U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (5-26-2011)

[edited and updated, 9:30 am, CST]

1. Another Potential USIH Conference Panel Idea

This one is not for me, but on behalf of a colleague who’s curious about mutual interest. The topic is “narratology,” which is the general study of narratives in all their forms across varied disciplines and media. The topic could be summarized as: what does it mean to say that history is, or is made into, stories, by historians, whose work typically takes narrative form, or gives signals that it should be taken in that way, etc. There is interesting work being done on narratology in Europe under auspices of NarrNet, the European Narratology Network. See too The Living Handbook of Narratology, produced by the Center for Narratology, Univ of Hamburg.

If this seems attractive to you, e-mail me at timothy.n.lacy-at-gmail.com and I’ll forward your inquiry to my colleague.

2. A (Preliminary) History of the (Term) ‘Intellectual Proletariat’

Eli Thorkelson, who holds forth at Decasia, spent some time reflecting—via a quickie JSTOR search—on the history of the term ‘intellectual proletariat’ in a post titled “Early fragments on the intellectual precariate.” Check it out.

3. The Curious Case of the St. Louis Hegelians

File this under “intellectual history from unexpected places.” In this piece, Kerry Howley, “a provost’s visiting writer at the University of Iowa” (of all places), has composed a short article on the St. Louis Hegelians. That group, which founded the St. Louis Philosophical Society, are not a new topic in U.S. intellectual history. The St. Louis Hegelians included an important figure in the history of American education, William Torrey Harris. He was mentioned, briefly, by Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club. Harris received more extensive coverage by Lawrence Cremin in American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 (NY: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 157-166).

Below are the first two paragraphs (bolds mine). I love Howley’s opening line:

In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course, and Missouri, a border state, would not escape a gruesome guerrilla war. But a decade later, Brokmeyer and a friend named William Torrey Harris [right] convinced the elite of St. Louis that Hegel’s work was central to the recovery of their country, their city and their own lives. The Civil War, Brokmeyer said, was part of a dialectical process. In what turned out to be one of the oddest episodes in the history of American thought, a group of men known as the St. Louis Hegelians declared that the direction of history led to eastern Missouri.

Brokmeyer sold a warped Hegelianism just flattering enough to believe: History had a direction. That direction was west, from Europe to the United States. History would unfold in the direction of a world-historical city, culminating in a flowering of freedom under a rational state. While Hegel had assumed Europe to be the place to which all of history pointed — when he said “west,” he meant from Asia to Europe — Brokmeyer said history would keep on rolling across the Atlantic, toward the biggest American city west of the Mississippi: St. Louis.

4. Harold Bloom and the History of Literary Criticism in the United States

Harold Bloom has written a new, partial intellectual autobiography titled The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, 2011). Sam Tanenhaus offered an extended review and reflection on Bloom in the NYT last weekend. Being a lover of literature, literary criticism, and the history of literature, as well as a student of “the canon” (or “great books idea,” if you will) and its proponents, I read the review review with great interest. Here are a few passages (bolds mine):

Influence has long been Bloom’s abiding preoccupation, and the one that established him, in the 1970s, as a radical, even disruptive presence amid the groves of academe. This may surprise some who think of Bloom primarily as a stalwart of the Western canon, fending off the assaults of “the School of Resentment” and its “rabblement of lemmings,” or as a self-confessed Bardolator, swooning over “Hamlet” and “Lear.”

Not that Bloom abjures these subsequent selves. There is much canon fodder in this new book, along with re­affirmed vows of fidelity to Shakespeare, “the founder” not only of modern literature but also, in Bloom’s expansive view, of modern personhood and its “infinite self-consciousness.”

“For me, Shakespeare is God,” he declares at one point. …

[In “The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry” (1973)], Bloom’s primary insight was that contemporary literary study imputed a false benignity to the act of poetic invention, when in reality it grew out of competitive struggle, pitting young poets against their elders. This was not a new idea. Samuel Johnson, the originator of modern criticism, had observed that it is “always dangerous to be placed in a state of unavoidable comparison with excellence,” the pressure especially intense in the case of the aspirant who “succeeds a celebrated writer.”

Picking up this thread in his book “The Burden of the Past and the English Poet,” published in 1970, the Harvard scholar Walter Jackson Bate had wondered “whether we could find any more comprehensive way of taking up the whole of English poetry during the last three centuries — or for that matter the modern history of the arts in general — than by exploring the effects of this accumulating anxiety and the question it so directly presents to the poet or artist: What is there left to do?”

Revise, frenziedly, was the answer Bloom gave. Poets wrote new poems by rewriting old ones, not through calculated thefts of the kind Eliot owned up to, but unconsciously, through stealthy appropriation. “What is Poetic Influence anyway?” Bloom asked. “Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of ­allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers?” Thus did Bloom, almost 40 years before the advent of the “digital humanities,” envision with Nostradamus-like exactitude the morbid endgame of critical dissection.

In Bloom’s expanded “dithyramb,” influence seethed with conflict and tension. The “strong” modern poet waged a ­Nietzschean struggle against a chosen, or repressed, elder, coming into possession of anterior masterpieces through his own misreadings or “misprisions,” which were in fact “dialectical” reimaginings of the antecedent work. …

The critic’s role in all this was to map the secret genealogy, uncovering the true ancestor of the belated poet, difficult to do because strong poets ingeniously masked or concealed their actual influences. The critic, his antennae sharpened, was the poet’s secret sharer or, perhaps, his un­recruited psychoanalyst. “If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading.” This erased the barrier separating critic from poet. Each, an impassioned reader, annexed the functions of the other.


Happy reading! – TL