U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Who Reads Carl Becker? (Guest Post by Andrew Seal)

[Editor’s Note:  This is the fifth of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal — Ben Alpers]

I just spent two lovely winter days in the town of Ithaca, poring through the papers of the historian Carl Becker. The papers are great: he was a good, if not especially personal or intimate correspondent with a few dozen noted historians, jurists, and other public intellectuals, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, William Dodd, Felix Frankfurter, and Max Lerner. And the Cornell collection fortunately includes copies of some of Becker’s outgoing letters from other universities’ collections, making it much easier to see both ends of the correspondence. And, of lesser utility but great physical impressiveness, there are a half-dozen or so sizable boxes of Becker’s notecards on a variety of projects, their preservation perhaps less a true resource for interpretation than a tremendously effective reminder of the sheer diligence and intensive methodicalness of a prior generation’s working practices.

What is clear from the correspondence, at any rate, is how revered Becker was as an intellectual authority, both because of his powerful revisions of famous figures and events from both the American and European pasts and also because of his literary verve: he was a historian as a man of letters, an American Macaulay or Burckhardt or (more contemporaneously) Huizinga. He wrote wittily about the Revolutionary Era, he wrote magisterially about the philosophes, he wrote passionately about the threats to democracy and to freedom that emerged from the challenge of new forms of rule (or what we might today call governmentalities) in the 1930s and 1940s. He did not really develop a school of younger scholars, but he often reached what was much closer to a mass audience than we typically find with an academic historian of his time. A number of his books were published—and relatively heavily promoted—by trade houses, and he wrote for many of the larger opinion journals. Moreover, he wrote what appears (I’m just going by the correspondence at this point) to have been a fairly widely-adopted textbook on “Modern History” for high schools.

Today, I think, we remember Becker not so much for his style, although an instantaneous brush with any of his writings makes us aware of it, nor for the originality of his interpretations of major figures or events, or even for his contemporary stature, but for his pivotal place in the “objectivity question,” as Peter Novick’s 1988 That Noble Dream has termed it. Becker’s 1931 Presidential address at the AHA conference, titled “Everyman His Own Historian,” is justly renowned as a cleverly disquieting and genuinely profound meditation on the problems that a commitment to utter “objectivity” is supposed to settle, if not to vanquish. “Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none,” Becker answers, and elaborates:

Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist, not really, since for all practical purposes there is no fact until some one affirms it. The least the historian can do with any historical fact is to select and affirm it. To select and affirm even the simplest complex of facts is to give them a certain place in a certain pattern of ideas, and this alone is sufficient to give them a special meaning. However “hard” or “cold” they may be, historical facts are after all not material substances which, like bricks or scantlings, possess definite shape and clear, persistent outline. To set forth historical facts is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks. A brick retains its form and pressure wherever placed; but the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them.

Those are some of the key sentences of the address, which you can read in its entirety here and a great post on this blog about it here, but I don’t want to tarry too long with “Everyman” because it is, after all, the best known of all of Becker’s works today and perhaps the only one really actively read. I would rather move on to asking why this is, why Becker is almost never now, and has not for a long time been, a resource for intellectual historians (or other historians) apart from “Everyman,” his most theoretical contribution.

Next week, in the last of my six guest posts, I want to do a little more exploring of why I think Becker would be a fine candidate for a revival among intellectual historians, but this week I wish just to open the question of whether I am perhaps missing a hidden Becker readership, or whether Becker has, in fact, gone “hors d’usage,” out of circulation. And, at the risk of making the following superfluous if I’m wrong and Becker is more widely read than I know, I’ll offer a few factors—quirks of intellectual history and historiography—that have produced this relative absence. One, which I’ve already remarked above, was the apparent lack of a school established in Becker’s name. He did not, I believe, have many influential graduate students; I’m not sure that he even had a proper festschrift.[1] Other than that, though, I think these contributed:

First, the field of “Midwestern early 20th century historians” or “Progressive historians” or “New Historians,” terms which describe essentially the same body of scholars, is crowded. When Richard Hofstadter wrote his study of the Progressive historians in 1968, he specifically cut out Becker as less influential than Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon Louis Parrington. I think Hofstadter was in fact wrong to distinguish his trio from Becker, but his opinion was nonetheless influential, and we can perhaps see its effects in the relatively marginal role Becker plays in David S. Brown’s much more recent treatment of the “Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing,” 2009’s Beyond the Frontier.

Second, Hofstadter does make an additional point which I feel is more compelling: Becker had no single book, at least on American history, which became the book. He was an oeuvre-kind of guy, someone whose new book was always exciting, but who had no single benchmark book against which his new works would be judged. Hofstadter is probably right that this lack made him less memorable and, perhaps, more diffusely influential.

Thirdly, Becker’s style, a crowning glory for his contemporaries and still unquestionably elegant, is nonetheless a bit rococo, with flourishes that are difficult to assimilate back into an argument. Becker loves to catch his reader off-guard, and so skimming is perilous—not an ideal style to command for our present age, perhaps.

These, at any rate, are some preliminary thoughts on Becker’s current status and how it may have gotten that way. But tell me, what is Carl Becker to you?

[1] There are a couple of monographs about him from the late 50s, a biography from the early 60s, and a collection of his letters compiled by the late Michael Kammen, who also spent most of his career at Cornell and was in many ways the actual intellectual heir of Becker.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a wonderful post, and a great reflection on Becker’s significance. It is interesting to think about where Becker sits in the emplotment of the career of the Midwestern Protestant intellectual historian in the work of David W. Noble… I can’t think, immediately, of what Noble does with Becker, but he might be an intriguing outlier within his frame…

    • Kurt,
      Sorry–I hadn’t forgotten about your comment but wanted to wait until I could actually look at Noble’s works before I responded. Historians against History has quite a lot about Becker, and there’s a number of references in the more recent Death of a Nation. But Noble is a really fascinating case: with such a long career (his first book was published in 1958, his latest in 2012), he is an outlier in just about any formation one might construct as far as postwar historiography goes.
      I’ll try to do some justice to this in this week’s post. Thanks for reminding me to check his work!

  2. FWIW, Bob Darnton would assign Becker’s Heavenly City in his classes on 18th century France and the Enlightenment. Not sure how long he continued the practice — this was in the late 1980s — but it suggests at a minimum that a historian of Darnton’s caliber thought Becker’s intervention in the historiography of the Enlightenment worth studying. Peter Gay certainly thought Becker a worthwhile antagonist; one might read Gay’s history of the Enlightenment as one long refutation of Becker’s argument that the Enlightenment was not a polemic against Christianity and religion so much as a transmutation into another idiom of traditional Christianity. And in fact, now that I think of it, in many ways Becker’s argument re the Enlightenment and Christianity has become much more standard among 18th century intellectual historians in the last two or three decades. All the Cambridge-style historiography on the role of Cambridge University-religion in the genesis of the Enlightenment — though I doubt any of those guys even mention Becker, their arguments are in some ways not that dissimilar from his. I haven’t read the Heavenly City since I was an undergrad, but I wonder now whether Darnton didn’t assign it to us precisely because he thought it so contemporary a work in historiography, upending our shallow and superficial sense that the Enlightenment was simply an argument against Christianity and religion.

  3. Corey,
    Thanks so much for this comment! I suppose, without having read more than a bit of Darnton, that I can see why there might be an affinity there. At any rate, I am glad the book was being taught then, and I’ll try to dig through some footnotes and see if it is being cited still. Thanks!

  4. I can’t believe I’ve not read even one complete work of Becker’s—neither book nor essay, only excerpts from the Everyman address. Now I’m going to make it a task to at least read all of that.

    Thanks for this, Andrew, and I look forward to your next post. – TL

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Great stuff. Really looking forward to the sequel! I’m a frequent USIH blog reader and very infrequent poster, but I felt compelled to weigh in on the open “What is Carl Becker to you?” question.

    I studied with David Brown as an undergraduate– when he was still writing the Hofstadter book but thinking openly, and aloud to students, about many of the ideas that eventually went into Beyond the Frontier. (Incidentally, at the risk of stepping in it, I was heartened by the defense his book received in a certain recent thread. I felt too biased to weigh in, but I always admired the critical, nuanced approach that my first mentor brought to Hofstadter). I grew interested in Becker because he was left out of Progressive Historians (a book I loved), and after stumbling upon the Everyman collection of essays in my college library. Then I found most of Becker’s others works available for cheap in Philadelphia used bookstores. And so I devoured his charmingly written work. I can’t quite explain why it resonated so much, apart from my own search for adaptable models of historical writing. Becker had humor, he could turn a sharp phrase, and he had a certain dark edginess that appealed to me in that post 9-11 moment. (This would have been about 2003). I certainly didn’t bring a lot of critical depth to bear, but instead absorbed his ideas all-too-passively. He also wrote a few essays on the subject of prose style, which I thought were good. Becker worked hard to perfect his craft, I learned. “If I can average a page a day of completed ms. I do well,” he noted of his habits. “I usually write and throw away ten pages to get one that will pass.” Interesting, I nodded along, sure that I could impose that same discipline upon myself. (Ha!)

    In Becker, I thought I had chanced upon a hidden treasure. Hardly anyone I spoke to about him knew who he was.

    Unsure if a PhD in history was right for me, after I graduated from college about ten years ago I entered a terminal MA program. The Becker books went with me. During my second semester I decided to write a lengthy research paper on him, and armed with Kammen’s edited collection of letters and small travel allowance, drove to Ithaca and cut my archival teeth. (The paper I wrote became my MA program’s equivalent of a master’s thesis). I think our experiences are similar, Andrew: I was also struck by the impressive range of his correspondents if not any particular radiant warmth in the letters.

    I was especially fascinated by one letter that made its way to these archives: Henry Adams to J. Franklin Jameson, 22 March 1911. (Forwarded to Becker by longtime AHA magnate Jameson). Prompted by Adams’ favorable reading of Becker’s 1910 essay, “Kansas,” the aged Brahmin had this to say: ““Professor Becker shaves dangerously close to laughing at us now and then. I enjoy not only the laugh, but also the restraint which it holds back… I do not know whether it is possible to do battle with the Philistine in American Universities, but I earnestly hope he will try. Yet no! I would be his friend, and wish him no serious wrong.”

    From this starting point I began to trace out a web of connections between Adams and Becker– some tangible, like this letter, or the fact that Becker wrote several pieces on Adams, and some imagined by Becker. Becker’s affinity for Adams became the lens through which I charted his intellectual trajectory, from a hopeful, reform-minded “Progressive Historian,” a student of Turner and JH Robinson, to the shoals of deep pessimism in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Sparked by your post, I unearthed this ancient paper (last saved changes: June 2005). With apologies for quoting myself, here is my hopelessly overwritten original “thesis”:

    “Becker’s exposure to the Education of Henry Adams drove him to a deep Adams fixation, propelling him towards his other works with an insatiable hunger to understand the man behind them. Over the course of the preceding years, he read Adams voraciously. In doing so, according to David Noble, Becker ‘revealed the desperate nature of the inner debate that he was engaged in with the ghost of Henry Adams.’ With Adams as his guide, this process matured into Becker’s own spiritual quest, a soul-searching, lonely mission into the depths of history.

    Acknowledging Becker’s efforts in the review [which Becker wrote on Adams’ Education], his colleague, Max Farrand, sent him a rewarding letter: ‘We happen to have (been) staying with a favorite niece of Henry Adams and another intimate friend, and we all agreed that your article is the best of its kind that we have seen… So few really appreciate him and one hears such foolish comments upon The Education that to find a kindred soul is in itself a satisfaction.’ Whether or not Becker took these words to heart, Farrand’s private gesture touched on a particularly prescient point, soon expressed publicly by many of their contemporaries. Voiced with increasing frequency during the later stages of his career, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of a ‘kindred’ affinity with Adams represented, for many, a fundamental change they perceived in Becker’s disposition. Indeed, coinciding with his intense foray into Adams’ writings, Becker underwent a prodigious transformation of character. Hardened by World War One, he took a sharp Adams-like turn as a historian. Losing the optimism of his youthful intellectual reformer mentality, Becker internalized a great deal of the tragic worldview expressed in the Education. Amidst the faith-shattering events of war, Adams’ haunting books struck a new chord, reshaping his mind and instilling it with a bitter pessimism.”

    I applied to PhD graduate programs with this essay as my writing sample, proposing that I would like to write a new intellectual biography of Becker as my dissertation. (A good one by Taylor B. Wilkins was published in 1961). It did not exactly elicit an enthusiastic response, though the University of Rochester seemed inclined and took a chance on me. I pursued Becker a little father, inexpertly pitching my essay to journals or for conferences. The feedback was almost universally negative. I don’t blame Becker; my work obviously lacked polish and maturity. But, owing to a lack of interest and new research interests of my own, I moved on entirely.

    I have often wondered about the Becker road not traveled. I’m fascinated about the work Andrew is doing, and I’m excited to read his take on how “Becker would be a fine candidate for a revival among intellectual historians.”

    This meandering account, however, is what Becker once meant to me. It was a thrill to remember it. Maybe I’ll pull him off the shelf tonight.

    • Jeff,
      I can’t express how inspiring and compelling*–and also useful–your response is. I’m delighted to hear that you had a similar experience in the Cornell papers, and I was similarly surprised when I found that Jameson letter enclosing Adams’s remarks. My interests lie more toward the (less original, I suppose) relations Becker maintained with Turner and with Robinson, and I thank you for your comments, as they encourage me to think more about Becker’s affinities and responses to the world of Adams as well as that of Turner.

      I only hope my second post on Becker can live up to this warm appreciation of his work and his life which you have provided here. Thank you again!

      *I was just reading in Wilkins’s bio that Becker once chided a student for using the word compelling, saying that historians should avoid using the ad copy of “cheap reviewers of trashy novels.” So I now enjoy using this word a little more.

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