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.
Even 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]