Lessons of a Master

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. 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. 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. 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 with the author. The Library of America appointed for its volume American Sermons (1999 …

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