Lessons of a Master

Edmund S. Morgan
Edmund S. Morgan; drawing by David Levine


Americans have been learning from Edmund Morgan for many decades—not only the distinguished historians he has trained at Yale, or other historians, but the reading public at large. He is the clearest of writers. He can put complex matters in ways that make misunderstanding him almost impossible. I learned much about American individualism from his account of the private conversion experience in Congregational churches.1 I never saw the brilliance of George Washington’s neutrality policy until I read his 1977 George Rogers Clark Lecture.2 The history of Virginia comes alive in his paradoxical book on slavery.3 He continues prolific to this day, having published in 2002 a survey of all Benjamin Franklin’s published and unpublished writings.4 Now he gives us a collection of his review-articles in these pages, in what he calls “a kind of intellectual autobiography.”

It is more than that. We get here a wise assessment of major developments in early American history over the last half-century.5 We see social history, black history, feminist history, arriving on the scene. We see what influence Freud and Marx still have. He separates serious contributions from fads or false starts. But he does not reduce any of the books he weighs to a mere representation of a “school” of history. Each is given a fair hearing on its own terms. In fact, he often makes a better case for a book than its author could. I tried several times to grasp the tangled argument of Sacvan Berkovitch in The American Jeremiad (1978), but I could not get it clear in my head till I read Morgan’s pellucid restatement of it. He makes it not only clearer but more persuasive (though I’m still not persuaded).

Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Because Morgan sees so clearly what each author is doing, or trying to do, he sees as well what has been skipped, suppressed, or covered over. The effect sometimes is almost comically deflationary, as if he were building up a fragile edifice, taking seriously each step of the process, only at the end to touch just one spot on it—at which it all falls down. Mary Beth Norton, for instance, argued that colonial women were more repressed in New England than in the South because the New Englanders were more subject to a “Filmerian” Father-King.6 Morgan simply notes that the King appointed more officers in the South than in New England, where the community charters of self-government and the dissident religion usually kept the Anglican king at a greater remove than in the South. The whole structure collapses with a sighing sound.

Though the results of this method can be devastating, Morgan is always fair and respectful when he differs from an author. Well, almost always. There is one place in this wide-ranging collection where he loses his temper, more with the book’s editor than…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.