U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Eran Shalev Responds to Varad Mehta

Eran Shalev is an associate professor of history at Haifa University, Israel. The following is a guest post by Shalev in response to Varah Mehta’s review of Rome Reborn.

An author, as we know, has little control over a book once it reaches its audience. But an author should, I believe, attempt to rectify a gross misreading of his work. For this reason I address two of Varad Mehta’s claims in his review of Rome Reborn on Western Shores.

Mehta attributes to me unusual claims to the extreme, namely that revolutionary Americans “thought not only that they could emulate Brutus, but that the ‘American Brutus’ would actually be the Brutus, resurrected 1,800 years later”; not less bizarre is the assertion that I imply that the numerous Americans who were using classical pseudonyms wished to hoax their readers into believing that they were reading texts about America written by actual classical Romans. “Even to suggest that,” Mehta writes, “is to make fools and dupes out of the Americans, who knew perfectly well that such a possibility was nonsense…it also makes Hamilton, Madison, and Jay [who wrote the Federalist as the Roman “Publius”] look like fools for believing they could trick their readers into believing it (177).”

Mehta is of course right. But nowhere do I make such an absurd insinuation. No scholar in his senses would. Indeed, in the end of the paragraph from which Mehta quotes I explicitly write: “The Federalist Papers were thus defined by the conspicuously false pretence of having been written by the founder of the Roman republic.” Defined by their conspicuously false Roman identity, not an attempt to fool the American public. Needless to say, nowhere do I suggest that Americans expected the “real” Brutus to reemerge. Or any similar outlandish ontological claim (although contemporaries did identify numerous American Brutuses, and especially American Catos, first and foremost among them George Washington). I am truly sorry that a reader could read my book and come out with such a mistaken understanding of my position. I will only say that none of the dozens of the critical readers (among them the most esteemed historians of early America of our generation) who read my work in its different iterations understood my argument in such a manner.

Further, nowhere in the book do I claim that the classics were, in the reviewer’s words, “the primary, let alone the only, inspirations for the revolutionary generation’s understanding of them.” Indeed, I consciously steered away from participating in such an unproductive contest or comparison of perceived importance; not only would such an unqualified claim about the classics be probably wrong, but such a mode of argumentation always struck me as an unproductive way to think about history. Hence, never would I, again in the reviewer’s words, assume that there were “no other ways of looking at the past…available to Americans in this period.” An academic book dedicated to the influence of the classics on Americans’ understanding of their newly created republic cannot, alas, focus on other political languages to prove its point. That does not mean however that the book claims that other modes of intellectual operation were unavailable to, or unimportant for, historical agents.

I disagree with other claims that the reviewer makes, but those are legitimate scholarly disagreements and I will not respond to them here. It is interesting however that he conclusively asserts that revolutionaries “called their achievement a novus ordo seclorum because that is what they believed it was. There is no reconciling that conviction with the notion that they were the second coming of Rome.” Here lies the heart of our differing understandings of the Revolution. My book’s contention is that such a rigid position as Mehta’s is seriously flawed: what is fascinating about the American Revolution is the deep tension contained in the simultaneous contemporary understandings of the newly created republic as a new order of the ages and in terms of a new Rome.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. [A Note to Readers and Eran Shalev from the Editor: Varad Mehta intends to address the concerns expressed in this rejoinder in a comment here, but is prevented by circumstances from doing so until next week. – TL]

  2. A critic of a book (or other work of art) must discharge two distinct but related duties: to render an account of the work in question that compresses it in a manner that is thorough and succinct yet does not distort or misapprehend its nature or its creator’s intentions; and to convey the reviewer’s impressions to his audience in such a way that he speaks for the author but in his own voice, thus allowing his readers to decide for themselves if they wish to make up their own minds about the merits of the work. Eran Shalev in his rejoinder to my review of Rome Reborn on Western Shores insinuates that in abdicating the one obligation I have been derelict in performing the other. From that perspective alone, I am obliged to respond; both “masters” require an answer. Whether I was not “in [my] senses” in reading his book, I leave to others to decide. I can only offer additional corroboration that I did read it.

    Professor Shalev levels two charges. One is that I imply that he thinks the classics were, as I put it, the revolutionaries’ “primary, let alone the only, inspirations for the revolutionary generation’s understanding” of time and history. “[N]owhere in the book do I claim” such a thing, he writes. Indeed he does not use such specific wording. I conceded that he uses a “tunnel history” approach, one in which the subject at hand is treated, to the exclusion of all others, as the only explanation for the phenomenon being studied. But at some point exclusion in practice becomes exclusion in principle, and it is not always clear which he is committing.

    Take, for example, the following passage from page 15. “It was republican Rome, not a Greek polis, that patriots envisioned while erecting their own republic on western shores. This is not to say that Greece did not hold a strong grip on revolutionary classical imagination. It certainly did. But Rome more than any other polity dominated revolutionary Americans’ historical reflection and, thus, the attempts to articulate their attitudes toward history and time.” Surely “more than any other” can be taken as synonymous with “primary.” There is no indication that Rome’s preponderance was merely “more than any other” classical polity. Given the weight attributed to the classics, Rome’s influence seems to surpass such a limited sphere as the most influential classical example. We are told, not to belabor the point, that classical discourse functioned “as a distinct mode of historical thought” in the Revolution (2), that “the Greek and Roman example gave the Americans the courage to rebel” (3), and that the classics exercised “an immense influence” on how Americans made sense of the Revolution (5). At some point, a reader might begin to think that the Revolution would have been impossible without the classical path to follow, especially since we are only on page 5, with 200 more to go. Such a point is debatable; but it must be argued for, not left for inference, justified or mistaken.

  3. He is right that immediately after a sentence I quote about the authors of the Federalist, he notes that their adoption of the identity of “Publius” was “conspicuously false” (177). And since he does not, I will multiply examples of such qualifications. He says that “the debates over ratification, were performed to a significant extent, by Americans posing as classical oracles” (153). He calls the pseudonyms “fictitious guises” (157). And he also posits that the use of classical pseudonyms was a kind of language game, a “conceptual frame . . . with implicit but clear rules of what may and may not be meaningfully said” which made coherent the use of the pseudonyms, and without which their use would have been unintelligible (165). So he does offer those reservations. But how dispositive are they? As I wrote in a marginal note to the passage from which “conspicuously false” comes from, the whole premise “makes no sense, for no one would have believed the real Publius had written them.” It’s only false if anyone could have believed it or could have been expected to believe it. Otherwise, it’s just a conceit. Were they trying to trick anyone? I doubt it. So why imply otherwise?

    Moreover, what Dr. Shalev giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the several others. Now I multiply examples on my behalf. Note, all come from chapter 5, the one on pseudonyms.

    “The classical pseudonyms used in the debate over the ratification of the federal Constitution demonstrate how time and history were conceived and represented as stages for modern performances of scenes that took place in a long-ago classical past” (152).

    “[T]he ventriloquized performances of the ancients provided an agency for the elaboration of colonial objections to metropolitan behaviors, the articulation of arguments over the shape of new republican regimes in the states, and the creation of a national government” (156).

    “By the end of the Revolution, classical pseudonyms were no longer a mere stylistic gesture but had emerged as a vehicle for the expression and working out of the American political imagination. […] In shaping their republic, writers chose ancient masks enabling them to convey their arguments through a more authentic and intimate performance, which reflected the ideological anxieties and aggressions that poured out of those tracts” (158).

    “The notion of America as a latter-day embodiment of a classical polity was not an empty cliché but, rather, a meaningful figurative mode employed by Americans at the turn of the eighteenth century” (165). NB: Dr. Shalev has already explained in an earlier chapter how Americans had a typological view of history in which they were fulfilling in the present the legacies of the past.

    “Pseudonymous texts functioned as metaphors explaining America in terms of antiquity and mediating between the American mind and the world” (166).

    “The extensive use of classical pseudonyms and the subsequent elaboration of a classical discourse through conscious fictions of historical reenactment thus reflect a peculiar understanding of the relation between the past and the present” (183).

    “Donning their borrowed togas, Americans could cope better with their anxieties, explain the volatilities of their republican world, and construct a coherent and meaningful narrative out of their daily experience” (185).

    “The numerous pseudonymous calls formed a great chorale of ancient voices that imagined the American republic repeating historical endeavors of classical glory and corruption. The linguistic universe in which such performances took place made the patriots of the past referees of the present, defining and redefining the relationships of the dead and the living” (187).

  4. On the one hand, therefore, pseudonyms were fictitious and part of a language game. But on the other hand, the past was the stage for the scenes of the present; classical pseudonyms helped Americans express and work out their political imagination, and allowed a more authentic performance of their arguments; pseudonyms mediated between American minds and the world; and, ultimately, they made heroes of the past referees of the present. Perhaps no one expected the real Brutus to come back, but according to Dr. Shalev, describing a code Alexander Hamilton used in which he referred to his colleagues by classical pseudonyms, “the ancients had seized America’s reins of power, at least in Hamilton’s mind” (160). Brutus had not come back, then, but Gaius Mucius Scaevola had in the form of George Washington. Except, according to Hamilton’s cipher, John Adams was Brutus, Dr. Shalev tells us. So he had come back after all.

    One begins to wonder, given all these “ventriloquized performances,” who was the ventriloquist and who was the dummy. It is certainly not difficult to infer based on all this that the Americans could not make sense of their experience without the classics, that they were so crucial that the Americans could not think without them. Which is it, then, fiction or reality? It’s no wonder I’m confused, since Professor Shalev himself offers contradictory testimony. As he writes: “By extending the classical simulacrum created by their choice of names, authors produced multilevel texts that, if taken out of context, could be read as genuinely ‘classical.’ One, indeed, must read contextually – and carefully – to distinguish between the American and classical signifiers” (164). One can only wish he’d followed his own excellent advice.

    I shall dispute the notion that my position is “rigid” and “seriously flawed,” but ultimately our discord is the result of conflicting views which stem, as Professor Shalev acknowledges, from “legitimate scholarly disagreements.” We have opposed views of the place of history in the Revolution. “When they created a federal system, the ancients were there to inspire them, even as American state makers seemed to break every rule of classical wisdom” (5). He thinks the first clause of this sentence is the salient one, while I hold the second to be. He emphasizes an orientation towards the past that was deep and persistent, while I believe that in the end the revolutionary generation was more interested in the future than it was the past, and that that is the proper approach to understanding the place of history in the revolutionary experience. We agree that history was important, often decisively so. We merely disagree about how.

    Whether my replies are convincing, I leave to others to decide. I can only say that I hope they will be found persuasive, and confirm that my original review was not a result of malice but an attempt to provide a fair and faithful appraisal of a book that, my strictures notwithstanding, attempts to treat seriously a serious subject.

  5. Varad, I almost missed your rejoinder here — more recent comments moved it out of the sidebar queue. It might be good if your comments could be consolidated and posted as a separate post, with links to the author’s response and to your original review. Maybe the blog gods of USIH could make it so?

    I mean, since I’m not getting my own writing done today, I might as well tell everybody else how to manage theirs. 🙂

  6. LD: In fairness to Varad, it was my editorial decision—as USIH Book Review editor—to have him post his rejoinder here. I wanted readers to read the conversation back-to-back. But I’ll add a pointer to recent/new readers in a separate post. – TL

Comments are closed.