Reminiscences of Thomas L. Haskell (1939-2017)
By Amy Kittelstrom
The historian Thomas Haskell died a week ago after some difficult years of decline. He was the first history professor I had in college, and the most important, for his impact on me came not only through his teaching but also and ongoing through his sterling works of historical writing. Haskell had a singular stature in his generation of American intellectual historians—a vital cohort who pioneered the new intellectual history we practice today—because the quality of his work is so stunning, but he was not prolific and is not as famous as I believe he should be. Since it is my good fortune to have been his student, I am taking the liberty to set down here my observations about his intellectual character and my memories of his effect on me.
When I arrived as a first-year student at Rice University in the fall of 1990, I did not intend to study history because my father was a history professor and I did not want to be like him. When I looked through the course catalog, though, and saw a class called “American Thought and Society,” I read the description, my mouth watered, and I signed up.
Dr. Haskell, as we called him—Houston is the South, after all—presented a dignified, austere figure, tall, slim, with erect posture and calm bearing. His expression tended to be serious, his voice smooth and steady. I, who had not been studious in high school, paid close attention and took meticulous notes, which I wish I could consult now but fear my mother discarded along with my soccer trophies. Haskell had us read Edmund Morgan’s biography of John Winthrop and explained the Puritan dissent in terms of authority and systems of knowledge. We read Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote more truth about America in fewer words than I had ever seen before. He assigned Stanley Elkins on slavery; I still remember the moment I read Elkins’s description of slavery as akin to concentration camps, the severe psychic impact of the confined conditions of coercion and violence, and his description of Stockholm Syndrome by way of explaining the myth of the happy slave. Although I have since come to understand that Elkins was already way out of date by 1990, I do not think Haskell let us think of slaves’ characters as having been erased and replaced by the conditions of slavery. I do not think he let anything we read become authoritative because he opened the texts up in the periodic discussions he guided with sharp questions that only those who had mastered the reading could answer. Moreover, we then read Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977), still one of my favorite monographs of all time, and much more of slave thought and culture entered the story Haskell was unfolding.
Then came Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). I could tell the book was particularly important to Haskell because of how his voice became energized in his lectures, which always ran alongside the reading with electrifying points of contact. Weber seemed to be explaining something I had always known without knowing it, an experience I usually only had reading fiction, of which I was an addictive consumer. Weber, however, was talking about the past, and about my country, in the most expansive yet penetrating of ways. (Later, when my father dismissed Weber on the grounds of Benjamin Franklin’s having been no Christian—not by my father’s Lutheran standards—I knew that this criticism could not topple Weber but I could not explain why not.) The role of capitalism and its relationship to a Protestant work ethic seemed for a time to explain the world.
Haskell designed the prompt for our first essay around the Weber book, and although I do not remember the question he posed, I remember how feverishly I worked. It was a struggle to produce the essay, but finally, on my dot matrix printer hooked up to my IBM pc with the floppy disks, I printed out my masterpiece. A classmate looked at it, saw all the big words, and was duly impressed.
Haskell gave me a C+. To say I was mortified is only to grasp cliché where words fail. If anything mattered to me more than soccer (and, abstractly, God), it was writing. My greatest pride lay in the attention my writing had attracted from a young age. Never had I seen nor anticipated any grade lower than an A. It was almost unbearable.
The comments did not help. He said only that it was vague and poorly organized. He suggested I should work harder on my writing. So I dragged myself to his office during the prescribed hours printed on the syllabus, dreading I know not what, to ask for help.
His door was open and he was busy at his desk. His eyes rose when I came in. I forced myself to say that I got my paper back and I wasn’t complaining about my grade but I wanted to learn how to improve.
And he smiled. I do not think I had ever seen that in the classroom. He smiled and spoke kindly and encouragingly, and soon I was sitting in a chair, feeling at ease, and talking freely. It turned out he and my father had overlapped at Stanford, although I do not think they knew one another. He did not give me a whole lot by way of writing advice, just the affirmation that I would improve by applying myself to it—and I think I only ever saw one “vague” in the margin after that. (Today I use a different word, “specify,” to nudge my students in the same direction.) That visit to his office hours helped me see a fuller professor than the one who stood behind the podium, so refined and in control. The next semester I enrolled in the advanced version of the course.
That spring, in which we read Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888), and the amazing T.J. Jackson Lears essay, “From Salvation to Self-Realization” (1983), was quite enough to make me a devotee, but I am brought to one of my life’s deep regrets. I designed my own major, then permissible at Rice, which I called “creative writing-American Studies” and devised out of history, English, political science, philosophy, and religion. I committed to taking a fiction writing course every semester as part of my major, but it always met on Monday afternoons, the same time Haskell offered his seminar on “Morality and History.” So I never took it and in fact never took another course with him. I kept abreast of him by reading the campus newspaper, for in those years he led an unsuccessful fight to get Rice—a division I school with the worst football team in Texas—out of the athletics business.
I saw him once on campus when I was walking and he was riding his bike. He did not see me as I watched him glide along on an early spring day, the air soft around us. He was still wearing his professorial garb of a crisp button-down shirt, dark-hued jacket, belted trousers, leather shoes. His bicycle was upright like his posture, with handlebars that curved back to meet his grasp. He was smiling slightly and I wondered what he was thinking about as he rode so lightly, like a player in an old-fashioned game of lawn tennis lightly tapping the ball, serene in the Houston spring.
I graduated from Rice in 1994 and went to graduate school in history at Boston University in 1997. My mind was extremely undisciplined as I began the doctoral program under the mentorship of Richard Wightman Fox, whose biography of Reinhold Niebuhr had made me wish I could read dead people’s minds like Fox does. He, however, was away for a year at L’École des Hautes Études and suggested I take a course with James T. Kloppenberg, then at Brandeis. The course was American intellectual history, the first reading was Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988), and the next reading after that was Haskell’s review of the book, his seminal essay on objectivity.
And so I learned that this revered professor of mine was also an important scholar. Why I had not thought to wonder before about what he may have written is mysterious, but ever since then I have spent many profitable hours with that essay, “Objectivity is Not Neutrality,” and the other essays in the 1998 volume of the same name, with his The Emergence of Professional Social Science (1977), with the antislavery debates he had with David Brion Davis published in 1992, and with his contribution to the founding conference of the new intellectual historians, the Wingspread volume published as New Directions in American Intellectual History (1977). Haskell was undoubtedly one of the leading voices of his generation, which took in the critiques of social historians against intellectual history and answered them with methodological innovations and theoretical shifts. Among such company as David D. Hall, David A. Hollinger, Dorothy Ross, and Thomas Bender, Haskell was particularly bent on philosophical questions, a deeply dyed historicist, and, beneath all his rigor and precision, he was daring, breathtakingly courageous, heedless of caution because fearing criticism would be fearing truth and he was always only after that.
I disagree with some of Haskell’s positions, but this disagreement was and is fruitful, to be expected, provided for in his own terms of objectivity, which is not and must not be confused with neutrality. I assign this essay of his over and over again; I want everyone to read it, and sometimes on the internet I notice some schoolteacher, some business manager, has stumbled across it and made it useful for their own purposes. Still, I wish more historians would read it, and think about it. I have heard professional historians my age and younger saying they do not believe in objectivity, which means to me that they either have not seen or have not grappled with Haskell’s approach. It is important.
After Foucault and Derrida came along and demolished all the simplistic claims of the correspondence theory of truth, there was no longer any king in Israel, as Novick said, but there was all sorts of freedom and fresh fields for cultivating new theories. Haskell’s essay on objectivity not only reviews Novick’s book—none of Haskell’s essays ever did only the thing they seemed assigned to do—it also lays forth a proactive theory of how to do history no matter what your field, how to think about evidence and audience and peers and truth itself.
It opens with a lengthy quotation from Thomas Nagel. Now, although Nagel is one of the world’s most famous living philosophers, and therefore widely read, very few historians read either him or any other philosopher. That Haskell felt it part of his scholarly duty to continue to update his own philosophical conceptions says a great deal about him. Haskell uses the Nagel quotation to set up his argument—that “appearances can be deceiving,” that Novick’s demolition of the historical ideal of objectivity actually represents a shining example of objective historical practice, and that this practice is important, and worth continuing, and that it consists of what he calls “ascetic virtues.”
Having known him and then reading this phrase, “ascetic virtues,” made the world more coherent for me. With his thin figure, Haskell seemed to embody asceticism in some secular way, and indeed, the historical practice of objectivity is both secular and a sort of creed of its own. Disagreeing with Nietzsche—another philosophical position—Haskell argued that ascetic virtues of fairness and honesty involve self-restraint, particularly the effort of “detachment,” making historical writing objective not in an absolutist way, but in an intensely practical way. The commitment to detachment results in considering the arguments of one’s opponents fairly, trying to see the matter from their perspectives, and conditioning one’s claims not only by the evidence one reads but also by the critical feedback one gets from one’s peers. Indeed, the community of inquirers is crucial to historical practice for Haskell, who felt no duty to water down or simplify his writing in order to reach a mythic broad audience.
Historical inquirers work together, not separately, because that is the only way to get nearer the truth. “Only insofar as the members of the community are disposed to set aside the perspective that comes most spontaneously to them,” Haskell explained, “and strive to see things in a detached light, is there any likelihood that they will engage one another mentally and provoke one another through mutual criticism to the most complete, least idiosyncratic, view that humans are capable of.” In other words, reining in what I would call one’s ego and listening to others is central to the historian’s craft. This is objectivity: not an absolute quality easily foiled by bias or by facts’ inability to speak for themselves but a practice, a habit, a lived commitment to distinguish shades of gray interactively and collectively.
Haskell’s essay and Kloppenberg’s pragmatic hermeneutics helped save me from the poststructuralist morass in which I’d been trapped for some years and showed me how to begin to become some sort of historian myself. For my dissertation, I set out to investigate just what kind of religion William James so evidently prized, given that he was never Christian but also not a strict naturalist. I was in the thick of my research when I attended my first meeting of the American Historical Association, which convened in Boston in January 2001. There, at the book exhibit, I espied Haskell.
I did not allow my reticence to prevent me from reintroducing myself. He acted glad to see me and to learn I had chosen this path, told me he liked William James, and encouraged me. From then he became an ideal reader I held in my mind while I researched and wrote, for his position in the antislavery debates, in which he dismissed the role of religion in developing the sensibility behind abolition, and his description of the American Social Science Association, in which religion made no whisper, made me think he would be hard to convince that this post-Christian religion of James’s was anything but epiphenomenal. So I aimed to try.
The next academic year, I became an editorial assistant to Charles Capper, who was shepherding the last issue of the Intellectual History Newsletter, which he was under contract with Cambridge University Press to replace with the journal Modern Intellectual History (which I hope all frequenters of the S-USIH blog read). The last IHN included a roundtable on Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001), which told a tale of how James and other pragmatists came up with their philosophy, and what it meant. Haskell was one of the authors who contributed to that roundtable and as the deadline was approaching we spoke on the phone. “Amy!” He said my name just as though he were glad to hear my voice, which made me feel wonderful, and I learned that he survived life in Houston by summering in Crested Butte, Colorado.
His essay was impeccable, a quality that stood out to me because my duties then included copy editing. He took advantage of the assignment to critique Menand’s “postdisciplinary project,” which Haskell argued was hubristic because mastery of discipline is necessary before one can go postdisciplinary. Perhaps one can become transdisciplinary—as by importing theories or findings from other fields—but if we abandon the disciplines altogether we abandon the pursuit of knowledge and become, all, storytellers. This incisive critique made me feel better about being annoyed by Menand’s book and gave me talking points when I went on, after graduate school, to teach for a few years in the History and Literature program at Harvard, where Menand was far from the only postdisciplinarian but Haskell’s “Objectivity is Not Neutrality” was on the syllabus.
Haskell never was convinced by my “religion of democracy,” as I followed James in calling a web of ideas that I found stretching backward from James all the way to the generation of John Adams. I will always wonder what he might have said about it. In the spring of 2010, overwhelmed by the difficulty of converting my research into a book, I went to Washington, D.C., for my first meeting of the Organization of American Historians. I gave a paper and attended panels, excited to hear Haskell in action once more as the chair and commentator for “The Intellectual in American History.”
That excitement soon turned into concern. He made a blunder at the beginning, proceeding directly from introducing the scholars on the panel to reading his comment before anyone had read his paper (this may have been one of the last all-male panels allowed at OAH, incidentally). He caught himself relatively quickly and corrected course with dignity, but I knew that the situation was grave. Nevertheless, the papers were excellent and his comment sharp and clear, a resounding defense of the intellectual both in society and as an object of study, so all ended well that day. But by the following year, when OAH met in Houston, he made only a brief appearance during a reception and spoke little. The great voice had been stilled.
Death has come for Thomas Haskell. No one can replace him. He said we have “an obligation to enter sympathetically into rival perspectives” and I can think of no better tribute to him than to commit once again to this historical practice of objectivity.
Sonoma county, Calif.
July 19, 2017