U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Of Introductions and Book Blurbs

Recently, I have been rereading Kenneth Clark’s famous commentary on inner-city poverty, Dark Ghetto. This time, however, I checked out the second edition instead of the first, discovering that the later edition, published in 1989, included a new introduction by William Julius Wilson.

This was an interesting choice – Wilson, an African American sociologist, published two books in the 1980s, The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, which had received widespread acclaim. Credited with returning to an analysis of the “pathology” of the ghetto in a context of supposedly stifling political correctness, Wilson’s book had tried to revive an acknowledgement of the existence of a “culture of poverty” in black ghettos while keeping that analysis clearly tied to larger structural obstacles.

In some regards, Wilson seems like an entirely appropriate commentator for Clark’s classic study. Both sociologists attempted to navigate the uncertain waters of scholarly discussion about black poverty without committing either to a conservative or a leftist (as in, not liberal) perspective. In his introduction, Wilson revisits the controversies over the Moynihan Report and the idea of a culture of poverty, and, like Clark initially did as well, argues that Moynihan was misunderstood and abused by a series of accidental or willful misunderstandings. However, this continued defense of Moynihan, written in the midst of the Reagan era, seems misleading; obscuring the white backlash that ensued after the apex of liberal reform and failing to mention Moynihan’s own participation in early neoconservative thought, Wilson leaves us with the impression that Clark remained comfortable with Moynihan’s later elaborations on race, and both of their contributions should be regarded, therefore, as part of the same “school.” As I will discuss at the S-USIH conference in October, however, this is hardly the case – and so while Wilson’s introduction seems very appropriate on some levels, it seems clear to me that it also operated as an attempt to shape interpretations of what remains, to this day, a very contested issue.

And that got me to thinking about how often the intervention of the introduction has popped up in my research. Another eye raiser, for example, is Nathan Glazer’s introduction to the 1963 edition of Stanley Elkins’ Slavery. In this influential book, Elkins had used the archetypical image of Sambo, a child-like, subservient slave, to argue that slavery had so destroyed the egos and psychological health of slaves that their personalities lost all autonomy or integrity. This argument proved appealing to future neoconservative thinkers, like Glazer and Moynihan, who argued that the problems of poverty in black ghettos were in part distinguished from previous concentrations of poverty because of the still-lingering cultural devastation of slavery. (An emphasis which conveniently elided the more recent and ongoing history of structural and institutional racism.) Not surprisingly, Moynihan drew inspiration from Elkins’ Slavery while drafting the Moynihan Report two years later, and he is widely regarded as one of the primary influences on Moynihan’s conception of the “problem” of “black matriarchy.”

Moreover, there is also the classic introduction by the author(s), recounting the context in which they originally wrote and commenting on subsequent developments. As I posted about a few months ago, Glazer and Moynihan’s introduction to the 1970 edition of Beyond the Melting Pot is an excellent example of this dynamic, as they not only shed further light on their thinking in 1963 but spend an extraordinary amount of time articulating new arguments about the storm of political developments that occurred between the first edition and the second.

In all of these cases, the introductions serve, of course, as a guide for readers in how to interpret the following text. An otherwise unaware reader will learn from Moynihan and Glazer, for example, that by the late 60s black militancy had gotten out of control, in part because the liberal press irresponsibly slobbered all over them, and likewise nearly two decades later the same reader would learn from Wilson that Moynihan and Clark more or less agreed with one another. In both cases, however, each depiction was strongly contested at the time, and continues to be to this day. Presented in most cases as neutral if thoughtful commentaries on an important piece of work, these introductions actually operate as interventions in a debate that are at least as, if not more, argumentative as the original work.

So what can or can’t we conclude about the intent of an author – presuming she is still alive – on the basis of who pens an introduction to her text? For example, how much agency does the author have over how her texts are used as battlegrounds for contemporary struggles? Presumably Clark agreed to Wilson’s authorship of the introduction, but it does not follow that he was granted the power to closely edit the content or arguments. Book blurbs present a similar puzzle – what does it mean for a liberal author (like James T. Patterson, for example) to accept praise from a conservative publication on the back cover of their text? Or when a historian boasts having several prestigious scholars write a blurb, does that imply simply that she was happy to have the promotion or that she is sympathetic with their own scholarly and political interpretations? (For example, would you accept a positive book blurb from say, Gordon Wood? I don’t think I would.)

The interesting dynamic about introductions, forwards, and book blurbs is how they provide immediate pointers on how to situate the text on hand; the text itself, of course, remains the most important source, but who is praising that text and interpreting it alongside the author also speaks to the larger political and social context in which the text was created. Yet at the same time, this association is not always straightforward; Wilson, I think, was an appropriate choice to write an introduction to Dark Ghetto, but probably not for the same reason either Clark or the publishers intended – like Clark, Wilson maintained a faith that prejudices rooted in racism and individualism could best be overcome by a hard, but truthful look at the “pathologies” of the ghetto and their relationships to structural inequalities. Yet both, I would argue, would come to be proved wrong by subsequent events (which is partially what I will discuss in my paper).

But in any case, it is only because it relates to my own body of research that I could come to an informed argument about the significance of that introduction in the first place – which makes me wonder how many times I have read an introduction, unaware of the baggage it represents, and accepted too uncritically a certain interpretation of politics and the past because I was unaware that the introduction itself was engaged in a broader debate. Indeed, as a way of crafting relationships between interlocutors and intellectuals, the introduction is a powerful tool in determining historical memory and which side, or “school,” if you will, a text and author becomes associated with. So, it would seem, as with all texts, tread carefully and read critically!

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I really enjoyed this post. My final chapter deals with the publication/marketing of declension narratives about higher ed, and there I’m struggling with a similar theoretical problem to what you’ve indicated: to what extent are the “accidents” of a text’s materiality (book cover design, including blurbs on the back) actually essential to the idea it conveys? I have been “raised,” as we say, to maintain a fairly strong distinction between the history of thought and the history of the book, the idea as abstracted from its material manifestation. But I’m trying to make the case that this distinction, even if only heuristic, is skewing our view of the ideas we are historicizing. However, this is a tough case to make as an idealist. I think I’m coming down on the side of immanence rather than transcendence, but maybe I’m just falling into materialism. This basic problem — history of ideas v. book history, idealism v. materialism — is what I’m going to address (or flailingly gesticulate toward!) in my USIH paper, looking at higher ed declension narratives that made the bestseller list. And I think you are absolutely right to remind people of the formal, “external” conventions that so conditioned people’s reception of “the text” that it would almost have been a different text without them. So maybe those need to be part of “the text” for us.

    • In the particular matter of book blurbing as a function of book marketing, there are practical reasons why you’d want one person’s endorsement over another’s. BUT, setting all that aside — I meant to say — if a scholar like Gordon Wood wanted to blurb my book, I would sing and shout Hosannah. Why would I not value that judgment? Not that that would ever happen in reality. (I so dislike my MS in its current iteration that I can’t even imagine my grandmother praising it, never mind a distinguished historian of any era/period.) But just in general, if a scholar with whom we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things (or with whom we disagree quite markedly on what we take as fundamental matters) nevertheless commends our work, maybe that’s just a sign we’ve done good work. I would be disappointed if my research and argument only seemed valuable to people who already agreed with me. But then again, I am a Liberal, happily separating politics from epistemology, so there ya go. 🙂

  2. Hi LD – thanks for this reply, I’m looking forward to hearing your paper now (not that I wasn’t before, but, you know what I mean)! As re Gordon Wood for our theoretical example, it is a good way to get at our different sensibilities; because my assumption would be that something was *wrong* with my work, if someone with a set of biases, assumptions, and interpretations antithetical to my own could actually like it. It would be a sign to me that I wasn’t doing what I intended to do; because if I did, they should be angered or disgusted with it; ie, they should recognize it as the threat to everything they hold dear (or he holds dear, to stick with our one example here) that I intended it to be. (Not that my work relates to Gordon Wood’s in any particular way, but let’s substitute James T. Patterson for him. I hope he doesn’t like my work; if he still agrees with his own, he shouldn’t!) One would ask what’s the point of that; I would say I think of scholarly intervention in the same way I do more overtly political speech, as a longue-duree game in which I’m not really talking to people who already disagree with me, but the fence-sitters who still are uncommitted enough to hear me out, and if so convinced, will go forward in the years and decades to come to expand the thinkability and acceptability of the argument we are pursuing.

    Finally, I also think there is a personal issue of integrity to me – I’ve said harsh things about Gordon Wood in the past, and I’m likely to say them in the future, because I do not like the guy’s work or his politics and I don’t know him personally so, for me I only know him as a figure in a debate I care deeply about so that is the only way he’s relevant to me. So if he (or someone else I’ve given a hard time) wants to give me praise, it seems hypocritical and cowardly to accept it; I’ve already made clear that I’m not a fan of his judgment in other areas, so why would I think it is ok to capitalize on others’ approval of that judgment in order to give my book more buzz? Naw; if I’m going to give you shit about stuff, I’m aware that I am therefore forfeiting whatever benefits I might have from an association with you in the future; the purposeful rupture of such a potential association, actually, is largely what gives the rejection of prestigious figures weight and indicates that such critics are to be taken seriously, in that a tradition embedded in certain political assumptions and ideologies is objectionable enough for you to sacrifice some of your own future career potential in the act of rejecting it. But yeah, that’s just me, clearly not separating epistemology from politics, hopeless leftist I am ?

  3. Underscoring once again the complete outlandishness of this hypothetical for both of us, I don’t see where hypocrisy enters into the picture. If you have been forthright and open in criticizing another scholar’s work/arguments/underlying assumptions, and that scholar still finds something to commend in your work, then that would be a sign to me that scholarly inquiry is functioning as it ideally should — that is, that the critique (or the praise) “isn’t personal,” but is about the scholarship. (Of course, what could possibly be a more succinct distillation of my liberal epistemology than this?!)

    And of course my liberal epistemology is the source of my dilemma when it comes to demarcating what is and is not “idea,” what is and is not “text” — it’s tough to make the case for immanence while standing on the epistemic ground of transcendence/abstraction. (I think Pragmatism might be the workaround here — here’s hoping the workaround works!)

    • Hypocritical might indeed be the wrong term here; it’s hard for me to articulate what would make me uncomfortable about it. If someone wants to like my work, of course, I can’t stop them and, even if I’m confused by it, can’t complain too much — but on the other hand, I would not want to bring any additional attention to it (say, by accepting a book blurb) because I wouldn’t want to use my platform to implicitly celebrate the authority of someone who I think doesn’t deserve all of that authority, especially when I’m on the record as saying so but am now going to benefit from said authority since he/she is saying nice things about my work? I don’t know, something just rubs me the wrong way about it.

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