U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Notes On The Style Of Louis Menand

In the past few months I’ve mentioned Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club a number of times in my USIH posts. To me the book is kind of a benchmark for what it would take to make U.S. intellectual history a more popular endeavor.

Recently I taught the book for the first time to a group of enthusiastic Newberry Library, adult education seminar participants. The Newberry seminar afforded me a natural opportunity to reread The Metaphysical Club (TMC). But rather than merely reading with discussion as my only end in view, I took time to closely observe Menand’s style. I kept asking myself the following: What made this book successful and popular with readers not normally interested in U.S. intellectual history?

While I read with this tactic in mind, I want USIH readers to know that I have not published a book – let alone a popular hit. I’ve done a few things indicative of moderate writing skill: finished a dissertation, successfully pushed through a few articles, and written for two weblogs. I do fancy myself a fairly accomplished critical reader, but obviously that doesn’t make me the best judge of what it takes to write a stylistic, artful book.

With my weaknesses in mind, here were some of my observations – not in rank order – of Menand’s success:

1. Although he wrote a book about ideas and intellectual history, Menand did not shy away from what Geertz called “thick description.” I observed this early in TMC, in the very first few chapters. Menand took the time to describe the personalities and setting of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s family and Boston environs;
2. Menand used characters as archetypes, whether for foil or positive storytelling endeavors. Holmes’ friend in his Union regiment represented for the former one’s devotion to duty. In another chapter, Louis Agassiz is a major figure, but only as an archetype of the “old” philosophy of science (anti-Darwinian);
3. Menand was not afraid to occasionally break normative history-writing rules. I observed on a few times, for instance, that Menand ended paragraphs with quotes. He even used quotes liberally in paragraphs. To me this says that Menand was not afraid to let the historical actors speak for themselves. Menand did refrain from using block quotes excessively, but they still appear;
4. Menand believes in chronology. While certain obvious themes appeared in chapters, each chapter proceeded in accordance with chronology. This gave the at times transcendent story of ideas something tangible on which to fall back. Time anchored Menand’s narrative;
5. Whether Menand was right or not, he avoided quarrels with other historians – even in the footnotes. To me this is a kind of scholarly disservice, but it nevertheless afforded others little opportunity to undercut his story. Avoiding pointing out where others are wrong – again, no matter its service – keeps one from making enemies of any reviewer;
6. I found Menand to be contextual without being a slave to context. As noted in point #1 above, Menand described things more than adequately, giving the work the feel of a kind of history that buffs enjoy. But Menand also did not try and connect every idea presented in TMC with every single major historical event that occurred from 1865 to 1920. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt looms large in the Progressive Era, but mentions of him are cursory. The settlement and occupation of the American West is a major part of the post-Civil War story, but Menand didn’t try to connect Pragmatism to the mining and the Indian wars. Menand didn’t abide by a Arthur Lovejoyian “inner logic of ideas,” but he wasn’t afraid to discuss, even at length in a few spots, the inconsistencies of a system or the ways in which ideas transcended circumstances.

This is all I have. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and certainly doesn’t address Menand’s artful turns of phrase and excellent word choices. On the latter, for instance, I appreciated his use of the term “idols” when talking about a person or a group’s uncritical weddedness to outdated or inconsistent philosophies. I loved the faith-based tone of the term.

Of course we, as intellectual historians, would not want to become Menand clones. There are number of style choices we might observe in the works of other successful doyens of intellectual history. I’m sure there are excellent style notes to be made from observing closely the works of Perry Miller, Richard Hofstadter, and – one of my favorites – John Higham. But we’d be remiss to not note what made The Metaphysical Club a success in the eyes of our potential readers.

And a larger goal at USIH is to underscore the virtues of U.S. intellectual history for those well beyond the history profession, is it not? If so, Menand can help us understand the tactics needed to do so. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim,
    I think you’ve made excellent points about Menand’s writing style, and I think that style plays a large and often overlooked role in the making “good” intellectual history. Having been reading the New England Mind for the last year I’ve found that Perry Miller uses some of the same methods you attributed to Menand, namely, ending paragraphs with quotations, avoiding debate with other scholars, moving chronologically, letting the primary sources speak for themselves, and, of course, using metaphors and a vocabulary appropriate if not akin to his subjects. I read a book review by John P. Diggins not long ago of Conkin’s “Puritans and Pragmatists,” and he concludes by writing, “in intellectual history nothing succeeds like the failure of form.” This seems to a large extent very true. Still, whereas Miller or Menand are capable of drawing things out, putting ideas into context, Hofstadter’s writing seems more simple and to the point, yet just as effective. Hofstadter’s writing reminds me a good deal of a contemporary popular historian’s, Joseph Ellis. Both he and Ellis do superb jobs of summarizing the scholarship of other historians and creating out of it a lucid prose style. I think both these styles, whether Miller’s or Hofstadter’s, Menand’s or Ellis’s, share the quality of an incredible grasp of the English language. This seems to be a unique gift among U.S. intellectual historians that I think distinguishes us from other writers of history.

  2. Thomas,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’d love to see that review of Conkin’s book by Diggins. Can you post the citation here to save me/us the research?

    I must admit that I have not read any of Joseph Ellis’ works. What’s his speciality?

    Finally, I disagree with your last two statements: “I think both these styles, whether Miller’s or Hofstadter’s, Menand’s or Ellis’s, share the quality of an incredible grasp of the English language. This seems to be a unique gift among U.S. intellectual historians that I think distinguishes us from other writers of history.”

    I would assert the exact opposite among intellectual historians today. That group you cited is very much the exception rather than the rule. As a larger group we do not possess “an incredible grasp of the English language” that distinguishes itself from the work of historians generally. Today’s group of intellectual historians does fantastic work on first-rate topics (think Hollinger, for instance), but the group is not widely acclaimed for its sense of style (writing or otherwise). In terms of historians, people such as D. McCullough, D.K. Goodwin and T. Branch are cited as easy to read.

    Since we love intellectual history, our assessments of one another’s style are necessarily and always colored toward the positive. If it’s serviceable, we’ll read it: we’re interested in the ideas presented and the intellectual life in general. Because of this we have to rely solely on outside evaluations for the foreseeable future. This is why I posted on Menand as an example: acclaim for his style transcends any assessments by other intellectual historians.

    Sincerely,

    Tim

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