U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writing, Reading, and the Rigor of the Calling

This semester I’m teaching a senior seminar for history majors. Among other things, we’re working on history writing and style. Because writing has never come easy to me, I find this daunting. I’m what might be called a “deliberate writer,” which means that I would rather read than write. In the back of my mind I sometimes figure that if the people on my ever-expanding list of favorite books write so damned well, why not leave the writing to them?

We plunged ahead anyway despite my silly reservations about the whole enterprise. I shared an idiosyncratic list of writing do’s and don’t’s with everyone before giving out a couple of examples of historical writing. We started with Paul K. Conkin’s Puritans and Pragmatists (1968), one of the first books I read seriously after deciding to do intellectual history years ago. To this day I pick it up every now and again. I always enjoy it. Conkin introduces his readers to the thought of “eight eminent American thinkers” spread across three hundred years or so. He begins with a “Puritan Prelude” before giving tidy portraits of Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Santayana. He runs a loose conceptual thread about the evolution of Puritanism into Pragmatism through his thoughts about all of them.

I gave my students the chapter on Benjamin Franklin because it has some wonderful judgments in it. My favorite line comes at the tail end of a paragraph where Conkin parses the differences between Franklin’s ideas and those of Puritans like Edwards. Franklin had no problem celebrating discipline and hard work, but he was also a self-satisfied egoist, rejecting the awestruck, fiery love of God that had potentially immolated the self of the Puritan believer. It followed that,

“If Franklin had accidentally met God on Market Street, he would have shook hands.” (84).

As we discussed lines like these, a very bright student of mine took mild objection to the Conkin’s description of Franklin’s relationships with others:

His lack of closeness and intimacy, and with it his lack of personal involvement and need, marked all his social relationships. He loved sincerely but lightly. He had numerous friends but no soul mates. He served, and asked service of others, but never committed his all to anyone or to any one thing. He needed so little from others that he tended to give too little, particularly to those who loved him most. But with Franklin this was not so much a blighting inability to love as a freeing lack of need for intense human involvements. His dispassionate noninvolvement even carried over into his view of himself (75).

From there Conkin goes on to discuss the Autobiography. My student wondered, “How can Conkin possibly know this?” After all, she figured, the section suggests an intimate knowledge of who Benjamin Franklin was as a person, which can’t possibly be revealed in the sources. I speculated that Conkin had read his Franklin extensively, and so must have felt that he knew him reasonably well, at least insofar as one could. This is tricky though, because Conkin knows at the same time that Franklin kept it close to the vest: “There may have been a real Franklin, a perfect but lonely puppeteer hidden behind the public figure, but if so he will remain perfectly hidden, for the image was perfectly manipulated” (75). But Conkin’s knowledge about Franklin appears too intimate, as if he imagines a private Franklin to account for the public one. The sources being what they are, he has few other options.

We talked about whether Conkin took too great a risk by writing about Franklin in this way. His writing strikes me as intensely moral, and so we wondered about that. Maybe writing is moral when it requires risk in the same way that serious beliefs about moral issues do. It could also be that Conkin just has an older sensibility in the book. (Sometimes Conkin reads like the George Santayana of Thought and Character, which makes his chapter on Santayana real delight to read, as if Santayana had occasion to sum himself up.)

Questions like these also bring up bottomless other questions about the scientific temperament of our age, common among some within our discipline, where we bombard one another with potentially infinite requests for more and more evidence. To be free from error, we need more and more corroboration for every judgment we make. Everyone who writes history has figured out at one time or another that this is a losing game. People are contradictory. We think different things at different times. We change our minds. The problem only becomes more difficult once the sources grow richer and more plentiful. When writing about a person, the trap can be fatal. We lose the capacity to safely judge their ideas. We also lose the ability to discuss what a thinker would have thought about something when no records attest to it. We can talk about what a thinker thinks, but the real aesthetic pleasure comes from getting at how a thinker thinks and why they do.

Seeing how I forced my students to read Paul Conkin’s book, I tend to side with his writer’s sensibility in my better moments. If we never venture a judgment of how a person thinks then we never really offer a best guess about that person’s mind, what made them tick. Knowing what a thinker thinks can be very useful, but knowing how they think, which requires spending lots of time with them, allows us to exercise our moral imaginations in a different way. If every human being forms a whole, then it makes sense to think about the how rather than the what. Even if we’re wrong, we at least do our best to consider the whole person. The historical record is a tyrant for being so incomplete. It allows us very little feeling for a life. Franklin made this even more difficult because he held so much back, or at least it appeared that he did. We’re left only to argue with one another in the dark. This is the rigor of our calling.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post Pete. It’s really nice to get an insight into what sounds like a great class. I’d be interested to know what other books you assign, and also whether you have any particular (and unusual?) writing exercises planned, given the focus of the seminar. So: updates later in the semester would be welcomed!
    The “how can Conkin possibly know this?” question cuts very adroitly to the heart of the epistemological dilemma of historical knowing and writing, doesn’t it? And it starts to push us to a confrontation of the instances when ‘facts’ become inadequate to the kind of reconstruction and interpretation that are also elements in historical understanding (whether strict empiricists like it or not). There’s a romantic gamble going on when historians make the leap from ‘what’ Franklin (or whoever) thought, to ‘how’ and ‘why,’ and as part of this gamble argument and interpretation are dressed up in the garb of plain assertion and description. Of course, this incorporation of imaginative interpretation into ostensibly descriptive claims is ripe for contestation and revision, and rightly so. But I (like the author of the post here, it seems) wouldn’t want to discard it; indeed, I don’t think we have the choice.
    Maybe that’s part of the lesson for historical writing: that we need to free ourselves from our disciplinary suspicion of imagination, speculation, intimacy (at least at moments); and to indulge in other kinds of knowing than the ‘purely’ factual.

  2. To me, it doesn’t seem so difficult to determine if there was a satisfaction of having close friends. Ask the questions (which should be in the historical record), “Who did he give money to.” and “Who stayed as a guest in his house for long periods of time.” There are other questions like those which shed light on him not having close friends.

    • Fair enough. I don’t disagree with you. To be more precise, we can judge reasonably if the subject who appears in the historical record had the satisfaction of having close friends. The private Franklin who actually lived is obscure. Conkin makes this point pretty neatly I think.

      Yet, I’m not sure if I agree that you can tell the extent to which someone loved another person by who they gave money to. I’ve given money to people that I don’t much care for at all. There’s nothing of the warp and woof of the experience of friendship in that. I’ve also lived long enough in the South to know that people can spend lifetimes being “nice as pie” to one another, being outwardly generous, while secretly despising the other.

      As for house guests, there is the famous Poor Richard saying about that, so that tells us something I guess, eh?

  3. Hi Robin, great to hear from you. We’re reading all kinds of things because the class is a bit of everything: historical thinking, writing, and practical stuff for the transition to the world of work. Among other things on the syllabus are Nietzsche’s “Uses and Abuses,” Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Conkin, Hofstadter’s chapter on Calhoun from the American Political Tradition, and a section of David Blight’s Race and Reunion. We’re also spending lots of time reading one another’s work.

    I do think we tend to be suspicious of imagination, speculation, and intimacy because it seems to us a trick or something. If an article or a book is too well written it must be wrong somehow or not as rigorous. (This could be the John Dewey disease. Bill James was often wrong, but he was gloriously wrong and at least he knew his way around a metaphor.)

    In some ways it’s more difficult to do the work of summing up a thinker’s how and why. A philosopher I know once told me that learning a thinker is like having a dance partner. You step on toes for a while before figuring each other out, then you can begin to anticipate the next move. Once you’ve done that, you can try out different dances, maybe even take the lead some.

    As you say, though, this sort of thing is ripe for contestation and revision, but that seems to me how it should be. That’s what enlivens the craft and makes us want to continue doing it.

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