You can’t judge a book by its cover, as the old saw goes, but every so often the cover art may stun you into long contemplation. Or horror, in the case of Teofilo R. Ruiz’s The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (Princeton University Press), which greets the prospective reader by way of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
The ghastliness of the painting never came through when I’d come across it before, in much smaller reproductions, often in black and white. It was inspired by a myth that Freud could have made up, if antiquity had not already obliged. Saturn, having castrated his father (long story), decided to eat his own offspring, which seems like a reasonable precaution given the circumstances. In a familiar version of the story, he swallows the children whole. Tricked into drinking a purgative, Saturn vomits them up and they go on to better things.
Not so in Goya’s rendition. In it, Saturn grasps a headless corpse, pulling away chunks of flesh, bite by bite, with the red insides of the body visible. He is bearded, and he stares at the viewer with a deranged expression while tearing off an arm with his teeth.
The image is unsettling because its grotesquery cuts through gentler versions of the myth to expose a layer of savagery otherwise concealed. Goya’s "Saturn" is part Theodore Kazinski, part Jeffrey Daumer. And, by implication, vice versa: The killers are his avatars. Malevolent craziness seems primordial.
Putting the book down after staring at its cover again, I turn by habit to Google News. It is not a comfort.
In The Terror of History, Ruiz, professor of history, Spanish, and Portuguese at the University of California at Los Angeles, describes and reflects on how people have tried to escape the unending pageant of catastrophe, violence, suffering, and random disorder making up the human condition. Referring to them as “the uncertainties of life in Western civilization” is odd, since things are not appreciably less messed-up elsewhere. Gautama Buddha had pertinent things to say on the matter, some of which Ruiz discusses. (Plus the subtitle inevitably calls to mind the comment Gandhi is supposed to have made when asked for his opinion of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”)
But most of Ruiz’s cultural references come from European and American sources, and the image from Goya serves to anchor his meditations in the Greco-Roman past. “It is a pictorial representation of one of Ancient Greece’s most telling myths,” he writes. “The god Chronos (time) devours his children out of fear that, as fate has predicted, one of them will overthrow him. And so does Chronos devour all of us.”
It is a very old interpretation of the myth, albeit one resting on an etymological mistake. The Greek counterpart of Saturn was named Kronos, who was not the god of time Chronos, although they probably got each other’s mail a lot. To judge by the work of Victorian mythologist Thomas Bullfinch, this has been going on for a while. Bullfinch also suggests that the mix-up may account for the confusing way Saturn’s reign is depicted in ancient sources. On the one hand, it was supposed to be the Golden Age. On the other hand, there was the constant patriarchic cannibalism. It is hard to reconcile them.
The contradiction runs through Ruiz's book. “We live, as it were, always on the edge of the abyss,” he writes, “and when we think we are happy and at peace, as individuals and as communities, awful things may be waiting just around the corner.” But it is difficult, and maybe impossible, to reconcile ourselves to this; and while hope for a Golden Age is hard to come by, it is our nature “to cling to life, to hope against hope” and create meaning. Drawing on the great Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga’s work, Ruiz organizes his musings around three grand strategies for finding happiness, or at least mitigating total dread: “through belief (in a whole variety of orthodox and heterodox forms), [through] the life of the senses, and/or through culture and the pursuit of the beautiful.”
Under each of these headings, he arrays quotations from and reflections on a kaleidoscopic array of ancient and modern authors and phenomena: Sophocles, Proust, utopian communes, witch-burning crazes, The Decameron, an insurrection in Brazil in the 1890s, the Marquis de Sade, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, to give a representative sampling. Plus there are memoiristic bits. He mentions teaching “a class on world history from the Big Bang to around 400 C.E.” The book seems more ambitious still.
Insofar as an argument emerges, it is that each strategy to escape “the terror of history” has a powerful appeal, but all of them have a tendency to go off the rails, creating more misery, whether individual or social. For every mystic realizing the oneness of being, you get twenty fanatics who treat homicide as a sacrament. Romantic love is sublime, but it has no warranty. People experiment with utopian communes in spite of their track record and not because of it.
For that matter, authorship is no bower of bliss, either:
“As I sit at my computer, churning out one book or article after another, a suspicion gnaws at my mind. Almost like an alarm clock unpleasantly ringing in the morning’s early hours, it tells me that, as serious as I am about the reconstruction of the past, both the projects themselves and my seriousness are forms of escape, of erasing meaninglessness. It is all a bit delusional. Does my work really amount to anything? Does it really matter? Does it fulfill any meaningful purpose? Early in my career, it meant tenure, promotion, recognition, but now what?”
It bears mentioning here that Saturn also presides over melancholy, often named, along with pride, “the disease of scholars.”
As for the experience of reading The Terror of History, I will report less melancholy than dismay. For a short book displaying enormous erudition, it is awfully repetitive. It stops every so often to tell you what it is about, and every point is restated with some frequency. “I am, of course, not saying anything new here,” Ruiz comments at a couple of points. This invites the distracting question of why it’s being said at all.
In spite of my best efforts to see all of this as deliberate -- even thematic (history repeats itself but we forget what it said the first time, etc.) – the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. It appear not to have been edited very much. If it had been, “Santillana’s famous dictum that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” would have been repaired to give George Santayana the credit. The reference to “Russell Jacobi’s forthcoming book on fraternal violence” would not have made me laugh from imagining an 18th century German philosopher wandering the UCLA campus.
Ruiz twice calls Afro-Cuban music “enervating.” Either he regards the word is a synonym for “energizing” (it means precisely the opposite) or else conga drums fill him with ennui.
He refers to “Nietsche’s elegant dichotomy between the Dionysian (a form of Carnivalesque intoxication) and the Apollonian,” Ruiz equates the latter term with “rational individualism.” Actually the philosopher applies the word to “the beautiful appearance of the inner fantasy world,” which is not someplace where a lot of rational choice takes place.
A good editor would have caught all of these problems (the list is not exhaustive) while gently helping the author through as many revisions as necessary to subdue the redundancies and unknot the thickets. Consider the following:
“The conundrum here is whether to ignore history – though history most certainly does not ignore us, and it is often unforgiving of our neglect – may not be after all far less demanding of our time and strength and lead to far less grief and more pleasure.”
It is possible to render such a sentence into something coherent on first reading. (I have seen this done.) But books are being cranked out by even the most prestigious of university presses without the red pencil ever touching a manuscript, or whatever the current equivalent might be. A gifted editor adds value to the final product. A capable copy editor does as well. Their numbers are thinning; it seems a matter of time before they disappear from the face of the earth. If Saturn isn’t crunching their bones, then Mammon, god of budget decisions, undoubtedly is.
The title of Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960) has taken on a life of its own -- mimicked or alluded to so often (e.g., Growing Up Amish, Growing Up Digital, and Growing Up Dead) that it seems familiar to people who not only haven't read the book, but have no idea there ever was one by that name. As for the subtitle, "Problems of Youth in Organized Society," it named one of the decisive questions of the decade that followed. One of the people interviewed in Jonathan Lee’s "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" -- a documentary released by Zeitgeist Films and screening around the country over the next couple of months -- recalls that for many years it was the one book found in every dormitory. Another says that you couldn't pick up a major magazine without finding Goodman mentioned, or as author of an article.
Within the limits of exaggeration-for-effect, that is actually a fair way to indicate how of a public presence the author had during the Kennedy administration, and he remained in great demand as a speaker, especially on campuses, for some while after that.
Goodman's political stance was unusual -- “anarcho-pacifist communitarianism” about covers it -- and certainly kept him on the sidelines during the 1950s. But his approach to social criticism was only occasionally that of declamatory denunciation. His approach, much of the time, was to make helpful suggestions toward the public good, in a spirit of responsible citizenship. Imagine the benefits of banning cars from Manhattan, for example, or ending the arms race immediately. Of course, trying to do most of the things he proposed would involve radical change, but so what? A famous piece of graffiti from the 1960s said "Be reasonable, demand the impossible." That might as well have been his slogan.
Goodman was anything but a one-book author, and social commentary was by no means his primary concern. The huge audiences he drew after Growing Up Absurd became a bestseller meant that publishers could not wait to re-issue his earlier work -- his novels and poetry, his University of Chicago dissertation on neo-Aristotelian literary criticism, his volume of psychoanalytic reflections on Kafka, you name it.
Ditto for anything new he wrote. Between 1960 and his death in 1972, he published three or four books a year. He was easily one of the best-known and most-read figures in the country, and "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" is an excellent tribute to his memory and reminder of his influence. It should go a long way toward generating more interest in him than has been evident over the last two or three decades -- when nobody, nobody at all, has been reading him.
An exaggeration for effect, of course. I've been reading him for most of that time, for one. Presumably a few other people have, as well. But still, close enough. Considering the scale of public response to Goodman’s work in final years of his life, the eclipse has been astonishing and all but total. The output of scholarly and critical literature on him has been thin in quantity -- and, for the most part, quality. The most important exception is Here Now Next: Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy by Taylor Stoehr, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who is Goodman's literary executor. It was published by Jossey-Bass in 1994, and is more far-ranging than the title may suggest. Before fame overtook him, Goodman was involved in a number of academic, psychoanalytic, artistic, and political circles, and Stoehr's monograph is the only attempt, so far, to chart some of his webs of influence and affiliation, at least to my knowledge.
And here is where Jonathan Lee’s documentary gives hope. It does an excellent job of evoking Goodman’s peripatetic and ramshackle career -- the stints teaching at Chicago and Black Mountain College, the years as a lay psychotherapist, the role he played with the off-Broadway Living Theater group, both as playwright and house philosopher. The composer Ned Rorem recounts setting his friend’s poems to music. We get a glimpse of how contemporary students respond to one of Goodman’s essays in a class taught the by adjunct English instructor Zeke Finkelstein at the City College of New York. And, best of all, there are numerous clips of Goodman being interviewed or speaking.
While not charismatic, exactly, he is certainly fearless, an admirable quality in an intellectual and particularly valuable for its scarcity. The interview on William F. Buckley's show "Firing Line" in 1966 is a case in point. The documentary begins with Buckley introducing his guest as “a pacifist, a bisexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist, and a few other distracting things.” Before responding to Buckley’s first question, Goodman objects to how he has been described. “I’m not a poverty cultist," he says. "I do think it's a sign of a good society that it is possible to live in decent poverty, especially if you so choose, that is, if you have more important things to do than to make money.” (He goes on to correct Buckley for misusing the word “axiomatic,” as the host concedes.) But what Goodman doesn’t respond to at all -- noticeably enough -- is the reference to his sexuality. He was candid about it to the point of losing at least a couple of teaching positions. It also got him beaten up.
Goodman could be prickly, egocentric, and not shy about communicating the assumption that he was a genius. Plus he made passes at everybody. He must have been difficult company at times. Some of this comes through in the documentary, and it serves as needed balance to any hagiographic impulse. On the other hand, there was never a valid criticism of Goodman that he hadn't made about himself in a poem or essay somewhere.
The film ends with a suggestion that Goodman's influence and example might revive. Fair enough: some of his work has been reprinted of late, and The Paul Goodman Reader, edited by Stoehr and published by PM Press, is a representative sampling of his work in several fields and genres.
But the possibility of a revival does not explain why his influence and example waned in the first place. During an e-mail discussion with Lee, I asked him why he thought Goodman's star had faded. One thing the director stressed is that Goodman “wasn't a specialist,and therefore did not become a star in any specific academic discipline. His brother Percival told me that if he had written only in one discipline, he would have become famous as an author in that discipline, say psychology, for example, and there would have been an academic constituency to carry him forward.”
At the same time Goodman’s work “is more intellectual, more rationalist, than say a Jack Kerouac, whose [On the Road] is in print. Paul Goodman challenges the reader to think, to act, and reading him is not a dumbed-down experience. I think that we've been continuing a dumbing-down of our public life -- certainly what's available and popular in the mainstream media -- and Goodman is too smart to satisfy the demand for easy, non-challenging material.”
Valid points, as far as they go, though they don’t exhaust the question. Not all of the failings are on the side of the public. The range of subjects in Goodman’s work is great, but so is the range of quality. You have to read a great deal of his work to see how parts of it hold together. He seems to have cobbled together a kind of intellectual framework from elements of Aristotle, Kant, Freud, Dewey, and Kropotkin -- an interesting list, but a slightly odd one. And Susan Sontag’s description of Goodman’s prose is exactly right: “What he wrote was a nervy mixture of syntactical stiffness and verbal felicity; he was capable of writing sentences of a wonderful purity of style and vivacity of language, and also capable of writing so sloppily and clumsily that one imagined he must be doing it on purpose.” (Then again, only a mediocrity is always at his best.)
But there is a passage from the introduction to his book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (Random House, 1962) in which Goodman explains himself as clearly anyone could want, and with a kind of eloquence.
“As my books and essays have appeared," Goodman wrote, "I have been been severely criticized as an ignorant man who spreads himself thin on a wide variety of subjects, on sociology and psychology, urbanism and technology, education, literature, esthetics, and ethics. It is true that I don't know much, but it is false that I write about many subjects. I have only one, the human beings I know in their man-made scene. I do not observe that people are in fact subdivided in ways to be conveniently treated by the ‘wide variety’ of separate disciplines. If you talk separately about their group behavior or their individual behavior, their environment or their characters, their practicality or their sensibility, you lose what you are talking about. We are often forced, for analytic purposes, to study a problem under various departments — since everybody can't discuss everything at once, but woe if one then plans for people in these various departments! One will never create a community, and will destroy such community as exists.... I make the choice of what used to be called a Man of Letters, one who relies on the peculiar activity of authorship -- a blending of memory, observation, criticism, reasoning, imagination, and reconstruction -- in order to treat the objects in the world concretely and centrally.”
There are worse models of intellectual activity than this, and Jonathan Lee has done a useful thing by reminding us what it looked like in person.
Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic and the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed.
Few people go down in history by their childhood nicknames, which is probably for the best. But such was the destiny of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, the emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 A.D. and the son of a much-loved commander of the Roman forces stationed in Germany. The father dressed young Gaius up in a kid-sized legionnaire’s uniform, to the delight of the troops, who dubbed him Caligula, meaning “Little Boots.”
The moniker stuck, although the last thing anyone remembers about Caligula is the cuteness. A couple of on-screen depictions of his reign are indicative. It was presented as the height of decadence in Caligula (1979), the big-budget, pornographic bio-pic produced and directed by Bob Guccione Jr., with Malcolm McDowell as the emperor, featuring numerous Penthouse Pets-of-the-Month, smouldering in lieu of dialogue. (Also, Helen Mirren, minus toga.) I have promised the editors not to embed any video clips from it in this column. Suffice it to say that the film was terrible, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the script, seems to have disowned it just as soon as the check cleared.
Better by far -- indeed, unforgettable -- was John Hurt’s turn as the mad tyrant in “I, Claudius,” the BBC miniseries from 1976. He portrayed Caligula as terrifying and monstrous, yet also strangely pitiful. Power corrupts, and absolute power sounds even more enjoyable. But having every whim met without hesitation does not make the descent into insanity any less agonizing, even for Caligula himself. By the time the emperor is assassinated (at the age of 29, after not quite four years in power), Hurt makes his death seem almost a mercy killing.
The BBC program was adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, who drew in turn from the accounts left by Roman historians -- in particular, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. (It was also an influence on Guccione’s film, if not quite as much as Deep Throat.) Most of the really lurid charges about Caligula come down to us via Suetonius: the incest, the cross-dressing, the plan to name his favorite horse to an important position, his effort to pay soldiers with sea-shells….
And, most damaging of all, Seutonius records that Caligula proclaimed himself to be a god. He had altars to himself set up around the empire so that the public could worship him. Other sources confirm this, including the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo. They indicate that Roman officials put up statues of Caligula in synagogues, and that the emperor even tried (unsuccessfully) to plant his idol in the most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem.
According to Seutonius, the emperor walked around the palace chatting with the other gods. He would ask people whether they thought he was greater than Jupiter. You didn’t have to be a monotheist to find that sort of thing revolting.
But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane -- his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?
In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography, from the University of California Press.
Winterling’s reassessment of the legend of the mad emperor is hardly as contrarian as it may sound. By the 19th century, classicists had enough fresh material to work with (inscriptions on public buildings, for example, and documents of everyday governance) to feel less dependent on the accounts left by Roman authors. They were learning to take the ancient chronicles with a grain of salt. Suetonius, for example, reports things with all the confidence of an eyewitness, but in fact was writing 80 years after Caligula’s death. Evidently he never heard a rumor about the emperor he didn’t record. That makes his tell-all biographies very entertaining, and even useful in a way, but not exactly reliable.
So there were grounds for reasonable doubt. Revisionist accounts of Caligula have appeared from time to time, suggesting that his reign was not wildly different from that of other emperors. When Winterling published his book in 2003, it coincided with the centennial of the landmark study by Hugo Willrich that first made the case for Caligula as rational politician. (This is unlikely to be a total coincidence, but the translated edition says nothing about it one way or the other.) Winterling even expresses concern that some modern accounts have “gone too far in transforming a ruler depicted as immoral and insane into a good one whose actions were rational.”
The figure portrayed in Caligula: A Biography was a rational and competent leader, but “good” is not a word that comes to mind. He was capable, when pushed, of extreme viciousness, ranging from savage humiliation to torture and execution. Making him angry was never a good idea, but neither was trying to flatter him. The targets of his wrath were almost always his fellow aristocrats – which, according to Winterling’s analysis, is a crucial bit of context to keep in mind.
The core of his argument is that even Caligula’s wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).
The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable – even as its limits were undefined.
The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.
Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.
An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?
On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula’s speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: “It shows they knew power was shared at the emperor’s pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time…. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor’s declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.” By “honoring” the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. “Otherwise,” says Winterling, “it would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.”
The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.
But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”
In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves.
Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.
So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel -- to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.
It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor's death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.
So his reign may not have been as surreal as it sounded, but rather a case of realpolitik at its nastiest. Still, it won't be Winterling's portrait that flashes before my mind's eye the next time anyone mentions Caligula. It's a fascinating book, but it can't displace those indelible images of John Hurt in the grip of his delusions, screaming in pain from the voices in his head, and doing terrible things to his sister.
Can one of the most honored historians of the 20th century, the oft-quoted two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote such iconic books as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style of American Politics, actually have a "lost" book? I think so, for I don’t imagine there are more than a handful of Inside Higher Ed readers who can recall the title of Richard Hofstadter’s longest book, and the one that he worked on for the greatest number of years. This is a book that from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s had a huge readership, and yet today is so little-known that David S. Brown’s critically acclaimed intellectual biography of Hofstadter (University of Chicago Press) got the title wrong. Hofstadter’s lost book is The American Republic, a 1,396-page history that he worked on for many years with two talented co-authors, William Miller and Daniel Aaron.
The reason The American Republic is almost unknown today is that it was a college textbook. But it doesn’t deserve oblivion, and should have a place somewhere alongside Hofstadter’s other books.
Hofstadter was, as many know, an academic prodigy. He had articles published in premiere journals during his graduate studies at Columbia University, finished his doctorate at age 26, had it published with the University of Pennsylvania Press two years later, and in 1948, at the age of 32, had his second book published with Alfred A. Knopf. That book, The American Political Tradition, was a surprise success of huge proportions, garnering rave reviews as well as strong sales to the general public. It eventually became a staple for decades in U.S. history courses. The book has sold over one million copies in its 63-year life, an extraordinary record for any academic book.
Why? As historian Jon Wiener has written, even in the 21st century TheAmerican Political Tradition remains relevant: "It opens with a description of an 'increasingly passive and spectatorial' state of mind in postwar America, a country dominated by 'corporate monopoly,' its citizens ‘bereft of a coherent and plausible body of belief’ and adrift in a ‘rudderless and demoralized state.’ ” We’ve arguably gone downhill since that unvarnished analysis, but you can see why people still read Hofstadter to try to understand the United States.
The body of The American Political Tradition is mostly made up of a series of ironic and critical portraits of figures that most Americans — then and now — tend to look on as heroes: Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and others. The very titles of the chapters give you a sense of how Hofstadter did not sell myths but, as David Brown writes, "dissected" them. Consider, for instance, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," or "Franklin Roosevelt: The Patrician as Opportunist."
In 1953, textbook publisher Prentice-Hall accurately perceived from the success of this book that the young Hofstadter was going to be one of the most significant historians of his generation, and made him an offer that he seemingly couldn’t refuse. It probably went something like this: write a big textbook on American history for us with co-authors of your choice, and you’ll not only influence young minds, you’ll earn royalties beyond even what Knopf is paying you (and by this point Hofstadter was probably earning about as much from book royalties as he was from his salary at Columbia).
The American Republic was first published in 1959. Although initially Hofstadter tried to reassure his regular publisher Knopf that the books for Prentice-Hall wouldn’t pull him away from his regular work for long, he was mistaken. In a letter recently uncovered in the Columbia Library archives, Hofstadter wrote, "From 1955 to 59, when I was working on the one & 2-vol. versions, I got little else done." Hofstadter won his first Pulitzer for The Age of Reform (Knopf, 1955), but for a prolific author who usually only took about three years to write a book, it turned out to be a long drought for Knopf until 1963’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which also won a Pulitzer.
For the Prentice-Hall books Hofstadter got to work with two handpicked colleagues, who were also friends, whose areas of expertise nicely balanced his own. One of his co-authors was the pioneering American studies professor Daniel Aaron, who taught at Smith College. In his recent memoir, The Americanist (Aaron is 99 years old this year), he wrote: “One hot New York summer night in 1955, Richard Hofstadter and I, working in his Upper West Side apartment on our American history textbook — both of us too tired to sleep — read aloud Harding’s inaugural address and couldn’t stop laughing.” The fact that the authors laughed uncontrollably at the rhetorical idiocy of an American president is a clue that this book would be different from the patriotic puffery of other textbooks of the time.
The third of the trio was freelance historian William Miller, described by Aaron as "a tough-minded economic and business historian." But, as Aaron admits, "without Hofstadter’s name, I doubt our book would have sold as well as it did." Prentice-Hall made explicit in the breakdown of royalties the importance of the name they knew would sell the books: Hofstadter got 60 percent, while Aaron and Miller each got a comparatively paltry 20 percent. Because of a "flood of adoptions," as Aaron describes it, even that 20 percent "paid for the college educations of my three sons." Hofstadter, who was accustomed to large checks from Knopf, still seemed impressed with the royalties generated by the Prentice-Hall books, which he called "very profitable."
The American Republic revolutionized what an American history text could do. The first edition of Republic was a huge success in spite of its length and high price, and it won publishing industry awards. The second edition was thoroughly revised and in many places completely rewritten from 1968 to 1970, but in the middle of this process Hofstadter was struck with his ultimately fatal illness. Letters between Hofstadter and his co-authors detail how despite the debilitating effects of leukemia and treatment Hofstadter remained as engaged as he could be on the second edition.
Just months before his death Hofstadter wrote to Miller: "I began the summer quite well, and did a good deal of work toward the beginning, much of which I still have been revising these past few weeks. However, I have been running a daily fever of slight dimensions for the better part of the last three weeks." As it turned out, the second edition of Republic was the last book Hofstadter saw through to publication. Copies of the two volumes, bound in blue and emblazoned with a gold outline of the Great Seal of the United States, arrived just weeks before Hofstadter’s death in late 1970.
I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.
Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.
I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. "Old American flag Bailey," as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.
A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:
Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.
Bailey sums up that the "discovery" of America was a "sensational achievement, "but states that "The American continents were slow to yield their virginity."
Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:
When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried NiÃ±a, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.
Today "permanent occupation" probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, "catastrophic."
At the beginning of this exceptionally long narrative, and one quite sophisticated for a textbook, that devastating one word assessment mentally stopped me in my tracks. Although I was in Nigeria, I was still trying to earn my doctorate in art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The problem, however, was that I had plunged into a miasma of theory, largely with "the Jacques," as I came to think of them — Derrida and Lacan. Amidst deep thoughts about language and psychology, some of them perhaps valuable, I had lost my intellectual moorings. I was not only in something of a haze when it came to academic work, but even when it came to real life, practically lived, especially in a place like Nigeria. Experiencing viscerally the terrible effects of a repressive and corrupt military dictatorship stripped away some of my intellectual baggage that seemed less relevant. Some of the things I experienced in Nigeria had also seemed close to catastrophic, and so I understood that word in a way I had not before. Republic’s unsentimental and crisp text communicated how not just individuals but whole nations could fall headlong into folly, with devastating consequences. In retrospect, I was learning lessons not only in writing but in reality from this book.
The American Republic used its vastly larger canvas to cover things barely found in competing books, such as intellectual and cultural history. For instance, there’s an essay-length account of how the idea of a land of riches beyond the known seas had transfixed minds in Europe for many generations before landfall. Setting this up is a firsthand account from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who fought with Cortez and left his description of Tenochtitlan:
[W]e were amazed, and said it was like the enchantments they tell in the legend of Amadis on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream…. Of all these wonders that I then beheld today all is overthrown and lost, nothing left standing.
The book explains that Amadis was a popular fantastic tale of the period, but only one in a long line found in Homer, Plato, and many tales in the middle ages. Some of these tales became obsessions for men like Columbus. As Republic sums up, "successive Mediterranean civilizations took heart from visions of new Edens across the western ocean, visions that materialized at last." This analysis of how myths can combine with ideology to influence history is typical of the sophisticated approach of the book.
In a book with three authors, it’s difficult to be completely certain which passages are mainly Hofstadter’s. But some good guesses can be made. Hofstadter was, as Aaron wrote, "a political and cultural historian" — and those two broad overlapping areas are the long spine of The American Republic. The sections of economic analysis are, of course, primarily by Miller, and the sections on cultural topics, like Edgar Allen Poe and American art, are mostly by Aaron. But each gave suggestions to the others, and at times didn’t just edit but seem to have written passages in the areas of the other authors. As the freelance author, Miller seems to have had more time to write than the others, and seems to have contributed a good deal in Hofstadter’s areas.
Hofstadter was a master of the short analytical sketch, bristling with telling details. In Republic these short sketches are woven into a larger narrative whole. In Brown’s intellectual biography he calls The American Political Tradition Hofstadter’s best book, not because it’s an original piece of archival research (which was not Hofstadter’s strength), but because it’s "a striking example of revisionist history in the best sense," marked by an "aphoristic style," "expressive sense of humor" and "clear and unsentimental thinking." Brown also demonstrates that Tradition has a compelling analysis of how "national identity is frequently the offspring of historical mythology." For some passages of The American Republic, I would argue that similar assessments can be made.
More examples of likely Hofstadter passages from Republic make the case that the book was not only superior to its competitors at the time, but in some cases superior — or at least more vivid — than many textbooks covering the same material today. On Calvinism and predestination:
It may seem odd that a faith so paralyzing in its implications, a faith that saved the few and forever damned the rest, making eternal bliss dependent upon the arbitrary act of God, should prove so satisfying to so many. Yet this stern Protestant creed unleashed a special kind of energy.
On the unintended consequences of the Declaration of Independence:
Like all great political documents, the Declaration of Independence instantly took on a life of its own, consistent with the hopes and aspiration of all men under fetters, not merely white men in the America of 1776…. In our own time, among colonial peoples abroad and the repressed at home, the Declaration continues to serve the cause of revolution as well as social and political equality.
On the tensions between the rise of democracy and the rise of higher education in the 19th century:
Nondenominational colleges in particular were assailed as seats of atheism and aristocracy. Clearly, the "rise of the common man" by no means assured a more liberal education; indeed, it often bred intolerance and anti-intellectualism.
On Manifest Destiny:
American bombast in the capital, brashness in Texas, and bumptiousness in the Pacific Coast naturally made expansion the leading issue in the impending national elections.
And Republic uses President Harding’s own words to show how dim some occupants of the White House have been:
I can’t make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side and they seem right, and then — God! — I talk to the other side and they seem just as right…. I know somewhere there is a book that will give me the truth, but, hell, I couldn’t read the book.
Hofstadter was called for most of his career a "consensus historian," which was imprecise because he didn’t often celebrate consensus, he usually critiqued it. In any case, by the time the final paragraphs of Republic were being written the United States was torn by anti-Vietnam War protests and urban riots, countered by crackdowns by the police and armed forces. It seemed not only as if consensus might be breaking up, but as if a national disaster might be in the making. According to The American Republic, "the deepening mood of desperation in the United States had suffused the awareness even of the coldest conservative minds." But during all of this the television played on endlessly, as analyzed in this passage that was likely the last that Hofstadter wrote for the book, on its final page, perhaps from his hospital bed:
Television, indeed, brought all of life into focused images, turning individual persons and groups into media performers: combat teams in Vietnam, starving children in Biafra, Chicago rioters, college students and presidents, Cabinet officers and local officials. The poet as well as the politician grew solicitous of his “image” and (the cynical might say) was sometimes captured by it. Radicals threatened with imprisonment, alleged murderers, celebrities from the world of sport and entertainment competed for “prime time” on the “boob tube.” On late-hour talk shows, a famous Senator, novelist, or scholar might appear with a prize-fighter, pop-singer, quarterback, and movie actress. The vast unseen audience wanted simultaneously to be amused, thrilled, informed, and edified.
The very ease with which any opinion from the most shocking and heterodox to the most reactionary could receive a hearing in some branch of the communications media might have indicated to radicals left and right that the “Establishment” was not exactly tottering. The threats and warnings, and the strategies for upheaval or repression, produced no permanent “armies of the night” or guerrillas in the hills. But mounting episodes of violence throughout the ‘60s, and the conviction increasingly voiced by black and white rebels that America could only be cleansed by a holocaust alarmed the nation. Sporadic riots and bombings did not constitute a revolution, but the indeterminate size and representativeness of the alienated gave no assurance that a revolution was an impossibility.
Many textbooks would have settled for concluding bromides, but Hofstadter instead undertook an analysis of the mass media that still stands up. And if the rest of it didn’t predict the future, it expressed with intensity and cogency where the nation was in the year it was written.
For me, because of the combined shocks of Nigeria and Hofstadter, I switched my dissertation topic from a painfully vague theoretical epic on the sublime in art to a more focused analysis of the pretensions of presidential commemoration in the United States, which was eventually published as a book. Impressed by The American Republic, on my return I bought a new American history textbook, because it was clear that as advanced as Republic was for 1970 there were some areas where it was out of date.
I naÃ¯vely anticipated that it would be as gripping to read as Hofstadter, and when I was disappointed on that score came to appreciate what he had contributed to the textbook genre — an edge and grim wit that other books usually lacked. But although Republic did more than competitors of the time to focus on the lives of ordinary people in addition to elites, the new history texts in useful ways gave even more space to the experiences of Americans of different walks of life.
It was clear that the "old American flag Bailey" approach of sometimes close to blind patriotism was no more. Even though Bailey’s book title still lives on even today, decades after The American Republic died, it has been almost completely rewritten by Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David Kennedy and others to reflect contemporary scholarship — and an approach that is much closer to Hofstadter’s. Almost all American history textbooks today were probably indirectly influenced to some degree by his approach — although Hofstadter himself would certainly say that larger trends in the field were more responsible.
Co-author Daniel Aaron visited Hofstadter in the hospital a week before he died in late October of 1970, and wrote, "Propped in a chair beside his bed and fearfully emaciated … he had the look of a deserted man who was already seeing what we couldn’t see." In a larger sense, that had been true for many years when it came to Hofstadter and American history. I’m not the only one who believes that in the future we will be turning to Hofstadter’s books more rather than less to try to understand where we are, and where we’re going. And I’ll still be getting out, along with Hofstadter’s other books, the old volumes of The American Republic that I got from a used bookstore after I returned from Nigeria, browsing through them to see what I might learn about the present from Hofstadter’s clear view of the past.