U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Friendship and the Intellectual

Over the past week or so, some of the most respected intellectual historians working today gave us wonderful  remembrances of Henry May and Eugene Genovese.  Through these brief portraits we get a sense of the significance of May and Genovese to their profession, their fields, and to the craft of writing.  We also heard about the way friendship played a role in making these academic stars truly great people.   May and Genovese were more, far more, than merely their published works.

Recently, I spent a day looking through the papers of Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, editor and founder of the journal First Things, and a important force in the Culture Wars of the 1990s.  My concern was for an earlier period, before the

founding of First Things, before the Culture Wars redefined Neuhaus and the people around him.  One of those people was Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who initially attracted attention as a young professor at the University of Notre Dame and a long-time friend of Neuhaus.  In the last two decades of Neuhaus’s life, he and Hauerwas battled over two different wars in the Persian Gulf as well as over an issue that first brought them together in the mid-1970s, the role of religion in ordering American society.

I sifted through the as-of-yet unorganized collection of Neuhaus’s personal papers (on this note, I must thank Randy Boyagoda for giving this collection some order), looking through the years in between Neuhaus’s transition from an actor in CALCAV to a religious writer gravely concerned about what he identified as a crisis of authority in the debate over the American promise.  In short, I looked at the period from the Hartford Appeal (published in 1976) and the founding of First Things in 1990.  During that period, folders of correspondence that appeared thickest and most numerous included those people we would suspect: George Weigel, Michael Novak, Peter Berger, and William F. Buckley–people who helped Neuhaus shape a new conservative position on American culture.  But Hauerwas was also there in dozens and dozens of letters, papers, conference presentations, and, of course, published work.

What struck me time and again about the exchanges, both published and unpublished, between Neuhaus and Hauerwas was the genuine affection they had for each other.  They were good, loving, caring friends.  I know this might not sound earthshaking to many of those who work on the relationships between intellectuals of earlier periods.  And clearly those portraits of May and Genovese I mentioned earlier were suffused with affection.   Clearly, it seems to me, the strong friendship between Neuhaus and Hauerwas made them better intellectuals.  Their grave disagreements in later years, primarily over war and the partisanship that infected their intellectual stands, I think has largely overshadowed the way their love for one another helped to form one another into the intellectuals they became to the rest of us.

Reading through such correspondence made me wonder what examples we have of such intellectual friendships today.  Although I am not an intellectual, my genuine affection for my colleagues at S-USIH–something that might come through occasionally in the posts I write–has helped us run the society and the conferences.  I have no doubt that my time with this group has made me a better historian.  I also like to think that such relationships have made me a happier and better person.*

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* While working on Neuhaus I have also had good fortune to get to know Rusty Reno, Neuhaus’s successor as editor, and David Mills, the executive editor.  And in a way that Neuhaus would undoubtedly have found right, Rusty invited me to dinner at he and his wife’s home, introducing me to David and generally offering friendship that is as crucial to understanding my subject as looking through boxes of correspondence.  

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a lovely reflection. Clearly, close personal friendships have given us some fantastically fruitful intellectual careers — and detailed records of personal intellectual growth. The affective component of intellectuals’ work, then, is a great thing to study.

    I wonder, though, how often intellectual work is stimulated the opposite way as well, i.e., by a lack of like-minded (or different-minded!) people to talk to. I’ve sometimes had the impression that intellectuals I’m reading were writing for audiences that they weren’t sure existed, at least in their own day.

    I suppose that raises the possibility that “communities of discourse” can be “imagined communities” in more than one way.

  2. Ray’s comments go toward the reason that David Hollinger’s theoretical construct, ‘communities of discourse’ (a construct also inspired by Bender and others) has resonated over the years. These communities are created by topics (books, issues, ideologies), but also personal connections that reverberate, often strangely, through American intellectual life. I won’t be able to attend this year’s conference, and thus haven’t memorized the program, but I hope that friendship and affection—a kind of history of emotions, if you will—will arise often. Those meetings of the mind motivated by non-philosophical causes are often much more important than those purposely trying to chase an idea. – TL

  3. As always, I thank the folks who take the time to comment on posts here; we are a community of scholars chiefly because we engage each other so consistently. After reading Ben’s latest post on various “masters” I was struck by how unlike a master Neuhaus and Hauerwas were/are. While they both had people who followed them closely–Hauerwas has trained many outstanding students–neither cultivated the sort of command that some one such as Strauss did. Neither could have, in one respect, because neither offered a totalizing ideology. But I also think neither wanted to have such a presence; they seemed to thrive off of collaboration and debate with peers.

    To address Jonathan’s point, I think the differences that Neuhaus and Hauerwas encountered earlier in the career–especially between each other and with Alasdair McIntyre–contributed mightily to their own intellectual growth. It is remarkable how often Neuhaus and Hauerwas called upon each other for talks, conferences, seminars and how they hooked up their colleagues for similar experiences. I know that this continues to happen but if you looked at just the public work of these two people you might think they just wrote against each other.

    On another note: I will very much miss seeing Tim Lacy at this year’s conference. Tim is one of those people who brought me into this group. I am grateful for his efforts and, especially, his continued friendship. It is because of Tim and the group that first gathered with him that people such as myself and L.D. Burnett have become colleagues. We all look forward to pushing this community of discourse in new and productive directions and Tim will continue to be integral to that effort.

  4. Like Tim, I am not able to attend the conference this year. I write about friendship a lot in my work–to the extent that I can recreate it. One of my favorite pairings (if you will) is Abram Harris (a black economist) and V. F. Calverton (white editor of the _Modern Quarterly_). I presented about this two years ago at the USIH conference, although much of what I presented can be found in Jonathan Scott Holloway’s book Confronting the Veil.

    Max Yergan’s dedication to Juliette Derricotte in a book about her life details her true sense of friendship–I just wish there were more letters to document this, since most of what I have is tributes to Derricotte upon her death, which can be emotionally heightened, although still true.

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