For a number of reasons, this past year has presented several challenges to my identity as an intellectual historian.
Nothing has hampered, however, my fundamental sense of myself as a historian. The personal and professional problems of the year, in fact, required the imprint of my training—the sense of historical thinking imbued in my person. I could not have navigated the unexpected death of my mother and the murder of two professional dreams (a book project and a job) without the intellectual sensibilities provided by years of historical study. It’s easier to survive traumas when you understand the larger structural problems in medicine, religion, higher education, and capitalism that enabled their effects in your life. It’s not personal, but rather just the “business” of a flawed world, or at least the peculiarities of circumstance. Historical knowledge enables a certain deep-seated stoicism, or psychic grit.
Despite giving me the intellectual and personal tools to survive, the structure of my circumstances disabled the needed time and peace, at a desk, that help one do intellectual history. By this I mean that my time for broad reading, for spot reading numerous texts, for careful note taking, drafting, redrafting, and finalizing a text—all of it—has been severely curtailed. I’ve been able to read works of intellectual history, and ponder their quality and significance. But I have not been able to refine my thinking at a desk, with either a pen or keyboard on hand.
These circumstances left me in a wilderness of depression and confusion. It was not a clinical depression, but rather one of grey clouds everywhere, confusing my sense of purpose–my sense of future direction. Even when I could engage for specific dialogues or tasks, a paper here or some comment-section contributions there, the overall sense purpose wasn’t there. This state of being lasted all through 2018.
In the past few months, however, I’ve began to feel my way toward the passions that sustained a long run of work, here with the blog and Society, and elsewhere. That renewal began, ironically, with the death of Leo Ribuffo—and courtesy of virtual engagement with two colleagues I know quite well, Andrew Hartman and Ray Haberski.
Ribuffo’s death occasioned a long segment on Hartman’s and Haberski’s two-man podcast show, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids. I don’t listen to their show consistently. I just counted and I’ve fully absorbed only about one-third of their 25 total podcasts. The first one that I starred for re-listen, however, was their show on Ribuffo. I really appreciated their recounting of Leo’s work–exploring a catalog that I realized I didn’t know as well as I should. But it was their discussion of Leo’s personal biography and personality, of his sincere cantankerousness and his dedication to his colleagues and friends, that sparked some embers that had been doused by the bitter waters of 2018.
Then, more recently, I listened to their interview with Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Jennifer’s recounting of her time at Rochester, and her inspiration to write The Ideas that Made America, touched a deep vein of desire for our shared work. I’ve long appreciated Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the field, and her writing style and deep engagement with the field. I think her evident appreciation for the deep questions that have animated U.S. intellectuals rekindled my own desires to ponder the discourses that have fed America’s sense of itself, and its problems. It was a great program, and I’ll listen to it again in the near future.
If the enthusiasm I’ve drawn from those programs constituted a fleeting fall for some kind of mere performance, then the American Labyrinth volume—also a product of my two friends’ editorial stewardship—has provided some ballast to the winds of emotion. The three-month space between the Ribuffo and Ratner-Rosenhagen programs (December 2018 and March 2019, respectively) overlapped, in the past four weeks, with a slow reading of American Labyrinth. I have been posting brief updates about each of the essays in the S-USIH Facebook group. As of today, I’ve read 14 of the 18 pieces. (I won’t read one of the last four because, well, I wrote it.)
Even though I attended the conference two years ago that fed the contents of the book, I only read draft versions of the essays. I know that several of those, like mine, experienced extensive editorial review. All came out much different on the other side. I disliked early versions of a couple, but now have found all readable and enjoyable in the book.
The sum total of the fourteen I’ve read have renewed and reinvigorated my personal sense of the value of our shared endeavor. They–along with the two above-mentioned podcasts—have inspired me to actively adjust my circumstances. I think I can cobble together the time, energy, and space for reading, spot checking, drafting, and writing. In sum, I believe I can, with some adjusting and dedication, meet the demands of scholarly work required to do quality intellectual history. I can, in sum, do more with the historical training that is important to my identity. It’s been a labyrinthine process to find this place of renewal. But I think it’s here again.
In my next installment I’ll outline what I’ve gleaned from the book in terms of having a better sense of what I want to do in the field—meaning the approaches and wisdom on display in American Labyrinth that might also help you see why the field matters now more than ever.