U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Let’s Debate: Is Garry Wills An Intellectual Historian?

Garry Wills has been lurking in the back of my mind for about two weeks now. It started after reading a March 13 article in Prospect authored by Sam Tanenhaus. Titled “The American Mind,” it’s a biographical endeavor with a special eye towards Wills’ work on American political history. The latter angle is unsurprising given the direction of Tanenhaus’ own work over the past fifteen years.

Wills-and-booksEven before reading the Tanenhaus write up Garry Wills had been on my radar screen for quite some time. Wills has only been mentioned a few times here at the blog. But I discovered, early in my own research on the great books idea and Mortimer Adler, that Wills had reviewed, in 1970, what I believe to be a crucial work in the evolution of Adler’s politics. Of course Wills hated the book—but did so, of course, with panache.*

I don’t know Professor Wills personally, but we seem to share a number of significant historical interests and present-day traits. For starters, we’re both Catholic. We both abhor Church hypocrisy. We both have two degrees from Jesuit institutions. We both like the writings of Augustine of Hippo. We’ve both read at least one Adler book. We both live in the Chicago area. We both care a great deal about post-WWII American history. Neither of us like gun nuts. We’re both political converts—from conservatism to independent, left-of-center liberalism. We’re both concerned about anti-intellectualism and politics. Neither of us like Richard Nixon, and we both voted for Obama (though both of us have suffered some post-election disillusionment).

Of course we have our differences. Wills has written about 50 books; I’m just finishing up my first. He’s won a Pulitzer; I only see pictures of others winning awards. He’s almost 79 (but “looks 20 years younger,” according to Tanenhaus); I’m barely over 40. He seems perpetually cranky; I’m fairly irenic (except on bad days). I could go on but, well, it’d be silly.

Returning to our similarities, real and imagined, I think, perhaps—maybe—we’re both intellectual historians. The difference seems to be self-identification. When I’m doing historical research and writing, I claim to be a USIHer. Wills, to my knowledge, has never purposely identified with intellectual historians.

Why my hesitant claim? Where’s my evidence?

For starters, in 1979 he won the OAH’s Merle Curti award, given for distinction in American Social and Intellectual History, for his book Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.** This was the second Merle Curti award ever given. Since these awards committees generally know what they’re doing, I trust the designation. And since Wills likely received the award in person, he was probably once in a room full of applauding intellectual historians.

Wills also writes about thinkers and intellectuals: Chesterton, Cincinnatus, Jesuits, St. Augustine, Henry Adams, St. Ambrose, etc.

Finally, Wills seems to care a great deal about Big Ideas. And don’t all intellectual historians at least flirt with the greatest of ideas in their best works? I have read only one Wills book***, but even his titles smack of Big Thinking—e.g. Inventing America, Politics and Catholic Freedom, What Jesus Meant, Values Americans Live By, and A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

This brings me to my original question: Is Garry Wills an intellectual historian, broadly defined?

If not, where does he fit on the spectrum of specialties? Does he fit at all, or is he too unique to be classified? Tanenhaus believes the latter:

The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.

You may, at this point, be asking: why should we care? If Tanenhaus is to be believed, “sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills.” Even so, Tanenhaus also asserts that Wills is “indifferen[t] to his cultural standing.”

Have you read any of Wills works? Which are his best? Which do, or should, intellectual historians care the most about? – TL


* The book was Adler’s Common Sense of Politics. I noted Wills’ review in this post (about two-thirds down). Despite the negative review from Wills, I doubt Adler felt, as did Tanenhaus, that “to be reviewed by Wills…is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges.” Anyway, for perspective, in 1970 Wills was 36 and had just published Nixon Agonistes.

** Wills’ Northwestern bio page incorrectly notes that the Curti Award is given by the AHA. The OAH awards the prize.

*** I read John Wayne’s America: The Politics of Celebrity (1997) for a graduate class on the History of the American West. Awesome class, but I don’t remember much about the book. That’s probably because I’m not a John Wayne fan.

[Note: I updated the URL and text to correct the spelling of Garry Wills’ name. I incorrectly used “Gary” on the first post. – TL]

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Yesterday I was going through a stack of old stuff and found a NYRevBks issue (April 7, 2011) in which Wills savaged ‘All Things Shining,’ a ‘popular’ book by two philosophers.

    The only Wills bk I’ve read (or read most of), as best I recall, is the one on the Gettysburg Address, which I liked but, to be honest, don’t remember v. much about, substantively. (Except that Wills was good on the Biblical and other sources of Lincoln’s.)

    ‘Nixon Agonistes’ is, if I recall aright, what made his reputation and is prob. still worth reading. I found a nice copy at a used bkstore some while back and almost bought it (just didn’t think i was going to get to it).

    Since I’m not an historian I have little interest in the question whether Wills counts as an intellectual historian — though it seems to me that he must, based on what he has written.

    • LFC: I think that either *Nixon Agonistes* or *A Necessary Evil* might make my history reading list. There are several choices, however, for my Catholic list. I’ll have to ponder those further. – TL

  2. Thanks for bringing this subject up Tim. I’ve read Wills for years in the NYRB and found him engaging.
    I think he’s an intellectual historian but also a very diverse and independent thinker. He’s a devout Catholic who’s written one of the most compelling defenses of abortion I’ve read. As you note Tim, he’s been a cohort of Buckley’s at the National Review only to move across the aisle to defend liberal positions, though I’m not sure I characterize him as a liberal. I’ve read several of his books but probably enjoyed “A Necessary Evil” the most. I found the discussion about nullification and secession particularly interesting. The subjects he writes about are very broad but usually topical as opposed to conforming to a narrow chronological period but ideas seem to be the driving force of his focus.

    • Paul: The NYRB is, as of today, the *only* way I keep up with Wills. I’m on to your suggestion of *A Necessary Evil*. – TL

  3. Wills definitely is an intellectual history in my books, though I’m small-c catholic on such matters. I think his main contribution, in this respect, is as an ambassador between Catholicism and non-Catholics. It’s very difficult to think of a Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim intellectual who does the same kind of work with anything like the same level of effectiveness.

    My favorite Wills is Reagan’s America, which can be paired nicely with Michael Rogin’s Reagan book. I also love this recent column: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jan/21/dumb-america/

    • Kurt: I think you’re on to something about Wills being an ecumenical ambassador. What did you like, in particular, about *Reagan’s America*? – TL

      • It’s been a while, but I remember really liking the way he tied together various details–like Taxi Driver and the Hinckley assassination attempt, Reagan’s fabricated memories of WWII service, etc.–to create a sort of DeLillo-esque sense of Reagan’s American as one in which reality itself was too supple and changeable, and the link between this sort of hallucinatory zeitgeist and violence. That’s my memory, anyways. And if I recall correctly, Rogin covers similar ground, although Rogin was by far the greater intellect and the better writer.

        As for ecumenical brokerage–I think that matters, too. Tom’s points below confirm my point–if Wills did not question, say, papal infallibility, at least formally, he could not perform the ecunemical work he performs, anymore than a Marxist intellectual who insisted that Capital really is the authentic philosophy of the universal working class because of the miracle of dialectics could have anything to say to a Schumpeterian. (A great example of this can be found here: http://archive.org/details/DebatingAlainBadiouspoliticsOfEmancipationAnExchangeOn Bruno Bosteels, a brilliant heterodox Marxist presents a lucid presentation on various questions, then “true believer” Nayi Duniya, an acolyte of Bob Avakian, hysterically erupts, screaming about how true everything Bob Avakian says is; Bosteels, finally asks: “what are we doing here? What’s the point?”).

        That’s why intellectuals like Wills matter: by retaining fidelity to his faith while questioning it, he creates the conditions for inter-faith dialogue. Wills might be closer, in this respect, to a Dan Savage (who I despise for his Iraq war cheerleading, but who is without question a charismatic and engaging writer) who provides access to many straights some insights on the realities of gay life, or a Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, or Woody Allen, who provide access to some of the intimate details of American Jewish life. To drive this point home: the people who one might assume do an equivalent job in US Jewish circles–Jeffrey Goldberg, Leon Wieseltier, Peter Beinart–actually do a terrible job of it. I truly cannot imagine anyone outside of the faith not already committed to their POV finding anything of interest in their writings. And I cannot think of a Protestant equivalent, with the exception of some African American christian intellectuals, which to me seems a different tradition. Is there a Saddleback Church Garry Wills? Could there ever be?

      • if Wills did not question, say, papal infallibility, at least formally, he could not perform the ecunemical work he performs

        I respectfully yet strenuously disagree, in both theory and in reality. One cannot bring his own group to the ecumenical table by turning on it!

        And in the real world, [Fr.] Richard John Neuhaus did far more for ecumenical Christianity than Wills ever did or could. The Manhattan Declaration is Neuhaus’ legacy [although it likely comes too little too late for his vision].

        True ecumenicalism does not come from papering over differences or even obliterating them, but acknowledging them and building on what common ground remains. In Garry Wills’ case, his reputation is built with a smaller strain of Catholics who agree with him, and even more with those who reject Roman Catholicism [or evangelical Christianity for that matter].

        Garry Wills would be harder pressed to find ecumenical common ground with his own church than with those who have no church atall.

  4. My exposure to Wills’s broader oeuvre is limited, but, as an early Americanist, I am most familiar with his “Inventing America” as well as various NYRB pieces. So, for whatever it’s worth, I have always thought of him as an intellectual/cultural historian (and I use that conflation because, to me at least, the most immediate and broadly useful intellectual history is simultaneously cultural history as well).

    • Michael: I’m sort of surprised at the consensus here—most everyone commenting sees him as an intellectual/cultural historian. Very interesting, especially given his extensive work on Catholicism. – TL

  5. He’s a devout Catholic who’s written one of the most compelling defenses of abortion I’ve read.

    Perhaps, but more in the way that Mel Gibson may be called “Catholic.” Phillip Jenkins a former Catholic himself):

    “Wills would certainly describe himself as a Catholic, but as with [James] Carroll [who views anti-Semitism as inherent to Catholicism] and [John] Cornwell [famous for attacking Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope”], his attacks on the Church are so basic as to raise questions about just what this term means. . . . He calls for an end to the priesthood in anything like the sense in which it has been known for many centuries, as what he calls “magicians of the Eucharistic transformation.” In his ideal Church, women should be ordained, priestly celibacy would be abolished, papal supremacy would end, and no more would the Church make Mary “an empress.”

    Anti-Catholicism, p. 202.

    Jenkins quotes Robert P. Lockwood’s catalogue of Wills’ rejection of Catholicism as including rejection of:

    1. “the teaching authority of the Church if exercised without lay involvement and agreement”;
    2. “papal infallibility”;
    3. “the ordained priesthood”;
    4. “the Real Presence in the Eucharist”;
    5. “that the priest has the sacramental power alone to consecrate the Eucharist”;
    6. “[a]postolic succession”;
    7. the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
    8. the Catholic teaching on homosexuality and the Church’s authority to pronounce on sexual morality in general.
    (Anti-Catholicism, pp. 202-203).


    Now, to outsiders, Wills might be just their preferred sort of Catholic, just as Walter Russell Mead has become my favorite Democrat. But “devout” obscures far more than it reveals.
    * Or in the way Messianic Jews are Jews. Outsiders might accept that self-appellation, but to many Jews, a Jew who accepts Jesus as the promised Messiah is what they call a “Christian.” So too, in Wills’ rejection of the Roman Church’s magisterium, Catholics tend to call that “Protestant.”


    Now, I’m fine with outsiders using a loose taxonomy [I meself classify the Unitarians of the Founding era as still “Christian”] but perhaps “devout” is going a little too far. Heterodox, dissident–these are more accurate–and necessary–qualifiers.

    • Total digression: Going with Paul’s comment just below, one could be quite religiously devout in her/his personal, private actions without being devoted to the hierarchy. This is pure speculation, but perhaps Wills is more Eastern Orthodox than Roman Catholic since most of his problems (*if* we can take Tom’s list at face value, which is doubtful) seem related to the Church hierarchy—notwithstanding the notation above of a lack of belief in the “real presence.” Anyway, my point is that devotion to liturgical Christianity still qualifies as devout. But these are all highly personal things that I doubt anyone, let alone Jenkins/Lockwood, could pin down 100 percent.

      Again, this is all completely aside from my question about Wills’ self-identification within the history profession. – TL

      • Garry Wills has no more standing to speak for Catholicism than I do for the USIH blog. However, “dissident” Catholic rather than “devout” Catholic makes an honest enough distinction and clarification to pass without further objection from this quarter.

        As for Wills being an intellectual historian, I think there’s an inherent and perhaps irreconcilable tension between chronicling intellectual history and aspiring to make intellectual history.

        In a few years, it may be concluded that he did little of either.

  6. The characterization of devout is mine but I don’t think it’s a stretch. He claims to say the rosary every day, regularly attends mass, has written voluminously on the subject of Augustine, St. Paul, the Jesuits, his beliefs and also attended seminary for a time with the intent of becoming a priest. That’s good enough for me but I also thought Luther was still a devout priest even after he nailed up the 95 theses. Maybe devotion is not how well you tow the line but how much you’re willing to risk for your faith. Oh and I might add Wills still refers to himself as a Roman Catholic.
    Can’t one be devout and still critical of their chosen religion? Is it all or nothing?

    • Paul, I think the particulars of the Roman Catholic Church [and the Reformation] must be brought to bear here. Too often a one-size-fits-all approach to the black box labeled “religion” misses more than it hits.

      The question of the magisterium is crucial to how the Roman Church understands itself, and carries the truer weight than how Garry Wills idiosyncratically understands it. With 30,000 sects, I’m pretty loose with “Protestantism” or even “Christianity,” but when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, I think “devout” is unhelpful in Wills’s case.

      Again, the devotional aspects are between him and his God, and it’s above our pay grade to judge whether Messianic Jews or Mel Gibson are sincere in their religious devotion or possess “true” religion. But what we can say is that based on the norms of Judaism or Roman Catholicism, some deviation from their norms must be acknowledged. They, like Garry Wills, require some sort of qualifier, if not an asterisk.

      In the old days, we just used to call ’em heretics and be done with it. ;-}

  7. Of course Wills is an intellectual historian – among other things. Inventing America, Explaining America, and Lincoln at Gettysburg are distinctly good, and the Washington and Henry Adams/Madison books have good things in them. These are not necessarily his most important works, and they are extended essays rather than monographs, but they certainly deal with thinkers and ideas in historical context.

    • Andre: Thanks for chiming in. You bring up a good point in that I always assumed his books were more essay and analysis than history. It’s not that the history isn’t there, but rather I gotten the impression (mostly from his article writing) that his books strayed from hard evidence. – TL

  8. I would say Wills certainly does intellectual history, or at any rate has done intellectual history. I would describe Explaining America and Lincoln at Gettysburg, the two of his books I’ve read, as works of intellectual history. I much preferred the latter to the former. Explaining simply didn’t persuade me, while I learned quite a bit from Lincoln>.

    Is Wills an intellectual historian? Yes, no. No, yes. I’m not one to dismiss taxonomic questions out of hand, but this is one I just can’t get exercised about either way.

  9. Perhaps it is best to consider him a public intellectual, thus avoiding the lack of precision that a few might protest in the use of historian. But Wills is, if nothing else, a genuine intellectual and has been, and hopefully continue to be in the public sphere.

  10. I don’t know what to call him, but Wills’s range and depth are simply astonishing. Many people have pointed out its problems, but I think Inventing America is one of the three or four most important books ever written about Jefferson. I have used Lincoln at Gettysburg to great effect in my classes — it gets to the heart of Lincoln’s thought and helps students appreciate the meaning of the Civil War better than anything else I’ve used — as well as Wills’s underappreciated book on Henry Adams (which is essentially a brilliant interpretation of the History — so I’ve used it in a course on historiography as well as one on the Early American Republic). Cincinnatus is essential reading about the political culture that created George Washington (and his cult), and What Jesus Meant (complete with Wills’s translations of the New Testament) is as compelling as anything I’ve ever read about Jesus. How does this same man also manage to write books like Reagan’s America, which Alan Brinkley calls (on the book’s cover) “still the best thing anyone has ever written about Reagan,” among all the others mentioned? [It strikes me here that Reagan’s America offers a clue to his approach, I think: it’s about the America that created and embraced Reagan — a lot of Wills’s work (deeply) contextualizes thinkers and thought, political and otherwise. So he mostly writes social/cultural histories of thought and politics, thinkers and politicians. Is this right, do you think?]
    Whatever you call him, there is simply no one on the scene who writes with such command in so many different areas.
    People from widely divergent fields respect Wills’s forays into their historiographies in a way you simply don’t see for any other writer with this many interests. Read Peter Brown’s NYRB review of Wills’s book on Augustine (which is also, by the way, full of Wills’s translations of Augustine). Here is the dean of Augustine studies telling the world that Wills has shed a brilliant new light on his subject. Thank you, Garry Wills! Keep writing.

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