U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Problem That Has No Name (Guest Post by Andrew Seal)

Post Updated: I inadvertently left off the final two paragraphs of this post when I put it up on the blog.  My apologies to both Andrew and our readers. They’ve been added back as of 3:30 pm EST, 15 Feb 2014. — Ben Alpers

[Editor’s Note:  What follows is the first in a six-week series of guest blogs from Andrew Seal.  Andrew is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Yale University. He is currently writing his dissertation, tentatively titled “Exporting the Common Man: Midwestern Intellectuals and U.S. Power, 1910-1960,” which critically examines the emergence and decline of an ideal of American character and civilization parallel to the American Century but derived from the Midwestern middle class. Hailing from Indiana, schooled in the East, and now living in Utah, he is on his way to a regional bingo. He hopes to use his posts to confront both texts that have inspired him and sources that have perplexed him in pursuing his studies and research. I’m delighted to have him blogging for us!  — Ben Alpers]

When L. D. recently wrote about the strange condition of Mary McCarthy in intellectual history—L. D. argued that McCarthy is present but under-utilized in histories of the New York intellectuals—it intersected with some difficulties I, too, have been encountering in both the archive and the historiographical record. For I, too, have often—but not always—found myself on cold trails when trying to connect the women in my dissertation to the larger themes I find in the monographs I admire and the conversations, debates, and narratives they represent. Like McCarthy, they are there, but not there, not obscured, but hidden in plain sight.

When novelists and biographers depict the conjoining of women to grand literary or intellectual narratives, they often do so as an unveiling. In A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, the crucial evidence that links the major poet Randolph Henry Ash and the relatively minor poet Christabel LaMotte is a letter that has been concealed in Ash’s papers, undetected by the scholarship of generations. A great deal of the novel’s plot proceeds through the figures and facts of letters concealed and revealed, secrets exposed and unearthed, but one way to read this archival drama is as the full canonization of the female poet by virtue of her connection to the male. By this link, she is shuffled into the mainstream of a Great Tradition and out of the marginalized countercurrents of feminist and queer scholarship.

Similarly (obligatory spoiler alert), in Meg Wolitzer’s brilliant novel The Wife, sexual politics collides with literature when it is revealed that the real author behind the prize-winning “major” novels of a Norman Mailer/Saul Bellow-like novelist is, in fact, his wife, who has posed as his typist/research assistant/stenographer. Wolitzer’s construction of this arrangement is brilliant and much more subtle than that summary, and I urge you to read this novel to find out how she does it, but the point that struck me in reading the novel is that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a secret of this magnitude than it is to imagine a female novelist breaking into, competing with, and triumphing over the male establishment of Mailer’s and Bellow’s circles.

Other examples of these highly dramatic revelations of women’s connections to male authors abound. Although written to illuminate a different kind of connection, there is even a new film about Charles Dickens and his lover Nelly Ternan titled The Invisible Woman (from a biography by Claire Tomalin), and that seems to sum up this general attitude, that it takes a sort of archival miracle to move women into the mainstream of literature or intellectual culture, to connect them to the Great Tradition. Women are invisible—in the attic or in the dust of the archive—and extraordinary, even anomalous, discoveries are required to see them.

These miracles have occurred many times over, and I am in awe of the diligence, commitment, and passion that has been required to make them. But I would like to suggest that there remains a serious problem with the sub-miraculous project of rethinking the intellectual historical space that is allotted to the women who routinely get three or four page references in an index, but little more. I would even suggest that we may have been half-consciously content not to ask the questions that lead to a direct articulation of this problem because we expect an archival miracle to solve it, to turn up a manuscript or cache of letters that will ground a new leap to prominence for a woman intellectual.

Let me provide an example of this problem, although I’m afraid I cannot promise a solution.

One of the intellectual communities I am pursuing in my dissertation is the raucous circle of US foreign correspondents—a great many of them from the cities and small towns of the Midwest—in the interwar period. It was a relatively small world, a dense network, intimate in a number of senses. While the more obviously “intellectual” aspect of this denseness was a vibrant circulation of secrets and tips—state secrets, open secrets, gossip, advice—a good part of this intimacy, as I have discovered primarily through reading biographies, was sexual: one male correspondent sleeping with another’s wife, lover, or friend, creating a very blatant example of the traffic in women.[1]

What is fascinating to me about this traffic from an archival point of view is, however, the way that it spills over into correspondence. Men use women as conduits—for news, for introductions to important people, to greet another friend or re-establish an acquaintance, or sometimes to wangle an invitation to a party or for a weekend’s lodging while traveling. Or they try out ideas on them, cadge compliments, complain about a male colleague/rival or praise his new book in a manner meant to get back to him. If this is a network, women are the servers.

Of course, women write to women for the same reasons, and men to men, but the effects are not the same. For what I struggle with is that these women interlocutors are certainly not invisible, but they are only visible as biography, not as intellectual history. What they have is proximity, but not causality; they seem to have significance, but not influence.

The same problem travels outside the archive as well. A number of the male figures in my dissertation had wives, friends, or lovers who were themselves published authors—literary critics, journalists, novelists, often well-reviewed and modestly successful. A few, for instance John Gunther, acknowledged quite often the vast importance of their significant others’ intellectual labor in the production of their works, citing them in footnotes, the acknowledgments and dedications of their books, and in interviews. But except when the woman either had a prior prominence (as in the case of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis) or actually received co-author billing (as in Robert and Helen Lynd of the Middletown studies), it is not uncommon for their work to go unmentioned, unexamined, when discussing the intellectual careers of their husbands. An example: while he is not a subject of my dissertation, the historian and critic Bernard DeVoto crossed swords with a number of people who are, but I did not know until I Wikipedia’d him that his wife, Avis, had an extensive and successful career as a food critic, shepherding Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication among other achievements. Again, the problem is not that these women are invisible, but that they have been quarantined within the social and the biographical, rather than the intellectual.

It is possible, and correct, to say that these problems are the legacies of the historical process of patriarchy, but my intention here is not merely to bang my head against the injustices of years past, rather to think creatively around them. So I ask you, is this half-visibility , this biographical primacy of women a problem you encounter, and how do you approach it, both in research and, more complicatedly perhaps, in your writing?

[1] Dorothy Thompson and Anne O’Hare McCormick were two of the most prominent women who acted as foreign correspondents during these years, and the community of foreign correspondents was not, despite this bedhopping, quite the boys’ club that, say, the community of Washington correspondents has been over the years. Still, it is not unfair to view the sexual involutions of this community as a crucial and characteristic dimension.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well, that was depressing.

    But on a hopeful note, have you read any of Jill Lepore’s rumination on this problem of the (lack of) archives for women and other minorities neglected in the historical record? She gave a talk at UC Davis late last year and in the graduate seminar she argued that the problem of having little material on which to build histories of underrepresented groups, while obviously a real problem, is often cited as self-evidentially impossible to overcome and then thus serves as an excuse to not do history actually focused on these individuals. Of course, her recent book on Benjamin Franklin’s sister is an attempt to not take such a cop-out; rather than relying on or waiting for some archival revelation, as you talk about several people doing here, she seems to suggest you just take what you’ve got and then, well, you just work harder to make it into good history that offers real insights into the life of its subjects. I think a lot of the histories of these women in these circles of intellectuals and other powerful men could benefit from a similar treatment, perhaps getting them to a place where they are actually about the women themselves as much (ideally more of course) than they are about “the woman with a connection to such and such famous man.”

    • I didn’t mean for this to be depressing! But thanks for reminding me of the Jill Lepore book–I really should check that out.

      But, without knowing more about the book or the talk, I would say that, while attractive, what sounds like a “lean in” mentality for the archive–just work harder–can become as problematic as waiting for an archival goldmine. What I was gesturing toward, badly I think, was that any real change requires something more fundamental than that–a reorientation of our presumptions about the process of reconstructing interactions between people through research in the archives or in primary sources. And I think such a reorientation is possible!

      • I think that’s exactly what she has in mind, actually; apologies, I was being lazy with my own characterization of what I think she was trying to communicate.

  2. Andrew, so excited to be reading more of your work here, and thanks for this provocative post.

    I confess that as not much of a social historian, I don’t have a lot of in-the-trenches experience to compare to what you’ve written above. So that might make my thoughts even flakier than usual.

    But–am I right in thinking that there would seem to be certain limitations that come with studying intellectual communities and networks? If a given community or network was male-dominated or sexist, one has to try to make sense of that, yes? A study of Sunset Strip heavy metal bands in the 1980s is going to be mostly dudes who treated the women in their lives abysmally, right? The historian’s job in that case is mostly, I think, to cope with some unappealing facts (even if as historians we wish to be broadly sympathetic to our subjects).

    This may be prosaic advice (and I don’t mean to imply that you are asking for advice, but let’s pretend for the sake of argument)–if I was giving advice, I’d say that the domination of men in a certain section of a book, deriving from archival limits or historical vicissitudes, might be balanced out by a section organized around a more abstract thematic analysis–in which case a Meridel Le Sueur could speak to Sinclair Lewis even if they didn’t cross paths in “real life.”

    • Thanks, Kurt! I like your suggestion a lot, but the question I was trying to pose was a little different, I think. It’s not that I want to create a historical account that, in its reconstruction, simply evens the score, giving the same attention and weight to men and women. Rather, what I’m groping toward is a re-evaluation of the way we distribute historical evidence into boxes we’ve already marked “intellectual” or “social/biographical.”

  3. Andrew, I’m definitely glad to see you writing some guest posts for us! As to this particular problem, it’s a big one that is a tough one to counter. I ran into this briefly as a research assistant for a professor. Researching a female conservative who was, apparently, quite well known in the 1940s and 1950s but has been forgotten by now, Ruth Alexander, proved to be a little challenging. I just happened to discover the magazine that she was editor for and, thankfully, ILL had a few copies I could peruse.

    It’s tough to make people speak in your works who barely “spoke” in the archives. I’m hopeful more people will chime in, because this is an issue that I think more intellectual historians will have to confront over time.

    • Thanks, Robert! I’m really intrigued about Ruth Alexander now, though, as you say, she appears to have a small profile currently–I can find very little in a quick Googling. What was the magazine she edited?

      • It was a magazine called “Finance”. That was part of the problem; from what I could gather there were several magazines with that title throughout the 20th century. But her editorials in the magazine during the 1940s were blistering in both their critique of New Deal liberalism and defense of free enterprise. That’s mainly what she wrote about, as far as I can tell.

  4. Andrew —
    Fascinating post. I love how you move between your work in archival mode and your theoretical thinking: what’s in these archives and what’s not? what whispers are lurking in there and who takes up the most imaginative space?

    My only thought is that your post speaks directly to previous debates about the boundaries of intellectual history, but does it in a much more forceful way. Instead of debates about Kant or Honey Boo-Boo as figures worthy of intellectual history (http://s-usih.org/2013/02/what-is-the-subject-of-intellectual-history.html, http://s-usih.org/2014/01/kathryn-loftons-interview-and-intellectual-history-a-forum.html, and http://s-usih.org/2014/01/kathryn-lofton-thinking-through-intellectual-history.html), you shine the light directly on gender in relation to the power of making boundaries around what counts as intellectual history or not. And you are right to challenge intellectual historians to expand who is exercising the intellect and how they are doing so under what conditions.

    There of course is lots of work to build upon here in this pursuit: in women’s history, social history, cultural history, cultural studies, and intellectual history itself (just to name a few approaches). But the challenging methodological problems remain. And it’s good to see one historian’s efforts to grapple with them. Thanks!


    • Thanks, Michael! I completely agree that gender underlies a great deal of the debate of what is inside or outside intellectual history’s purview. I think there is an additional debate, though, that gets lost in the shuffle–one not quite so binary, but more about a hierarchy or spectrum, about the degree of intellectualness of a given subject, and I think there too women’s presence can be made peripheral, as with Mary McCarthy in L. D.’s original post. It’s not quite that McCarthy is going to end up outside intellectual history, but she may end up in the back row.

  5. Thanks for this interesting post and especially the point about how the search for archival miracles could lead one astray.

    As far as rethinking, perhaps the answer is challenge, as you have here, the distinction between the merely biographical and the intellectual.

    Perhaps here it would be helpful to take a clue from historians who have examined intellectual histories of the Early Modern period, the Scientific Revolution, or the Enlightenment.

    For instance, from the perspective of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer the invisibility of some intellectual workers (technicians, experimenters) was an ideological project that defined and created the boundaries of the modern sciences. If their historiography serves as clue, then there is no merely biographical especially when the biographical enables or even creates what has, by the contingent process of history, come to be defined as “intellectual”. From this perspective, “servers” don’t have only proximity, but can also have causality and influence depending on the situation. If so, that we might we focus on content but not on the software, hardware, and network infrastructure of the internet (and the people who made those possible) is a matter of cultural bias.

    If so and women are the servers in your network then from a certain perspective they are doing not just some work but THE work. In addition to connecting people who wrote about American Character, to serving as sounding boards (editors?), might not they also have suggested topics and rhetorical strategies? Might the existence of the network have been as or more important than the ideas of individuals — ideas which might never have formed or have been published without the network?
    Or, in terms of the origins of ideas and ideals of the American Character, might not the women in the network have served as conduits and interpreters of norms of self that had previously been carried and enforced by communities of women?

    • Wow, this is fantastic–I am completely unfamiliar with this historiography, but it sounds incredibly useful, incredibly rich. Thank you so much for pointing me to it.
      My general sense of the network of foreign correspondents is very much like what you describe in your last two paragraphs. I think the crucial move may be from seeing the women in these networks as “enabling” to seeing them as “generating”–not just sounding boards, as you say, but as editors, that is, shapers. Thanks so much for your comment. It has left me with much to think about.

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