After a long hiatus, I have some incomplete thoughts related to a truly interesting and provocative post our own Andy Seal put up months ago about novels and intellectual history. I should add that I also contributed to a conference on the subject of politics and the novel this past fall, hosted by Martin Griffin at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, so some of my thoughts for today come from my contribution there. Thank you to Andy and to Martin.
I’m among those who think intellectual history is an approach more than a subject matter. It’s the study of people thinking or expressing ideas, whoever those people were and wherever they happened to be. But there is some disagreement about this, whether explicit or implicit, when it comes to the books and articles intellectual historians produce. (I should admit that I’ve grown tired of talk about what intellectual history is, so this is my hit-and-run attempt to move on from that discussion.) It stands to reason that the broad approach I describe here—where intellectual history is merely people thinking and expressing thinking—should mean novels and especially novels of and about politics figure among intellectual historians’ primary sources.
This has often been true, especially in the intellectual history of the Southern United States. This partly has to do with sources. There were fewer formal philosophers in those parts in the past, but a few great novelists. It bears reminding that our field, when it came together intentionally as a subfield or approach, roughly around the mid-twentieth century, was very much concerned with novels and literary productions. It ran alongside and often overlapped with the rise of American Studies, and like that field, began with any number of studies trying to figure out things like “the American character” or “myth and symbol” across relatively long periods of time. When, twenty-odd years ago, I told a rather seasoned history professor of mine at Midwestern State in Wichita Falls Texas, that I wanted to do intellectual history, he told me to read Vernon Parrington. I’ve always figured novels were in the field from the start. So this could be a problem of my own (de)formations.
Needless to say, many of the intellectual historians I happen to know teach novels in their classes. Novels present special problems for the study of the past. On its face, anyway, what we in intellectual history do seems different than what literary scholars do, but the more I interact with literary scholars, the harder I find it to distinguish what we do from what they do. Intellectual historians use novels to somehow get at a broader way of thinking specific to time or place. In other words, we tend to be less concerned about how historical context changes existing interpretations of this or that particular novel. The novel or literary work is a historical artifact that opens a window into ways of thinking in a particular place and time and among a group of thinkers.
But these distinctions dissolve pretty quickly. I now wonder whether in practice either group, depending upon interests, actually draw as bright a line as I tended to think between novel-as-historical-artifact and thus window into the past, and window-into-the-past as new way to interpret a novel. By considering the historical context for a novel, we might in the end interpret the novel differently than before, and by starting with an effort to reinterpret a novel, we discover something about its time and place or even another time and place we didn’t know before. Context, after all, is not some passive subject matter historians “pay attention to” but an act and an art of weaving together an archive of sources as we assemble a plausible, truthful narrative about the past. Context is not some inert subject matter waiting to be found in order to better read a novel, nor is a novel some inert historical artifact waiting to have its context better revealed.
For reasons like these, I’ve always admired the way Hannah Arendt uses novels in her work. She treats them as tools or instruments to better define historically situated political problems and in the process reads them in idiosyncratic ways. In her On Revolution, a comparative intellectual history of the American and French Revolutions with theoretical aims, Melville’s Billy Budd figures centrally. For her, that novel is a story of how innocence cannot have a place in the political realm (Billy in this reading can only be put to death by Vere if the law and with it politics is to persist), which in turn opens up her reading of how innocence or purity leads down the garden path to concerns over necessity in revolutions, the problem of eliminating suffering, which she thinks destroys the political spaces opened by revolutions. Billy Budd helps her explain why the French Revolution turned violent, and how and why revolutions turn violent on the whole. In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, read as what Edward Said later called “an imperial text,” helps her show how racism developed in South Africa, not the Congo, as she takes Heart of Darkness out of its immediate context. Conrad’s novel is an historical expression of a larger imperial process leading eventually to Totalitarianism. Once racism reaches a level of distilled purity and then collides with the romance of bureaucracy, doing one’s duty can eventually lead down the path of extermination, which is what Totalitarian states did with such terrifying results.
Novels, in this way, enact historical worlds and developments, and historical contexts are enacted in the world of novels, and those perspectives can’t easily be disentangled from one another. Arendt arranges her historical narrative in the deliberative space between those conceptual poles. More precisely, Arendt stakes out a historical and political position precisely by refusing to come down firmly on one side or the other of the illusory disciplinary divide I’ve been describing. Billy Budd reveals something about revolutions, even if Melville wrote about the context of the French Revolution nearly a century after the fact. Heart of Darkness reveals something about Totalitarianism, even if Conrad wrote about Leopold’s Congo, and not about the Boer in South Africa. This is one thing I think intellectual historians might try out when we treat novels. Novels might be good for working out deeper structures or logics of historical events in this way, whatever the specifics of time and place in and around those novels.
Yet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how crestfallen or better, confused, I was when, in describing Arendt’s reading of Billy Budd to a group of colleagues, a friend in our English department kindly chided me, saying, “you know, she gets Billy Budd totally wrong.” I have to admit here that I don’t recall my friend’s precise reasoning for why that was, probably because my mind was spinning, thinking about how I needed to get back on the hamster wheel of interpretations to reinterpret the intellectual history I was trying to think about at the time. I wished later on I had asked her if this was so because Arendt didn’t know the various scholarly interpretations of that text. There was no way she could have known about what happened to interpretation of that novel in the years after her own interpretation. (To be fair, I have to think Arendt’s various uses of literature in her work had some relation to friendships she had with Mary McCarthy or Alfred Kazin. She surely tried out her interpretations with them, and they knew about existing interpretations.)
So I’ll conclude my remarks by admitting that I don’t think I have much of a position to tout here so much as a suggestion. I do think some intellectual historians dip a toe into what people are doing in literary and American Studies, and their work is interesting to many of us for that reason. Yet I’d be remiss again if I didn’t admit that Fredrich Nietzsche’s observations in “The Uses and Abuses of History for Life” don’t haunt me at the same time. In that essay, worrying over what he called an “excess of history” in German academic life at the time, by which he really meant an excess of attention to secondary sources—to scholarship—thinkers fell into the trap felt by most moderns, namely that the vast range of interpretations of past events cluttered our minds, making political action seem nigh impossible. Rather than a creative opening to better define a politics or a culture, too much knowledge of that kind made us believe nothing could possibly be new under the sun. But this something anybody in our industry deals with.
So I’m trapped for now, between deciding whether or not a certain ignorance of literary scholarship might actually be a virtue for how intellectual historians interpret the past, and whether intellectual historians need to sharpen their stories by reading more literary scholarship. The plan moving forward is to keep reading novels to open up my historical narratives before dipping a toe in literary scholarship, working to get ever closer to something true.
 Yet there is not, and has never been, any fiction in the two volume sourcebook central for teaching surveys in our field, Charles Capper and David Hollinger’s American Intellectual Tradition, now in its 8th edition. There have been literary analyses by figures like Melville (“Hawthorne and His Mosses”) and then later by James Baldwin (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”) and Lionel Trilling (“On the Teaching of Modern Literature”) in its pages, but no short fiction. I can’t imagine how the editors would make that work, for technical reasons having to do with permissions and for reasons of fit. Still, a master of the short story genre would be great to see in the sourcebook. It’s inescapable that we all have our additions and subtractions, however precious. (The blog ran a great series on the sourcebook only recently.)