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America Absolved

For saints and seers History is all one: they call it terror (Eliade) or nightmare (Joyce) or inertia (Nietzsche), and dream of escape. For lesser men, though, the matter is complicated. Aware of history as an oppressive dead hand on experience, they think of it also as a contrivance, that which historians make or “do,” and they tend to be optimistic about the doings. Shrewd inquirers can find things out about the past that, as the historian Marc Bloch says, the past didn’t know about itself, or didn’t wish to know. They also can learn forgotten languages, social or political, which, used with appropriate gingerliness as a means of interpreting the present, win respect for critiques of contemporary dogma that would seem outrageous if delivered in contemporary terms. Neither accomplishment enables the inquirer to get the full weight of the monkey-past off his back; neither offers the audience a ready way up and out of time into eternity—that for which seers have a crying need. But both provide people with release in the form of a glimpse of Now from the outside. And in a faithless age the need for this release is so great that whatever satisfies it deserves regard as a kind of poor man’s Grace.

As should at once be admitted, commonplaces like these are irrelevant to ordinary works of American history. Most studies of our past are written by men who are simply passing respectably through the professional day, harming nobody, keeping facts in sight, establishing that the humble act of being sound about any subject demands hard work (the point can never be well-enough established).

And at first glance the treatise at hand appears to deserve no higher praise than this. The tenth book of a forty-six-year-old scholar, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, promises little to people who read professional tomes for the pleasure of encountering (or imagining) appurtenances of the lost world of leisure—library loafers, claret lunches, fireside teas, pretty calligraphy and the like. A whiff of grimy worldliness, essence of textbook-TV-timestudy academia, rises from its pages; some provincial readers who turn them will call to mind the stereotype of the Columbia prof as the proprietor of a madly expanding one-man insurance brokerage—a hustler nailing the big premium every time he hits the street, quoting rates in phone booths while nibbling a desperate Nab, shooting back to the shop to break in a fleet of new clerks and stenographers (the staff Dean Barzun said every professor should have) and all the while flogging himself with the dream of getting out early tonight to Bellmore to spend half an hour with the kids. The author announces that he worked on and off at this large volume for ten years; in that period he delivered lectures in series at a splendid variety of other institutions (the universities of Michigan and Southern California, Hiram College, Smith College, Princeton—and Cambridge, overseas) wheeled and dealed successfully with the foundations (the Carnegie Corporation and the Fund for the Advancement of Education were among his supporters) and finished six other books. His thanks go forth to no fewer than four “research assistants,” a Miss Gruber among them. Toward the close of his book he delivers himself on the natural isolation of the intellectual (“The truly creative mind is hardly ever so alone as when it is trying to be sociable…. Facing the world…alone seems to be the characteristic creative stance”), and a page or two later he acknowledges the help not only of the four assistants but of thirty-three friends. And throughout he abides by the noxious footnote rules which require an academic author to drop off at the bottom of every page, like a young mouser mewing pridefully at the back door, a furry little ball of dead adjectival tribute (“Marcus Cunliffe, “in his penetrating study”…”Merle Curti, in his suggestive little volume….” “For an excellent statement about the numbers…see Timothy L. Smith…” “For an interesting exercise in definition, see Morton White…” “For a spirited defense and appreciation…see Samuel Eliot Morison…” “For a stimulating exploration…see R.W.B. Lewis…” etc.).

Nor is it merely superficies and trivia of production and composition that raise doubts about the book’s essential value. No one before Professor Hofstadter had thought to write a history of American attitudes toward mind, tracing general cycles of hatred, love and apathy from the 17th century to the present, and avoiding such pitfall topics as “highbrow anti-rationalism.” But few specialists in any period of the American past have left these attitudes wholly out of account—which is to say that the “field” of anti-intellectualism is not one from which news for professional Americanists can easily be reaped. Professor Hofstadter treats patterns of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism in religion (from the Puritan clergy through the Awakeners and Evangelicals to the evolution controversy), in politics (from the decline of the Federalist elite through Godkin and the Civil Service reformers to the rise of the expert), in business (“the vanguard of anti-intellectualism in our culture”), and in education (special attention to Dewey and the gospel of life adjustment). The heroes, episodes and books that figure in his most entertaining pages—Davy Crockett, Henry Adams in Washington, Billy Sunday, George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, T.R. as “fighting intellectual,” Robert M. LaFollette, the Scopes Trial, the Brain Trust, Henry C. Link’s The Return to Religion, Adlai Stevenson—have been heard of before. The evidence marshalled in support of his perceptions often amounts only to a long paraphrase of one or another recent, readily available study. (Professor Hofstadter was startled, presumably while reading Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left [1961], by the continuity between traditional business attitudes toward mind and those appearing in leftist discourse of the 1920s and 1930s. He pieces out this “insight” for seven anecdotal paragraphs in which every quotation and incident, as the footnote brightly reports, is taken “from [Aaron], pp. 25, 41, 65, 93-4, 132n, 162, 163-4, 168, 209, 210-212, 216, 227, 240-2, 254, 308, 337-8 346, 409, 410, 417, 425.”) And impatience, a force that occasionally pushes him toward melodrama and away from analysis, seems least well controlled precisely when he approaches the subjects—the psychology of the elitist withdrawal in the 1820s for one—that he is best placed to probe.

That in spite of these failings Anti-Intellectualism in American Life does succeed in recovering a forgotten language is owing largely to the author’s ease with complexity, his readiness to present the brain-baiting of the past in its full socio-political context. “To be confronted with a simple and unqualified evil is no doubt a kind of luxury,” says Professor Hofstadter at the outset, “but such is not the case here; and if anti-intellectualism has become, as I believe it has, a broadly diffused quality in our civilization, it has become so because it has often been linked to good, or at least defensible, causes.” The position has shortcomings, of course: the writer’s fondness for qualification and distaste for moralizing fervor prevent the neglected truth which he brings back into view from becoming the center of a passionate argument. Alienated waifs and moony hipsters on the one hand, Establishment apologists on the other, will be piqued—but not shaken—by his words; ordinary folk will perceive the fatuity of some modern assumptions about “the situation of the intellectual” without being released from their weight. Yet, as these remarks imply materials for a powerful critique of contemporary cant lie ready at hand for the reader of Anti-Intellectualism, and at those moments when the author puts them to effective use, the book rises to the level of a major project of reclamation.

The neglected truth reclaimed, namely that one man’s anti-intellectualism is another man’s democratic aspiration, is well-represented in the opening chapters, which explain with admirable clarity why simplicity needs to be laid by:

[Anti-intellectualism] first got its strong grip on our ways of thinking because it was fostered by an evangelical religion that also purveyed many humane and democratic sentiments. It made its way into our politics because it became associated with our passion for equality. It has become formidable in our education partly because our educational beliefs are evangelically egalitarian. Hence, as far as possible, our anti-intellectualism must be excised from the benevolent impulses upon which it lives by constant and delicate acts of intellectual surgery which spare these impulses themselves. Only in this way can anti-intellectualism be checked and contained; I do not say eliminated altogether, for I believe not only that this is beyond our powers but also that an unbridled passion for the total elimination of this or that evil can be as dangerous as any of the delusions of our time.

But the force of the truth in question stems less from the flat statements of the author than from the language of the past that he quotes. For it is this language—some of it spoken by the elite, some by the unwashed—which puts the reader in fresh touch with the complicated, even dignified, feelings for which the historian offers his defense.

In the elite voices, dignity is sometimes the concomitant of a kind of humane pastoral generosity, as when Jefferson contrasts the moral sense of the ploughman with that of the professor. (The contrast, favorable to the ploughman, is made in terms altogether free of the vices of self-hatred or sentimentality that now unman some men of mind.) And sometimes it is a product of the habit of responsibility, as when Greeley remarks that the reason the American yeoman wavers in his natural respect for talent and learning is that talent and learning are too often “directed to the acquisition of wealth and luxury by means which add little to the aggregate of human comforts, and rather subtract from his own special share of them.” The voices of the unwashed, in contrast, can be respected because they are rooted, as Greeley implies, in a real world—one in which men who cry out against Establishment selfishness are responding to fact not fantasy, and are moved by commendable aspiration for their sons, not by ressentiment. The North Billerica, Mass. farmer whose anti-intellectual, anti-Establishment pamphlet called The Key of Libberty appeared in 1798 was, as Professor Hofstadter admits, a crude man, unworried about “the consequence of his policy for high culture”—but he was no enthusiast of ignorance. His paper opened with the assertion that “Learning & Knowledge is essential to the preservation of Libberty & unless we have more of it amongue us we Cannot Seporte our Libertyes Long.” The point of the man’s attack on physicians, ministers, judges and “all letirary men & the over grown rich” is that their single concern is to elevate the status of the professions:

…the few are always crying up the advantages of costly collages, national acadimyes and gramer schooles, in order to make places for men to live without work and so strengthen their party. But are always opposed to cheep schooles & woman schooles, the ondly or prinsaple means by which larning is spred amongue the Many…. For if we apply for a Preacher or a School Master, we are told the price, So Much, & they can’t go under, for it is agreed upon & they shall be disgrased if they take less.

And the historian, reviewing this charge in the light of conditions of the age—“a time when the vaunted common school system of Massachusetts was being neglected”—is obliged to assert that “there was a certain rough justice in [it that] cannot be denied.”

As already indicated, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life has other ends in view besides the pursuit of “rough justice” on this model. Professor Hofstadter’s decision about the North Billerica farmer is that his position was ultimately damaging to “intellectual culture.” He takes the same view of the NEA and the gospel of life adjustment, of Charles Grandison Finney and “Presbygational” evangelism, and (at a lower level) of Cotton Ed Smith, who told the Senate that Rex Tugwell was unqualified to be Undersecretary of Agriculture because he had never been a dirt farmer, hence was “not a graduate of God’s Great University.” At no point does he become an apologist for sunny mindlessness. But at every moment he is conscious that in a democratic society effort to apply fixed labels to men in the name of mind or of taste is unrealistic: whom the elite call vulgar are also to be called brother, the unwashed are also the unadvantaged, the unrealized are never, flatly, the unredeemable. “It is rare for an American intellectual,” says Professor Hofstadter, “to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.” And it is largely because, in conducting his historical inquiries, he himself rarely shies from such confrontations, that his book arrives repeatedly at hitherto inexpressible truths. He succeeds in defining psycho-political implications of the contemporary intellectual’s fascination with mass culture—estrangement from democratic faith among them. (“The…note of inhumanity, which often creeps into discussions of mass culture may be explained in some part by an underlying sense of grievance against a populace that has not lived up to expectations.”) And addressing himself to deeper convictions of the same men, he is able to name the precise shift of assumption that in recent days has driven intellectuals on toward extravagance and cant:

The prophets of alienation who speak for the left no doubt aim to create a basis for some kind of responsible politics of protest, but when the situation of the intellectual is under consideration their tone becomes strident, and then one hears how much better it is to have “blind unreasoning rejection” rather than to make moral compromises; the talk is of nostalgia for “earlier certainties that made resistance easy,” of the primary need of the intellectual to discharge aggression, of the dangers of becoming a “prostitute” or a “traitor” to the fundamental obligations of the intellectual’s role, of the alleged antithesis between social responsibility, which is bad, and intellectual responsibility, which is good. The point here is that alienation in the intellectual is not simply accepted, as a necessary consequence of the pursuit of truth or of some artistic vision, but that a negative stance or posture toward society is prescribed as the only stance productive of artistic creativity or social insight or moral probity.

Regrettably, those likely to be hostile to Professor Hofstadter’s account of the cult of alienation are offered a weapon by the range of his book’s backward glance. The very orthography of the key texts cited suggests that intense democratic aspiration, perfervid labor toward self-realization, belong to the past. Yes, yes, in olden times scholars and artists and professionals were abused in large part because they seemed determined to prevent others from rising to their rank. But what of the last two decades? Why does the learned professor not deal directly with Hiss-Chambers or with the McCarthy years? If he had focussed on these episodes would he have found it possible to establish a relation between anti-intellectualism and “humane and democratic sentiments?” Would he still have believed in the appropriateness (in a mass society) of talk about excising anti-intellectualism from benevolent impulses “by delicate acts of intellectual surgery”? Isn’t it a fact that the professor makes his case by avoiding the grittiest episodes in memory—outbursts that did incomparably more damage to “intellectual culture” than any he cites?

The questions are not trivial, and a journalistic notice is hardly the place to engage them—by arguing, say, that the anti-Establishment furies of the late forties and mid-fifties are themselves as complex in origin as any released in the 19th century. (The critique of contemporary dogma does indeed seem outrageous when delivered in contemporary terms.) Still there is some point in recalling that only a few years before these furies occurred Americans had undergone an experience of hierarchical vigor which may well have been for millions stunning in its effect. The voice of privilege and command of those days spoke often in a tone controlled more by sniffishness than by manly love of the flag, or by the sense of necessities of discipline, and nobody could have loved it.—You will not eat our food, wear our clothes, enter our clubs; you will not speak until spoken to; you will sir, salute, or snivel to youth, incompetence, even apparent stupidity: for you are not a college man. Had the Harvard lieutenants and Bowdoin ensigns tipped a universal wink, “military courtesy” would have disappeared and doubtless military discipline as well; but millions would have had a less exacerbating encounter with “trained minds.” What was taught by the educated gentlemen whose land and beeves were leaves and bars wasn’t manners alone but the very concept of establishmentarianism, exclusiveness itself. And how content were these lecturers, how extraordinarily untormented in their separateness! How remarkably comfortable (for them) the transition from the rhetoric of equality to the rhetoric of superiors and inferiors! In the glance of brass-browed military man there was that which probably chilled countless dreams of mobility and self-realization. And conceivably the resentment and frustration thus amassed—anger at university smugness known at first hand—wasn’t an insignificant part of the huge capital drawn on by mind-baiters in the Hiss and McCarthy years.

Does it follow from this that the events of those years, the release of rage in persecution, recreated democratic faith in America? Perhaps a few who read these words could believe that one man’s experience might lead him to contain his scorn of such a conclusion. There were schoolboys going off to work in the middle and late thirties, while others were enthroned as fresh-men, who learned to envy the rich and the lucky, and sustained themselves on a smelly broth of feeling—self-pity, no hope for the ambitious, BOYS BOYS BOYS in the back page agency ads of the Herald Trib—that was the staple too of the soldier’s life. And there are a few who have acknowledged that the great upheaval of 1947, the tearing down of the Ivy by the grocer’s boy from Whittier, meant something: they could be turned on, the lucky ones, they did not own the world…. The reviewer, a reporter, husband, father and vet in his mid-twenties then, found satisfaction for his ignorance in the baying of that elite; he remembers to his shame (the latter a belated achievement) that the episode encouraged him in his “decision” to turn student.

And while there are limits to the personal reference, they are not so over-powering as to cancel the relevant possibility—namely that any moment in American life at which men of ordinary intelligence and powerful desire believe themselves to be blocked off, anti-intellectualism is likely to become impure: a mode for the release of decent aspiration as well as of vicious, mindless envy. To think of that discovery as absolution (everything understood, everything forgiven) is, to be sure, to become a victim of history on the model Nietzsche described. But to think of it as a further snippet telling on Professor Hofstadter’s “side,” supporting arguments for a complicated understanding of anti-intellectualism, might be neither a hopeless error nor an invitation to complacency. It is true that the great American trick of yesteryear was that of being oblivious to the defects of virtues—but presently the trick is that of being oblivious to the virtues of defects. And both tricks cheat. Never in England, say some, could a McCarthy terrorize academies, politicians, best people: there the challenge would be despised. But the weakness here that could not despise, that could only trim and whine and hide, was at least a human villainy—evidence that in America men charged as figures of privilege are incapable of retaining their equipoise, can actually be shamed for lighting each other’s candles, paying out to members only the soft jobs, the easy chairs, the solid cots, the whiskey in the rest area, the ham and jam breakfasts, the coffee and buns at Battalion. And that shame is a potency as well as a disaster.

To repeat: the reassertion of connections between mind-baiting and democratic aspiration creates no ground for self-congratulation, no wholly satisfactory vocabulary of grace. The writer who takes up the task of reviewing the links cannot think of himself as engaged in producing a work that the community of knowledge will welcome as a necessary book. And it is possible—despite truisms about the uses of history—that the author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life would have contributed more had he dared to face the chaos in memory. The result of his labor, though, is far from another piece of production-line Americana: courageously sane at its best, the book demands praise as a work which not only serves truth and the nation simultaneously, but erects a new barrier against despair.

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