What makes a book fall into obscurity? Not the normal obscurity that most once popular books face, only to be kept alive by historians like us. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Looking Backward, I’ll Take My Stand, The Lonely Crowd, Silent Spring, and The Closing of the American Mind no longer enjoy the broad readerships that they received at the time they were written, but they live on among intellectual historians and our students. I’m asking about the deeper obscurity faced by some once popular or intellectually significant works that even U.S. intellectual historians don’t much discuss.
The book I’ve recently started thinking about that has raised this question is the philosopher F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding.
Filmer Stuart Cuckow Northrop (he understandably went by his initials) had been chair of the Philosophy Department at Yale and was the first Master of Silliman College. At the time of its publication in 1946, The Meeting of East and West made this already successful philosopher famous beyond his field and beyond the academy. In Meeting, Northrop argues that the post-war world is marked by profound ideological divisions. Though one of these is the split between capitalism and communism, the most salient and profound division, according to Northrop, is that between the Occident and the Orient. These divisions, Northrop argues, are first and foremost ideological, and must be resolved at the level of philosophy before they can be resolved in practice. Luckily, Northrop thinks, the solution to the principal division of East and West will also resolve the other divisions, including that between communism and capitalism. In Northrop’s view, the West is essentially theoretical in its approach to the world, while the East is essentially aesthetic. By creating a new ideology that merges these two approaches the great divisions of the world can be bridged.
The Meeting of East and West was widely reviewed across many academic disciplines and attracted the attention of a variety of thinkers whose fame has survived longer than Northrop’s. Alfred Kroeber reviewed the book for The American Anthropologist. Though critical of many aspects of the work, he praised Northrop for being “the first philosopher, at any rate among Anglo-Saxons, who has troubled really to concern himself with culture in the concrete.” Eric Voegelin reviewed Meeting in Social Research (Voegelin compares Northrop to Henry Adams, but he doesn’t mean the comparison as a compliment). Merle Curti reviewed the book for the Pacific Historical Review, calling the book a “major accomplishment,” expressing the hope that many historians would “read and ponder it,“ but arguing that “[i]t would have been preferable had this gifted and learned writer brought to bear in his analyses and recommendations more of the data and approach of the social scientist in general and of the historian and anthropologist in particular.” James Burnham reviewed the book for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Calling Meeting a work of an “average but active intelligence,” Northrop Frye, writing in Canadian Forum, admired some aspects of the book, but largely worried that it reflects an unearned American utopian one-worldism:
I imagine that whenever an Oriental philosopher tries to tell us about his Tao, his Citta, his Nirvana, or his Brahman, he is also telling us, in Eastern language, that an intellectual and cultural synthesis which gets everything in and reconciles everyone with everyone else is an attempt to build the Tower of Babel, and will lead to confusion of utterance. He may be wrong, but Professor Northrop will never catch him in his made-in-U.S.A. net, however skillfully he throws it.
But the book received its most positive reception in the general-interest press. “Here is one of the most provocative, penetrating, and thrilling deployments of philosophical insight that has come to light in a generation,” declared Ordway Tead in the Saturday Review. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Howard Mumford Jones called The Meeting “great, difficult and important,” and declared that it was the “most important intellectual event in the United States thus far in 1946.”
Although the emerging Cold War would make the East – West division perhaps seem less salient that Northrop argued in 1946, the philosopher seems to have remained a significant public intellectual for several years. His 1952 book The Taming of the Nations: A Study of the Cultural Basis of International Policy was similarly aimed at a broad audience, though it received much less attention than Meeting. And as late as 1961, then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared that The Meeting of East and West was one of his three favorite books, along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Toynbee’s A Study of History.
But in later years, the fame of Northrop and his book waned. If you’ve heard of The Meeting of East and West, it’s likely due to the impression the book made on another, less famous (at the time at least) reader. Returning on a troopship from Korea in 1948 (before the War), Pfc Robert Pirsig read Northrop’s book, which made a deep impression on him. It would later be one of the principal influences on his best-selling 1974 novel Zen and Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Though significantly better known today than Northrop’s Meeting of East and West, Pirsig’s novel is also not the sort of text that intellectual historians have taken seriously (though Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has argued pretty convincingly that we should).
And Northrop’s book remains absent from most discussions of American thought in the 1940s. The Meeting of East and West goes unmentioned in what I think of as the foundational general intellectual histories of late 1940s America: Richard Pells’s The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age and William Graebner’s Age of Doubt, though Graebner quotes Northrop from a different work on the role of science in society. Northrop is also absent from Bruce Kuklick’s History of Philosophy in America.
Why haven’t we given Northrop and his book more attention?