I really should have read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America a long time ago. It’s probably the most talked about work in U.S. intellectual history in decades. But it was published while I was in grad school, none of my professors assigned it, and then I moved onto a dissertation, which turned into my first book, and then after that a second book project. Both my published book and my book-in-progress are on different eras than that covered by Menand. (The Metaphysical Club covers the Civil War through WWI—my books cover the early cold war and post-1960s America, respectively). But over this winter break, I’ve had a little extra time, including jury duty, which allowed me many hours of reading. So I finally got around to reading it.
To be honest, another reason it took me so long to open Menand’s book is because I was skeptical of it, due solely to its popularity and celebrity. I tend to instinctively avoid popular history books. I suppose I’m pessimistic that popular history books, or popular non-fiction books more generally, have much to offer other than appeals to the lowest common denominator, which, lets face it, is pretty low. I don’t think I’m elitist. I enjoy all kinds of lowbrow movies (The Hangover being a recent example). I just don’t like to waste my time reading crappy books, which I think tends to define most bestsellers. Most are closer to Sarah Palin’s ghostwritten book Going Rogue, currently atop the New York Times bestseller list, than anything serious or smart. (Reviews of such books, on the other hand, can be quite enjoyable to read—check out Jonathan Raban’s excellent one of Going Rogue in the recent New York Review of Books.)
The Metaphysical Club reached the bestseller lists. And it won the Pulitzer. It thus easily qualifies as popular history. And yet, most scholars have had nice things to say about it. For good reason. It’s fantastic! Some critics have pointed out that Menard probably puts too much stock in the power of biography. He implies that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and John Dewey—the central characters of a large and compelling cast of intellectuals—were uniquely capable of adjusting the nation’s social thought to the post-Civil War, modernizing world. But Menard is convincing, even in making the case for the driving force of personality, because he is such a subtle chronicler of changing intellectual contexts. The way he connects the tissue of pragmatism to modernism, Darwinism, and most importantly, to the post-Civil War need to conceptualize authority without force, is skillfully done.
Other critics have argued that Menard’s book is derivative. But even if it’s true that the book is synthetic, this is hardly a serious complaint and smacks of professional jealousy. Just because Historians A and B first made original, disparate arguments doesn’t mean that Historian C can’t bring the two arguments together. Sometimes it’s the synthesis that is the breakthrough. At the very least, Menard’s beautifully lucid prose makes old analysis seem fresh, or it makes concrete the post-Cold War return to thinking about pragmatism.
I suppose my enjoyment of Menard should compel me to rethink my anti-popular history stance. It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed bestsellers or award winners in the past. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, often criticized by academic historians for simplifying complex processes, or by judging history solely through a moralistic lens, convinced me that I wanted to be a historian (or teacher or activist) when I first read it 15 years ago. And it has sold over two million copies. And I absolutely love Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird’s biography, American Prometheus: The Truth and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which has sold many copies and won the Pulitzer and various other awards. Plus, if one of my books ever becomes a bestseller, I certainly won’t complain.
I have another thought with regards to popular history. Is Menand’s book as widely read as it is sold? Is it really popular history? I suspect that, rather, it is one of those intellectually fashionable books that people who want to be seen as intellectually fashionable buy but don’t read, at least not cover-to-cover. Why do I suspect this? Mostly because, although Menand’s writing is superb and clear, the material is complex, and the subject matter is not likely as riveting to the multitudes as it is to those of us who practice intellectual history. As an example, when Menand describes how statistics-driven thinking on probability helped shape the instrumentalist, process approach of pragmatism, the narrative does not exactly excite most, I imagine, to the same degree as a Stephen Ambrose description of storming Normandy, or some other heroic feat of war. To this extent, I place The Metaphysical Club alongside Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which millions purchased, yet which millions can’t have read cover-to-cover. The masses might have been drawn to Bloom’s motif about how moral relativism is destroying knowledge—especially conservatives who enjoyed having their preconceptions confirmed by a famous University of Chicago philosopher—but I seriously doubt many Bloom fans actually delved into his close readings of Nietzsche, which even my most impressive students find obtuse.
In sum, has The Metaphysical Club joined The Closing of the American Mind in its propensity to collect dust on bookshelves across America? Am I crazy? My friend Varad Mehta, a European intellectual historian, pointed out to me that there is a difference between popular history as such, and rigorous, scholarly history that becomes popular. This is a good point, and if this distinction holds, Menand clearly falls into the latter category. Varad also historicized the problem by arguing that what we now consider serious intellectual work was once popular history—Gibbon and Hume, for example. Thus, in his eyes, it is us, professional historians, who have changed, and as such, it is we who are to blame for the gulf between popular and professional history. I agree with Varad’s historical point, but would argue that changed contexts mean different paradigms. Prior to the carving out of institutional space for the study of history, there was no distinction between popular and professional historical writing. There was just plain history. And Hume and Gibbon hardly wrote for the masses to the degree that Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter does.
I’m mostly interested in reader responses: Is The Metaphysical Club popular history? And if so, what does this mean?