In 1992, in a review article published in the AHR, Michael Kazin wrote,
Historians, like most people, are reluctant to sympathize with people whose political opinions they detest. Overwhelmingly cosmopolitan in their cultural tastes and liberal or radical in their politics, scholars of modern America have largely eschewed research projects about past movements that seem to them either bastions of a crumbling status quo or the domain of puritanical, pathological yahoos.*
If Kazin was one of those reluctant historians, he got over it, at least temporarily. As I have said before on this blog, his biography of William Jennings Bryan is a model of the judicious sympathy that informs the best historical writing, a case study of a historian’s earnest endeavor to render a just characterization, not a caricature. Such sympathy includes — or perhaps begins with — the basic assumption that people are rational, and that their own beliefs make sense to them. The job of the intellectual historian, then, is to make sense of those beliefs. And the more alien those beliefs are to the historian’s own thinking, the harder he or she must endeavor to recover and somehow reconstitute the rationale of subjects that one otherwise might be inclined to write off as retrograde or reactionary or reprehensible or just plain ridiculous.
Thomas Haskell identifies this labor of the historian as a work of asceticism. In the title essay of Objectivity is Not Neutrality, Haskell writes
The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers….Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human beings, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming….Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.**
Before such a vision of the historian’s vocation, what does one say?
How about, “Oh, [crap].”
Seriously. If anybody had warned me that becoming a good historian would be an exercise in asceticism, of all the outrageous things, I might have made a different choice.
But nobody warns you. Nobody tells you beforehand, “Oh, by the way, if you want to do this work right, you’re going to have to become a much more generous-minded person, someone who is far more patient and far more forgiving of others’ flaws and failures of vision, than you are right now.”
Nobody explains ahead of time that becoming a good historian means you have to get past being irked by, say, Michael Kazin.
What’s so irksome about Michael Kazin?
Well, for one thing, by defining historians of modern America as cosmopolitan and liberal/radical, he leaves a lot of people out — including, on most days, me. I will never be able to pull off “cosmopolitan,” never mind “radical.” Now, I think Kazin’s prose was meant to be descriptive, not normative — though the description makes clear just what most academics assume the norm to be. And, as descriptions go, it’s probably fairly correct. There are good reasons that Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas ends with the chapter, “Why Do Professors All Think Alike?” Still, the kind of clubby talk Kazin starts with here makes all my hidden injuries of class flare up at once.*** Race, class and gender may be familiar and (deceptively) safe features of academic discourse, but class is the third rail in the academy itself. Indeed, Menand notes, in the academy, class “cuts across…political and social views.”**** Yet here I am, rubbing shoulders with the cosmopolitans and the radicals, and I haven’t quit yet. I want to belong. Indeed, in one sense Kazin and I are part of the same club. So should I complain if the club sometimes feels a little too clubby?
What I did complain about, quite stridently, was Kazin’s American Dreamers. I read it last fall, in preparation for the (canceled) S-USIH conference in New York. And I decided to kill birds with stones and write up a precis on it for my independent study.
I had no idea that I had any particularly strong opinions about the politics of the Vietnam War until I read Kazin’s account of the young dewey-eyed Radicals flocking to North Vietnam and making a hero out of Ho Chi Minh. All of the sudden it was like I was channeling my Cold-Warrior, war-veteran, flag-waving, Mid-Western, hardhat-wearing, hippie-hating grandparents. Talk about a wrinkle in time! I wrote and turned in a blistering precis — which my prof promptly told me to rewrite in more measured, mannerly prose, minus the slang and the salty language, and with perhaps just a little bit more attention to Kazin’s argument in its context.
Fair enough. But I’ve kept this much from the last paragraph:
I have changed my mind about things before, and I might change my mind about this. I might even WANT to change my mind about this. I don’t know — I’m not altogether clear yet on what is at stake. And while I’m figuring it out, my most belligerent polemic doesn’t need wide circulation. What I have to do is figure out how to think about the movement Kazin is describing here in a way that allows me some critical distance both from the movement and from my feelings about it. I guess writing a furious precis is a place to start.
Yes, it’s a place to start, though not a place to stay. And Kazin would probably understand that as well as anybody. He starts The Populist Persuasion with the statement, “I began to write this book as a way of making sense of a painful experience: the decline of the American Left, including its liberal component, and the rise of the Right.” So I suppose he saw himself in his description of the reluctant historian struggling to see his subjects as something other than “pathological yahoos.”
That’s what I call fighting the good fight.
*Michael Kazin, “The Grass-Roots Right: New Histories of U.S. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Feb, 1992): 136-155.
**Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 148-149.
***I am alluding to the book by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972). It’s a good read.
****Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 139.