U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rethinking the Origin of American Studies (with help from Perry Miller)


The title of Miller’s book came from a seventeenth-century sermon.]

On the rare occasions that historians have written about Perry Miller in the context of Cold War scholarship or the advent of American Studies, their attention has been brief, and they have all focused exclusively on one poetic image Miller invoked in the preface to his last major work, Errand into the Wilderness, published in 1956.[1] Errand into the Wilderness brings together a collection of Miller’s essays on Puritanism, religion in colonial America, and the idea of nature in U.S. history in an attempt to locate an American intellectual tradition that is not merely a European transplant, does not reflect Enlightenment rationality, and does not oversimplify the relationship between the world of man and the world of nature, or, as Miller conceived it– man’s “errand,” and his “wilderness.”  In his preface, Miller attempts to convey the urgency of his desire to locate this Romantic American intellectual tradition. Explaining that as a young man he travelled to Africa seeking the kind of adventure his father’s generation experienced in the First World War, Miller testified that “on the edge of a jungle of central Africa . . . while  supervising . . . the unloading of drums of case oil flowering out of the inexhaustible American wilderness,” he experienced an “epiphany . . . looking upon these tangible symbols of the republic’s appalling power.” “At Matadi, on the banks of the Congo,” Miller wrote, “it was given to me . . . the mission” of “expounding my America to the twentieth century.”[2]

Historians seize upon this image because it rehearses the familiar narrative of the birth of American Studies from the spirit of the Cold War. According to this narrative, the United States’ expanding power in the middle of the twentieth century (evidenced, for example, in drums of American case oil shipped to Africa) caused American intellectuals to ask “how did we get here?” and the Cold War struggle ‘for the soul of mankind,’ made it necessary for intellectuals to justify the United States to the rest of the world. Miller’s epiphany at Matadi fits so nicely into this narrative that it seems too good to be true.

Indeed, the Congo story is too good to be true. After Miller’s death in 1963, his wife, Elizabeth, wrote a bitter letter to Stanford Searl, Jr., a former student of Miller, who was working on a collection of Miller’s essays. In her letter, Elizabeth Miller excoriated Searl for several of his interpretations of her late husband’s thought. “As for the Congo episode,” she concluded the letter, “yes, there is a kind of truth in Perry’s romantic reference in Errand. But  Perry, who was a writer, was in part creating, after the fact, an effective anecdote as well as an explanation of why his own errand had been undertaken.”[3]
In his lectures to students on Edgar Allen Poe, Miller often discussed Poe’s cynical declaration that he wrote “The Raven” “to run,” choosing just those themes, images, and words that he knew would make the poem marketable to a literary magazine. “Certainly he is the shrewd seller of marketable merchandise,” Miller commented on Poe. “There can be no doubt that whatever else he was trying to achieve as an artist, at the same time he was responding to or even catering to a definite taste already formed on the part of the public,” he wrote in his lecture notes. Like Poe, Miller appears to have written “the Congo episode” in response to a taste already formed on the part of his readership: the taste for taking “the republic’s appalling power” abroad as an imperative to examine its intellectual past.

Historians of Cold War culture take for granted that the United States’ international position after the Second World War provided the intellectual basis for American Studies programs, new attention to American literature, and works in the burgeoning field of American intellectual history. Yet taken as a piece of writing rather than as fact, Miller’s epiphany at Matadi reveals the superficiality of this narrative. Intellectuals could, and did, ‘preform’ certain Cold War tropes in order to make their work palatable, but their motivation for delving into the mind of America ran deeper than Cold War imperatives. Often the Cold War served as a useful stage for these thinkers’ larger questions about human freedom and the role of the intellectual in democratic society, but, particularly in Perry Miller’s case, intellectuals also manipulated and used Cold War conventions to further their own agenda. They did not solely, as historians have suggested, deploy their work– or resignedly allow the U.S. government and a handful of private foundations to use it– in the service of the political needs of the Free World.

Stanford Searl, Jr. received Elizabeth Miller’s admonition against making too much of the ‘Congo episode’; her papers contain a response from Searl thanking her for her advice. But Searl used the epiphany at Matadi nevertheless, recounting it in the first page of his introduction to a collection of Miller’s essays.[4] Miller, it seems, was too good a writer; the narrative he spun about his epiphany in Africa fit too well into familiar tropes for Searl to discard it. If they refuse to discard Miller’s Congo fiction, however, historians must look more closely at it, especially given Elizabeth Miller’s claims, and see an intellectual performing, in order to better convince the public of the importance of his work, the role of ‘American Cold War intellectual.’

In his article, “Social Science in the Cold War,” published in 2010, David Engerman argues that historians should broaden the intellectual context of the Cold War to represent their subjects engaging in social science in the years between 1945 and 1991, not merely practicing “Cold War social science.” Intellectual activity that took place after World War II, Engerman asserts, should not be divorced from the context of the Cold War, but it was not determined by and should not be reduced to Cold War imperatives. “Many of the key elements that shaped American social science in the Cold War years flowed directly from concerns that long predated the Soviet threat,” writes Engerman.[5] Similarly, Miller should be read as an intellectual in the Cold War, whose concerns derived from his engagement with the New England Mind, rather than as a Cold War intellectual, whose concerns derived from the Soviet threat and the international balance of power.

Instead of reducing Miller’s thought to Cold War concerns, historians should analyze his writing against the backdrop of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” an address Emerson delivered to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society in 1837. It is no exaggeration to say that all of Miller’s thought revolved around this piece. His published books and articles, his speeches at conferences and commencements, and his private correspondences, reveal a mind obsessively and lovingly working through the problems Emerson presented. Among the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa students, assembled on August 31, 1837, listening breathlessly to the exhortations of the Concord Sage, Perry Miller perpetually belongs. He organized his thought around the intellectual problems he teased out of Emerson’s address, problems that for Miller and some of his fellow intellectuals who helped create the field of American Studies, at times corresponded with, but ultimately transcended, the Cold War paradigm and American geopolitical concerns.

[1] Butts, Francis T, “The Myth of Perry Miller,” The American Historical Review 87, no. 3 (1982), 65–694; Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines: Essays by Perry Miller, (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press 1979); Guyatt, Nicholas, “’An Instrument of National Policy’: Perry Miller and the Cold War,” Journal of American Studies 36, no. 1 (1989), 107–149; Pells, Richard, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1997), 106; Hollinger, David A., “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” History and Theory Vol. 7 Issue 2 (May, 1968), 189-202; Zakai, Avihu, “’Epiphany at Matadi’: Perry Miller’s Orthodoxy in Massachusetts and the Meaning of American History,” Reviews in American History Vol. 13, no. 4. Although not about Miller or the twentieth century, Peter Wood’s review of Daniel Richter’s “Facing East from Indian Country” references this poetic image of Miller’s (Peter H. Wood, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel K. Richter, The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 2003), 672-677).

[2] Miller, Perry, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper and Row, Inc., 1956), preface.[3] Elizabeth Miller, 1974.[4] Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines: Essays by Perry Miller (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), introduction.
[5] Engerman, David, “Social Science in the Cold War,”  Isis 101, no. 2 (June 2010), 393–400.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Hi Rivka —

    What a great sharp reflection here. Many thanks! A few quick thoughts.

    First, your position on American studies and the Cold War reminds me a lot of Joel Pfister’s work (“The Americanization of Cultural Studies,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4, no. 2 (1991): 199-229; and work in his book Critique for What?), which from my recollection sought to remind us of the intersections of Cold War-era American studies and the early stirrings of the New Left and cultural studies in the UK, particularly around articulating a kind of third way between pro-American and pro-Soviet positions in the context of nuclear proliferation. Michael Berube’s “Loyalities of American Studies” essay and Michael Denning’s Culture in the Age of Three Worlds pick up from there.

    Second, it strikes me that there are two sort of intra-American studies critiques: one that we might call reactionary and the other we might call tragic. The reactionary model is to attack Cold War-era American studies outright as overtly pro-imperialistic and hegemonic; this is the tear the house down and start again mode of American studies discourse. Everyone an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; therefore a pox on them all. The second is more interested in the fraught complicity of liberal and even radical Cold War-period American studies with the very forces it sought to combat, or at the very least recognize and critique. This is a tragic mode. Look, these scholars say, at how caught up in and compromised by Cold War cultural power and ideology even these so-called independent thinkers were. At some level the tragic mode is more devastating than the burn the house down reactionary mode because it goes deeper into the space between someone such as Miller being an “intellectual of the Cold War” vs. a “Cold War intellectual” and suggests that this distinction might not be so easily made.

    Third, that brings me to my final question: how would you flesh out this distinction between “intellectual of the Cold War” and “Cold War intellectual”? Do you mean a kind of awareness of or distance on Cold War power? Something else? This distinction seems crucial to what you are trying to argue here—and also perhaps to Ray’s interests in recovering American studies as an intersecting field with US intellectual history (if that is, Ray, a fair characterization of your post…and correct me if I am misrepresenting it).


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