U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Round Table on Murphy’s The New Era: Final Entry–Murphy Replies

 By Paul Murphy
When anyone begins a review of your book by suggesting it is “likable and usable,” you had better start worrying, and if the reviewer isJames Livingston, start sweating.  It did not take for the other shoe to drop, although the shoe drops from a very peculiar direction.  Livingston emits a heartfelt cri de coeur.  The book may be “good, even brilliant,” but it remains merely a work of history, an attempt to “reproduce” the past, which is, in Livingston’s eyes, an obsolete and now meaningless preoccupation.  “This shit doesn’t matter anymore!”—truly a bracing line to encounter near the end of a book review.  I am indebted to all of the participants in this USIH roundtable on my book.  It is good to have Livingston as a reviewer; he is a corrective to the positive reviews by Lynn Dumenil and Kristoffer Shieldshttp://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/06/round-table-on-murphys-new-era-entry-2.html, whom I am sure are overly generous.  They praise the book as a clear and straightforward account of American intellectual and cultural life in the 1920s, precisely the qualities Livingston finds so hopeless.  He raises the question, “What is the point of this book?,” which is a good one.  The book is a text for students priced at$80.00.  Not for the casual buyer, to say the least.  It does seem wrong to force such a traditional work of History on students if, as Livingston would have it, our goal should be to “get over it.”  So what?  Who cares?  Exactly.  It is a question I often asked myself.
Livingston finds the book merely descriptive; it does not explain anything and imports the present concerns of the author into its description of past actors.  The book has no answers to the reviewer’s questions about the 1920s.  It contains, he notes with exasperation, “just fair and balanced reporting” (in the Fox News sense of “fair and balanced,” I presume):  “How is that even possible unless the author aspires to be the writer of a textbook, or unless he assumes that the distance between the college boys and the proles—sorry, the gap between intellectuals and the masses—can’t be crossed?”   (I am not sure what is impossible—that students would be able to decide for themselves whether the Harlem Renaissance was a failure or success?)  Livingston’s comment recalled for me a recent review-essay of three new books on late twentieth-century American cultural and intellectual life by Neil Jumonville, including Livingston’s new book (The World Turned Inside Out:  American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century, a more dazzling exercise in cultural analysis by far) as well as Colin Harrison’s American Culture in the 1990s and Daniel T. Rodgers’s Age of Fracture. [1]  Jumonville classifies Harrison and Livingston’s books as “textbooks” and Rodgers’s as a “regular work of history.”  Later in the review, he allows that Livingston’s book is “too spirited to be kept inside the usual flat narrative corral that most textbooks inhabit.  The reader will find the story bucking its way over the fence before long and into the spot on the bookshelf where the regular books reside” (156).  Well, Livingston does buck a lot, so perhaps this is fair.  I suspect, however, that Livingston is unhappy to have been promoted by Jumonville to the status of a “regular.”

As it is, I am happy to be classed among the Irregulars.  I’ll stick in my corral; put me on the shelf with the other sad-sack textbook writers, near the floor and behind the waste basket.  I am reminded of another review:  I have a friend who paged through my book and merrily declared (approvingly I guess) that the book didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know.  I have been hardened by years of teaching, and so I took it as a compliment.  The book is a textbook; it does purport to report some of the highlights of American intellectual and cultural life in the 1920s in a way useful for undergraduate and graduate students and maybe for the professor looking to compose a lecture.  If it provides an “imaginative framework for understanding the intellectual life of the 1920s,” as Dumenil suggests, or suggests perspectives that are “illuminating and thought-provoking,” as Shields declares, I’ll take the compliments, for I hoped it might do so.  It excludes too much.  Shields is right to highlight my failure to discuss Legal Realism in the 1920s.  That, and an almost complete omission of the economic thought of the time, are glaring and embarrassing omissions, driven, in part, by the dictates of space.  As Shields notes, my chosen framework—the self-discovery and self-definition of intellectuals as a distinctive class who were defined not only by their well-known alienation from their country but also by a relentless effort to use culture to move the nation closer to their ideals—may well encompass the Legal Realists in any case.  Dumenil quite fairly suggests that parts of the book do not always hang together; there are distinct chapters, about mass culture, for example, that lack the “connective tissue” needed to meld them into the larger argument about the gap-consciousness of the “strange new 20th-century stratum of purposefully superfluous individuals” (Livingston’s wonderful description of intellectuals).  The 1920s were vast—the task of fashioning a history of the period’s cultural and intellectual life, of selecting and ordering data, was challenging. One colleague suggested to me that I could use Peter Gay’s essay, Weimar Culture:  The Outsider as Insider (1968) as a model (a daunting one to be sure), but I opted for impurity, combining elements of an interpretative essay with the framework of a comprehensive text.  The results are sometimes ungainly and choppy.
Livingston presents several provocative critiques of the work.  My definition of modernism is flawed because it presumes the intellectuals’ self-created categories of “intellectuals” and “masses” to be historically valid, when they were not.  Social classes were new at this time, he argues.  This may be so, but it was the intellectuals’ self-conception that I wanted to report.  Can I explain why twentieth-century, self-defined modernists alighted on this particular framework?  Perhaps not.  But they explained it to themselves in terms of the onrushing force of industrialization and commercial culture.  (Yes, the Southern Agrarians were haunted by the same demons as the cosmopolitan New York Intellectuals, and this is why they converged in the 1940s and 1950s, if not earlier.  Malcolm Cowley was best friends with Allen Tate and his crew and wrote parts of Exile’s Return in Tennessee.  They were all conservatives, just as they were all radicals.  The New Yorkers were Marxists; the southerners antimodernists.)  Livingston highlights technology, which I supposedly make a deus ex machine, in another example of my slipshod journalism.  Yet, I (and they, I think) focused on industrialization:  The modernist critics of the 1920s knew they were being industrialized, meaning efficient production was becoming the watchword and, yes, humanistic values risked replacement by imperatives to profit, standardization, and the rest.  Livingston has me presenting Mumford and his generation of critics as anti-technological, which they were not, he argues.  This may be the case, but my point was that they were distressed by the larger socioeconomic and cultural process of industrialization.  Likewise, Livingston presents the Harlem Renaissance as a great success because black intellectuals embraced mass culture.  True—of some, at least.  There were a lot of fights about this.  Yet, as George Hutchinson points out, the Renaissance intellectuals were embedded in the broader white critical discourse of their time.  They had time for Brooks, Mencken, and all the other Young Intellectuals, and the hybridized Renaissance was a result of this collaboration (a cultural movement “in black and white”).
The focus on technology is a bit of a red herring. Livingston wants to find me obsolete, along with all of my pedantic, Irregular colleagues who write textbooks and not the “regular” books that should be attended to in our profession.  I give space to an irrelevant species of critic who, in Livingston’s view, failed because not embracing the “possibilities of modern technology,” as the successful leaders of the Harlem Renaissance did (even though, in fact, the Renaissance writers wrote poems and books and critical essays published in our soon-to-be obsolete codex form as well as the little magazines).
There are, I think, some presentist anxieties coursing through Livingston’s review, which are absent from Dumenil and Shields.  Shields writes, “Our hope as historians is that by better understanding these gaps [the divisions caused by gender, region, race, etc.] and the intellectual and artistic responses to them, we can gain access to a better understanding of the cultural conflicts and evolutions of the decade.  This may in turn help us better understand the social and political clashes of the 20th century.”  Livingston writes:  “Isn’t it clear by now that finely wrought books like Paul Murphy’s are monuments to a comically Nietzschean will to believe—mere vestiges of the urge to make sense in the Present and of the Future by citation of the Past?”  They must have interesting seminars in the Rutgers University History Department!
I appreciate Shields’s suggestion of an alternate path into mid-twentieth-century modernism—and perhaps one that works better than my gap-consciousness—in the liberal modernists’ desperate focus on authenticity as the hoped-for basis of a renewed authority they knew they lacked but wanted to regain.  This is a good idea, and as I re-read portions of the book, references to authenticity began to jump out at me.
I fear that Livingston finds himself in the same boat.  After all, is he not he urging us to “get real” and quit being self-infatuated professors who simply tell students what happened in the past, as if that was relevant?  I think he may be in the gap.  He frets that the academic professor is irrelevant and, really beside the point.  There is more than a little Santayana here.  The gap between the intellectuals and the masses (“masses” is perhaps a poor term for all the rest of the people out there, existing nebulously in the intellectuals’ imagination of their audience), still exists, and Livingston yearns to bridge it.  His tone is postmodernist, but the anxieties seem much the same as those held by the 1920s generation of modernists and their mid-century epigones.  Academia became a redoubt for intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s and remained so for a period of time, even for those employed in the emerging multiversities of the 1960s. As Livingston believes, the left seized the “commanding heights of higher education.” [2]  Now that is changing:  Industrialization is hitting the K-12 profession very hard now, as the forces of privatization grow more powerful and public commitment to funding education falters.  The rising waters are lapping at the shores of Academia.  We are about to be industrialized.  I agree with Shields.  As we fight the creative destruction wrought by “massive open online courses” and the like (Ted Babbitt, it should be noted, son of George F., was, like David Brooks and many others featured in the New York Times a fan of “home-study courses,” promulgated in his case by the Shortcut Educational Publishing Co. of Sandpit, Iowa [3]), it will repay us to “mind the gap.”
Livingston challenges me on the claim that, after 1920, “culture became the essential terrain of social and political action.” [4]  I made the same statement in a conference paper, and I remember Andrew Hartman asking me the connection between such a claim and the late twentieth-century phenomenon of the “culture wars,” which he is studying.  Livingston wants an explanation as to why this was the case.  Intellectuals at this time, Livingston argues, were not for or against things; the past is not a “sporting event.”  Yet, there were fights in the 1920s, big ones.  Many were “against” the New Humanists, the conservatives of the day.  To liberal modernists, the Humanists represented a profound threat to their own critical project, which was to wield culture as a tool against industrialization in all its manifestations.  Humanists wanted to control culture, too, but represented values the modernists bitterly opposed.  Why did the modernists of that era worry these issues?  Culture seemed the best tool they had to change society.
If I could change one thing in the book now, it would be to clarify this point.  In the book, I spend much time reporting on the emerging anthropological notion of culture. [5]  The liberal modernists to whom I devote so much attention seem implicated in this new view.  I think this is an erroneous assumption.  One delight in reading Warren Susman’s work on the 1920s and 1930s is his profound and complex focus on the obsessions of this generation of intellectuals with culture, with communications technology, and with their relationship to both.  We all should re-read Susman. [6]  He had a better understanding of intellectuals’ conception of culture in the 1920s and 1930s (and it was his own, too, I think).  Since the 1960s, we have conceived culture as a source of empowerment, a resource available to the oppressed to resist the authority of the elite (and the source of that elite’s subtle hegemonic powers).  Culture is that which must be respected, for it validates personal identity—a complex system of symbols patterning behavior that somehow allows for personal agency by the mechanism of choice among its multifarious elements.  To mid-century modernist intellectuals, culture was a tool of a different sort, not merely a surrogate for contested moral values nor the anthropologists’ patterning of ideas and behaviors that define a society.  You did culture when you used ideas and images and symbols (images and symbols and myths were favorite words of academics of Susman’s generation and the social critics they studied) as levers to move the country in a different direction.  Culture was something intellectuals and artists used, and, in order to believe it effective, they had to assume that everyone was potentially under its influence.  There was a (potential) national mind, or “frame of reference”; better, the aim of intellectuals was precisely to create and impose such a thing.
We no longer think this way.  The “culture wars” of our times have been about the repudiation of such notions of homogeneity in the name of diversity and pluralism.  Perhaps there is a solution to Livingston’s dilemma in Susman’s analysis, however.  (Susman seems to me as much a hero of my book as Lewis Mumford.)  To Susman, writing history was doing culture.  History is part of culture, and historians inevitably create new forms of culture as they create their histories; history as culture and culture as history. [7]  As Susman famously noted, Walt Disney was as influential a force in history as FDR; the director of movie westerns, John Ford, was probably the most influential historian in the country. [8]  They certainly had wider platforms than a textbook, but Susman was not one to dismiss the cultural significance of any text, even the Irregular ones consigned to the bottom shelf.  Textbooks, given that we force our students to read them, may even be more influential than many others…and more revealing.
[1] Neil Jumonville, “Learn This Forward but Understand It Backward,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 73:1 (Jan. 2012), 146-62.  The books under review are Colin Harrison, American Culture in the 1990s (Edinburgh University Press, 2010); James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out:  American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010); and Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture  (Harvard University Press, 2011).
[2] Livingston, World Turned Inside Out, xv.
[3] Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt(1922; reprint, Bantam, 1998), 79-80.
[4] Paul V. Murphy, The New Era:  American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 10.
[5] This is a topic that has since received exhaustive analysis in John S. Gilkeson, Anthropologists and the Rediscovery of America, 1886-1965 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
[6] Warren I. Susman, Culture as History:  The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York:  Pantheon, 1984).
[7] See Susman, Culture as History, xii-xiii, 3, 17-18, 185.
[8] Susman, Culture as History, 103, 197; Warren I. Susman, “Film and History:  Artifact and Experience,” Film & History, 15:2 (May 1985), 31.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the roundtable, everyone, and for Paul for his thoughtful, calculated, and humble response. Now I think that my inner Nietzschean shall will myself to wander over to the library, check this book out, and learn some new things about 1920s America. Then I shall enjoy the (possibly useless) knowledge I have gained, ponder its meaning for my sad little 21st century soul, and then try to convey a little bit of it to my students. I hope that’s ok.

  2. [Hello Paul, this is a former visitor colleague of yours who wishes to keep his online identity secret. I’ll give you some clues: I am a tall, red haired Germanist who went to Texas after my stint at GVSU.]

    As I have just admitted, I am by no means an Americanist, or an intellectual historian at that. However, I would say that teaching as a junior scholar at non-R1 state universities meant that I was often asked to teach subjects that were well outside of my knowledge wheelhouse. Textbooks like this saved me on multiple occasions , and I felt that those who wrote them ought to be given some kind of badge of honor from the profession for the help they provide to others. I also agree with the statement you made at the end about the influence that textbooks can have, even in our increasingly digital age.

    You are right that industrialization is hitting K-12 education and academia hard; that’s part of the reason I got out and now teach at a progressive private high school that frowns on testing and promotes creativity. I feel that this industrialization has been abetted by those (such as in the recent turmoil at UVA) who want to stay ahead of these changes via “strategic dynamism,” even when there is no call for it, as well as those who are too complacent or protected to fight back. I think you have offered some good food for thought on the current crisis in this essay.

  3. This seems to me to be a very able and adequate response to Livingston’s critique…except for this line:

    They must have interesting seminars in the Rutgers University History Department!


  4. Herzog’s Bear, It is a delight to hear from you and good to know you have found refuge from the distressing dynamics of non-R1 higher education at a suitable private high school. Your comments are appreciated. At my non-R1 school, we are going to start teaching collaborative learning in some of our upper-level General Education offerings — that is, teach our students how to collaborate (work in groups, etc.) as one of the primary learning objectives, so as meet the perceived needs of the marketplace. I shall have to consult some of the interesting college coaching manuals that Brian mentions in his very interesting post on athletics and intellectual history — perhaps they will help me figure out how to meet this particular learning goal.

    I appreciate Dan Wickberg’s perspective on academic decorum (from a comment earlier in the forum), however I also take Jim Livingston’s review of my book in the spirit intended, as a friendly provocation and a needling reminder to us all in higher education to be attentive to what we are about and what we might achieve.

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