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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 his subject.

Far from being a liberal or radical critic of American power—a traditional “posture,” as they say nowadays—Miller was in practice quite disinterested, but professionally excited by the opportunity to trace the “basic” patterns, to show the “main” lines, to bring out the “central” implications. These were among his key words, as inevitably they must be to the historian whose chief interest is not the preeminent but the genuinely influential, not the man but the trend he helps to shape. Miller had the imperious force and the omnivorousness that his subject required. He soaked up a vast variety of undistinguished documents in order to show the major lines, to bring the age together. His own passion was for exposition and demonstration; of parti pris he had none. Where so many people in this field have indicated the moral purpose and justification of American history, Miller, working with many such old voices and their hopes, seemed more interested in tracing the lines that had to converge. In short, his own interest in the material was dramatic-pedagogical rather than philosophical. He confronted the reader with an astonishing, overmastering body of sources, and although his own comments were often wry, their real effect was to make the pattern emerge.

Although Miller’s last book, The Life of the Mind in America: From Revolution to Civil War, was not a third completed when he died, it is not hard to see what the whole book would have been like. Here his historical speculations were at a minimum, and never startling. The completed sections are on the revivals and on the legal mentality; he left notes for the section on technology, and he had planned to make a mighty sweep of the nineteenth century with sections on Education, Political Economy, Philosophy, Theology, Nature, The Self. In what he wrote one can see that his theme, as always, was the emerging spirit of national union, of popular solidarity—“…the transformation of colonial America into a nation commences with the shout of the Revival and then proceeds apace through a greedy appropriation of legal science to suit the native circumstances….” As always, Miller liked to show that the “formative” influences were often the now forgotten men, and as always the energetic metaphors with which Miller made his connections were matched by the edge that he showed to those less informed who still emphasized the well-known work rather than the determining one that has been forgotten.

In 1829 Jacob Bigelow published in Boston a book entitled Elements Of Technology. It should be honored as a major document in American intellectual development; it has not been so esteemed because, of course, the technological revolution already extensively under way when Bigelow wrote has proceeded at such a pace that his little book seems rudimentary. Yet it is indeed curious that the highly industrialized society of twentieth-century America can be bullied by humanistic professors into remembering Emerson’s Nature of 1836…and yet will not bother to salute in Bigelow a prophet more relevant to the later economy than either Emerson or Jefferson.

Some of Miller’s sources in the opening section on revivalism are plainly not so significant to religion as Bigelow was to technology. But Miller’s capacity for enlisting every needed witness to the “life of the mind” in nineteenth-century America was plainly inexhaustible. Yet as a result of this mighty chorus of witnesses, one can see just what Protestant America was thinking about in the 1830s, and so one can see what it would soon give up and what it would think next. Really to be able to demonstrate, from the past, the tendencies that were pressing for recognition, to show society as an organism with a consciousness of its own, a sense of the past and a claim on the future—this is the remarkable feat that only a wholly dedicated and gifted historian can perform. Henry Adams said at the end of his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that if in its beginnings American history resembled the modest sources of the Rhine, in its onrushing power it was acquiring, as it moved to the ocean, an interest almost “painful.” The painfulness of this interest for Perry Miller is quite obvious. It held him with remarkable intensity during his professional career, and in a sense—because the man was not as sturdy as the historian, and could not always bear the burden of being this involved an historian—it helped to kill him. It is easy enough to praise Miller’s scholarship and range; as a scholar, his capacity was nothing less than majestic, and no one left in the field has so much to teach us. But the “painfulness” of this interest attached to American history stems not only from the onrushing tendency of American power, but also from the fact that Adams knew—that with us the historian is swept up into his history; the progress he relates is one he follows up in the very language of his book. That is why Miller did not take a “position” on the events he relates; he was himself an actor in the story. By writing it, he became part of it. What he had seen that day in Africa was the revelation of his own strength, his own urge. What is unusual about this is only that the identification was complete, yet never explicit.

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