U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Henry May in His Times by Charles Capper

Henry May in His Times 
by Charles Capper 

In 1966 I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley for two reasons: the campus was ground zero for radical student politics and Henry May taught in its history department. The two were not such an odd coupling as they probably now seem. Henry had been a man of the left and a Communist fellow traveler since the 1930s. After World War II like many thirties intellectuals, former CP sympathizers anti-Stalinists alike, Henry was deeply influenced by the former Marxist and Neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose stance of chastened irony, which infected a whole generation of religious and secular intellectuals, also served as a template for Henry’s politics and academic career. The central theme in his first “breakout” book, The End of American Innocence (1959), was thoroughly steeped, if not so portentously expressed, in this ironic sensibility: how pre-World War I cultural radicals revolted against the easy optimism of their Victorian forefathers only to replicate it in an edgier but still “innocent” form. But the book also contained a second irony. Probably its best part was his section on the Victorians whose moral certainty, genteel culture, and progressivist uplift he had, like their radical parricides (and Niebuhr himself), formally deprecated. Indeed, the entire book deserves to be read not only as an unsurpassed history of “the revolt of the intellectuals” in these decades but also as an intellectual document of (in the words of his subtitle) his “own time.”

By the time I arrived at Berkeley, Henry had left the twentieth century far behind. Instead he was deeply engaged in what would become his next book,The Enlightenment in America (1976). This topic too, though, was an extension of his 1950s Niebuhrian preoccupations but now pushed backward into the eighteenth century. The organization of the book largely replicated the same sort of taxonomical structure he had used in his End of American Innocence, although with a much longer chronology. For some readers his four Enlightenments—Moderate, Skeptical, Revolutionary, and Didactic—may seem a little over-defined, but they effectively mapped his large terrain while he regularly opened sluices to allow crosscurrents to flow through his categories’ walls. The Enlightenment in Americawas also, like his previous book, a timely one on a couple of levels. In scholarship, it served as a powerful riposte to all three of the dominant interpretations of this long historical moment—Peter Gay’s made-in-Europe-practiced-in-America Enlightenment, the almost exclusively secular republican synthesis of John Pocock and Bernard Bailyn, and Alan Heimert’s overdrawn identification of Enlightenment liberalism and revivalist Calvinism with political conservatism and radicalism respectively. For May, on the contrary, the defining characteristic of the American Enlightenment was its oppositional but symbiotic rivalry with Reformed Protestantism, which he implicitly offered as a master pattern for American history as a whole. Yet even here his longtime fascination with the tensions of religion and secularism and intellectual mindsets and disillusioned idealism remained very much in play. Indeed, these themes played against the even more timely backdrop of student radical turbulence at UC Berkeley (toward which May characteristically was deeply ambivalent). I vividly recall the response of May, earlier a strong supporter of the Free Speech Movement, to a student leader of a university strike, standing up in a lecture class on Jonathan Edwards and demanding that it be canceled because what was important was the napalming of peasants in Vietnam: “Wrong—what is important at thishour in this room is Edwards!” He did cancel his graduate seminar during a strike for a Black Studies department when news reached us that a bullet was fired by someone through the card catalogue in Doe Memorial Library.)

Having come to Berkeley to study the twentieth century, I myself, however, was unprepared to follow Henry’s chronological leap into the eighteenth. So after absorbing a good deal of the American Enlightenment in his seminars, in perhaps a perversely Oedipal revolt of my own, I decided to write on the only period in American intellectual history he had notwritten a book on—the antebellum era. Henry was not a great fan of that period in American history, which I of course knew and which he would make clear in his later essay “After the Enlightenment.” There with doubly dark irony, he in my opinion a little hastily insisted that very little of the Age of Reason had survived in the Age of Democracy and Romanticism. To be sure, he honored the American Renaissance’s great literary products, but as he remarked, the period’s heated perfectionist spirit—very much like the that of the 1960s, he once told me—made him thankful the Moderate Enlightenment’s great product, the American Constitution, remained as a bulwark against a radical antinomianism that he thought was more deeply ingrained in American culture than intellectuals and intellectual historians cared to admit. It was very different with me: how could it not be for someone coming of intellectual age in the most antinomian-minded time in America since the antebellum period. In fact, I myself was soon beset by my own ambivalences about radical intellectuals and American democracy that I soon had to come to terms with. But that’s another story.

As a scholar, Henry’s influence on me and others of his students was of course historiographic in the widest sense. First, even before I got to Berkeley, I knew of him as the virtual founder of the field of American intellectual history within the historical discipline. Almost all work that we would today identify by this label had been done since the time of Vernon Parrington (as is still the case on the Continent) in nonhistory departments, especially, in the U.S., as with Parrington, in literature studies. Besides Ralph Gabriel, the major exception was Merle Curti. But Henry deliberately defined the field against Curti’s hybrid “social intellectual history.” Almost as much as the Harvard English department’s intellectual historian Perry Miller, Henry regarded Curti’s approach as insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of texts and the peculiar roles, sensibilities, and practices of intellectuals or “second-order” thinkers. At the same time, more than most of his later highly “contextualist”-minded students and successors, Henry regarded what he called the “general ideas” of a culture as important constructing an intellectual history as fine-grained analyses of thinkers’ individual works. To be sure, he was no stereotypical Lovejoyan history-of-ideas man (although he did respect Lovejoy’s emphasis on the interdisciplinarity of intellectual history). Indeed, in The End of American Innocence, Henry sometimes sounded almost martial in his metaphors (“insurgents” who “placed dynamite in cracks in the wall”), which he once conceded probably reflected his eagerness to make intellectual history seem, especially to political historians, every bit as tough-minded as histories of wars and elections. Certainly his capacious inclusion of texts, publishers, and periodicals in his books would be recognizable to many cultural historians today even if they couldn’t appreciate his persistent focus on “ideas” and intellectuals.

Finally, no tribute to Henry would be adequate that didn’t take into account his writing. He once told me, speaking of another major American intellectual historian a little younger than he, that his colleague cared too much what other historians thought. I don’t think this somewhat uncharacteristically invidious aside reflected so much his detachment from academic historiography. After all he wrote two collections of mostly historiographic essays, which included his ground-breaking “Recovery of American Religious History” (1964), which legitimized and inspired, along with US intellectual history, a second historical subfield. Rather, I took this remark to reflect his sense of himself as a certain kind of literary intellectual—a sort of hybrid of the “outsider” radical class of pre-World War II America and an older type of ethically conscious Victorian man of letters. It’s always seemed to me that his subtle injection of these two identities into his historical scholarship has given his histories something of their peculiar literary power. I should add that his concern, if not obsession, with good writing in history also made him a terrific and, in my case, lifelong editor. Into his nineties, he not only read my second Margaret Fuller volume line-by-line but asked for more to red-pencil even as my manuscript grew to gigantesque proportions (a tendency he rightly admonished me to rein in). Not surprisingly, he was most alert to any lapse into the prose style of the Romantics I wrote about whom he only slowly began to appreciate. With sturdy structures, minimalist syntax, concrete diction, and a subtlety that belies the sweeping force of his narratives, Henry’s writing may be his greatest gift to another generation of historians. It may also be, at least in part, what he would have liked to have been remembered for.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Charlie’s perspicacious appreciation gets exactly the Henry May that I knew for 48 years. I want to underscore Charlie’s point about Henry’s self-conception as a writer. This was very important to him, and he sometimes voiced frustration that even those who valued his writings did not value them in quite the same way he did, as works of literary art. In this respect, he was deeply affected by his close friend Henry Nash Smith, to whom INNOCENCE was dedicated. This writerly self-conception is manifest in a little noticed book that I want to call to the attention of readings of this blog, COMING TO TERMS, Henry’s autobiography, published in 1987. Finally, I want to add that Henry was so deeply committed to his role as a doctoral mentor that when the social history trend in the late 1970s made it very difficult for him to place his doctoral students in jobs, he took early retirement, at the age of 65, simply because– he said this to me several times– he simply could not face the prospect of training more doctoral students whom his colleagues in the American history profession would then refuse to hire.

  2. Thanks to Professors Capper and Hollinger for their biographical points and memories of Henry May. I especially appreciate Hollinger’s reminder about *Coming to Terms*. I’m seeking to acquire that as I write this note. I also appreciate points from both about May’s self-conception as a writer as I grapple (still) with what kind of style I want to employ in making intellectual history attractive to new audiences. No issue has vexed me more over the past few years while writing both for this blog and my colleagues. That issue aside, I appreciate these reflections on the place of May in our field. – TL

  3. “Almost as much as the Harvard English department’s intellectual historian Perry Miller, Henry regarded Curti’s approach as insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of texts and the peculiar roles, sensibilities, and practices of intellectuals or “second-order” thinkers. At the same time, more than most of his later highly “contextualist”-minded students and successors, Henry regarded what he called the “general ideas” of a culture as important constructing an intellectual history as fine-grained analyses of thinkers’ individual works.”

    A beautiful explanation of the very best sort of intellectual history

  4. Charlie, what a great tribute, and a great service to show May’s history in his histories. Your description of his writing style is perfect; my question is whether today’s extensive readers will be able to slow down enough to notice it.

  5. As a May student myself (perhaps one of those whose discouragement led to his decision to retire), I deeply appreciate Charles Capper’s masterly overview of his career and significance, and also David Hollinger’s comment – particularly his mention of Henry Nash Smith.

    It seems to me that one important factor distinguishing May from many of his leading contemporaries was his resistance to applying ready-made sociological concepts to historical writing [insert references to appropriate SSRC bulletins here]. This, I think, had a good deal to do with his view (crystallized as he produced his dissertation/first book)that these concepts did not contribute to an understanding of religion.

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