This is like the white people from my hometown in western Missouri disabusing racism on the basis of their one black friend in Kansas City. It won’t cut it.
– “While people may criticize his racial outlook, he had a distinguished literary career. A prolific writer, his work often centered on the difficulties of the modern world, with hustler characters who could spout philosophy like professors.”
TL: This is true, but it doesn’t excuse Bellow’s racism in a world—post-World War II America—that knew better. And Bellow didn’t even have the sorry excuse of having grown up in a region of the U.S. where racism was tolerated.
– “One thing for sure, whomever he liked or didn’t like, Bellow, like the hero of his novel Herzog, had a love affair with Hyde Park. He described it in the book as shabby and rundown, not unlike Humboldt Park, but adding nonetheless that in Hyde Park, ‘among these spacious, comfortable, dowdy apartments where liberal, benevolent people lived…Herzog did in fact feel at home.’ ”
TL: Well, Mr. Bellow, you were clearly not one of those “liberal benevolent people.” And your calling Hyde Park, one of the most diverse and educated neighborhoods in Chicago today, home makes the inconsistency of your racial views more disconcerting. You were scared of people because of their skin color, and history is now judging you accordingly. Perhaps Herzog was who you wanted to be? It doesn’t seem to be who you really were. – TL
Dear USIH Readers,
We would like to expand our pool of contributors. Are you intrigued? If so, are you committed to thinking and writing about U.S. intellectual history topics? Do you have ideas for short or long posts? Are you studying the history of science, education, philosophy, ideas, culture, literature, math, etc. at the graduate level?
If your answer to these questions is yes, then send a note with your c.v and brief statement of interest to timothy.n.lacy – at – gmail.com (or to any other current contributor listed to the right). The USIH team will evaluate your application and get back to you within a few days.
Here’s what you’ll be getting into: Our daily readership fluctuates quite a bit—from a high of 50 or so to as low as 10 per day on the weekends. But USIH readers seem to be regular and come from every corner of the globe. In scanning the last 100 visitors before posting this note, we had representatives from every continent except Antarctica and South America. Of course having more regular contributors will help expand our readership. Our goal is to put up a new post at least every other day. Since each contributor’s energy and time varies by semester, having a larger pool increases our chances of regular postings. You’ll be a part of a team.
Finally, our view of the historian’s home is broad—we understand that professional enthusiasts and practitioners reside in places outside of academic history departments. We try to keep our assumptions to a minimum.
Has anyone read this 1950 book? I’ve been scanning the National Book Critics Circle weblog, Critical Mass, and it’s come up a few times recently as a “recommend.” What’s the book’s thesis? Chapter topics? Overall effect? I’m sure I could look it up in Bender’s New York Intellect, but then I wouldn’t get a conversational response. – TL
1. The International Society for MacIntyrean Philosophy, inspired by work and life of Alasdair MacIntyre, is hosting its second conference next year. To be held from July 30 to August 3, 2008, at the Saint Meinrad School of Theology, St. Meinrad, Indiana, USA, the conference theme is as follows: “Theory, Practice, and Tradition: Human Rationality in Pursuit of the Good Life.” Here is the call for papers (first seen through H-Ideas). Proposals look to be due on January 10, 2008. Nothing in the call excluded history papers, or applications of MacIntyrean philosophy to historical events. Of course MacIntyre himself was known for work on the history of philosophy. For more information contact Christopher S. Lutz, Conference Secretary, via e-mail at clutz-at-saintmeinrad.edu.
2. The U.K.-based Journal of Practical Philosophy recently sent a call for submissions to H-Ideas. I believe USIH enthusiasts will want to take note. Here is a contributor note embedded in the call:
“A key requirement is that papers should have a clearly focused bearing on how practical philosophy is carried out. We encourage authors of mainly theoretical papers to draw out the practical implications of their ideas. Papers should be clear and accessible; a specialised technical vocabulary should be avoided wherever possible. Contributions may be of any length. All contributions are anonymously refereed.”
This seems like perfect fodder for historians of the intellectual life in the United States. The Journal‘s editor is Gerald Rochelle. Reach the editor to discuss paper ideas or make a submission (abstracts limited to 300 words) via this e-mail address: editor-at-practical-philosophy.org.uk. [Note: I searched for the journal’s website without success.] – TL