[Updated: 2 pm CST]
I’m in the midst of a slow read—a relishing really—of George Cotkin’s Existential America. After having just passed the halfway mark (p. 170 of 284 total), it occurred to me that you, the USIH reader, critic, and thinker, might be up for discussion of a topic that has arisen from that reading. I want to explore something I inelegantly term “connector figures.” These are facilitators and peripheral participants in the various intellectual communities we cover in American history. Bear with me as I meditate out loud, with you, about these figures.
As I see them, connector figures fill the spaces between highly recognized, or dominant, individuals in intellectual history. They occupy the continuum in the social and cultural construction of knowledge. They operate on the fringes of nodes of discussion, or in the outer edges of communities of discourse. They dip in and out of important discourses to provide, or facilitate, discussion of a particular but lesser idea. They are the equivalent of a leaf or branch in the forest of trees of knowledge that we study. Most often we study trunks of various sizes among those trees—Dewey, James, Nietzsche, Emerson, Heidegger, and even the lowly Mortimer Adler.
These leaves, who are often left behind or barely covered in our stories, often end up as leavings in the mills of knowledge. They fill up the cutting room floor.
Historically, and sadly, these leavings are often women—used and abused as mere “helpmeets” in the little clubs, organizations, and circles that form our communities of discourse. They are the editors, organizers, and secretaries in our intellectual establishments. In the formal and informal cultural production of knowledge, they are the lovers, party-goers, and meal companions of “the intellectuals”—the elites and giants of our historiography. These “party functionaries,” if you will, are, I believe, an under-explored part of American intellectual history. In the marketplace of USIH knowledge, they represent a market inefficiency in terms of building cultural capital in the field. In other words, more graduate students should explore and play up the roles of these connector figures.
Several examples come to mind. Let me start by citing a few from my reading in Cotkin. In building his narrative on the existential underpinnings of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Cotkin uses the friends of both to obtain and facilitate insight into their intellectual lives. I particularly appreciated a passage about Wright’s friend Dorothy Norman (1905-1997). I hope George won’t mind if I simply reproduce the short relevant paragraph (bolds mine—photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, circa 1932, courtesy of Museum Syndiate):
In the 1940s Wright discovered in French existentialism some answers to the “secret of experience” and representations of the “guilt that he could never get rid of.” He first learned about existentialism through his friend Dorothy Norman. Norman, a wealthy patron of the arts and an important photographer, was intellectually lively and well connected. In 1938 she founded the journal Twice a Year, which she edited until 1948, publishing work by Kafka, Anaïs Nin, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, and many other writers. The journal also served as a forum for work by leading anti-fascist writers. Norman met Wright in 1944, and they quickly became friends. At her soirées he encountered important intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt and Paul Tillich. Through Norman, Wright came into contact with Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus (p. 168).
At the time of writing Existential America, published in 2003, the best information on Norman for Cotkin was her memoir, Encounters: A Memoir (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987).
Here we see all the traits of a connector figure, beginning symbolically with the title of her own account of herself. Norman was a woman, facilitator, party-goer, and even a patron (i.e. a person of some means). She also has some entry skill or trait. In this case it’s photography. With other it may be editing, or geography, or prior connections with smarter folks. With her “entry trait” she had the means to create encounters—to foster some degree of community, and even discourse.
Another important connector figure in Cotkin’s narrative is Hazel Barnes. Indeed, Barnes is so important to the popularization of existentialism in America that she receives substantial attention from Cotkin—eight full pages (pp. 151-158) in a chapter discussing the creation of an existential canon. Barnes is important enough that I have to qualify my connector figure category. Because I’m writing off-the-cuff, let’s divides our connectors into degrees of importance. Barnes is a “first degree connector,” while Norman occupies the second or third tier of facilitator figures.
Why? For starters, Barnes was no mere party-planner, patron, or amateur photographer (with apologies to photographers). Barnes was the first translator, into English, of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (pp.vii-xliii herein). She connected existentialism to American pragmatism, “championed” a prominent place for Beauvoir in the existentialism’s development, and wrote a popularization titled An Existentialist Ethics (1967) that revealed political commitments in existentialism—commitments that would empower New Left youth and radicals. So Barnes is no mere connector figure.
Yet, in building his argument for her important, Cotkin is only able to cite Barnes’s books, her memoir The Story I Tell Myself: A Venture in Existentialist Autobiography, and one intellectual history: Ann Fulton’s Apostles of Sartre. To be fair, Fulton mentions Barnes 33 times (23 in text and 10 http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifin the notes). And Barnes makes brief appearances in Howard Brick’s Age of Contradiction and even Bruce Kuklick’s A History of Philosophy in America. So in the past 15 years Barnes has been increasingly recognized as a pivotal figure in the development and popularization of post-war, French veins of existentialism in America. So Barnes is clearly a first degree facilitator.
To show that connector figures are not limited to women, in my work Clifton Fadiman functions as a first-degree facilitator. Fadiman published several books, and was a popular book critic and reviewer. Fadiman is covered in Janice Radway’s A Feeling For Books (North Carolina, 1997), Joan Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture (North Carolina, 1992), and other works. Nevertheless, he is always a helpmate to others, or just the member of a circle. He’s never the trunk of a tree, and never considered thoughtful in his own right.
But Fadiman pre-read a great deal of Mortimer Adler’s books. Fadiman was a fantastic editor, with a great sense for audience and the off-putting phrase. He was candid and pointed in his commentary. As a Britannica editor (a favored hire by Adler and William Benton), Fadiman wrote extensive letters on proposed projects and long commentaries on encyclopedia entries. He was a Britannica functionary, par excellance. Yet Fadiman is absent from most intellectual histories—or is de-emphasized like Barnes or Norman. Worse yet, he often gets the horrific appellation that kills further USIH conversation: pseudo-intellectual.
Now I turn to you: What lines do you draw between pseudo-intellectuals, facilitators, and connector intellectuals? What degree of importance (in my first-through-third construct) must be assigned in order to get a better treatment in your narratives? Where are the secretaries, administrative assistants, and party planners in your USIH accounts? Finally, what of race and ethnicity in these roles? That conversation was implicit in my sampling from Cotkin on Wright, Ellison, and Norman. But how does race function in relation to facilitation? How do you distinguish between the trunks of the trees in the forest of your narratives? Which leaves get attention, and which don’t?- TL