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 History”). 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 that 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.