On Perry Miller

The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War

by Perry Miller
Harcourt, Brace & World, 338 pp., $7.50

Perry Miller liked to tell the story of how he had conceived his lifework as an historian of ideas in America. It all began in Africa, where one day, while on an extended Conradian adventure after graduating from the University of Chicago, he found himself looking after a vast cargo of oil drums from the States, and was so bemused and personally illuminated by the range of American power that he determined to trace its evolution. When he died at fifty-eight in 1963, he had already proved himself such a master of basic and often neglected sources in the intellectual history of American Protestantism over three centuries that his work had taken on something like the grandeur of design associated with the great nineteenth-century historians and system-builders. Beginning at the beginning, he did his doctor’s thesis on Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, the conscious first step in his resolve to trace the pattern leading up to the modern colossus; he then went on to publish his astonishingly fresh study of The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, its sequel, From Colony to Province; his remarkable book on Jonathan Edwards, his compilations on Puritanism and Transcendentalism, on the legal mind in America, on social thought between the Civil War and the First World War, on Margaret Fuller. He had moved up to the nineteenth century with The Raven and the Whale, and had already written the two opening sections of his most ambitious book, The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War, when he died.

Miller was an extraordinary scholar—and as a scholar was so ambitious, voracious of all possible sources in his field, hard-driving yet intellectually unattached that though he rather liked to play the bull in the Harvard china shop, the burly Chicagoan in polite old Cambridge, he was entirely at home in the university, was a brilliantly authoritative teacher and guide; he suffered more from emotional pressures than from any intellectual need to transcend the limits of academic method. Miller became for our generation the great master of Puritan theology, but he was personally unsummoned by religion; although he wrote and talked brilliantly on the key figures in American writing, he felt none of the critic’s attachment to certain achievements. His passion was for history—and precisely the history of American Society as experienced in ideas. Miller wanted to demonstrate, to bind up together in the pages of one mighty life-work, the structure and sources of the American mind. And he meant American and mind as only historians ever do—through the involvement of many minds—some by no means distinguished, but effective. In the end, the national mind is the national force. Although American force was a subject about which Miller could sound properly critical and foreboding, he was nevertheless excited by it as a subject, as the essential temper of his subject always excites the historian. Miller was supremely confident of what he could bring to the illumination of …

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