U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Metaphysical Club: Popular History?

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?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If by blame you mean that professional historians have contributed to the gulf between professional history and popular history, then yes, I would suggest we are to blame. But if by blame is meant sole responsibility, then I would have to disagree.

    I think both sides are culpable, but whether this owes more to mutual hostility or to mutual incomprehension is no certain thing. I also think a lot of it has to do with the audience that is being addressed by a particular work. Is popular history what is written for the populace or in a popular style? Or is it history written by a non-professional historian? If the former, then even a professional historian can write a popular history. If the latter, then a professional historian can never write popular history, because the socialization can’t be fully neutralized.

    Another issue is how the distinction arose. I would argue that the rise of history as an academic discipline is what was responsible for the breach, since the distinction didn’t exist until then. (It was just “plain history.”) That said, did popular history as now understood come into being because academic historians abandoned that intellectual space, leaving it for others to colonize? Or did academic history arise because its progenitors found the intellectual space of academic history too circumscribed for what they wanted to achieve, and so went off to other, greener, less cultivated pastures?

    Before all this is the seminal issue: What is a historian? Anyone who studies and/or writes about the past? Someone who has a certain kind of training and education about how to write and study the past? A person with a Ph.D. in history or related discipline (is an archaeologist a historian)? It might be easy to dismiss David McCullough (a very popular historian), but what about Barbara Tuchman (whom I regard highly)? And what about Stephen Ambrose, whom Andrew mentions? He was also high successful in reaching a wide audience, but unlike McCullough and Tuchman, had a Ph.D. in history (from U. Wisconsin) and spend most of his career as an academic (including at Johns Hopkins, where one of his TAs was Bill Becker, current chairman of the history dept. at George Washington).

    I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew that different contexts generate different paradigms, and so what popular history is now is not what it was before. To generalize a little, I think the tension between professional and popular reflects deeper, more fundamental tensions in the study of history itself. For example, between lumpers and splitters – want historians to fight? ask them to debate the merits of synthesis and narrative. And to historicize a little, in early modern times, when the study of history was very different from now, there was a sharp divide between the scholarly and the literary. On the one hand were antiquarians who did the spade work, looked in archives and found manuscripts, did historical criticism and so forth. And on the other were writers who completely ignored the antiquarians and wrote about the past as if no new knowledge had been gained in the preceding millennium. Mutual suspicion and hostility reigned. No small part of Gibbon’s great achievement was to unite the two worlds. Or, rather, he discovered them to each other, for they can hardly be said to be united, or we would not be having this discussion now.

    One could even go back to the beginning. Thucydides avowed his history would be serious, determined, even grim stuff. Why? Because it wouldn’t have any of the fluff, the old wives’ tales, the trivia, the arcana, the anecdotes of Herodotus. Or what we’d call cultural history, social history, and anthropology. In other words, nothing that smacked of the popular, however defined. “I am history” declared Thucydides. He succeeded only too well. That’s not grounds for pessimism; the debate is worth having. But we should recognize we’ll probably keep having it, as long as anyone remains interested in the past. Plus ca change, indeed.

  2. Well said Varad. Another question I have, then, based on your response. What do we as professional historians have to lose by writing to a popular audience? I don’t mean this to be rhetorical. I think there are very real concerns with any such attempt, even if futile due to the aforementioned bifurcated socialization process. Do we lose rigor when we leave a disciplinary framework–the rigor that accompanies speaking to an audience familiar to a particular historiography, or at least, to historiographical analysis as a tool? Can we split the difference? Upon first glance, it seems Menand achieved this. But I was motivated to write this post by the idea that perhaps he didn’t split this difference, perhaps The Metaphysical Club is not as popular as perceived. I don’t know how such a thing is measured.

  3. Before I respond to your questions, Andrew, I’d like to make a few more points.

    1) “Or did academic history arise because its progenitors found the intellectual space of academic history too circumscribed . . .” Obviously, the second “academic history” should read “popular history”; it’s a non sequitur otherwise.

    2) The answer to the question “what is popular history” can vary according to the national context in which it is posed, and we ought to be cognizant of that. In America, the work of historians rarely gets taken notice of, and when it does it’s usually because of something controversial: either culture wars stuff (the national history standards, the Enola Gay exhibit) or because someone screwed up (Goodwin, Ambrose, Bellesiles). But these are, for the most part, tempests in teapots. On the other hand, if we look at Europe we see examples of historical controversies becoming national political controversies. The West German Historikersstreit (1980s) is one prominent example. So too is the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which saw the schism between the adherents of the “official” (Marxist) interpretation of 1789 and its Furetian, “revisionist” opponents explode into the public eye and nearly swallow the actual commemoration. Why such things should happen abroad and not here is a necessary question to ask. It’s likely because in both instances the historical debate was a synecdoche for larger ones about the meaning of German and French national identity and what role the past does and should play in it. Germany’s a special case (for obvious reasons), but even in France in 1989 there was a certain wariness about the legacy of 1789 that wasn’t there before.

    I don’t see anything similar in America, certainly not recently. One reason may be that, as Joyce Appleby observed, the liberal interpretation of the American Revolution became the consensus so quickly and so overwhelmingly that it has been more or less unassailable ever since, making alternative visions hard to imagine. Even though there’s lots of criticism of what was or was not done in the Revolution, no one really doubts that 1776 was a good thing the way they do about 1789. The spirit of ’76, like the Force, surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the nation together.

    3) When we think of popular history, we professional historians need to lift our eyes beyond the page. History is still a creation of the word, and we tend to think of it in terms of books. What me mean by a popular history is really a popular history BOOK. That is largely correct, but at the same time, we need to remember that popular history comes in other forms. Thus, one could argue that Ken Burns is the most popular historian in the United States. There is also the History Channel, or the Nazi Channel, as I like to call it. (As Homer remarked, “Ah, The Luftwaffe…The Washington Generals Of The History Channel.”) There is also Michael Wood, whose most recent series, “The Story of India,” contains a good deal of history (as no doubt do his previous programs, which I’ve not yet seen). I am partial to James Burke, writer and presenter of several outstanding television series on the history of science. We might also include in this group someone like Jared Diamond, who deals frequently with the past, though not as a historian might. He is quite popular, and I am convinced that what he does is but an up-to-date version of the conjectural and universal history that flourished in the early modern period. Oh, and don’t forget something like “John Adams,” an HBO miniseries based on a biography by that ultrapopular historian, David McCullough.

  4. Turning now to Andrew’s questions, I would have to agree that professional historians are likely to lose something if they turn their attention to a popular audience. I think the thing most likely to be lost is not rigor or analytical heft, but a kind of perspective that professional historians have because they are professional historians. Those voices in our head that demand we cite this book and refute that historiographical trend, we must partly become deaf to. Some of the stuff that’s of interest to us primarily as historians rather than as students of the past has to be dumped overboard so we can ascend to a vantage that affords a broader, but perhaps less detailed view. The truth, it was said, depends on your point of view. That doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t always the same; but it does mean that what you see of the truth can depend whence you are looking at it.

    It may be a case of the treason of the clerks, but my loyalty has always been with the other camp, for various reasons. For one thing, I still adhere to the admittedly old-fashioned view that history is the branch of literature which takes as its subject the human past. A crucial distinction between professional and popular history is how they are written. This gets us to the debate about academic writing, a lot of which, let’s be honest, is god awful. No history is going to be popular which is not well written. Period. That first hurdle is often the hardest to overcome.

    For another, I have always had an affinity for the broad perspective. At the end of Janice Reiff’s AHA pamphlet on the use of statistics in history, “Structuring the Past,” I wrote the following comment: “I want oceans, not wells.” So I do. The past is huge, expansive, unending. It’s an eternity. It’s impossible to know it all, or even to be aware of it all. Yet instead of making the attempt, some historians in a kind of tacit admission of defeat retreat to the other extreme and produce microhistories of medieval communes. Thus the people who do try to climb Olympus are those like Diamond, who haven’t been trained not to try. Historians, like other academics, have intead been socialized to be like cows (my other metaphor), ruminating over the same four blades of grass their whole careers. The past is an entire universe. It is immense. Why shouldn’t our ambitions be?

    So why want to be read only by 10 people when one could be read by 10 thousand, or a million? I can think of few things so futile as expending so much energy and effort and toil on a book in the expectation that at best a hundred people will see it. I don’t expect to be the next J.K. Rowling, but I would be thrilled to have my books published in the trade, say by Viking or Knopf. Now I can’t say that what I hope will be my first book (my dissertation) is likely to find a great audience. The subject is academic (though it addresses popular issues). But what I hope will be my second book is the sort of thing you see prominently displayed in Barnes and Noble. The subject is popular. Would the book be? Who knows, and I’m not really sure I can write it that way. But I am eager to find out. Can we split the difference? I don’t know, but we must endeavor to try.

    First and foremost, we write for ourselves. But I think it would be terrible to realize, ultimately, that was all we were doing.

  5. Varad. Well said. I agree with most of what you wrote, especially on the need for more Big History from professional historians. To venture into your field, I love the type of broad history written by Europeanists such as Eric Hobsbawm and Fernand Braudel. I aspire to write broadly, and well, as I think they do.

    One point of contention: the culture wars in the US, of which the history battles were one front (I actually dislike the military metaphors, but have made concessions to them since it’s what people understand), were (and still are) about a crisis of American national identity. But because our cultural production is so much less centralized and more privatized (unlike in most nations, we have no Minister of Culture), it doesn’t take on the same shape as those in France or Germany, and might seem like mere tempests in teapots. But these seemingly minor skirmishes (Enola Gay) are about much more than that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be taking on the subject of the culture wars as an entire book (which I see as Big History–hopefully others will agree). Thanks for participating. Cheers. AH

  6. Andrew, you’re right, those weren’t tempests in a teapot, certainly not from our perspective. I agree that controversies like that about the Enola Gay reflect questions about national identity. I meant rather that such controversies are of a more limited scope than the European ones I mentioned. The latter implicated not only national identity, but the nation itself. They were national controversies, since their subjects (the Holocaust, the French Revolution) really were the origins and meaning of the nation itself. I don’t see something like the Enola Gay controversy reaching quite that threshold. That’s not to say that advocates on both sides didn’t see it that way, but to my mind it’s a stretch to claim that the Enola Gay debate really says something about the foundations of the US. You may disagree, and I will certainly keep an open mind as your book attempts to persuade me otherwise! I think you are onto something about how the lack of national cultural institutions prevents such controversies from being nationalized the way they can be in Europe. Which is why the Enola Gay debate was so heated. The Smithsonian is our de facto national museum. Thus what it says is the authorized version of our national memory. Such precincts will be jealously guarded, as we have seen.

    You are definitely tackling large subjects. American education in the Cold War, and the culture wars, could hardly be described as small.

    Oh, and it’s fun to participate. I like playing along. My opportunities to talk history are rather limited at the moment, as you can guess.

  7. AH: That doesn’t mean my post was a good as yours. Besides, I think this is a kind of perennial-biannual topic. I’m glad you posted on it again. – TL

  8. Two little, disconnected, and not very profound thoughts…

    1) At our conference in November, I was surprised at the rather rough treatment that Menand and his book received from David Hollinger, who among other things essentially implied that The Metaphysical Club says absolutely nothing that we (real) historians haven’t already put in print. At the risk of sounding ignorant of the historiography (and with the excuse that it’s also not really my period), I have to say that I quite liked the book and even taught it in a general US 1865-1900 graduate seminar.

    2) Varad Mehta:
    This gets us to the debate about academic writing, a lot of which, let’s be honest, is god awful. No history is going to be popular which is not well written. Period. That first hurdle is often the hardest to overcome.

    I only half agree with this. Most academic writing is god awful. And that god awfulness affects its popularity. But plenty of very popular writing is also god awful (pick up a copy of Going Rogue or any Dan Brown novel if you doubt this), though in a very un-academic way.

    Like good writing, producing work for a broad public is a noble goal that we academic historians frequently praise but rarely achieve. But these two goals are not necessarily identical.

    Given how poorly written so many books on the best-seller list are, I wonder why the notion is so persistent that more people would read our work if only we wrote better prose. The truth, I’m afraid, is more complicated than this.

  9. Andrew:

    In my view (and, perhaps significantly, that of Menand’s subjects), the distinction between “popular” or “academic” history would depend on the use to which such a division would be put. It might mean one thing, for example, to tenure committees, and something very different to bookstore owners. I don’t believe that a definition of these terms–one that would apply across a broad range of contexts–actually exists.

    But I would also go a step further than that and say that I don’t see any context in which anything good comes out of this particular inquiry. In what scenario does failing to be able to make this distinction pose a problem? If we were able to discover the difference between scholarly and popular history, what would we then do with it? I can’t see any purpose such a distinction would serve other than to make it easier for professional historians to look down those their noses at the latter sorts of books, many of which I wish I could write.

    Similarly, it may be true that people buy The Metaphysical Club but do not read it, but it may not. More relevant is the question as to whether non-scholars actually do this any more than academics do. And I have no reason to think that this is true (at least when adjusted for the fact that academics have more time to read, because they get paid for it). Most scholars I know have eighty books checked out of the library at any one time; I can’t believe they’re reading them all. I have a Ph.D., and I buy way more books than I read: in fact, I do this much more often than before I went back to school. I don’t see where trying to isolate the essence of popular history does any more than reinforce academic snobbery toward the “literate public,” by whom most of us desperately want to be read.


  10. Mike: I guess I don’t care much about distinctions between popular and scholarly history. I can see how my post and comments that follow make it seem like I do. I was motivated to write this post mostly by the fact that, when I think of the non-academic “literate public” people I know, which is quite a few, I don’t envision many of them reading this book from start to finish, although I envision many of them buying it, because it’s the type of book viewed prominently at “literary public”-style bookstores (I’m thinking specifically of Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose in Washington D.C.) And yet, many of my academic friends have read it cover to cover. This isn’t snobbery, just an observation. We as academics tend to have different reading habits. And Menard’s book seems more like our kind of book. DIsagree?

  11. Many of the people I (and presumably you) know in academia are intellectual historians, so I don’t think the question is entirely fair. I grant that it would seem likely that academics are far more likely to read books in their own field of specialization than is the general public. So U.S. intellectual historians, I’m sure, probably read The Metaphysical Club in greater numbers than did other purchasers of the book. But if you’re asking whether academics, as a type, are more likely to read (rather than merely buy) weighty popular books, then I’m not sure there’s any reason to believe that.

    To spare anyone embarrassment, I will use myself as an example. Are there bestselling books in other fields, not so central to my own work, that I have bought but not read? Just off the top of my head, I own un- or barely-read copies of Guns, Germs and Steel; A Brief History of Time; The Elegant Universe, and even (a little closer to home) Team of Rivals. I didn’t even get up to look at my bookshelf in order to come up with those examples, so there are probably dozens more.

    Additionally, I’m not totally sure why you brought this up in the first place. What is the significance of buying but not reading? Usually, I think, it is an accusation of sorts, one claiming that people are superficial and want to display the book in one way or another, but do not really care what it says. (I remember a friend making this complaint decades ago about the popularity of The Satanic Verses.) The reply pages of magazines like Harper’s and the Atlantic are filled with letters from dentists and what-not, and I think these journals have about the same level of analytic heft as many of the books that we’re talking about, so I don’t think that the literate public that we’re discussing is either uninterested or incapable or doing that kind of reading or thinking. Outside of my own specialization, I am the “literate public,” and I have no reason to think that others are any less interested or busy than I am.

    So, in short, I might agree with you, but it depends on what point you’re actually trying to make. If I remember your original post, you were suggesting that if we don’t count the people who didn’t read The Metaphysical Club, maybe it wasn’t really “popular” all along. If that’s it, you’re discounting the fact that these people bought it, while I am more likely to discount the stipulated claim that they didn’t read it. Even if a lot of people didn’t read it, I’d still say the book is “popular,” because there are a million other books people could have bought. It was often reviewed in the non-academic press, and got a lot of coverage in “literate public” type magazines. Certainly many more people read it than, say, Robert Westbrook’s very interesting and readable biography of Dewey, and that’s got to mean something.

    So, in answer to your question, I think I do disagree with the claim that The Metaphysical Club “seems more like our kind of book”? To some degree I reject the distinction between books, and to a greater degree I question the proposed dichotomy in people. But even if we were to stipulate all of those categories, I think that Menand’s book still qualifies as “popular.” (Whatever that means: I doubt it sold anywhere near as many copies as, say, Fast Food Nation or Glenn Beck’s latest.) The book does not presuppose any prior knowledge, and attends to its occasionally difficult subject matter in an accessible way. In that sense, I would hope that more “scholarly” books would take on some of these “popular” characteristics.

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