U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Savage at Heart”: Perry Miller and Robert Oppenheimer

ravenandthewhaleWhy did Perry Miller dedicate his strangest book to the father of the atomic bomb?

This essay is a guest post by Jonathan W. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in American intellectual history at Syracuse University and a regular blogger at The Junto.

In 1956, Perry Miller published a book unlike his others. The Raven and the Whale had nothing to do with New England or Calvinism. It wasn’t about preachers, divines, professors, or the creation of a tradition or a mind. It was a study of bourgeois writers and bohemian literary misfits in antebellum New York City. Though it was a finalist for the National Book Award and remains in print today, the book was not widely reviewed or cited in historical journals. My impression is that most historians otherwise interested in Miller haven’t read it.

The title implies that Miller’s book was a study of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Really, though, The Raven and the Whale was a portrait of the antebellum “Knickerbocker” literary scene (or rather, the elite male portions of it), in which Poe and Melville barely fit. Its cast of characters included mostly-forgotten bourgeois hacks like Lewis Gaylord Clark and Nathaniel Parker Willis—literary conservatives, as Miller presented them—and earnest but clumsy democratic nationalists like Cornelius Mathews, the so-called Young Americans, who wanted a progressive native literature but couldn’t seem to produce a compelling prototype. Most of the literature produced by both groups proved ephemeral. Today, you’re even less likely to pick up a copy of Big Abel and the Little Manhattan than a copy of Fun Jottings; or, Laughs I have taken a Pen to. It might be a stretch to call Miller’s story an intellectual history, unless it were a history of an intellectual failure.

But The Raven and the Whale is a lively book, all the more so for seeming so off-brand, and it illuminates the context of northeastern antebellum thought on topics from Transcendentalism to Manifest Destiny. Indeed, it is an interesting history of an intellectual failure. But something in the front matter also merits special attention. Perry Miller dedicated The Raven and the Whale to J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In fact, Miller gave Oppenheimer a personally inscribed copy of the book, adding a note to the printed dedication: “Dear Robert:—This is a small token of my delight in being able to compose a book with one—no doubt only that one, but one is a number—flawless page.”[1]

It may seem incongruous that an intellectual historian should preface a book on nineteenth-century magazine writers with a tribute to the father of the atomic bomb. That the two men were friends doesn’t entirely account for it. Yet The Raven and the Whale is, in the end, a subtle argument—almost an allegory—about the failure of democratic culture and intellect in America. It is an attempt to make sense of the situation in which Miller and Oppenheimer found themselves a century later.

The Raven and the Whale is not, for most of its length, a study of Poe or Melville. But working uneasily in and alongside the bourgeois conservatives and young democrats Miller found in literary New York were his title characters, sometimes delighting, sometimes resembling, but ultimately scandalizing their peers. As Miller told the story, mainstream antebellum literature not only failed to recognize their genius; it also infected and limited their work. America’s contradictions became theirs.

In the end, The Raven and the Whale was a story about incoherence at the heart of our national identity and about its effects on even dissenting intellectuals. As Miller warned in his introduction, “A Republic may abandon the artist not because of his aberrations but because of its own.” And sometimes, he added, the artist himself—as Poe and Melville did—falls into “befuddlement” and failure because of “an inescapable collapse of the structures his society provided him.”[2] Crucial to Miller’s argument, though this becomes apparent only near the end of the book, is the strange course of literary reputation: Melville and Poe were not prophetic outcasts but once-mainstream figures in New York literary culture who fell into disrepute thanks to the vicissitudes of patriotic self-conception.

In 1956, this may have been an argument close to Oppenheimer’s heart, or at least relevant to his view of the American intellectual condition. He had left the Los Alamos atomic laboratory in November 1945, warning in his farewell speech that the atomic bomb had thrust both science and humanity into a new age requiring a complete international reorganization of human “conception and feeling,” a “profound revision of what it is that constitutes a thing worth fighting for and a thing worth living for.”[3] He had taken this conviction with him to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, of which he had become director in late 1947.

At Princeton, Oppenheimer had immediately launched a restructuring program to extend the Institute’s work in the humanities. The overarching framework for this initiative, argues Silvan Schweber, was Oppenheimer’s growing interest in the question of what it meant to be a public intellectual in the tradition of American Pragmatism. He had invited a number of leading humanists to participate, showing special interest in intellectual history. Among the first guests were T. S. Eliot and Kenneth Burke. Later, in 1953, Oppenheimer had brought in Perry Miller, along with Morton White, whom Miller had recommended to Oppenheimer as another American intellectual historian.[4]

During his year at the Institute for Advanced Study, which had given him complete freedom to write (a privilege he called “Paradise”), Miller had reportedly been working on a mere “critical volume on Melville.”[5] But Miller’s blissful year as a visiting scholar at the Institute had ended in the summer of 1954, just as Oppenheimer had become a subject of national scandal.

In the spring of 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission, now chaired by a longtime enemy and armed with an FBI tap on his telephone, had revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The AEC had failed to substantiate allegations that he was a Soviet spy, but it had concluded nevertheless that he was a security risk. Many things had led to the decision, including Oppenheimer’s professional rivalry with Edward Teller and his opposition to the U.S. Air Force’s plans for the “strategic” nuclear bombing of cities. But above all, the AEC had declared Oppenheimer a security risk because of his shadowy prewar associations with Communist Party members in Berkeley and his opposition to the development of Teller’s hydrogen bomb.[6]

Despite losing his clearance, Oppenheimer had emerged from the crisis with his Institute directorship intact, and in January 1955, he had benefitted from an extended interview on Edward R. Murrow’s television show See It Now, in which he had appeared to be not only the embodiment of the Institute’s scientific research but also a calm, respectable spokesman for ethical scholarship. If anything, the security hearings had given him a more prominent platform as a public intellectual. But he had also become a polarizing public figure. When, in 1955, Oppenheimer had been chosen to deliver Harvard’s William James Lectures (eight talks under the title “The Hope of Order”), Joseph McCarthy had denounced the invitation.[7]

Pressure from McCarthy and anticommunist alumni (including Theodore Roosevelt’s son) had not persuaded Harvard’s board of overseers to rescind Oppenheimer’s speaking invitation. But in 1955, the president of the University of Washington, Henry Schmitz, had blocked him from a three-month lecture appointment at the physics department there. That decision had particularly incensed Perry Miller. He himself had been scheduled to speak at Washington at the invitation of its history department. (His talk was to have been “The Romantic Dilemma in American Nationalism,” apparently a lecture on “the problem of American self-recognition as being essentially an irreconcilable opposition between Nature and civilization.” He had published it later that year in the Harvard Theological Review.) When word came of the Oppenheimer ban, Miller had announced that he would boycott the university, explaining that “no self-respecting scholar could talk there now.” Miller may even have had a direct hand in persuading the Washington faculty senate to censure President Schmitz’s decision.[8]

It’s not clear how much these controversies affected the text of Miller’s book. At some point, The Raven and the Whale had sprawled far beyond the limits of anything like “a critical volume on Melville.” But mostly this evolution seems to have been the result of Miller’s being drawn into the gossip of literary Old New York, not the academic politics of the Cold War. His wife had grown alarmed at the scope of his research assistant’s work: “Every time he brings you another shoe box full of note cards, he makes your book less feasible.”[9] Indeed, the finished book often seems to have no argument or contemporary implications at all. For long stretches, The Raven and the Whale simply describes in lurid detail the rivalries of antebellum editors, intellectually driven, if at all, by antebellum debates about how much influence British literature should have in the United States.

In that question about national identity, however, there may be traces of the question that haunted Robert Oppenheimer’s public intellectual work during the 1950s: Of what use is the progress of knowledge to the community? And, just as importantly, which community?

In the years after he left Los Alamos, Oppenheimer consistently used his public platform to argue that the atomic age required rethinking the boundaries of scholarly disciplines and nations alike. In the “house” of modern science, he told BBC audiences in 1953, “there are no locks; there are no shut doors; wherever we go there are the signs and usually the words of welcome. It is an open house, open to all comers.” Shouldn’t this epistemological openness, he reasoned, lead to a greater sense of human unity? “We are, I should think, not patriots less but patriots very differently for loving what it ours and understanding a little of the love of others for their lands and ways.”[10]

Yet there was a paradox. Oppenheimer, as much as any other human being, was responsible for creating the most destructive weapon ever wielded by a nation-state. Furthermore, he never repudiated that legacy.[11]

In a recent study, Charles Thorpe carries this paradox to an interesting conclusion. Thorpe argues that Oppenheimer personally shared in the ethical fragmentation of his society. As a public figure, as an intellectual with a recognized vocation and charismatic authority, he was bound to the professional structures and contradictory values of the Cold War state. Oppenheimer’s Atomic Energy Commission security hearings in 1954, therefore, became a crisis of selfhood, nearly destroying him along with his technocratic career. Fortunately for Oppenheimer, however, his intensive public intellectual work, beginning a few months later, gave him a new identity to inhabit, an identity that once again allowed him to embody the profession of modern science, only this time paradoxically, by delineating its limits.[12]

Was this what Perry Miller saw in his embattled friend? Was it this, the internal splintering of the dissenting technocratic intellectual, that eventually gave him a way to conceptualize what had happened to Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and their friends and enemies in antebellum New York? They, like the atomic scientist, were caught between the universal and the particular, the future and the past. They, too, found it impossible to articulate a stable basis for a rational collective life. Miller entitled his concluding chapter “A Savage at Heart.” Later, he would judge the book itself a failure.[13]

Whatever immediate impulse led Miller to add Oppenheimer’s name to The Raven and the Whale in 1956, the dedication makes it easier to grasp the purpose of his most meandering, narrative-driven, and enigmatic book. It suggests that the paradoxes of Cold War public life provided a way to interpret the intellectual implications of the fragmented antebellum literary scene. It may also help explain why Perry Miller was moved to write about the petty jealousies and intrigues of the Knickerbocker literati in the first place; Oppenheimer’s professional battles may have lent them new significance, at least for a while.

Ultimately, though, the book’s dedication is most instructive as a window into Cold War intellectuals’ attempts to define the ironies of their own positions as part of a long tradition of American national paradox. The fragmented self and work of the nuclear dissident, Miller suggested, belongs to the story of a nation that has always been at war with itself.

“Complexity,” Miller wrote in an essay on American character, which he finished during the writing of The Raven and the Whale, “is worrisome, imparts no serenity, only anxiety. … Trying to escape from such anxiety by affixing our individuality to a scheme of unchanging verities is a natural response. Yet our national history promises no success to the frantic gesture.” In the end, Miller wrote, “he who would fix the pattern of decision by confining the American choice to one and only one mode of response—whether this be in politics, diplomacy, economics, literary form, or morality itself—such a one, in the light of our history, is the truly ‘Un-American.’”[14]

For Oppenheimer and especially for Miller, the dividing of the American intellectual self would wax from paradox to tragedy. Yet there was, seemingly, no way of escape.

_______________

1.  “Books Formerly Owned by J. Robert Oppenheimer” (PDF), finding aid to the collection at Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, p. 29. I have not had occasion to examine the book in person.

2.  Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 4.

3.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, “An Atomic Scientist’s Credo,” in Abraham Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 53 and 55.

4.  Silvan S. Schweber, Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), 195-238, 359-360n15; Perry Miller’s “Community of Scholars” profile at the Institute for Advanced Study; and Morton White, A Philosopher’s Story (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 138-139.

5.  “Institute for Advanced Study Frees Scholar From Class, Tests, Students,” Harvard Crimson, 7 Nov. 1953.

6.  Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002), esp. 252-297.

7.  Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 13-66 and 84-91; and “Oppenheimer to Deliver James Lectures in 1957,” Harvard Crimson, 31 Oct. 1955.

8.  John G. Wofford, “Miller Refuses to Speak After Oppenheimer Ban,” Harvard Crimson, 7 Mar. 1955 and “Case for the Pro’s,” Harvard Crimson, 15 Apr. 1955; “Univ. of Wash. Professors Concur on Miller’s Stand,” Harvard Crimson, 8 Mar. 1955; “Boycotting Washington,” Harvard Crimson, 28 Mar. 1955; and Perry Miller, “The Romantic Dilemma in American Nationalism and the Concept of Nature,” Harvard Theological Review 48.4 (Oct. 1955), 242.

9. Kenneth S. Lynn, “Teaching: Perry Miller,” The American Scholar 52.2 (spring 1983), 226.

10.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, “The Sciences and Man’s Community,” in Science and the Common Understanding: The B.B.C. Reith Lectures, 1953 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), 94 and 95. The audio recording is currently available online as a free MP3 download.

11.  For an intriguing discussion of Oppenheimer as a scientist caught between the lure of “pure” research and his desire to be “a good soldier,” see Freeman Dyson, “Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius,” New York Review of Books 60.13 (15 Aug. 2013). Dyson speculates that Oppenheimer’s commitment to nuclear weapons technology stemmed from the example of left-wing fighters in the Spanish Civil War, especially his wife Kitty’s former husband, who had been killed there.

12.  Charles Thorpe, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

13. Lynn, ibid.

14. Miller, “The Shaping of American Character,” New England Quarterly 28.4 (Dec. 1955), 453-454. Miller delivered this essay at a conference at Wellesley College in October 1954.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks, Jonathan! And really great post! I particularly like your concept of intellectuals struggling “to define the ironies of their own positions as part of a long tradition of American national paradox.” This is, I think, how to read Perry Miller, and a valuable way of looking at intellectuals from the preservative of their “external biographies,” as Miller might say, while also considering the worlds their minds inhabit.

    I want to ask if you think Miller sees ONLY tragedy without escape in the American paradox? I find it incredibly hard to tell with Miller when and where he delights in the untapped possibilities of the American mind, and when or where he’s too honest and aware of external circumstances to hold out much hope for the kind of national culture he desires. I do think, though, that even in The Raven and the Whale, there is a certain redemption in the ability to think through and identify tragedy and paradox, to “face them without flinching.”

    • Thanks, Rivka!

      I’m not sure. It’s probably hard for me to read Miller without being influenced on some level by awareness of his depression and alcoholism, for better or (mostly) worse. I don’t think tragedy is the same thing as hopelessness, though. The sense I get from reading Miller is that he wants to see the national paradox itself as valuable—inescapable, but not pointless. If nothing else, the conflicts in The Raven and the Whale seem to have amused him, but I get the sense that he also thought those battles were worth fighting in some way. You’d have a much better sense of how this book fits into his life’s work, though.

    • Thanks, Tim. That’s an angle I hadn’t consciously considered, though the language certainly seems to owe Rodgers a debt.

      I suppose I’m skeptical of the whole intellectual-as-dissident paradigm, inasmuch as most of the people we call “public intellectuals” owe their authority, or at least their publicity, to the power structures they supposedly challenge. It seems to me that the dissenting intellectual personally embodies a fracture—a dividing of the standing order against itself, or a manifestation of latent but ultimately cast-off possibilities within it. Jackson Lears’s use of “hegemony” as a critical tool for comprehending earlier people in a similar position is fascinating, but I’m not sure it goes far enough, since it seems to imply that a polar relationship between the intellectual and the dominant system could, in principle, exist. (This may not be Lears’s position, but it’s a position a reader could come away with.) But I think fragmentation is inescapable in principle for someone like Oppenheimer: he (as public dissident) wouldn’t exist without the bomb, and the bomb wouldn’t exist (in the form it took) without scrupulous scholars like him. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that he had a Soviet counterpart in Andrei Sakharov.

  2. I like your stretching of the age of fracture, for intellectuals at least, back to McCarthyism.

    Hm. I think of American intellectualism’s break from reality in its unstinting defenses of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, for which it has seldom apologized or even given an acknowledgement.

    For as much as McCarthy hurt careers, an emboldened nuclear Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, and perhaps millions worldwide.

    http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-radosh17-2008sep17,0,1896707.story

    Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed 55 years ago, on June 19, 1953. But last week, they were back in the headlines when Morton Sobell, the co-defendant in their famous espionage trial, finally admitted that he and his friend, Julius, had both been Soviet agents.

    It was a stunning admission; Sobell, now 91 years old, had adamantly maintained his innocence for more than half a century. After his comments were published, even the Rosenbergs’ children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, were left with little hope to hang on to — and this week, in comments unlike any they’ve made previously, the brothers acknowledged having reached the difficult conclusion that their father was, indeed, a spy. “I don’t have any reason to doubt Morty,” Michael Meeropol told Sam Roberts of the New York Times.

    With these latest events, the end has arrived for the legions of the American left wing that have argued relentlessly for more than half a century that the Rosenbergs were victims, framed by a hostile, fear-mongering U.S. government. Since the couple’s trial, the left has portrayed them as martyrs for civil liberties, righteous dissenters whose chief crime was to express their constitutionally protected political beliefs. In the end, the left has argued, the two communists were put to death not for spying but for their unpopular opinions, at a time when the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were seeking to stem opposition to their anti-Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.

    To this day, this received wisdom permeates our educational system. A recent study by historian Larry Schweikart of the University of Dayton has found that very few college history textbooks say simply that the Rosenbergs were guilty; according to Schweikart, most either state that the couple were innocent or that the trial was “controversial,” or they “excuse what [the Rosenbergs] did by saying, ‘It wasn’t that bad. What they provided wasn’t important.’ ”

    Indeed, Columbia University professor Eric Foner once wrote that the Rosenbergs were prosecuted out of a “determined effort to root out dissent,” part of a broader pattern of “shattered careers and suppressed civil liberties.” In other words, it was part of the postwar McCarthyite “witch hunt.”

    But, in fact, Schweikart is right, and Foner is wrong. The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies, and not minor ones either. Not only did they try their best to give the Soviets top atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project, they succeeded in handing over top military data on sonar and on radar that was used by the Russians to shoot down American planes in the Korean and Vietnam wars. That’s long been known, and Sobell confirmed it again last week.

  3. For as much as McCarthy hurt careers, an emboldened nuclear Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, and perhaps millions worldwide.

    Ergo, the Rosenbergs were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans worldwide? I’ll have to think about that one. Btw, has anyone suggested that Julius Rosenberg was responsible for the USSR’s acquiring nuclear weapons? No, b/c that wd be pretty absurd on its face.

    I would not be surprised that if one were to tally up the deaths — mostly though not exclusively in ‘proxy wars’, engineered coups, covert actions etc, plus direct interventions (eg US in Vietnam, USSR in Afghanistan) — for which the US and USSR were responsible during the Cold War, one wd find the numbers coming out roughly even. (Though not having done such a tally, I’m just guessing, of course.) One needn’t embrace ‘moral equivalence’ to recognize that the records of both superpowers, in terms of actions abroad during the Cold War, are nothing to crow about.

    Though in some obvious respects antagonists, the US and the USSR also tacitly agreed — or so it can be argued — to not seriously disrupt a world order that served both superpowers’ interests (if not others’ interests) reasonably well through, say, the mid-60s.

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