U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Paradox of Marx and Biography

Me and my sons in Berlin, February 2014

In The Nation Benjamin Kunkel, who is becoming one of my favorite writers—his book Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis is must reading for anyone interested in contemporary Marxists like Fredric Jameson or David Harvey—has an excellent review of the new Karl Marx biography by Gareth Stedman-Jones. The whole review is well worth reading, but the opening paragraph is simply the best:

The many biographies of Karl Marx bring out a basic paradox in Marxism. Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism, or “the materialist conception of history,” as the young Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels called it, warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes. In particular, they argued that abstract ideas grew out of material circum­stances instead of the other way around—and yet what secular ideology or political tradition emphasizes the special contribution of a lone thinker more than Marxism?

I love the way Kunkel frames this irony. And yet it is a problem for me since I’m writing a history of “Karl Marx in America” and, as I have written here before, I think the best way to tell the story of Marx in America is to examine the topic through the lens of a number of biographical snapshots that will include an eclectic and diverse mix of intellectuals and political actors ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Angela Davis to Ronald Reagan.

Why is this a problem? I don’t have a so-called “vulgar” Marxist approach to history in the sense that I don’t necessarily think material conditions—the economy—are the starting and ending place of all historical inquiry or that everything else, including ideas, is mere epiphenomena. I would argue Marx did not have such an approach either. His most famous and influential sentence to imply a theory of history, from his remarkable 1852 essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, is more nuance than vulgar: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Nuance, and nearly unimpeachable I might add!

As far as I can tell most intellectual historians shy away from calling themselves Marxists in their approach to history (this is not a reflection on the political leanings of my colleagues) perhaps because we live in the world of ideas and thus tend to think ideas matter, or as James Livingston puts it in his co-optation and reversal of William Carlos Williams: no things but in ideas. In short, most intellectual historians work from the pragmatic tradition in which neither ideas nor material presupposes the other. And yet this tradition, like the Marxist tradition, does not necessarily lend itself to biography either. As Dan Wickberg challeneged me when I posted here at the blog about my decision to write the story of Marx in America through the lens of biographical snapshot: “why not look at, say, periodicals and other publications, or schools of thought, or coteries of intellectuals, or publication history, or the relationship between forms of Anglo-American radicalism and German philosophy, etc., rather than biographical snapshots?” Dan also teased me about the fact that biography has often been criticized as a particularly bourgeois form of writing!

I don’t pretend to have a sophisticated theoretical rationale for biography—yet. I am confident that my form of biography will focus on a larger political context for how individuals came to ideas rather than, say, psychology, which is a common approach taken by biographers that often amounts to exciting reading yet unconvincing historical analysis.

Stedman-Jones wrote his biography of Marx in order to constrain Marx to the past, as someone produced by his particular nineteenth century conditions rather than as someone for whom we should look to as an authority. This was also the motivation of Jonathan Sperber, another recent Marx biographer. But Kunkel criticizes this approach, and does so in a way that might open up a rationale for Marxist (or pragmatist) biography:

If… we are still drawn to the story of Marx’s life, it’s for reasons other than his authority. Amid trying and precarious circumstances, he combined philosophical penetration, literary and journalistic gifts, and revolutionary commitment to a singular degree. And yet the enormous dimensions of his undertaking meant that he could achieve hardly a fraction of what he attempted; in all that he did, he bequeathed tasks to later generations. In this sense, precisely the fullness of his life—as writer, thinker, and politician—ensured its incompleteness and makes it the inheritance of his successors. In the English-speaking world, the nearest contemporary analog might be the writer, artist, revolutionary (and pioneering British Marxist) William Morris, who also left behind a lasting body of writing and the image of a transformed society. The historian E.P. Thompson wrote a superb biography of Morris the last sentence of which makes an even better epitaph for Marx: “He is one of those men whom history will never overtake.”

19 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andrew,
    Thanks for the post. Haven’t had time to read Kunkel’s review yet (and am not planning to read the Stedman-Jones bio).

    My two cents, fwiw, is that I’m not sure you need much of a theoretical rationale, sophisticated or otherwise, for your project. You also don’t have to argue that a series of biographical snapshots is the best way to tell the story of “Marx in America.” Seems to me enough to maintain that it is one way to tell that story and that if it sheds some light on Marx’s influence in the U.S. (or related topics) in a way that perhaps hasn’t been fully done before, that’s sufficient.

    I recently read Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood, which is about Europe 1914-1945 (and posted a review of it on Amazon). Its claimed theoretical basis is conceptually a bit fuzzy and it doesn’t really have a single overarching argument connecting all the chapters, but neither of those things esp. matters: it’s still a good book. Just one example, which happens to be somewhat fresh in my mind, of how a book, esp. a work of history, can be good even if its theoretical rationale is not its strong point (or even if it doesn’t have much of one).

    A perfectly acceptable answer to Prof. Wickberg’s question — “why not look at, say, periodicals and other publications, or schools of thought, or coteries of intellectuals, or publication history, or the relationship between forms of Anglo-American radicalism and German philosophy, etc., rather than biographical snapshots?” — is: “because I want to.” True, a grad student writing his or her dissertation could not answer in that blunt way, but a tenured professor who has already published a couple of books can do anything he or she wants (within very wide limits), and I’m not entirely sure why more authors don’t explicitly acknowledge that in their rationales for why they are doing what they are doing. “I want to” or “I feel like it” may sound flimsy or anti-intellectual, but my hunch is that if one were to deconstruct some (not all) of the elaborate rationales offered for projects, they wouldn’t boil down to much more than that.

  2. I don’t have relevant quotes on hand but I believe Isaac Deutscher confronted this problem in the first of his three-volume biography of Trotsky. It might be worth a look.

  3. Louis is right. You do not need a rationale for the approach beyond the pleasure you find in it. Writing is hard work, and lonely work, and finding an avenue of approach that makes the task a more enjoyable one is reason enough for taking that path. I mean, what is more pragmatic than following the direction of desire and seeing what truth comes of it?

    Of course, nobody preaches like the newly converted. I wrote about this “revelation” — I will write as it pleases me — here: Well I’ll Be Damned.

    Life is short — love, and do as you please!

    • Thanks, LD. You’re right, of course, and deep down I’ve known this all along. Still, I like to play historiographical and theoretical games, especially here at the blog!

  4. Well, sure, you can write any book you want to and you can say anything you want to. But if you want others to respond, you better give them a reason why your approach offers a particular set of insights or an angle of vision, why your thinking and conceptual frame is of value to a larger discussion. If criticism can be reduced to the idea of “I don’t like it,” and justifications of choices to “because I want to,” I would say this is a regress. A respect for methodological pluralism doesn’t mean concluding that every method is as valuable as the next, or that there is no reason to establish the critical value of your choices. Louis’s suggestion that some (not all, but why not all if we’re going down this road?) elaborate justifications for methodological choices are just pretentious window dressing for primitive and unreflective authorial desires lets us all off the hook of having real intellectual reasons for the choices we make. I think the properly Pragmatic approach would be to recognize that we never have purely rational purposes in mind in the methodological choices we make, but by the same token, we can’t find a pure pre-rational desire as the basis for such choices either, because we are engaged in an intellectual activity. Thinking is central to what we do, and seems unavoidable. Isn’t it unavoidable for us to reflect on the value of our methodological choices because they are unavoidably intellectual? The only question seems to be whether we are going to reflect on them well or badly. I vote for well!

    • Yes I ultimately agree with this, which is why I continue to ponder my methodological choices here at the blog.

  5. Hello all! I’m with Dan on this one. I think a biographical approach is perfectly justifiable. But the shape of an argumentative book, I feel, does need a justification beyond mere personal preference (and if you doubt this, try reading Benjamin’s _Arcades Project_ sometime, or some of Emerson’s more long-winded lectures). The organization of a book of history should speak to the audience one is trying to reach as much as, if not more than, than it speaks to the personal whims of the author. There are very few writers who can get away with writing about anything they damn well please, in whatever form it suits them (aphorisms, sketch comedy, fictional memoir, etc.), simply because it *interests* them to do (Henry James, Geoff Dyer, Calvin Trilling, John McPhee, Adam Gopnik, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Stanley Cavell, to name a few). Few of us have minds that are sufficiently capacious and flexible or prose styles that are sufficiently engaging to warrant a reader’s attention no matter what the chosen form or content. Again, if you want to champion personal / visionary history, try reading the historical work of literary authors sometime, say, William Carlos Williams’ _In the American Grain_ or Waldo Frank’s _Our America_. They leave a lot to be desired, from a strictly methodological perspective!).

    But to get back to the matter at hand: organizing by biography vs. ideas, discourse, problems, etc. Let’s take a specific but well-known case. Louis Menand offers a fairly straightforward journalistic rationale for writing _The Metaphysical Club_: “I did not set out, when I undertook to write The Metaphysical Club, to prove a thesis, or to make an intervention in a scholarly debate, or to support a claim about the importance of biography and social history to an understanding of philosophy, or to produce a work of ‘popular history.’ I just thought that the Metaphysical Club could be the basis for an interesting story, and in the beginning, after getting guidance from the books cited in the footnote to the preface, I more or less followed my nose through the material.” (https://www.bu.edu/mih/inside_vol24.html#menand). Like other journalists/authors/filmmakers, Menand started with the desire to tell a good yarn. That was it.

    But that tells us about his original motivation, not the book’s final execution, the reason he structured the book the way he did. He didn’t _set out_ to support a claim about the importance of biography and social history to philosophy, but _in the end_, this is exactly what his book manages to accomplish. And here I’ll trot out that old bugbear of literary theory, the intentional fallacy. It doesn’t really matter what Menand personally wanted to accomplish when he started; it’s the written product that really matters to us as readers. Good pragmatists know that theoretical justification always comes _after_ intellectual action, and so Menand’s preface to the book adds a layer of intellectual rationale on top of his original instinct for storytelling: “This book is an effort . . . to see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them” (xii). And Menand tries to justify his genre, too: “This book is not a work of philosophical argument, though; it is a work of historical interpretation” (xii). His final philosophical reasons come after his original personal motivations, just as William James predicted they would.

    For me, these additional justifications don’t satisfactorily explain why Menand organized his book the way that he did. A desire to relate ideas to personal and social life, to write history and not philosophy–these ratationales apply equally well to books that cover some of the same material (Kuklick’s _The rise of American philosophy_ or Kloppenbeg’s _Uncertain Victory_) but whose organization is by discourse, problems, and institutions rather than by the life events of major pragmatist thinkers. In short, the book’s _organizational rationale_ is different from Menand’s _writerly rationale_: why _he_ wanted to write the book is different from why _the book_ is structured the way it is. These two rationales do not need to coincide. Who hasn’t had the experience of planning to write one kind of article or book, and then, because of the nature of the material and argument, switched to a different organizational or narrative strategy in the final presentation of that material?

    So I think the question I would pose to Andrew is this: why adopt the biographical strategy in advance of your drafting process? Doing so obviously helps to narrow down which archives you will select, but do you still remain open to non-biographical research approaches, or has this organizational strategy already lodged itself in your thinking about this project? And if so, why?

    I know these are terribly blunt questions to ask someone who has already successfully written several well-regarded books. (“Try it some time, Redding!”). But I wonder if it might prove useful, again, to compare your proposed/ongoing research strategy for this project with a few specific titles sitting on my bookshelf. The subtitle to Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s _American Nietzsche_ is “A History of an Icon and His Ideas.” One can easily imagine a biographically organized version of this book that surveys individual encounters with Nietzsche by James, Bourne, Mencken, Mailer, etc. But because she wanted to explore the relation of the “icon” to “ideas,” her Table of Contents features some chapters of broad, discourse-based reception history and some chapters on individual figures (W. Kaufman). Likewise, a focus on ideas led Kuklick to trace “student-teacher relations, conventions of argument, and constellations of problems that endure over generations” in _A History of Philosophy in America_. A strongly ideas-driven approach is taken by Kloppenberg in _Uncertain Victory_; biography is ultimately subordinated to large concepts like changing view of epistemology or the spread of the idea of rational benevolence. Conversely, a focus on “the adventures of a concept” led Martin Jay to trace that concept within biographical chapters in _Marxism & Totality_.

    Which leads me to pose the above questions a little differently: is this project more about the impact of Marx _the icon_ on individual American thinkers or one or more of Marx’s _ideas_ throughout American discourse? Could it be both? And who is the intended audience? Specialists? Generalists? Both? Is this supposed to be a Menand-like cross-over book for a general audience that doesn’t get too bogged down in scholarly details (i.e. isn’t going to add much new archival information about individual figures like DuBois, Debs, etc. that their own biographers don’t already cover, but rather synthesizes existing material), a book organized around biographical vignettes that yield maximum vividness with a minimum of explicit conceptual analysis? Or is it about the fate of a particular set of ideas that Marx made possible for the modern world? And if so, which specific ideas? Could you imagine your book with a sub-title like “the adventures of the dialectic in American thought” a la M. Jay and W. Breckman? Or perhaps, “Major Historical Materialists in American History?” These are silly and unmarketable titles, but they do point to possible organizational paths one could pursue.

    Andrew, I have no doubt these are issues you have already wrestled with internally, if not at great length at the blog (so far!). And I understand that there can be a danger in “overthinking” a research project before you get started. So let me simply confess that part of my suspicion towards the biographical approach comes from the conventions of my home discipline. The typical English Dept. dissertation on modernist literature picks a thematic topic and shows how it is worked out in 4-5 authors. The reasons for this mode of presentation are obvious: it reduces the research workload for each chapter to a manageable amount (usually, several hundred poems or 5-10 novels per author + biographies, criticism, etc.), and it leaves space for literary critics to delve deeply into the complex language and thought of individual writers. But as a strategy for understanding the artistic production of 1880-1950, a biographical focus leaves much to be desired. With my historian’s cap on, I often look at these literary dissertations/monographs and think: surely the story of pragmatism’s impact on American thought is bigger than a few close readings of Henry James, William James, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens? And yet one would never guess this from reading most monographs on the topic in literary studies. (In an upcoming conference on pragmatism and literature, over half the presentations are biographical in orientation: http://cca.rutgers.edu/news-events/culture-of-experience).

    Studying major works of intellectual history has encouraged me to try to overcome the biographical approach, to locate individual authors within larger patterns of discourse; to show how the arguments of particular poems are not simply significant in light of a single author’s career but in light of a whole tradition of thought that spans much more widely across philosophy and culture. So this is part of the reason I find myself on pressing this issue from the opposite side of the methodological spectrum.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying this discussion a great deal! Keep up the good work!

  6. Patrick, what a toothsome comment!

    It seems to me that nobody on this thread disagrees with the idea that it’s important to reflect on methodology. We all do it incessantly here and elsewhere, as Andrew noted above. I think what most of us are pushing back against is the implication that one must sort out all the implications of methodology / choice of approach / choice of sources ahead of time, or else we’re not thinking well. Not sure how it works for Andrew, but for me, *any* approach or angle of inquiry that allows me to sidestep my inner critic long enough to get words on the page is a fruitful one. And most of those roadblock-clearing approaches are worked out intuitively. Then, out of the mess of the first draft, a governing method can emerge.

    It’s the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass approach: first pass around the pieces of cake, then cut the cake into pieces. First find a way to write the damn thing, feeling your way through or over or around various roadblocks, and then after it’s written, you can see how it ought to be done and how it ought to be structured. Then you can write it.

    Ultimately, the rationale or underlying logic for any methodological approach is made manifest in its final results. Or, to put it in Pragmatic terms, “Truth happens to an idea.” This is why we write our introductions last, no?

    • p.s. “intuitive” above should probably read (or could also read?) “experimental”. (And thanks for the comment at my blog. Figuring it out as I go…)

  7. One of the hazards of commenting on a blog with only one’s first name is that one might share that first name with some well-known authors. So for the record, I should make clear that I am not Louis Menand. (I know, you all knew that already, but what the heck.)

    On a more serious note: I’m definitely not opposed to reflecting on methodological choices. But “Marx and America” is such a broad topic that the subject itself doesn’t dictate particular choices as a matter of logic. As Patrick Redding says above, one could look at the influence of Marx the iconic figure on particular individuals or at the influence of certain of Marx’s ideas on American discourse, or do a mixture of the two. But I don’t know how one says that the “influence of the icon on particular people” choice is more or less intellectually justifiable than the “influence of ideas on discourse” choice. The intended audience has something to do with it, and so does personal inclination.

    It’s not like there isn’t something of an existing template for a group-biographical approach to a subject. Take the history of Western economic thought. You could organize it around themes/ideas and weave discussion of thinkers into those themes — thus, not particular chapters on particular thinkers but lumping them into general headings, e.g., “The Physiocrats,” “The Mercantilists,” “The Classical Political Economists,” “Critics of Classical Political Economy,” “The Marginalist ‘Revolution’,” “Keynesianism,” “Libertarianism,” “Monetarism vs. Post-Keynesianism,” “Analytic and Other Reformulations of Marxism,” etc.etc etc. [Ok, that was off the top of head: an expert would shoot holes in this, but whatever.]

    Or you could do what Heilbroner did in The Worldly Philosophers (been a very, very long time since I read it): focus a lot of, though not all, chapters on an individual thinker and start off with some telling/amusing/etc. biographical details, then expound his (and in that case it was “his,” not “hers”) ideas. That book was aimed at a wide audience, sold millions of copies through multiple editions, and presumably made the author, who also happened to be a superb writer, a fair amount of money, and doubtless gave a lot of high school and/or college students their first intro to the subject.

    So yes, intended audience is one important consideration. The intended audience for Jonathan Wolff’s Why Read Marx Today? (Oxford U.P., 2002), based on a course of lectures and running to a total of about 130 pages, is obviously not the same as the intended audience for Sperber’s or Stedman-Jones’s fat, imposing Marx biographies. The brief preface to Wolff’s book explains its background (his popular lectures at University College London) but doesn’t contain much beyond that in the way of a justification for publishing the book. The title suggests that the book’s aim is to persuade people that Marx is still worth reading. Does anyone actually need to be persuaded of that? Is that a sufficient justification for publishing the book? Does it matter?

    • p.s. Andrew’s broad subject is “Marx in America” (not “Marx and America,” as I said above).

      p.p.s. A possible topic for a book that just occurred to me, though I’m sure it’s been done before, is famous non-Americans’ attitudes toward the U.S. (e.g., Freud: “America is a mistake. A gigantic mistake, but a mistake.”)

  8. I’ll respond in this post to some of the methodological questions raised by L.D. and Louis. In another post, I’ll pose a few questions about the scope of biographical snapshots: how many feature (1, 10, 100) and why? What are the advantages of

    Louis and L.D.: well, I’m glad you guys are finally coming to your senses about methodological self-consciousness! ? I was starting to think that you guys were radical Emersonians, who write over the lintel of the doorpost, “Whim!”

    I think L.D. raises a useful distinction b/t not having a rationale at the drafting stage vs. having one in the revision stage and in the final product. Personally, I think one possesses _some kind_ of rationale in both instances, but to different degrees. One’s reasons for looking into something historically are largely implicit and often confused at the start of a project. But, hopefully, these reasons become a lot clearer by the end. I confess that, as someone who does not regularly investigate historical manuscripts or private archives when doing my research, I would be terribly afraid to spend months and months in an archive with no real idea of what I’m searching for. I don’t have the patience, the ascetic impulse, or the sheer willpower to plow through empirical materials without some type of conceptual orientation. Perhaps that’s why my research practices (I rely largely on materials in print, not in private archives) places me at the far end, and possibly outside, of the mainstream of the historical discipline.

    L.D., I agree that you don’t need a detailed rationale for undertaking any particular project you want to pursue (“there’s no wrong way to do it”), though of course not having one definitely limits the likelihood of achieving publication. What editor is going to read a book proposal that starts off, “there’s no need for this book to exist, but I just really wanted to write it and share my thoughts with the world”? So I would say that you don’t need a rationale for the project per se, esp. at the beginning, but you do need one for the approach you ended up taking after writing the thing up (see comments below on the need to self-evaluate). Or, to refer to my earlier post, you don’t need a _writerly_ rationale for the *project* (it’s really up to you at the start, when there are not yet any readers), but you do need an _organizational_rationale for *the book* when it’s about to hit the press. An author should explain to her readers why she has chosen to organize the material the way she has, how she relates to conventions in the field or has attempted to overturn them. Even “spontaneous” writing a la William Burroughs, John Ashbery, the Oulipo and Flarf poets, etc. have a rationale: wanting to open their writing process to chance, experiment, randomness, chaos. Going into print is to commit to some principle of organization, even if that principle is the flouting of all standard temporal conventions (stream of consciousness, fragmented aphorisms, etc.).

    Louis, I’d push back against a few ideas presented in your first post. Obviously, one doesn’t need a declared theoretical rationale when just starting out, but at that early stage one doesn’t really have a “project” yet, right? More of just a “hunch” or a “hypothesis”? In Andrew’s case, he’s already written the book proposal. Surely his book proposal contains some kind of “rationale” as to why this book needs to exist? _We_ may think it unnecessary to publish a book _Why Read Marx Today?_ but his publisher obviously thought otherwise. Not finding a rationale persuasive is different from having no rationale at all. Sperber has a rationale that you didn’t find sufficiently warranted–but it exists, for him.

    I also think that it is incumbent on Andrew (or anyone else writing a book of history) to weigh in on the merits of their interpretive choices (as L.D. said, “that’s why we write our Introductions last”). The author has an obligation, based on the massive amounts of research that s/he has conducted, to tell us why they believe their narrative is the “best” way to approach the topic. That’s not the same thing as saying “this is the best historical narrative that can ever be written on this topic,” or “this is the only way that this story could be told” but rather: “I’ve considered several available approaches, and I believe my approach is the best one available for the story I want to tell.” One can take a strong evaluative stance and also concede fallibility. This is what I take Dan to mean by saying: “A respect for methodological pluralism doesn’t mean concluding that every method is as valuable as the next, or that there is no reason to establish the critical value of your choices.”

    Why is self-evaluation important? It seems almost an ethical issue to me. Sure, one can concede that “my history is just one way to write this story,” but should one knowingly adopt one organizational strategy if you believed there were better ways to go about your business? I can’t imagine starting a book with this thought: “well, I really think that a study of major periodicals would yield the best historical approach to this topic, but those periodicals are hard to find, so I’m just going to stick to published biographies because that seems more fun and will require less work.” If you genuinely believe that there are superior historiographical frameworks available for your project, then don’t you owe it to yourself and to your audience to adopt them, even if they are more challenging? To be clear, this is a point is about justifying “theory choice”—the structuring rationale of a whole project—not the finite amount of labor or energy that any individual historian has. Of course, we all have to decide which archives to go to or not go to, how much material we can reasonably cover, when to quit research, etc.. We can’t read everything.I can understand someone who says, “I could have visited 9 archives but I only made it 5, and I think my argument still stands.” But I don’t think one would want to consciously choose a weaker overall conceptual framework; I can’t see how one would defend such a decision.

    I wonder if this same concern also applies to your view of the book by Enzo Traverso. Sure, you can write a pretty good book without a strong or explicitly stated theoretical rationale. And I agree that you don’t need “a single overarching argument connecting all the chapters.” It’s fine to make variations on a theme, take detours, etc. Still, for a book like this to succeed, it has to know how to embed its arguments within divergent narratives, how the stories all hang together. If the narrative episodes are told in the right way, then the larger overall argument need not be explicit. Yet that doesn’t mean that the separate narrative episodes completely lack a rationale; the rationale for telling the story in a certain way is simply more implicit than it would be in a more argumentatively-oriented monograph. It places more pressure on the reader to connect the dots. (Putting my literary critic hat on for a minute: this is exactly what we do when reading a collection of short stories. How do these separate stories by Hemingway, O’Connor, Diaz, etc. develop larger themes?Stories and novels make arguments through the way they construct plot and character, manage the portrayal of time and language, etc. But authors of fiction tend to leave their premises about the world, or their mode of storytelling, implicit within the story itself. There’s a reason that stories by O’Connor are said to have a “religious imagination” or those by Pynchon exhibit a “paranoid” sensibility.” Then along comes a literary critic to tease out—to make explicit—the arguments, presumptions, biases, perspectives that are held tacitly by the characters, the narrator, and the author.

    How fun to dabble in “these theoretical and historiographical games” here at the blog!

  9. I’d like to get back to the original topic of debate between Andrew and Dan about the use of biography vs. other organizational approaches. As Andrew states above, he hopes “to examine the topic through the lens of a number of biographical snapshots that will include an eclectic and diverse mix of intellectuals and political actors ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Angela Davis to Ronald Reagan.”

    That sounds like a perfectly justifiable rationale to me, assuming he explains (in the fullness of time) why this approach is preferable to, say, tracking the history of Marxist concepts, exploring publication histories of leftist magazines, tracking influence across discursive genres (Marx in economics, in political theory, in literature, on film, etc.). I trust that day will eventually come.

    But I’ll add a more global comment here about what I see as the pros and cons of biographically-inflected practice. There are many books that I admire that use the “snapshot” approach. Some focus every chapter on individuals. Louis mentioned Heilbroner’s _Worldly Philosophers_; I’ve mentioned _The Metaphysical Club_. One could add, say, Lasch’s_The New Radicalism in America_, Hofstader’s _The American Political Tradition_, Howe’s _Making the American Self_, Cotkin’s _Feast of Excess_. These are great books.

    There’s also the “group” biography or “cluster of intellectuals” approach. Closer to Andrew’s interests, some of these exemplary titles might include Aaron’s _Writers on the Left_ and Denning’s _The Cultural Front_. These are great books, too.

    When does the biographical “snapshot” fail to illuminate? I think the approach struggles most when the list of historical actors is not organized with a sufficiently clear rationale (conceptual, chronological, thematic, etc.). A book like Ross Wetzsteon’s _Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960_ runs through one damn modernist figure after another without reaching any larger conclusions about the period or era. (It was, admittedly, published posthumously). Robert Crunden’s _Body and Soul_: The Making of American Modernism: Art, Music, and Letters in the Jazz Age, 1919-1926_ also seems overly disjointed to me, myopically focused on individual figures without placing these figures within a compelling narrative container.

    This is also the vice of books that are essentially collections of essays (that often began as essays in intellectual periodicals) rather than monographs. I’m thinking of titles like Lilla’s _The Reckless Mind_, Walzer’s _The Company of Critics_, and Judt’s _Reappraisals_. Each chapter is focused on an individual intellectual, and many of these chapters are wonderful reading. But do they make good _books_ as a whole? Lilla and Walzer have something of a focus, as indicated in their subtitles (“Intellectuals in Politics”; “Social Criticism and Public Commitment in the 20th century”) than does Judt (“Reflections on the Forgotten 20th century”). But what larger conclusion do we reach in Lilla? That intellectuals in politics are unpredictable, liable to idealization and self-importance? What larger argument do we learn from Walzer about social criticism and political commitment? That it’s really hard to achieve intellectual distance and political connection with a community? I really like and admire these books, but I can’t say they deliver much in the way of a general “argument” for me. They seem a little under-motivated, rationale-wise.

    I don’t think Andrew plans to compile a random sequence of thinkers who enaged Marx without placing them within any larger narrative order. He’s already written accomplished books on clusters of intellectuals and their political context. I suspect that by the time he finishes, the book may have added a subtitle, “Marx and America: ___________,” announcing it’s larger thematic thrust, as did his last book. (I guess all this talk about Marx has led me to make reckless prophecies)!

    But I raise again the larger question to the group: what are the pitfalls of biography vs. discourse? Can you think of other examples where biography fails? What do biographical snapshots cause us to overlook? Dan Wickberg has written about this several times, I believe. One thing we will overlook, he notes, is “the cultural history of sensibilities”—affective presuppositions shared across entire communities. I’m sure there are economic, racial, gender, and other “structural” conditions that get overlooked. But since Andrew is starting with the impact of one individual and his body of writing on American life, perhaps it makes sense to start with how other individuals responded to the individual Marx: the man, the revolutionary, the writer.

  10. I think perhaps I shouldn’t have commented on this whole subject, for a couple of reasons.

    First, as someone who is not now — and is probably unlikely to be in the future — actively engaged in scholarly ‘production’, I don’t really have a personal dog in this fight (or in this discussion, to use a more neutral word).

    Second, my formal education was more in the social sciences — albeit the ‘soft’ as opposed to the numbers-crunching sort — than the humanities. I went through the kind of graduate program where I had to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time reading about epistemological, methodological, ontological, and related debates. I found some of it interesting, but at a certain point there seemed to me to be diminishing returns (to put it as politely as possible).

    I think I understand why historians and literary scholars want and need to be methodologically self-conscious (in their own particular ways), but I would caution that I’m not sure that the high level of methodological self-consciousness among many social scientists has always resulted, in the end, in better social science. It’s probably not that big a leap to entertain similar doubts about the value of a high level of methodological self-consciousness among scholars in the humanities.

    I realize these remarks are sort of off on a tangent, but perhaps they partly explain what may seem the cavalier or even cynical tone of my first comment.

    Finally, I would like to comment directly on Patrick’s remarks above esp. about the Traverso book, but that will have to wait for later.

    • That makes a lot of sense, Louis. I often feel like a flat-footed brute empiricist when talking to my colleagues in literary studies. I feel basically the same way you do about the diminishing returns of extended and obsessive methodological self-consciousness. On the other hand, I’m sometimes surprised by the lack of self-consciousness, at times, among historians.

      It’s fun to jostle back and forth between these different communities–to feel like a deeply grounded empiricist in some settings, and a hyper-aware theorist in others. (Funny, too, that both of were not trained professionally as historians; I like that about intellectual history, how it can grab people who operate somewhat on the margins of other disciplines).

      I look forward to any additional thoughts you may have on Traverso. I’m fascinated by authors who can trust so absolutely to narrative, who don’t feel much need to “reconcile” different stories through some kind of conceptual integration. Menand’s reviews often have this feel to me; as does Malcolm Gladwell’s eminently readable essays. The problem, of course, is that the views may not add up (and in Gladwell’s case, as many have pointed out, the arguments of _Outliers_ seem to directly contradict those in _David and Goliath_).

      I’d love to learn how to trust narrative like that, but I’m not there yet. Still a slave to the conceptual, I guess!

  11. Going to say a bit about the Traverso book, since Patrick mentions it above. (I took it out from a library, to which I returned it after finishing it, so I don’t have it in front of me.)

    How one judges a book, istm, can depend, in certain cases, on what “hat” one has on when reading it. ‘Fire and Blood’ is subtitled “the European civil war 1914-1945.” Traverso notes at the outset that a number of other writers, notably for instance the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte, have previously used the notion of civil war when talking about this period. (As a side point, I note that Traverso basically comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum from Nolte.)

    If one picks up ‘Fire and Blood’ and reads the subtitle while wearing some sort of social scientist’s hat, the alarm bells start to go off almost immediately. Can a period that encompasses two major interstate wars usefully be conceptualized in terms of civil war? If so, how, and what’s the justification?

    The author’s closest stab at an answer comes in some passages in a chapter called “The Anatomy of Civil War” where, going back to Thucydides’ description of the war in Corcyra (in bk 3 of the Hist. of the Peloponnesian War), Traverso suggests that what marks a civil war in this context is, inter alia, the intense bitterness and no-quarter style in which it’s fought: the adversary is not seen as a legitimate foe to be defeated, but an implacable enemy to be annihilated. In this sense, World War II as a whole, with the Allies’ insistence on ‘unconditional surrender’ and the wholesale slaughter of civilians on all sides, partakes of this no-holds-barred quality of ‘civil war’ (incidentally, there was arguably *some* restraint in WW2 — notably, no one used poison gas on the battlefield — but we’ll put that aside).

    But Traverso also wants to use, and does use, “civil war” in the more narrow and conventional sense of a conflict within a particular country, of which there were many in this period — the civil war in Russia following the 1917 revolution being just one of numerous examples. These two senses of ‘civil war’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but the first usage will encompass more conflicts than the second.

    So he’s using “civil war” in two or more different ways and sliding somewhat loosely back and forth between them, something that’s likely to drive some social-scientist readers to distraction. However, a general reader interested in the period, or perhaps a historian not too concerned w certain social-scientific notions of conceptual precision, is likely to be much less bothered by this.

    Patrick writes (above):

    If the narrative episodes are told in the right way, then the larger overall argument need not be explicit. Yet that doesn’t mean that the separate narrative episodes completely lack a rationale; the rationale for telling the story in a certain way is simply more implicit than it would be in a more argumentatively-oriented monograph. It places more pressure on the reader to connect the dots.

    How much pressure is it ok to place on a reader to connect the dots before you conclude that the pressure is too much and the connecting rationale is too implicit? Is this a quasi-objective standard or a completely subjective standard? Is it ok for the connecting rationale to be as “implicit” in a work of history as in a book of short stories by, say, V.S. Pritchett (or whoever)? Where is the line crossed between ‘implicit’ and ‘obscure’ to the point of needing a commentary, which we may not have time to read, to elucidate it?

    Btw and lastly, I don’t think anyone here intends to suggest (I certainly don’t) that it’s ok to say: “I think the optimal way to tell story X involves hunting down obscure periodicals, but that’s too much work so I’m just going to read readily accessible books instead.” The intended meaning of “I want to” as I used the phrase is not “I want to be lazy.” I don’t think anyone involved in this discussion wants to be lazy. If that’s what “I want to” suggested, then I was wrong to use the phrase.

    • P.s. I was writing and posting this while Patrick was replying, above, so I didn’t read his reply before posting.

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