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The High and the Low

The High and the Low

November 1, 2006

Tuning in to CSPAN’s weekend books coverage a few months ago, I caught the rebroadcast of a panel discussion among three or four biographers of American presidents, held in a large auditorium somewhere. All of them had done well -- all of the biographies, that is. Not all of the presidents were so lucky. But the topic of the moment, as I happened to start watching, was neither the highest office in the land or the unique challenges faces a best-selling author. They were discussing, rather, the state of American history as a field.

The consensus appeared to be that the situation was terrible. Scholars were neglecting the lives and achievements of the truly important figures. Instead, they were studying social history, cultural history, economic history -- everything, alas, except Great Man history. One fellow on the panel was the author of books on the Founding Fathers that had won great acclaim; it was easy to imagine big bags of money being delivered to his door regularly by a grateful publisher. He proferred a simple explanation for all the scholarship on slave revolts, immigrant neighborhoods, obscure women’s organizations, and other such riff-raff. It was very simple, actually. Those historians hated America.

He offered no rational argument for this claim. Nor, indeed, would one have been possible. The assertion went unchallenged.

Now, everyone has the right to express an opinion -- and nobody is under any obligation that it be informed. But there must be limits to just how much shameless nonsense the public sphere can afford to let circulate. The idea that American historians are refusing to study the illustrious dead -- let alone that they are doing so because they are "anti-American" -- is too bizarre for sane people to indulge.

If a decreasing percentage of the historical profession’s resources go to studying, say, the Founding Fathers, as such, a couple of less feverish possibilities come to mind. One is that the number of historians interested in the U.S. grows from decade to decade -- while the population of Founding Fathers available for study remains constant. The real barrier for scholars wishing to concentrate on them comes from the need to find something new to say about them.

But that's only part of the situation. And of course there is still good work being done raising issues about the Founding Fathers. History is a pluralistic field, both at the level of the phenomena it examines and the methods it uses to study them. Pluralism does not equal either moral relativism or epistemological skepticism. (Nor will a million ranters in the blogosphere ever make it so.) But it does preclude acting as if there were a single correct approach -- one single level of historical reality worth serious attention, or one uniquely effective tool or framework for understanding the past.

Just as a matter of personal preference, let me admit to being quite interested in Benjamin Franklin. He qualifies as a dead white property-owning male, if anyone could, and he was in many respects the Founding Fathers’ Founding Father. I would much rather read a biography of Franklin than, say, a detailed study of labor contracts in 18th century Philadelphia -- or an econometric analysis of how King George’s taxation policies affected the North American paper industry.

But history is not a zero-sum enterprise. The well-being of history as a discipline demands that scholars be able to do that sort of monographic work. And it is in my long-term interest as a reader of books about Franklin that precisely such research be done. (It gives biographers access to elements of the world in which he lived.) All of this seems pretty obvious, though not the sort of point that gets made on television very often. Demagogy is so much more exciting.

A memory of that cringe-inducing moment on CSPAN flooded back to mind a few days ago, upon news of the death of Lawrence W. Levine, a professor of history emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. (He also served as president of the Organization of American Historians and, after retiring from Berkeley, taught in the history and cultural studies programs at George Mason University.) The headline of one obituary summed up his life and work by calling Levine a "historian and multiculturalist." Accurate enough, as far as it went. But that word "multiculturalist" is now about as stimulating to the higher centers of the brain as Pavlov’s bell. The minute they hear it, some people start to drool.

Ten years ago, Levine offered a calm and reasoned response to Alan Bloom in a book called The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, published by Beacon Press. (For a sympathetic but not uncritical review that sums up his argument, scroll down the page a bit here.) Levine was an early recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and his more specialized books are as accessible to the general reader as serious scholarship can be. But most of his influence was on other historians.

Hearing that he was a "multiculturalist" really tells you very little about Levine accomplished. It was not just that he looked at the diversity of cultural traditions making up American life. He also made connections between history and other fields.

His groundbreaking study Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1977) looked at how songs and stories gave black Americans “the means of preventing legal slavery from becoming spiritual slavery” by creating a domain “free of control by those who ruled the earth.” His approach was, in part, a matter of using ideas from folklore and anthropology about African “survivals” that had survived the Middle Passage. But Levine’s research also led him in another direction -- toward Shakespeare.

In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in (Harvard University Press, 1988), Levine describes reading accounts of minstrel shows “to derive some more exact sense of how antebellum whites depicted black culture.” What he found, to his astonishment, was an abundance of allusions to the Bard -- jokes and parodies, for example, that implied that the audience knew the plays fairly well.

Digging deeper, he unearthed an entire lost world. Levine showed how, until sometime shortly after the Civil War, Shakespeare was part of the nation’s common culture, drawing large and rowdy audiences who had very definite opinions about how the plays should be performed, and were not shy about expressing them. (The egg, as more than one visiting British actor learned, proved a handy instrument of dramatic criticism.) Favorite scenes from Hamlet were often part of the bill at variety shows, along with trained monkeys and similar acts. In major cities, two or three different stagings of Macbeth sometimes competed for the public’s patronage, while bored residents of a mining camp might put on Richard III for fun.

Some of the adaptations sound abominable. One very popular version of King Lear, for example, had a happy ending. But the gusto was unmistakable. American Bardolatry included the belief that he was a very great writer, perhaps the very greatest. But it was also shot through with a sense that he was, deep down, a man of the people -- hence, especially to be appreciated in a democratic nation. Levine described one stage-curtain from the early 19th century showing Shakespeare climbing into the heavens atop the back of an American eagle.

By the late 19th century, though, something had happened. People began to think of Shakespeare as anything but entertainment. His verse was either sublime and uplifting (if you were the refined sort) or a bore (if you weren’t). By the 1870s, it was getting harder and harder to find a show that would offer you both some Shakespeare and a performance involving dancers and musically gifted livestock. And by the dawn of the 20th century, nobody was looking.

What happened? Well, you should read Levine’s book, which also shows how a similar transformation occurred in the public appetite for opera and classical music across the same period. Suffice it to say that deep changes in American economy and the society made for very different attitudes towards Shakespeare and Mozart. It is a short book, but also one of the great mind-opening works on U.S. history -- a strangely moving reminder of how little of the nation’s actual past survives in the contemporary memory.

“That essay on ‘William Shakespeare in America’ is worth a whole library of cultural studies work,” Michael Kazin told me recently when we discussed Levine by phone. Earlier this year, Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, published a biography of William Jennings Bryan. Levine had studied Bryan for his own dissertation at Columbia University, later published as a book.

Levine’s analysis, which challenged the familiar image of Bryan as creationist buffoon, was an important influence on Kazin’s interpretation of the politician. Levine and Kazin were also friends, initially bonding over an interest in the films of Frank Capra. Levine read parts of Kazin’s work in manuscript, and for a while they were in a book group together.

“He had a great no-bullshit style,” said Kazin. “It was a New York Jewish working-class wit. It reminded me of my father, though Larry was younger by maybe 15 years.”

The comparison caught me by surprise. His father, the late Alfred Kazin, had published major studies of American literature such as On Native Grounds and God and the American Writer. These were works of literary scholarship of a decidedly untheoretical and pre-multicultural sort.

So I wondered if there could be more to the resemblance between Levine and Kazin Sr. than something about the way they spoke.

“O n Native Grounds is about literature,” Kazin said, “but it’s also about the process of ‘Americanizing.’ My father was trying to understand the popular wellsprings of literature. Sure, Larry was the great historian of multiculturalism, but most of his work was about trying to understand the nation as a unity. The great thing about him was that he always had big questions about how that unity actually worked. How did blacks resist slavery and survive it afterwards? How did we end up with the plays of Shakespeare, the mass artist, becoming something restricted to the elite? Those should be questions in American history.”

And for anyone concerned about the neglect of Great Men, it’s worth mentioning that Levine’s last published book, written with his wife Cornelia R. Levine, was The People and the President: America’s Conversation With FDR (Beacon Press, 2002). But it wasn’t a departure from his practice of studying history from below.

“It looks at the letters people sent to FDR,” said Kazin. “It’s about how high and low interact. And what’s the point in having a democracy if you don’t try to understand that relationship?”

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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