U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kevin Mattson’s Many Books

Kevin Mattson is probably one of the most prolific U.S. intellectual historians of his generation. He’s also one of the few whose work likely gets read by a larger public. And yet, we don’t discuss Mattson very often here at this blog. This is somewhat surprising given that his interests—postwar political culture—overlap with many of ours. (It’s also surprising since one of our regulars, Ray Haberski, and one of our longtime friends, Julian Nemeth of PhD Octopus fame, both studied with Mattson.)


Why is this? I think it’s because his books, though written with verve, tend to bring intellectual history to bear on contemporary political concerns rather than offer new historiographical insights. This is not a critique. By focusing more on political relevance than on scholarly discourse, Mattson seems to have achieved what many of us claim to want: the elusive general audience. But it might explain why Mattson is unlikely to appear on any comp lists.


The first Mattson book I read, ?Intellectuals in Action: ?The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970 (2002), remains my favorite. In it Mattson examines four of the American intellectuals I find most interesting—William Appleman Williams, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, and Arnold Kauffman—arguing that their thought, and actions, helped give rise to the New Left. I like it more than Mattson’s other books because the research and argument seemed fresh and because he seemed less interested in scoring political points. The book hinted at such politicization. His argument that those four intellectuals, though radical enough to be New Leftists, were at their core American liberals, was a defense of an expansive definition of liberalism. But, as I remember it, such politicization was hardly the driving force of the book.

The same perhaps cannot be said for Mattson’s next book, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Liberalism in Post-War America (2004). This book also sketches out the thought of major intellectuals, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Reinhold Niebuhr, this time in order to defend American liberalism from its detractors on both left and right. In what almost seems like an update of Schlesinger’s Vital Center for the War on Terror, Mattson wants his readers to think of liberalism as both tough and pragmatic, as capable of negotiating the rocky shoals between the ideological left and right. In this, When America Was Great seems like a companion to Peter Beinart’s shameful, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2004), a longer version of his (in)famous New Republic article, “A Fighting Faith.” This comparison is probably unfair. Mattson, unlike Beinart, did not use the history of liberalism to support the war in Iraq. But, that the two books seem like companions likely speaks to the dangers of historical relevance. Mattson gained a large readership, no doubt, but When America Was Great, unlike Intellectuals in Action, already seems dated a mere eight years after its publication.

Most recently, sticking with the liberal theme, Mattson co-authored with Eric Alterman the gigantic book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. I have not yet had the pleasure to read The Cause, though it is sitting on my desk as I write this. My guess is there will be much to like in it, and that I’ll agree with some if not all of the history and politics. But I also suspect the book will be more about the 2012 election than the 1932 election, even in the FDR chapters. So The Cause will be widely read and reviewed in places most of us can only dream of being reviewed in—The New York Times, for example. But it won’t be on any graduate comp lists.

Mattson has written several other books that I won’t discuss in this post. Like I said, he’s über-prolific. The one book I would like to briefly discuss is Rebels All! A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America (2008). This book was published by the Rutgers University Press series, “Ideas in Action: Thought and Culture in the United States Since 1945,” edited by our good friend George Cotkin. Ray’s new book, God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945, is coming out this summer as part of that excellent series. (I love the series description: “Ideas In Action allows established historians to consider broad and important issues pertaining to cultural and intellectual life in the United States since 1945. The books, based for the most part on secondary literature surrounding a topic, will highlight and dissect compelling controversies related to large cultural questions as they change over time. The series provides authors with an opportunity to interpret, to speculate, and to ‘think out loud,’ while furthering critical debate. Books deal not in abstractions but anchor ideas firmly in the context of politics, culture, and society. They are written in a style that is accessible to a wide range of readers and that captures the author’s personality and point of view.”)

Rebels All! lives up to the series description. It’s a broad, speculative interpretation of extant historiography. Mattson’s main point is that modern American conservatism should best be understood as “populist aggression.” In this, he argues that American conservatives are the true heirs to sixties radicals. Conservatives are the ones who have carried on the sixties legacy of anti-establishment utopianism.

I find Mattson’s argument that conservatives are the legatees of sixties radicalism very problematic. Conservatives are rowdy anti-establishmentarians in style. So what? In the first place, sixties radicals were hardly the first Americans to evince such a style. But more importantly, style should not always be conflated with substance, especially in this case. Sixties radicals were anti-establishment because they were against the war, racism, and sexism they thought endemic to the establishment. Obviously, the same cannot be said about conservatism.

I am currently writing a chapter on neoconservatism for my culture wars book, so I took particular interest in Mattson’s analysis of that persuasion. Mattson correctly points out that neocons helped the larger conservative movement by bringing less moralistic social science techniques to conservative arguments and by making an otherwise Protestant and Catholic movement more diverse. But he also argues that the neocons were often out of touch relative to the larger conservative movement. For instance, whereas neocons like Irving Kristol conceptualized religion in “small r” republican terms as a source of stability, conservative American Christians, in Mattson’s view, were populist dissidents who spread disorder. (This divide seems to speak to Ray’s work on civil religion.) More specifically, Mattson believes that, because neocons like Kristol hated populism, which he called an “antinomian impulse,” a “Jacobin contempt” for “law and order and civility,” they were somewhat irrelevant.

Relating this to the campus protests of the sixties, Mattson contrasts the neocons with conservatives like Russell Kirk, who enjoyed the campus protests of the sixties because of the pain it caused the liberal establishment. Mattson uses a famous Russell Kirk quote from 1969, where Kirk takes pleasure in campus protests, as an illustrative epigraph:

“Having been for two decades a mordant critic of what is foolishly called the higher learning in America, I confess to relishing somewhat… the fulfillment of my predictions and the present plight of the educationist Establishment. I even own to a sneaking sympathy, after a fashion, with the campus revolutionaries.”

Arguing that neoconservatism arose, in part, as a reaction to campus protest is true insofar as it goes. But contrasting that with Kirk’s schadenfreude does not quite paint a full picture. I argue that the neoconservative reaction against sixties radicalism was, in fact, internalized by American conservatism more broadly, antinomian style of the larger movement notwithstanding. The sixties protests, it must be remembered, were sopped up by the academy, among other liberal institutions, especially the identity power movements. In this way, conservative antipathy to the academy owes more to the neoconservative reaction than to “populist aggression,” however conservatives style themselves.


I’m still trying to figure out if and how Mattson’s take on conservatism relates to goal of politically relevant scholarship.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an interesting post in large part because you take up the immediacy and relevancy of intellectual history. It seems to me that the power of Kevin Mattson’s body of work is his unabashed promotion of intellectual history as a key to doing something in the political culture of the present. That is certainly a controversial approach but one that does make him an interesting a figure as well as a scholar. Kevin followed the historian I worked with, Charles Alexander, at Ohio University. So I never had the chance to work with him as a graduate student but I did get a chance to chat with him a few times since his arriving in Athens.

    My question for you Andrew is about period–you argue at the end here that “conservative antipathy to the academy owes more to the neoconservative reaction that to populist aggression.” But what about reaction of conservatives before the neoconservative reaction to the academy grew into something to study? In other words, how do you related the kind of conservative style and reaction (populist, perhaps) of conservatives before the antipathy toward to the academia to the neoconservative style and reaction that followed the absorption of radicalism by the academy? Can it be that you and Mattson are not arguing against each other but in different tracks? Mattson spends a great deal of time on Buckley and his circle, especially Brent Bozell.

  2. “So The Cause will be widely read and reviewed in places most of us can only dream of being reviewed in—The New York Times, for example. But it won’t be on any graduate comp lists.”

    You claim, Andrew, not to be offering criticisms, but I detect a certain note of disdain in this and a couple of other comments in your post. This is all the more intriguing because, for the most part, I personally find the books reviewed in The New York Times to be far more interesting than those on the comps lists.

    Also, do you see the distinction in this post as a different way of getting at the two sorts of historical writing that you made in your recent post on Anthony Grafton? If not, to what extent, in your view, do they overlap?

    Finally, for what it’s worth, I thought about Kevin Mattson the the whole time I was writing my last book chapter. His imagined unfavorable review of the future served as the prod to be as careful as I could in whatever criticisms that I offered of the consensus thinkers. He’s also written another book that you didn’t mention: the short one on the Carter “malaise” speech. I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Thanks for linking to my reading list — I worked hard on it, and I’m partial to it, and proud of it. I think it’s exemplary for a qualifying exam list. However, it’s idiosyncratic: perhaps representative, but definitely not canonical (though there’s an unmistakable “spine” of a canon running through it.)

    Still, I could see one of Mattson’s works appearing as a primary source in a historiography/theory section of a list, perhaps as an example of a particular kind of “presentism.” And some of his books might find a place in secondary literature on an exam list — I suppose it depends on how the list is inflected.

    But not on my list — no room at this mad tea party for even one more guest!

  4. Yeah, I could see two or three of his books finding a place on an exam list, especially a pragmatic list with a pluralist approach. Would just have to figure out whose methodology or commitments would provide the best foil/sparring partner, then read them side by side. Another time…

  5. Thanks very much for the comments. In re-reading my post this morning, I fear I come across as too critical of Mattson. Although I have some particular quibbles with his analysis of conservatism that I highlight above, I find him an interesting thinker. Ray’s right when he writes that Mattson is “an interesting a figure as well as a scholar.” (Ray–sorry for thinking you studied with Mattson. I knew he wasn’t your dissertation advisor, but for some reason I thought you worked with him at Ohio.)

    1) Ray asks about conservative anti-academic periodization. Mattson is certainly right to emphasize pre-sixties arguments such as those made by Buckley. “God and Man at Yale” is formative in this regard. But what the neoconservatives offered was different due to changing contexts. The neocons were of the liberal academy and they reacted against its incorporation of New left sensibilities, which they believed destroyed standards. I don’t believe Buckley was ever really interested in standards. He merely thought it reasonable that Yale professors should represent the interests of Yale trustees–pro-capitalist and pro-Christian (or at least, reasonably anti-communist and anti-atheist). Neocons actually believed in (a version of) the liberal curriculum and believed it was being destroyed. Im not sure the same can be said of Buckley, who famously argued against academic freedom in favor of McCarthyism.

    cont…

  6. 2) Mike, I swear to you that I am not critiquing Mattson for writing books more likely to be reviewed in the NYT than to appear on comp lists. You are reading “disdain” into my post. That said, it’s an interesting question as to whether I would rather write a book reviewed by the NYT or one that appears on comp lists. (I should note that most of us will never be lucky enough to write either!) If I have to choose–because honestly, I’d like both–I would go with the comp list. Perhaps it’s the recent turn taken by the NYT book review page, but I find the majority of the books reviewed there uninteresting, or at least, unlikely to be interesting or relevant in the near future. I prefer history books that stand the test of time, or at least, represent a historiographic paradigm–the type that appear on comp lists. But that’s just me. Clearly I’m brainwashed to think disciplinary standards important.

    3) LD: I love your comp list and am going to treat much of it as my must-read list once I finish writing my current book.

  7. Andrew, _Education and the Cold War_ was on my list until the last round of negotiations — and it might go back on. I just have to drop something else (a few candidates come to mind). Of course that would mean re-opening negotiations on the list as a whole, and I think I had better leave well enough alone. For me, hammering out this list really brought out the “curse” in discursive. But the process paid off in the product — except for your missing tome.

  8. Andrew:

    My apologies for attributing to you a disdain you do not possess. Like you, though, I find the question in its milder form–which conversation, should one have to choose, would you rather enter?–to be endlessly fascinating. One of the most interesting things about it to me is that the dichotomy is very slippery. People discussing this topic continually dip in and out of several different distinctions at once, often without acknowledging (or, perhaps, being aware) that they have done so.

    I’ve listed below several distinctions that I see, all of which I believe are different from one another. Most of them are ideal types, and so elements of both kinds of books might be present in individual works. And, of course, many books that hope to achieve one or the other goals never come anywhere near either. Nonetheless, in discussing the different types of books people like to read or, presumably, write, I think these considerations are some of the things that they have in mind.

    *reaching one sort of audience (the “literate public”) versus another (of professional historians)
    *reaching a larger audience versus a smaller one (in terms of the spread and influence of one’s ideas)
    *selling a lot of books versus not so many (in terms of making more money)
    *reaching across disciplinary boundaries versus sticking within one field
    *engaging a public issue or engaging a scholarly or historiographical issue
    *writing in an accessible style versus writing in a more precise style
    *dealing with primary sources versus dealing in secondary sources
    *performing an act of synthesis or one of analysis
    *attempting to make a name for one’s self as a public intellectual versus, well, not attempting to do so

    You might be right about the New York Times Book Review. I had thought you intended that particular reference as more of a placeholder, though: the books I see reviewed in, say, the NYRB or the back pages of The New Republic typically seem more interesting to me than those I see reviewed in the AHR, though admittedly the reviews themselves make this an applies-to-oranges comparison.

  9. Andrew – It’s a smallish point, but I think you rely on a simplistic dichotomy between “style” and “substance” to make the distinction between sixties “radicals” and their anti-establishment cousins. The term “style” can have a richer, if less precise, meaning than you give it.

    For example, in the introduction to The Paranoid Style, Hofstadter associated the term with “political culture,” “the milieu of our politics,” and its “symbolic aspect” as opposed to a narrow focus on political “structure,” “distribution of power” and politics as the play of “interests.” I don’t mean to suggest that he saw these terms as synonymous, but they certainly seem to have had family resemblances.

    Similarly, Dan Wickberg, in his 2007 AHR article on “The History of Sensibilities,” refers to Hofstadter’s book as an effort to identify a single, perduring conservative complex that included “emotional states,…an ontology…an epistemology…a moral order…[and] a mode of action.” Summarizing the approach, Dan says, “The specific objects of right-wing movements might vary,…but they all partake of a common sensibility or ‘style.’”

    This doesn’t appear very distant from Mattson’s association of “style” with “the conservative mind” and “sensibility,” and his point too seems to be that politics is a matter of culture as well as economic interest. He’s certainly not the first to see similarities as well as differences in sixties movements of left and right, or to struggle for the correct language to describe “the internal logic of the conservative mind’s motor…a conflicted but ultimately unified mind.” [134]

    For me a major puzzle is how to balance attention to parallels of sensibility and a shared rebellion against the liberal establishment on the one hand, with the ferocities of political and cultural conflict. I was surprised you didn’t address his view of how liberals should conduct themselves in the culture wars, particularly since you’re “still trying to figure out how Mattson’s take on conservatism relates to [the] goal of politically relevant scholarship.”

    I’d also raise the same question Ray did about your assertion that “conservative antipathy to the academy owes more to the neoconservative reaction than to ‘populist aggression.’” To me it’s way too simple to say that “sixties protests, were sopped up by the academy, among other liberal institutions, especially the identity power movements,” unless you’re simply going to re-label all liberals who resisted the politicization of the academy as neo-cons.

    Certainly it’s hard to assign causal weights here, but one shouldn’t forget things like Reagan’s election as governor of California in 1966, Spiro Agnew’s attacks on “effete intellectual snobs,” or Ayn Rand’s call for a “new intellectual.” [One of the shortcomings of Mattson’s book is his neglect of the libertarian strand of the broad conservative movement, which seems much more in line with his argument than neo-conservatism.]

  10. Are you sure “it’s a smallish point” Bill? 🙂

    I agree that style is certainly significant in certain instances. For instance, the counterculture style was a rejection of the establishment that had a lasting effect on the larger political culture. David Farber argues that the hippies were the “shock troops” of the culture wars because middle-class white Americans were expected to fall in line; that they didn’t was much more surprising, much more traumatic, than, say, black power militancy. (I think Farber overstates this point, but it’s certainly worthy of serious consideration).

    Note that I did not write: “style should never be conflated with substance.” Instead I wrote: “style should not always be conflated with substance, especially in this case.” I don’t think a counter-establishment style goes very far in explaining postwar or post-sixties conservatism, especially when linked to the New Left. In this case, I think substance far outweighs style. The argument can be made that there were points of overlap between the New Left and the conservative movement, such as in support of anti-liberalism or decentralization. But even in that case, both sides treated liberalism almost like a cipher, like Calhoun and Garrison’s use of “state’s rights.”

    More broadly, I firmly disagree with Hofstadter’s argument that right-wing movements all evince a similar sensibility. This seems like a remnant of early cold war liberalism best left alone. Those crazies far to the right (and left) aren’t like us rational people in the middle!

    Lastly, nowhere do I suggest that all liberals who resisted (New Left) politicization of the curriculum were neocons. I merely pointed out that such criticism served as one of the foundations of neoconservative thought and, in turn, shaped culture war logic.

    Thanks, as always, for being a tough and insightful critic.

  11. Andrew – I must have done a poor job explaining my point. It wasn’t at all about the importance of “style,” but your colloquial setting it over against “substance,” and I gave several examples of historians using the term in a different way. [I should have mentioned also Wickberg’s “Cultural Sensibility of American Liberalism, 1890-1941,” OAH ’09]

    I wasn’t defending Hofstadter’s remnantatious interpretation of conservatism, only suggesting that he linked “style” with terms typically on the other side of your binary. But he wasn’t the last person to identify some coherence in what Mattson, following W.J. Cash, “The Mind of the South,” calls the “conservative mind,” a component of which is its “style.”

    I was raising a question about the meaning you give the term, not adding my two cents on the whether it should always/sometimes/never be “conflated” with substance; asking how we might even start talking about that without defining our terms.

    Alas, my failure is complete, and your faith in the distinction apparently unshaken, you assert “the counterculture style was a rejection of the establishment that had a lasting effect on the larger political culture,” and that you “don’t think a counter-establishment style goes very far in explaining postwar or post-sixties conservatism, especially when linked to the New Left. In this case,…substance far outweighs style.”

  12. Kevin Mattson sent me a very gracious email about this post. Later in the summer, when he returns from a two-month trip, we’re going to have a debate about the neocons and culture wars. So stay tuned for that–it should be fun! Mattson also said he firmly disagrees with my comparison of him to Beinart. He cited his negative review of Beinart that he wrote for Boston Review. I should probably reconsider.

    Bill: You did a fine job explaining your point. It’s just that I don’t think discussing style and substance as separate entities is as simplistic or problematic as you do. They are not the same thing even when they bleed into one another. As much as I love reading James, Dewey, Foucault, Derrida, Hofstadter, Wickberg, etc., I think there is a tendency amongst them to overstate the conflation of style and substance. I might be wrong, but I’m not so dense that I misunderstood your point.

    LD: I look forward to the fracas.

  13. Andrew – Thanks for the response, and sorry if I seemed to insult you. My original point of course was that you might rethink your use of the near-colloquial style/substance dichotomy in light of the fact that “style” is sometimes “associated,” with, or “bleed[s] into,” other stuff that some thinkers, and reasonable observers of their work, might identify as “substantive.” As usual, I was wandering in a historiographic wilderness, not pronouncing on the “true” distinction between style and substance [though likely inspired by an unschooled sense that they really are closely related.]

    I raised the issue because the distinction you were making seemed to have large implications for your discussion of conservatism, especially vis-à-vis the counterculture and the left in the sixties. You seem to want to emphasize the differences — and oppositions — rather than any parallels, perhaps to enhance the genealogy of “culture wars.”

    Back to Hofstadter: speaking of the essays that make up “Paranoid Style,” he says,

    since these studies have to do with the style of our political culture as a whole, and with certain special styles of thought and rhetoric that have prevailed within it, they tell more about the milieu of our politics than about its structure. They are more centrally concerned with the symbolic aspect of politics than with the formation of institutions and the distribution of power.

    He hastens to disavow any claim that symbolism and style are more important than “material” structure, just that the former have an unappreciated importance — and to him are more interesting.

    In the next paragraph, the distinction is historicized by reference to Lasswell, who, “dissatisfied with the rationalistic assumptions” that guided the study of politics, was one of the earliest “to turn to the study of the emotional and symbolic side of political life.” Inspiration from other disciplines such as anthropology, psychology and literary criticism was leading historians and others to attend to “the symbolic and myth-making aspects of the human mind,” to ask new questions, such as “Who perceives what public issues, in what way, and why,” recognizing that “people seek not only their interests but also express and even in a measure define themselves in politics; that political life acts as a sounding board for identities, values, fears, and aspirations.” [viii-ix]

    Perhaps this rich, complex, evocative passage can be glossed as elucidating, through numerous reiterations using different terms with adjacent meanings, a single large distinction between two aspects of, and approaches to, the study of politics.

    In this case anyway, to frame “style” over against “substance” would fairly exactly reverse Hofstadter’s meaning.

    Also — I happened to notice that in “What is Americanism?” [2007] Tom Bender also draws a comparison between the Mattson and Beinart books, saying that “their rhetorical commitment to framing their arguments for recovering much of postwar liberalism in the language of greatness runs against the deepest lesson offered by Niebuhr.” [9n.12]

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