A few weeks ago, this blog published Jim Livingston’s savage critique of Paul Murphy’s new book. The critique was part of a roundtable organized by Tim Lacy, our outgoing book review editor. I am our current book review editor. When I read Livingston’s piece, I thought, What the hell have I gotten myself into?
I wasn’t just wondering about the book review editing gig, or doubting the wisdom of the blogging gig (from which I was taking a working break). What I really had in mind was the entire field and practice of U.S. intellectual history.
That review scared me to death. It was a hit job; I mean, it was a frickin’ crime scene. I was stunned, shocked into silence — sure that I had witnessed something awful and wrong, but afraid to say a thing about it publicly. I did write Jim Livingston privately about it, but I didn’t say a thing on this blog.
Nobody did. The whole day that review just sat there, drawing traffic like crazy, and generating who knows what back-channel conversations — but eliciting not a single remark from any of us, all day long. Then at three in the morning on the day after the essay went up, a blog commenter I hadn’t seen in this space before remarked (in a way) on our collective spectatorial silence, but said nothing about the spectacle itself: a senior historian practically eviscerating a junior scholar.
Finally, the day after the review went up, Dan Wickberg took Livingston on. I saw Wickberg’s name in the sidebar, and I thought, “Thank God; we’re off the hook. The Cavalry has arrived.” If anybody exemplifies both intellectual rigor and professional comity, it is Dan Wickberg. If anybody were to speak with unquestionable authority and unwavering collegiality, I knew that Dan would be the one to do it.
Then I came to the closing lines of his comment:
“Instead of farting in the museum, give us a careful and considered argument. We’re all adults here; I think we can handle it.”
I could not believe my eyes. Farting in the museum? Dan Wickberg wrote this?
What the hell!
But of course, when I re-read the whole comment, it made perfect sense, and I could see exactly what Wickberg was trying to do. He was basically asserting that Livingston’s critique amounted to a bit of adolescent behavior meant to shock the priggish, stuffy, dusty old traditional profession of intellectual history. By starting his comment with an offhanded “oh, hell,” and ending it with a nonchalant reference to “farting in the museum” (something, alas, I will never be able to un-read), Wickberg was attempting to demonstrate that if Livingston’s “screed” is falling on deaf ears, it’s not because historians are scandalized by his potty-mouthed language. It’s because he’s not making a convincing argument.
But if you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, I guess you don’t bring a fart to a shit-slinging contest. Livingston’s reply to Wickberg’s charge of “farting in the museum” was an affectionate and admiring “fuck you.”
“What the hell,” I thought. “He did NOT just say that.”
It’s not that I was scandalized or even surprised by Livingston’s reply. (It’s not that I wasn’t ever so slightly amused by it, either.) Instead, I was disappointed. I wanted to hear the argument that Dan had invited him to make.
So I wrote Jim and told him that he blew it; he missed an opportunity to make his case to someone who represents the profession in a way that is open to critique and willing to take Livingston’s ideas seriously.
“You have to admit,” I wrote, “he rolled out the red carpet for you to deliver a damning indictment of the whole discipline. A scathing Jeremiad. But you have too much of the Prophet Ezekiel about you today. But whenever you’re ready to write a guest post, let me know.”
I am very pleased to say that Jim Livingston took me up on my offer. He has written a thoughtful essay that is predictably provocative, but perhaps profitably so as well.
It’s not a scathing jeremiad, nor is it the cryptic musing of a prophet too easily mistaken for a madman. In this essay, which will be published here on the blog on Thursday, Livingston revisits and to a certain extent revises his earlier critique of Paul Murphy’s book. He does so as part of an insightful meditation on the practice and purpose of doing history. Indeed, to call this piece a “historiographic essay” doesn’t quite do it justice. Such a description gets at the genre but not the gist, the type but not the tone. Livingston’s essay is historiographical, and then some — it is an inescapably elegiac homage to the historical profession, a profession that must not be content with writing elegies.