Book Review

David A. Hollinger on Reconsidering Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness (1956)

Our “Classic Series” of retrospective reviews and reflections provides an opportunity to invite senior scholars and others to take a look back at books that have either endured, or had particular significant in their intellectual growth. The series is motivated by the desire to put our current work in the context of what has stood the test of time. We began with a list compiled by the book review committee; a list fit for a field examination. When I asked senior scholars to name a book that had shaped their thinking often times it wasn’t on the list, or even U.S. history. The results will be seen in the coming months as each writer takes a unique approach from the personal to the historiographical. My hope is that the classics series will provide a fresh reading of some of the books that have influenced our field and insight into the development of historical thinking. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did bringing it together. I welcome your comments or suggestions. Classics Series Editor, Lilian Calles Barger.

Perry Miller. Errand Into the Wilderness. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1956)

Review by David Hollinger

I came to appreciate Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness while trying to imagine what 20th century US history might look like if it were written by a medievalist. As a graduate student in American history with a minor in medieval England, I was struck with how vastly different were the styles of history in these two fields as registered, at least, by the books and articles I was expected to read. Medievalists kept talking about “advanced problems” in the field, a language I don’t recall ever hearing in a US history seminar. The articles I read in Speculum and English Historical Review seemed to me more sophisticated and focused than the ones I read in Mississippi Valley Historical Review and later in Journal of American History.

I knew I did not want to switch from American to medieval history, but I did feel that the medievalists were comfortable with a more austere analytic style than what I discerned in the bulk of specialists in American history, especially in the more recent periods. Although I first read Miller while expecting to specialize in 18th century American history, I read for exams in the modern period, too, and soon switched to the 20th century as my own specialty. The more of a modernist I became, the more intrigued I was by Miller and the more entranced by the speculation as to what pragmatism, for example, might look like if it were a topic addressed by someone trained as a medievalist (I eventually tried my hand at exactly such an essay, pointedly entitled “The Problem of Pragmatism in American errandwildernessHistory”). I generally found that the closer one got to the present, the scholarship became less rigorous and the writing more casual. Perry Miller was the figure in the field of American history of any period who seemed to me the most like a medievalist.

Miller’s The New England Mind I certainly found inspiring and informative, but what most affected me was Miller’s practice of the evidence-based analytic essay. Errand into the Wilderness was a collection of exactly such pieces. On the opening page of his preface Miller explains to readers that each essay is an “argument.” I did not accept then, nor have I since, the distinction Miller drew between arguments and “monographs.” The later, I knew full well from my experience as an ersatz medievalist, were often arguments. Indeed that is why, in later years when I reprinted essays of my own in four volumes frankly modeled on Errand into the Wilderness, I reprinted the footnotes written for the versions of each essay that had first appeared as a peer-reviewed article, as Miller did not. Evidence should be right out there. Miller, great historian that he was, may have allowed his English Department culture to get the better of him at that point.

Once I switched to the modern period, I found myself even as a graduate student reading essays by philosophers and literary scholars such as W. V. O. Quine and Lionel Trilling that I thought refreshing because of their analytic style. While I was most certainly in thrall to “the historian’s sense of fact,” of which we are so justifiably proud, it did seem to me that historians could learn some things from the philosophers and literary scholars about how to focus on a question and answer it as best one could on the basis of evidence. Too many historians, it seemed to me, accepted as a priority the “telling of stories” rather than the answering of questions.

The distinction between the two can be made too sharply, of course, and I would not want to be understood as disparaging narrative as mode in which questions can be answered. Indeed, many of Miller’s essays mixed story-telling with question-answering, as did his book-length studies. I was also reading, at the same time, the essays of Carl Schorske perry millerthat later became Fin de Siècle Vienna (New York, 1980) and those essays, too, reinforced my appreciation for the genre. Shortly thereafter, I began to read the essays of Natalie Davis that became Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975). Davis, like Miller and Schorske, seemed to show how much could be accomplished with the evidence-based analytic essay about a historical question.

I have said nothing until now about the truth value in Miller’s specific arguments. I did find the arguments themselves very engaging, especially in their ambition. Being right was indeed the most important thing, but many scholars were right about the wrong things, the tiny and the trivial. Miller believed in Big Ideas, which the recent buzz among historians—“What’s the Big Idea?” has become a favorite topic for symposia– indicates is a good thing. Miller had a vision of the entirety of American history, and even allowed that his essays in Errand into the Wilderness addressed “the meaning of America.” Did Miller get that meaning right? Perhaps not. I was more taken with his Puritan-centered cultural nationalism in the mid-1960s when I was reading it for the first time than I was later on, after I’d learned more about the history of the United States and became less sure that quite so much of it could be understood by looking at it through the frame of the Puritans.

Yet I have remained convinced, right down to the present, that Miller was correct to imply (I don’t think he ever said this explicitly, even in his uncompleted study of the early 19th century) that the intellectual history of the United States was in large part the accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment. This was the chief substantive idea I got from Miller, later reinforced by Henry May. It is less Puritan-centered than Protestant-centered. Miller conveyed this to me more through The New England Mind, however, than through Errand into the Wilderness, because in that majestic book Miller examines at length the rationalist and humanistic strains of thought that even the pre-1730 Puritans were obliged to confront. I was especially inspired by the last sentence (Volume II: Colony to Province, page 485), where, after remarking upon the gradual transition in Puritan thought from the greatness of God to the greatness of man, Miller allows that the greatness of man “had not yet been thoroughly considered.” Indeed it had not.

I have noticed that many of us who have been the most affected by Miller are specialists in 19th or 20th century history, not the period to which Miller’s most compelling works were actually addressed. Those scholars who have to deal with Puritanism are obliged to be aware on a daily basis of aspects of Miller’s work that later scholars have argued against with undeniable success. It simply will not do to accept uncritically many of Miller’s specific claims about 17th and 18th century America. But those of us specializing in other periods can more easily continue to see Miller as a methodological inspiration, and as someone who can remind us still of the importance of Protestantism in the intellectual history of the United States.

Perry Miller, who died in 1963, was a historian of extraordinary strength. Edmund Morgan used to say, “no one yet has been able to pull his bow.” It’s still true.


David A. Hollinger is co-editor, with Charles Capper, of The American Intellectual Tradition (7th edition forthcoming, January 2016). He is also the author of six books and a former President of the OAH.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I found this post provocative in all sorts of ways, not the least of which arises from the fact that I did my coursework as a graduate student in Renaissance literature but ended up writing a dissertation on modern American poetry. I was also struck by Hollinger’s notion that different analytic styles shape the scholarship in different time periods; in my experience, Renaissance literary scholars are far more attentive to long-range intellectual traditions (you can’t understand Milton unless you’ve read Spencer; and you really won’t understand Spencer unless you knew a lot Virgil and Homer and about 16th century Protestantism; and you can’t understand the English Reformation without knowing about the reform movements of the Lollards and the Franciscans, the pedagogy of medieval Europe, etc. etc.], whereas modernists often seem to look at things in a rather more compressed time frame, perhaps because we have so many contemporary contexts to choose from: witness the vast historiography on William James or T.S. Eliot, who can be read in the context of modernist art, science, politics, education, medicine, religion, and on and on. The effect can be dizzying at times, making it hard to know how to adjudicate between these various contextual frames and the massive archival possibilities.

    I was esp. intrigued by the description here of the genre of the “evidence-based analytic essay”—an essay organized around a conceptual problem rather than a narrative of events. As Hollinger says, let’s not get too strict about the division between history that tells stories versus history that answers problems, but I do think his phrasing nicely identifies a specific kind of historical inquiry that results in essays rather than the production of long books. This leads me to a few further questions. Who, in addition to Miller, Schorske, and Davis, has practiced this style of analysis? (Would Lovejoy count? Joan Wallach Scott)? Most of Hollinger’s examples come from the 1950s-1970s: who carries on the legacy of problem-based essay writing today? Other than Hollinger’s many essay collections, one example that springs to mind is Thomas Haskell’s _Objectivity Is Not Neutrality_ (1998). There are, of course, plenty of essay collections by intellectual historians (e.g. _Force Fields_ by Martin Jay, _Public Intellect_ by Thomas Bender, _The Idea of America_ by Gordon Wood), but how many of them are explicitly organized around the asking of questions along the lines Hollinger proposes here? What explains this prejudice against the evidence-based analytic essay? Does it have something to do with a professional bias for telling stories over addressing conceptual problems? Or perhaps it has more to do with our participation in a professional system that rewards monographs over essay collections?

    Frankly, I wish more historians would attempt the type of problem-based inquiry that Hollinger has made his name on (he is one of the few scholars I can think of whose essay collections are as widely cited as his monographs). But something tells me that hiring practices and tenure and promotion committees make it all but impossible for a junior scholar to attempt to construct a career along the lines of Hollinger or Haskell. This worship of narrative-based monographs comes at a considerable intellectual and financial cost.

    • Patrick–
      Here are some more recent examples: Kerwin Klein, _From History to Theory_, about which we did a roundtable on the blog a couple of years ago, is a collection of thematically organized analytical essays of this type. I think Kloppenberg’s _Virtues of Liberalism_, is also representative, and Kloppenberg is an essayist of this type. Ruth Bloch’s _Gender and Morality in Anglo-American Culture_ is a collection of some of her best focused analytical essays, including her “The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America”. Dorothy Ross’s essays on liberalism, historical thought, and ideology have appeared over the past 40 years, including an essay in the AHR a few years back on “American Modernities: Past and Present,” which was also discussed on this blog. Joyce Appleby was also very good at this form, and her collection on liberalism and republicanism is now, I think, a classic of a particular moment. Daniel Rogers, Warren Susman, and John Higham all produced oft-cited essays of the kind I think you are referring to here. What seems to unify all of these historians is an acute sensitivity to historiography and a sense that they are writing within a way of thinking about the past, which can be variable and contingent. The attention to philosophical presupposition and the meaning of ideas seems to be a feature of one kind of intellectual history. In fact, I think intellectual historians, while committing to the monograph form that is the standard within the history profession, are much more likely to embrace the critical and analytical essay (rather than, say, the journal article) as a form than other historians.

  2. Thanks for these examples, Dan. I didn’t know the work of Bloch, and forgot about Klein and Ross. I thought about including Kloppenberg in my list, but when I looked back at _Virtues of Liberalism_, there seemed to be at least as many “survey-type” essays (several originated as encyclopedia articles) rather than “problem-type” essays. I’m not sure that distinction really holds up, though, as it could probably be applied equally well to _In the American Province_.

    I really like your description of the type of historian who remains acutely aware that they are writing within a particular tradition of thought on the subject, and that a different set of presuppositions would lead one to narrate things otherwise. I’d be curious to hear more about the difference you see between the “critical and analytical essay” vs. a “journal article”, as this is not really a distinction that holds up in literary studies–i.e. most journal articles tend to be highly analytical rather than telling stories–but I’m not sure if that is quite what you mean. Would you apply this distinction to your own work–i.e. does the recent MIH essay on Lovejoy count as a “journal article” rather than a critical and analytical essay along the lines of Miller, Kloppenberg, Hollinger, etc.? If not, why not?

    This may just come down to my lack of official training in history–what constitutes a “monograph” in that field may have a different set of meanings than in literary studies (and truthfully, people tend to just use the word “book” rather than monograph, though I do find UK scholars use that word more often when describing their). My guess is that this distinction b/t essays and journal articles has less to do with journalistic work vs. academic press than with the # of sources needed to document a particular claim–i.e. essays in AHR or JAH tend to have tons of citations rather than working over conceptual issues. But certainly essays by Klein, Kloppenberg, Hollinger, etc. are heavily footnoted, so again I may not fully grasp what is at stake here.

  3. Patrick–
    Yes, I think there is a difference in historical writing between a journal article and an analytical essay, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of it. Journal articles in history are analytical, of course, but also tend to be marked by a very intensive commitment to primary source research and empirical–often archival–materials. They tend to be less concerned with say, staking out the terms and grounds of a reading of texts or patterns of meaning, and more with using previously unexamined materials to make new claims. My Lovejoy piece in MIH is an analytical essay–in fact, MIH has a separate category of submission for essays rather than articles (it publishes both, as well as “review essays,” although not straight book reviews). Other historians might not see as much difference as I do between these forms, and at the margins they tend to blur together. I think in literary studies, everything’s an analytical essay, unless it’s a kind of documentary article (e.g. “look at this previously unknown manuscript I’ve discovered!”), because the foregrounding of producing a reading or criticism of textual expressions is central to the profession, in a way that it is not in historical studies.

    • Wow, that’s a really helpful and interesting distinction. I agree that we shouldn’t make too much of it, but I like the rough contrast b/t the archivally-sourced essay that is largely about reconstruction and one that foregrounds its reading method and vocabulary a bit more than its (relatively familiar) archival sources (and, of course, plenty of essays do both). And I’m glad to learn that MIH honors such a distinction in the submission process. I can’t think of any literary journal that does–the closest thing we have is what I’ll call a “theory” essay (where the main aim is to elaborate a new conceptual vocabulary by passing reference to a collection of literary objects) vs. a “history” one (where the aim is to properly grasp a particular conjunction of historical meanings or patterns in a specific text). But this isn’t a distinction anyone would use in the article submission process.

      I agree with your conclusion that most essays in literary studies are analytical essays, though one part of this conclusion caught me by surprise. I often think that historians are _more_ united in their commitment to a single core method (reconstructing the past from primary sources) than are lit. scholars, which allows them/you to be decently well aware of the variety of work that goes on in the discipline at large, even if it lies in a different area of geography or set of problems (i.e. a historian of the Renaissance and a postcolonial historian might both read and profit from _Empire of Cotton_ and be able to tell you whether its a “good” book) whereas this type of intra-disciplinary conversation almost never happens in lit studies. People mostly just read in their segmented periods, united by an interest in common documents produced within a certain time frame rather than by method that cuts across many frames/periods. But rather than emphasize the common methods, your account makes professional historical writing seem rather pluralistic, and more open to a wider set of intellectual genres than lit. studies, which ultimately depends on a rather narrowly defined presumption about the difficulty of reading and writing about complex texts, and hence the need to foreground one’s analytical assumptions when trying to do so, and hence the near total dominance of the analytical essay (indeed, as strange as it may sound, it is a very rare thing to read a strongly narrative essay in an academic literary journal; I guess we leave narrative to the novelists we write about!).

      Sorry, that sounds pretty rambling. . . let me sum up by saying that I’m simply glad to know that historians are comfortable with granting legitimacy to different genres of scholarly discourse and that its practitioners recognize that each form has its own rhetorical expectations and standards of documentation.

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