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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.