Review of Bruce Kuklick’s Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). ISBN-13: 978-0-8122-4098-6. 171 pages.
Review by Andrew Hartman
Assistant Professor of History, Illinois State University.
Most intellectual biographies are premised on one of two straightforward rationales: that the subject has not been examined sufficient to his or her intellectual significance; or, that the subject has been misinterpreted, and thus merits revision. Bruce Kuklick’s compelling biography of black philosopher William Fontaine, one of the few African Americans hired to teach in the mostly segregated Ivy League of the 1940s and 1950s, adheres to the former justification, as Kuklick is the only historian who has written about Fontaine. And yet, there is another underlying premise for the book, standing above Fontaine’s measurable significance. In his conclusion, Kuklick reveals, “In constructing this biography, I have found myself again and again examining the evidence and saying, ‘If only…’ A litany of ‘if only’s’ compose African American history in this period” (135). In short, this is a biography of a person who was undoubtedly significant, but whose impact would have been more widely felt had he not been a black philosopher in the white academy. Thus, Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine is also a study of the institutional constraints of race in the Philosophy Department at Pennsylvania University, which serves as a proxy for elite academia more generally. It also serves to illustrate the limits of mid-century liberalism with regards to race.
Kuklick, the Nichols Professor of American History at Penn, stumbled onto Fontaine’s sparse papers while thumbing through the Penn Philosophy Department’s archives while researching another project. He fatefully discovered that, against the grain of his fallible memory, Fontaine, one of Kuklick’s professors as an undergraduate student at Penn in the 1960s, had recommended him to graduate school. This surprising finding “rattled [his] metaphysical bones” (x). From then on, Kuklick became obsessed with the man he came to think of as “Bill.”
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