U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Snatching Mouldy Dead Memories Out Of Their Graves: Idiosyncratic Thoughts On Writing Intellectual History For The Masses

Like many of you I am constantly on the lookout for thoughtful writing advice. With that in mind, Andrew Delbanco’s recent review of the Autobiography of Mark Twain includes this provocative passage:

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It [the following quote] will doubtless strike some readers as incoherent. And so it is—in just the way that Twain thought good writing should be. “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way,” he wrote in an 1895 essay, “How to Tell a Story,” was the basis of his art. In the title of that little manifesto, he used the word “tell” instead of “write” because he was, first and last, a talker. A prodigious speechmaker, he rarely spoke from a prepared text, especially when preceded by other speakers, whose remarks he liked to use as provocation for his own. …Spontaneous speech, he knew, is liable to digression, repetition, contradiction, and—if the audience is lucky—to “stretchers” and malapropisms, which have their best effect when the speaker seems “innocently unaware” of what he is saying..

[Twain] wanted to break free from the chronology of lived experience and to take advantage of what Harriet Elinor Smith, chief editor of the new edition, nicely calls “the disinhibiting nature of talk.” [1]
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Delbanco goes on to inform us that Twain eventually abandoned the pen for dictation. But that gets too far away from a train of thought I want to follow. Specifically, I wonder what “talking” intellectual histories might look like? Would they move the historian too far from “the chronology of lived experience”? Or would they necessarily be a simplistic kind of popular “outline” history, a la H.G. Wells or Will Durant’s (right) The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers?

No matter your answers to these questions, most of today’s academic philosophers and historians, needless to say, are not concerned with the vernacular, or colloquial, presentation of complex ideas. Indeed, intellectual historians are not much worried about the popularity of their works among general readers. Most intellectual historians are rightfully concerned with their primary, present-day audience: their academic colleagues. And even those historians, philosophers, and public intellectuals that do desire a broader swathe of readers often do so, or come to do so, ambivalently.

Take for instance the case of a former academic-come-public intellectual, Mortimer J. Adler. He identified as a philosopher, and had a major interest—later in life—in reaching popular audiences. Indeed, one of his mature interests and deeper purposes, from the late 1940s onward, was fostering the creation of a public philosophy in America. On the topic at hand, Adler also had a significant interest in how history was written. I have argued elsewhere that he spent a significant portion of his middle years thinking about history and writing histories of ideas, for Britannica, under the inspiration of Arthur Lovejoy. Knowing Adler’s personal interests and philosophical concerns, one might be surprised to learn that, at a young age, he vigorously panned Durant’s popular and widely praised Story of Philosophy upon release in 1926.

Durant’s credentials as a popular writer were, unlike a youthful Adler’s at the time, impeccable. After Durant’s successful history of philosophy (many printings) he went on to write, with his intellectual partner and wife Ariel, an 11-volume, Story of Civilization series. Volume one appeared in 1935 and the last in 1975. Unlike Adler, Durant’s body of work earned him one Pulitzer (in 1968, for vol. 10 of the series, Rousseau And Revolution, published by Simon & Schuster) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (in 1977, awarded by President Gerald Ford). Despite Durant’s overall success and Adler’s changes in philosophy, Adler never retracted his youthful criticisms of Durant.

What made the Durants’ successful? Having only read passages from The Story of Philosophy (which I own), I’m in no position to make informed commentary about their writing secrets. Thankfully, however, others have done this work for me. Their literary secrets are apparently contained, at least partially, in Will and Ariel Durant’s Dual Autobiography. From it and other sources, an unnamed author from the “Will Durant Foundation” has uncovered a few reflections from the Durants on their writing philosophy and style.[2] What follows are some excerpts from the Durants’ writings (from the Foundation’s site, dates and precise citation material were not given) and my interlinear commentary:

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1.a. I know that my own work is flawed, and that our laborious masterpieces will be superseded as knowledge grows and vistas change.

1.b. I don’t like this notion of a ‘great achievement’ [in writing books]; I know too much history to have delusions as to how long these things last. I once defined literary immortality as “a moment in geological time” – and that’s the way it is with books, you know. If you write works of great poetry, they can last for hundreds of years because they are not dependent upon the progress of knowledge; but when you write history, you can be ruined in a few years by some discovery like The Dead Sea Scrolls that may shed new light upon all sorts of things…so we have no notion that we’re immortal by any means. We’d be very happy if people still know what our names are when we die.

The Durants’ sense of subjectivity, if only in terms of chronology and perspective, seems somewhat ahead their time (though the Beards were well aware of the same). But hedging and caveats do not make for smooth historical narratives, so I don’t this knowledge affected his formal style much. But their wish to be known perhaps contradicts their knowledge of changes in readers’ desires over time.

2. It is an error to suppose that books have no influence; it is a slow influence, like flowing water carving out a canyon, but it tells more and more with every year; and no one can pass an hour a day in the society of sages and heroes without being lifted up a notch or two by the company he has kept.

Here we are moving away from the specific attributes of historical writing to “great books” in general (e.g. “sages and heroes”). And Victorian uplift is most certainly on display here. Though I say “Victorian,” I do mean to imply that this idea has lost its power in 2011. But clearly the Durants’ are putting their philosophy of historical selection on display (i.e. choose the biggest names about which to write, and the readers will come?). But writing about the “sages and heroes” of intellectual history must necessarily introduce some topical complexity—a kind of subtlety that one can’t easily explain in a chapbook format.

3.a. I want to see history written as a whole; I want to see all these activities of men and women in one age woven into unity, shown in their correlations, their interdependence, their mutual influences; I want the past presented as it was — all together.

3.b. I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind – to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy and the achievements of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, or how immodest is its very conception, for many years of effort…have made it clear that no one mind, and no single lifetime, can adequately compass this task. Nevertheless I have dreamed that, despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try and see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time, as well as to seek them through science in space.

Here we see something of the Annales School and/or Arnold J. Toynbee. There is also a necessary lack of humility about “objectivity,” as discussed by Peter Novick in That Noble Dream. In sum, it’s the modern debate about the specialization of knowledge in relation the unified visions desired in education and by the general reading public.

These passages also present a paradox. If “absurd” and “immodest,” then why pursue it? If “many errors,” then why attempt such a broad sweep? Who are you helping? It looks to me like Durant is using the light cover of “immodest” to sweep under the rug the real difficulties of understanding any one age in its complexity. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of working as an historian in simpler times before the “Age of Archives” (my term)?

4. I have long felt that our usual method of writing history in separate longitudinal sections — economic history, political history, religious history, the history of philosophy, the history of literature, the history of science, the history of music, the history of art — does injustice to the unity of human life; that history should be written collaterally as well as lineally, synthetically as well as analytically; and that the ideal historiography would seek to portray in each period the total complex of a nation’s culture, institutions, adventures and ways. But the accumulation of knowledge has divided history, like science, into a thousand isolated specialties, and prudent scholars have refrained from attempting any view of the whole — whether of the material or of the living past of our race.

Again, this begs the question: Why write the “big history” (see bottom of link) if you know in your heart that the broad sweep many times conveys falsity? I understand the rebellion against hyper-specialization and the longing for unity. I felt that keenly as a twenty-something trying to make sense of the breadth and complexity of history behind me. But how do we move that initial longing, probably felt by others, from broad sweeps as presented by Durant to more specialized, historical complexity driven by specific questions from the present. What of more mature considerations? Maybe the small doses given in the old chapbooks are the answer in an iPad/e-reader/Kindle age?

5. A history of civilization shares the presumptuousness of every philosophical enterprise: It offers the ridiculous spectacle of a fragment expounding the whole. Like philosophy, such a venture has no rational excuse and is at best but a brave stupidity, but let us hope that, like philosophy, it will always lure some rash spirits into its fatal depths.
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Here the Durants acknowledge the absurdity of writing, in relation to their particular enterprise (i.e. history), but resolve, in the words of Twain, “to string incongruities and absurdities together,” to—returning to the Durants’ wording—“lure some rash spirits” in the “fatal depths” of history and philosophy.

The difference here, of course, is that the Durants would not string their stories together in the “wandering” way proposed by Twain. They, in books like The Story of Philosophy, imposed some degree unity and purpose. That unity and purpose, however, only had to satisfy the common reader, not an academic specialist.

It is Twain’s other message, about “telling” versus “writing,” that gets us closer to the Durants. Though the Durants imposed unity, they were widely praised for their accessible re-telling of the past. The Story of Philosophy had been sold as multiple Haldeman-Julius blue books, and praised by John Dewey as “thoroughly scholarly, thoroughly useful, human and readable.” I see the irony here of one professor praising the work of a colleague readable (i.e. begs question of “readable to whom”?). Anyway, Dewey continued that “Dr. Durant has humanized rather than merely popularized the story of philosophy.”[3]

What Dewey probably meant was that the Durants’ popularity was directly related to their refusal to abide by the rules of specialization. By working for unity, they necessarily abandoned the special terminology and subtleties of detail that belonged to each historical era of philosophy. They “humanized” the story of philosophy by either not being historicists (not overloading the narrative with antiquarian detail) or being presentist in terms of talking historical philosophical knowledge in terms familiar to 1920s readers.

The question of specialization provides an opportunity to return to the Durants’ nemesis, Mortimer Adler. He shared their distaste for hyper-specialization. Indeed, this was his chief gripe about American modernity. Beyond the 1920s, this became both Adler’s largest departure from mid-century liberalism and his biggest attraction to the Thomistic synthesis of philosophy. Despite having a common foe, Adler was repulsed by the Durants’ psychological humanization of philosophy. Adler wanted philosophy to be a more accessible public endeavor, like the Durants, but he despised the false sensibility he saw the Durants as peddling.[4] Fraternal disagreements are often the worst.

The desire to create readable texts about philosophy, whether in terms of intellectual history or philosophy, was shared by the Durants and Adler. Adler first accomplished a widely readable style in the 1940s with two books, How to Read a Book and How to Think About War and Peace. He perfected it with Aristotle for Everybody at the end of the Seventies. He used short sentences, wrote short books, avoided “scholarly apparatus” and colloquialisms, and gave compelling explanations of seemingly complex terms. He also related his topics freely to the present; a method more easily employed by philosophers than historians. But Adler only approached a Twainian conversational style in some of his less popular writings, such as a newspaper column from the 1950s—collected in paperback form under the title Great Ideas from the Great Books (Washington Square Press, 1961).

Adler’s chief complaint about the Durants’ readability goes to the latter’s choice of topics—namely, the “personality and temperament” of philosophers. Adler wanted to see the heavily lifting necessary to reducing philosophy’s complexity . Adler reflected:

Where [Durant] achieved sympathetic insight into a philosophical system it has been largely on the side of its vital motivations rather than in terms of its dialectical intent. …This doctrine commits the fallacy of genetic interpretation. It assumes that ideas are to be exhaustively understood and their validity estimated in terms of their origins; that philosophies are most significantly revealed as biographical items in a socio-politico-economic context. [5]

This quote raises a host of problems in terms of writing an intellectual history for the masses. It gets at why some intellectual historians today might be loathe to work from a biographical context. You wouldn’t want to get caught in subjective, unknowable web of psychological motivations. That leaves the philosophy unduly attached to the dead philosopher, rendering it less useful and relevant to today’s reader. The quote also presents a perennial problem: what is enough context? Adler exhibits a clear loathing for over-historicist, antiquarian interpretations of philosophical systems. Like Lovejovian-inspired historians of ideas, Adler wanted the ideas contextualized and less said about the people behind them. But this is precisely the job of the intellectual historian; it was the Durants’ job. A more mature Adler, who desired that philosophy be more respected and widely understood, would have griped not about the Durants’ style but their interpretive framework. But “both Adlers” desired that popularity not be sacrificed at the altar of historical fallacy.

With these problems in mind, can there be an intellectual history for the masses that is moderately honest to the field’s complexity, and context, but that also incorporates something of Twain, Durant, and Adler? Perhaps. Even if it’s a difficult task, I think it’s a question worth pondering deeply. We live in a time where our own politics and cultural life (entry #1) continue to exhibit strains of anti-intellectualism, anti-historicism, and a persistent resistance to philosophical complexity. In fighting those fronts, it’s probably not going to be enough to approximate Louis Menand’s style (a topic reflected on here and here).

Perhaps it is appropriate, now, to return to Delbanco’s reflections on Twain’s autobiography. Later in the review Delbanco relays something of Twain’s feelings about how history could be made popular—as well as the difficulties of doing so:

Twain knew that “history can carry on no successful competition with news”—in the sense that the past comes alive only if rendered with eyewitness immediacy. To do so was his great gift. “Dear me,” he interrupts himself during one dictating session, “the power of association to snatch mouldy dead memories out of their graves and make them walk!” [6]

Can intellectual historians make “mouldy dead” ideas walk? For my part, I’d be happy if my writing at least approximated the attraction of watching a baby crawl for the first time. Hence the constant reflections on how to make my work more attractive. – TL

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[1] Bolds and hyperlink mine. Here is the rest of the volume’s citation: Volume One (edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, and Leslie Diane Myrick, University of California Press).
[2] Who knew, by the way, that there is a Will Durant Foundation? Here’s the subtitled for the page: “The Center for the Advancement of the Writings and Teachings of Will and Ariel Durant.
[3] NYT, August 22, 1926.
[4] Mortimer J. Adler, Philosopher at Large (NY: Macmillan, 1977), 85-87.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Delbanco on Twain (see note 1 above).

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thank you!
    (I’m just a Swede who found this when searching for Durant and Adler and “similar” works and authors.)

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