See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘The University Bookman’

Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

Advertisements

Our Real Constitution—And What Happened to It

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on January 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Conservatism lost a giant when George W. Carey passed away in 2013. Thanks to Bruce Frohnen, his longtime friend, we’re able to hear anew Carey’s prudent admonitions in these strange and interesting times.

Before his death, Carey completed drafts of chapters on progressivism and progressive constitutional reform that later became substantial portions of two chapters in Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law, the book that Frohnen has now completed. The final product is an impressively collaborative effort that substantiates the idea of constitutional morality, which Carey spent years developing.

The two men had planned to split the chapters in half. Having few disagreements between them, they reserved the right to approve and edit each other’s contributions. Carey’s untimely passing changed these plans. To honor his friend, Frohnen consulted Carey’s work carefully, downplaying his own more “antifederalist” positions to accommodate Carey’s more federalist leanings. If Jefferson and Hamilton would have agreed that the size and scope of the American government has become dangerous and unmanageable, then it’s no surprise that Frohnen and Carey found common ground.

Constitutional morality denotes “the felt duty of government officials … to abide by the restrictions and imperatives imposed on them by a constitution.” It contemplates the “unwritten constitution,” a concept central to Frohnen and Carey’s argument that’s drawn from Russell Kirk and Orestes Brownson, both of whom Frohnen in particular has interpreted thoughtfully and skilfully. Kirk defined the unwritten constitution as “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.” To maintain their authority and gain general acceptance in a community, written constitutions and positive laws must reflect the norms and values of the people they bind. Frohnen and Carey’s narrative is about how quasi-law in the form of executive decree and the administrative state have become divorced from the people they govern.

The narrative runs something like this. Rule by executive command and administrative agencies has resulted in a decline of the rule of law in the United States. Odd, extratextual interpretations of the United States Constitution have dislocated its content from the common understandings of reasonably prudent Americans. The Progressive Era facilitated a shift in our approach to law that was qualitatively different from the teachings of checks-and-balances, decentralization, separation-of-powers, and other such doctrines alive in the minds of our Founders, even those like Hamilton and the young Madison (as against the later Madison) who favored a strong national government. Consequently, we have found ourselves in a crisis of constitutional morality, there being little institutional and systemic accountability to curb the broad powers of bureaucracy, reckless and unelected federal judges, a delegating congress beholden to lobbyists and corporations, and the expansion of executive privilege, prerogative, and patronage.

Political rhetoric of limited government, common among Republican leaders, does not square with the manifest reality of the ever-growing managerial state. Heated discourse alone won’t suffice to roll back federal programs and agencies. “What is required,” say Frohnen and Carey, “is a retrenchment of the federal government into a much smaller but more detailed and legalistic form that allows more actions to be taken by other institutions, be they states, localities, or associations within civil society.” In short, these men call for devolution and subsidiarity. They make the case for localized control based on clear rules that are consistent with common norms and expressed in a shared idiom.

Championing the rule of law involves the recognition that, although morality does or should underpin laws, “we cannot use the tool of law to achieve perfect virtue, or freedom, or any other moral good.” Without denying the importance or reality of natural law, which is antecedent to human promulgation, Frohnen and Carey approach it cautiously, stating that it “is not a rigid code demanding that human law force all human beings into a straightjacket of specific individual conduct.” Seemingly skeptical of grand schemes for the magnificent systematization and organization of natural-law principles, they humbly submit that humans “can only do our best to develop practical lawmaking and interpreting virtues such that the laws we make will be efficacious in spelling out and enforcing duties in such a way as perhaps to encourage people to pursue virtue.” This nomocratic mode of thinking recalls Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, and Hayek with its awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and its attention to the historical, institutional, and cultural embeddedness of standards and values.

If there is one take-home point from this book, it’s that government is not the instrument through which to facilitate the good, the true, or the beautiful. We should avoid the “new dispensation” that consists in “a government ruled not by formal structures and procedures but by the pursuit of putatively good policy through broad statements of programmatic goals and the exercise of broad discretionary power.” Disempowering the central government may be the obvious counter to this new dispensation, but we’ve been advocating that for decades. In fact, Frohnen and Carey believe that “there can be no simple return to the original dispensation,” which involved “the Framers’ constitutional morality, emphasizing procedure, caution, and restrained defense of one’s institutional prerogatives.”

With no quick and easy remedy at the ready, Frohnen and Carey encourage something less magnificent and extraordinary: civic participation in local associations and mediating institutions such as “families, unions, clubs, schools, and religious groups,” the kinds of little platoons that struck Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America, as bulwarks against tyranny. “More important than any particular policy,” Frohnen and Carey aver, “is the attitude toward law and policy making that must be recaptured.” Although they suggest that some form of separation or secession may become inevitable, the corrective they envision is rhetorical and discursive. We must, in their view, shape the political discourse through private associations, which, in the aggregate, engender the bottom-up processes of rulemaking that reflect the normative orders of local communities rather than the top-down commands of a faraway, massive, impersonal sovereign.

Judges and Dons

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy on April 27, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

For a still-active judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who “moonlights” as a law professor, Richard Posner is oddly and stunningly prolific. He not only contributes to scholarly discourse but also writes his own legal opinions. That places him in a small minority among federal judges. Posner is justifiably proud of his prolificacy and diligence, and he’s neither apprehensive nor ashamed about castigating his peers—another quality that sets him apart.

Over the years, Posner has tried to, in his words, “pull back the curtain” on his colleagues, our Oz-like federal judges, exposing their failures and inadequacies—what he calls, channeling Star Wars, the “dark side”—lurking behind the glow and aura and imprimatur of state power. Posner suggests that federal judges are not adept at preventing “hunch” or “ideology” from influencing their decisions. Because of their inadequate knowledge and limited training, he adds, federal judges too often resort to feeling and intuition—their “unconscious priors”—to resolve difficult facts and issues. He believes the legal academy should curb this judicial inadequacy, insofar as scholars could, in their teaching and writing, guide judges with clarifying direction. Yet he sees a troubling gulf between law schools and the bench, one that, he insists, “has been growing.”

Hence his latest book—Divergent Paths—which seeks to “explain and document” this gulf, “identify the areas in which federal judicial performance is deficient, and explain what the law schools can do to remedy, or more realistically to ameliorate, these deficiencies.” Posner is as hard on the professoriate as he is on the federal judiciary, indicting the former for its dislocation from the bench and the latter for its “stale” culture. To his credit, Posner criticizes only the federal judiciary and the elite law schools with which he is familiar. He does not purport to speak for, about, or against the state institutions and non-elite schools to which he has had little exposure, which lends his critique credibility.

Little else in the book, however, is modest. Posner is his typical boisterous self, and his characteristic crankiness is on grand display. Whether it bothers or delights readers depends, I suspect, on the extent to which they agree with him. If you’re in accord with Posner on this topic—the institutional and cultural barriers separating federal judges from legal scholars—you’ll find his frank attitude and no-holds-barred criticism to be entertaining. In equal measure, someone else might find them off-putting. The same goes for the book: whether you enjoy it will depend on your affinity for Posner.

Like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, his hero, Posner sees Darwinism—natural selection in particular—at work in all aspects of human experience. For example, the legal academy is “Darwinian” because “each species of professor must find an academic niche in which he can avoid destructive competition from other professors.” As a result, professors gather together in protective communities—an “academic ecology,” in Posner’s words—based on shared disciplinary interests. “Their need to communicate with persons outside their niche,” Posner opines, “like the need of a squirrel to learn to eat dandelions as well as nuts, is minimized.” This metaphor supposedly illustrates that the academy has become divorced from the judiciary. Although amusing as figurative language, it’s perhaps not borne out by facts or evidence, nor by the data Posner presents in tables in his introduction. At best, then, Posner’s complaint is anecdotal, not empirical, and that’s disappointing coming from this learned judge who earned his reputation as an empiricist.

“Increasingly law school faculties cultivate knowledge of fields outside of law but pertinent to it,” Posner says, “including economics, psychology, statistics, computer science, history, philosophy, biology, and literature.” The gradual incorporation of disparate disciplines in law schools has, Posner believes, developed in tandem with the growing academic neglect of judicial activity. Put simply, law schools no longer primarily study the behavior and methodology of judges as they once did. Moreover, as law professors have proliferated and law schools have increased in size and number, legal academicians have found ample audiences among faculty and scholars and thus have not suffered from their dislocation from judicial institutions or from the flesh-and-blood judges who decide concrete cases.

Posner decries, with Trump-like enthusiasm, the “refugees” from other, less lucrative disciplines who’ve sought asylum in law schools. He claims, with apparent disgust, that “many of these refugees have a natural inclination to base their legal teaching and writing on insights gleaned by them in the disciplines that were their first choice.” Yet he never adequately demonstrates that interdisciplinarity—and the concomitant diversification of perspectives and backgrounds among legal faculty—damages or thwarts legal education. In fact, what he seems to decry is the current curriculum of legal education, which, to his mind, should focus on judicial behavior and opinions rather than on other areas of the law. He stops short of proposing that administrators build a wall around law schools and make other departments pay for it, but he would, I sense, favor a moratorium on faculty immigration to law schools, and possibly mass deportations for the faculty he deems unworthy or unqualified.

But what Posner dubs “the Ph.Deification” of law faculties is not necessarily bad. Posner himself reveals the disadvantages of being a generalist, which is what law school prepare their students to be. His own understanding of pragmatism, or rather misunderstanding, is itself evidence that he would have benefited from deeper learning in that subject (say, more reading of Peirce and James and less of Dewey and Holmes) before adopting it as his personal methodology and proclaiming its virtues to the world. His literary criticism in Law and Literature betrays a sometimes embarrassing unfamiliarity with the trends and history of that discipline, and his early forays into the economic analysis of law have failed to influence the economics profession or to contribute anything of lasting value to professional economists. Indeed, it is perhaps because he knew more than untutored lawyers about economics—though substantially less than actual economists—that his “economic analysis of the law” for which he became famous was as influential as it was.

The legal community, and legal scholarship in particular, would benefit from welcoming qualified specialists and, in so doing, broaden the parameters of legal study and force lawyers out of their insularity. Professors of legal writing ought to be equipped with academic training in writing and the English language. Isn’t the systemic problem of bad legal writing self-perpetuating when legal writing professors are drawn, not from professional writers and teachers, but from lawyers? Moreover, professors of corporate law or finance ought to have academic training in those subjects—training that goes beyond the rudimentary glosses that find their way into judicial opinions written by non-expert judges. To read judicial opinions on a particular subject is not a fruitful way of learning that subject. A judge may have no experience in the insurance industry, for instance, when a difficult subrogation case arrives on his docket, yet he or she must handle the case and likely write an opinion on the facts and issues involved. The judge must rely on the evidence and briefing proffered by the parties to the case, not on personal expertise, which he or she lacks. Accordingly, the resulting opinion—inherently and intentionally limited to what it can accomplish—will not likely be sufficiently edifying or insightful to have staying power, that is, to teach future students and practitioners about the fundamentals of insurance.

Yet Posner is right to grumble about how the legal academy is populated by professors with little practical experience in law. In fact, law is the one discipline in which, counterintuitively, the more practical experience you have, the less marketable you are as a professor. He’s probably right, too, that there are too many law schools and too many law professors—and, hence, too many lawyers for the saturated legal market.

Targets of Posner’s ire include jargon, esoterica, obscurantism, and wordiness (“the fetishism of words”); the so-called Bluebook, which is a standard reference tool for lawyers concerning forms of citation to authorities (which is “maddening,” “superfluous,” “cancerous,” and “time-consuming”); student editing of law reviews (for which “neophytes” rather than peer reviewers make the critical editorial decisions); excessive, obtrusive, and needless footnoting in legal scholarship (due in part to the aforementioned neophytes); the culture of secrecy and mystery among federal judges; the decline in legal treatises; hyperspecialization among professors; the political nature of judicial appointments and confirmations (including an emphasis on biological diversity rather than diversity of backgrounds and experience); lifetime tenure for federal judges; legal formalism; the unintelligibility of legal opinions to non-lawyers—the list goes on. If you’re familiar with Posner and follow his writings, you’ve probably heard these grievances already. But they’re worth repeating if, in book form, they can reach larger audiences.

Still, one gets the sense that Posner rushed this book into his editors’ hands. A chunk of a paragraph on pages 225–26 reappears, verbatim, on page 271, thus undermining one of Posner’s central points: the importance of brevity in writing. Some of his accusations can’t be supported by evidence, such as “academic critics of judicial opinions feel superior to the opinions’ authors” (how could Posner divine this psychological insight?) or “the average law professor was a better law student than the average judge had been” (possibly true, but how does Posner know this?). Posner’s citations to Wikipedia, moreover, will raise eyebrows. Finally, it’s either dishonest or imperceptive for this one time opponent of same-sex marriage to now claim that bigotry alone explains the conservative and Christian position on that issue, which is barely relevant to Posner’s book and for which he offers little argument.

Posner is willing to depart from judicial norms and conventions. He believes that case precedent should not govern causes of action that entail novel issues and circumstances. Controversially, he encourages judges to look beyond the briefing and the record to ferret out the truth and context of matters inadequately illuminated by the parties to the case. Some of his suggestions will seem remote to the average reader and aimed at an elite (if not aloof) audience of politicians and federal judges. Whether federal judicial salaries account for regional cost-of-living differentials, for instance, matters little to most Americans. Nor do we care, quite frankly, whether judges lack collegiality; we just want them to rule the right way. One would hope personality conflicts wouldn’t influence the operative rules that shape human experience, but it turns out that judges can be petty.

Posner fittingly includes a question mark in the title to the final section of his book: “The Academy to the Rescue?” That punctuation mark reveals how skeptical—or at least tentative—Posner remains about the likelihood that his subjects will institute proper and constructive change. Most of his proposed solutions are sensibly plain: if student editing of law reviews is bad, do away with student editing of law reviews; if the law school curriculum is bad, change it; if judges write poorly, offer them training in writing through continuing legal education courses; if litigants and lawyers travel too far and at too great expense, allow them to videoconference.

Divergent Paths succeeds in demonstrating the need to refocus the legal curriculum on judicial behavior, if only by exposing judges’ decision-making to scrutiny (and ridicule) and demystifying the glorified processes of judicial deliberation. “Most judges evaluate cases in a holistic, intuitive manner,” Posner submits, “reaching a tentative conclusion that they then subject to technical legal analysis.” Their goal is to arrive at decisions that comport with prevailing notions of morality, justice, and common sense. Statutory idiosyncrasies or awkward case precedents will not, in Posner’s view, prevent these judges from reaching the result that people untrained in the law would likewise reach because of their ethical predispositions and basic sense of right and wrong. Judges are people too, and for the most part, they want to do what’s reasonable.

Humility has few friends among judges and law professors, so it is fun, one must admit, to watch Posner serve these cognoscenti a still-steaming pan of humble pie. But even sympathetic readers will grow weary of the relentless complaining after hundreds of pages of it. Perhaps Posner should have minded his own dictum: “If you want a flawless institution go visit a beehive or an anthill.” Then again, if Posner—who inhabits both the judiciary and the academy—doesn’t speak up, who will? Answers to these questions could determine how important Divergent Paths really is.

Learning What We Don’t Know

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels on September 9, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

I begin with a trigger warning. The following review contains references that could evoke strong feelings about the nature and purpose of literature, a manifestly dangerous field of human creativity consisting of stories about, and representations of, highly sensitive and potentially upsetting subjects, including but not limited to racism, rape, classism, war, sex, violence, imperialism, colonialism, religious persecution, suicide, and death. Those who find discussions or descriptions of such demonstrably timeless elements of human experience unpalatable or offensive should consult medical professionals before reading this review or the book it promotes. Readers are encouraged not to engage any aspect of this review, or the book under review, that might provoke hurtful memories, grave discomfort, or existential angst.

Reading is precarious enough as it is, without having to introduce concepts or narratives about complex perennial themes, fictional renderings of plausible and fantastic events, or the contingencies of everyday life. Therefore, if you feel you must avoid material that elicits a passionate or emotional response derived from the inevitably discomforting features of both lived and imagined experience, then you must not only bypass Robert P. Waxler’s The Risk of Reading but also lock yourself in a closet, plug your ears with your fingers, and shout la la la la la until you’re no longer aware of your subjective self and the sometimes painful, sometimes joyous ubiquity of reality.

Enough of that. If you’re still reading, you agree to hold harmless this reviewer, Robert Waxler, and the editors and publishers of this journal for any claims or damages resulting from serious discussions of literature. You’re hereby warned: reading is risky—hence the title of Waxler’s book.

Not just reading, but deep reading, is risky, according to Waxler, because it teaches us “about who we are and where we are located in the midst of complexities in the world.” Deep reading disturbs the satisfying complacency of both ignorance and certitude. It can make you unhappy, challenge your most cherished presuppositions, and force you to think rigorously and laboriously about the nature of human relations and our place in the world. A life without reading isn’t so risky, at least for those who prefer not to be bothered with inconvenient narrative or exposed to different points of view. Knowing you’re right without working for understanding is easy. Why get distraught? Why not simply “know” without having to exert yourself in contemplation, without exercising your imaginative powers?

My generation, the millennials, will take shameless offense at Waxler’s notion that we are situated, temporal beings with definite bounds and limitations, little insignificant persons in a vast web of human history, near-nothings within a cosmic totality who are destined to suffer the fate of every living thing. This may be overstating, if not misrepresenting, Waxler’s presiding themes, but the anti-egoist premise is implicit in his chapters. It is an irrefutable premise at odds with my generation’s prized assumption that the knowing self is fluid and permeable, subject to the malleable constructions of choice and chance, always appropriable and appropriated—never fixed, never closed, never immutable, never assigned.

For my generation, the anything-goes-except-standards generation, slow reading—deep reading—is anathema, the kind of tedious exercise rendered unnecessary by hypertext and the rhyzomatic Internet. A studied appreciation for nuanced story and linguistic narrative has been replaced by an insatiable craving for instant gratification, by trite sound bites and fragmented data, by graspable bullet points and ready access to reduced testimony. We’ve got information at our hands, this generation of mine, but no wisdom or knowledge in our heads.

Although he does not come right out and say so explicitly, Waxler seems to have my generation in mind. He portrays himself as “someone who grew up with books but now finds himself surrounded by screens, consumer sensation, data streams, [and] the spectacle of electronic circuitry masquerading as public transparency.” A child today cannot avoid these technological distractions. Waxler’s not an old fogey intent on bemoaning new media for the sake of the cozy familiar or Luddite quixotism; rather, he’s worried about what is happening to reading as much as to readers when the rhetorical medium incentivizes rank inattentiveness and scattered interest.

Reading properly, in Waxler’s view, teaches us how much we do not know, not how much we know, about our mysterious universe and human interaction. Consequently and paradoxically, he maintains, reading improves and expands our tacit knowledge about the quotidian things that shape our lives and inform our decisions, the subtle things we might overlook or misapprehend if we aren’t attentive. And we’re not attentive, most of the time—at least that’s what Waxler appears to mean by his emphasis on “the distraction of each flickering instant” in which “information and data pull us away from ourselves, set themselves up as sovereign, as if they are all-knowing gods.”

Having paid homage to deep reading in his introductory chapter, Waxler puts his deep reading, or the fruits of his deep reading, on display. He examines nine texts in as many chapters: Genesis (the creation account), Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fight Club, and The Sense of an Ending. Then there’s a brief concluding chapter on the future of linguistic narrative—not a prediction or prophecy but a call to pensive action. These books have it all—sex, violence, death, sin, rebellion. They are risky.

Waxler encourages us to face our vulnerabilities and insecurities by reading deeply and widely, ever mindful of the nuances and possibilities of language and story. His subjects proceed chronologically, Genesis being the oldest text and The Sense of Ending, which was published just four years ago, the most recent. These subjects have little in common save for the high regard in which they’re held by a critical mass of readers. It’s premature to say whether some of these books are canonical—as in classics—but all of them are difficult and stirring: candidates for canonicity if they can prove their fitness over time.

All you need to know about Waxler’s thesis resides in his title—and subtitle. He submits that his subjects are “risky” or “dangerous”—terms laced with sarcasm and irony—because they help us to make sense of other people and our surroundings, which together amount to culture and experience. Understanding our concrete phenomenal surroundings, via literature, enables us to make sense of what Whitman called the “Me Myself,” or the “I” that was, for Descartes, the starting-point of metaphysics and epistemology—or so Waxler would have us believe.

Waxler’s thesis may be right—who can deny such broad claims?—but it doesn’t always play out as agreeably as it might in his analyses. Too much summary and synopsis presupposes a reader who hasn’t undertaken the primary text. Waxler’s local points are more interesting than his general conclusions about the worth of reading well and wisely—conclusions that, it must be said, are sufficiently apparent to go without saying, although they form the only discernable through-line in this exposition of disparate authors, texts, and time periods, and thus serve a vital function.

Waxler is not attempting to imbue his readers with cultural literacy; rather, he’s trying to teach them how to read deliberately. He echoes Kenneth Burke by suggesting that literature is equipment for living. We shouldn’t fail to recognize the skill with which Waxler dissects texts. The problem is that such dissection removes the strangeness of the reading experience, deprives the unseasoned reader of his chance to luxuriate in the sublime power of language and story. Waxler’s critical commentary simply cannot do what the literary works themselves do: provoke, inspire, move, awe, stimulate, anger, shock, and hurt. Therefore, a sense of repetition and banality settles over Waxler’s arguments: the biblical account of creation teaches truths regardless of whether it “happened”; Mary Shelley raises unanswerable questions about restraints on human ambition; Lewis Carroll’s Alice finds meaning in a meaningless world; Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz help us “locate our own ongoing journey that defines us, each in our own way”; Hemingway’s portrayal of Santiago at sea instills understanding about “the truth of the achievement, the accomplishment, and the loss”; and so on. You get the gist: readers are vicarious participants in the stories they read; thus, the stories are instructive about the self. Again, unoriginal—but also undeniable.

Conservatives will be surprised at the manner in which Waxler enlists men of the left to make some traditionalist-seeming points. He mentions Lacan and Foucault—known in conservative circles for French Theory, poststructuralism, jargon, pseudoscience, and psychobabble, among other things—for the proposition that literature transmits virtues and values that constructively guide human activity and orient moral learning. Such references implicitly warn about the risk and short-sightedness of closing individuals within ideological boxes that can be stored away without consequence—or perhaps they demonstrate how creative thinkers can use just about anyone to make the points they want to make.

By all means read Waxler’s book. But, sooth to sayne, if you really want a risk, if you really want to live dangerously, which is to say, as a self-aware, contemplative being, then you should—trigger warning, trigger warning!—read the books Waxler discusses rather than Waxler himself. I’m confident the risky Waxler would urge the same course. He’s just that dangerous.

A Few of My Favorite Things, 2014

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Literature, Novels, Poetry, Politics, Writing on December 12, 2014 at 7:45 am

Allen 2

I sat down this week to consider my reading habits over the last year and to make reading goals for next year.  As I did so, I started making lists, and I thought I’d share three of them.  Here, in these lists, are fourteen of my favorite writers, magazines or journals, and books that I read in 2014.  I thought about adding a film category, but I grew disenchanted with films this year.

My favorite writers for popular magazines and journals:

I place these names in no particular order; this is not a ranking.

Gracy Olmstead

Brad Birzer

George Scialabba (not as prolific this year)

Gerald Russello

Mark Bauerlein

Stephen Cox (UC San Diego)

Justin Raimondo

Joseph Epstein

Micah Mattix

Julie Baldwin

Bruce Frohnen

Jeffrey Tucker

Paul Gottfried

William Deresiewicz

My favorite books:

This is an eclectic mix. Genre has not factored into my decision. I enjoyed these very different books for very different reasons. Some are new; some aren’t. They’ve made the list because I liked them more than the other books I read this year.

Washington Square by Henry James

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop

Collected Poems: 1952-1993 by W.S. Merwin

Common-Law Liberty by James R. Stoner, Jr.

The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt

The Morality of Pluralism by John Kekes

The Institutes of Biblical Law by R.S. Rushdoony

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Literary Criticism: From Plato to Postmodernism by James Seaton

Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe by Jeffrey Hart

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

My favorite popular magazines and journals:

This list was easy; I read every piece these publications run. I do not miss a single essay, article, or review in these outlets.

The American Conservative

The New York Times Book Review

Chronicles

The Freeman

Mises Daily

Pacific Standard

LewRockwell.com

The Imaginative Conservative

The University Bookman

Reason

The American Spectator

The New Criterion

First Things

The Front Porch Republic

Outposts of Culture: Gerald Russello Reviews Jason Harding’s The Criterion

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Essays, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Writing on April 2, 2014 at 8:45 am
Gerald Russello
 
Gerald Russello practices law in New York and edits The University Bookman. He is the author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (University of Missouri Press, 2007).  His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The National Review, The New CriterionCrisis Magazine, The American Conservative, Chronicles, The Imaginative Conservative, The American Spectator, City Journal, The Intercollegiate Review, Modern Age, First Things, and many other publications.
 
This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman in 2003.  It is republished here with the express permission of The University Bookman.  The book under review is Jason Harding’s The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

 

In the final issue of the Criterion, which appeared in January 1939, T. S. Eliot wrote that “continuity of culture” was the primary responsibility of “the small and obscure papers and reviews.” It was they that would “keep critical thought alive” amidst troubled times. And so it has been, for a century and more. The vitality of the “little magazines” is one of the strongest indicators of a culture’s intellectual level. These journals, typically of small circulation and little revenue, serve a crucial function as the medium for the transmission of ideas among scholars, elites, and the larger population. it is perhaps a sign of our times that so many of our Masters of the Universe choose to endow business schools or fund independent films rather than to support the written word. Many of the journals themselves, unfortunately, have become so obscure and inward-minded that they may no longer be worth the trouble.

The British aptitude for starting small associations of like-minded folk was well expressed by the profusion of little magazines, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This proclivity was to bear further fruit across the Atlantic, where Americans followed the British model. Up until the Second World War, America had a thriving culture of little magazines that tradition survives, in a somewhat anemic form, in the independent so-called “zines” that clutter the bookshops of progressive enclaves like Manhattan or Berkeley. There have been two recent examples of the differing fates of such journals here in the United States. Lingua Franca was an energetic journal devoted to academic life, which it chronicled in a sharp, intelligent style. After less than four years of publication it went bankrupt and ceased publication, only to be partially revived in an Internet incarnation after being acquired by the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the other end of the scale is Poetry, which recently received a gift of $100 million from a philanthropist whose own poems it had rejected. The gift instantly made the small journal one of the best-endowed cultural institutions in the country.

The Criterion was perhaps the most important of the journals of the last century. The first issue, which appeared in October 1922 and contained (without epigraph or notes) Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, changed Western intellectual life, and it continues to define what an intellectual journal should be. However, study of the Criterion has been subsumed by the focus on Eliot’s development as a poet and thinker. The larger cultural importance of the journal has received insufficient attention. That has now changed. From such an improbable place as the department of foreign languages and literature in Feng Chia University in Taiwan, where Jason Harding is assistant director, comes The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain. It is a work of polished scholarship on the role of the Criterion in British intellectual life.

Harding divides his analysis into three parts. Part I, “Cultural Networks,” deals with the Criterion as one of a number of small intellectual periodicals, such as the Adelphi and New Verse, which appeared in this period. The second section, titled “The Politics of Book Reviewing,” focuses on a number of regular Criterion contributors, and their relationship with, and treatment by, Eliot as their editor. The chapters include studies of almost forgotten figures like Bonamy Dobrée and Montgomery Belgion as well as more well-known figures such as John Maynard Keynes and the difficult but brilliant Ezra Pound. Harding shows that, while Eliot directed and organized every aspect of the journal, each of the contributors played their own part in establishing the Criterion’s preeminent position.

The final section, “Cultural Politics,” focuses on the purpose of the Criterion as Eliot came to see it in the dark days of the 1930s. As the influence of the journal increased, it became known not only as a showcase of modernism but also as a conduit for what Eliot called “the mind of all Europe” and a defense of the West. The author discusses Eliot’s attempts to persuade major Continental intellectual figures such as Ernst Robert Curtius to contribute to the journal, and his efforts consistently to review foreign periodicals for his British readership.

Harding presents a complex cultural picture in service of his goal of establishing the Criterion as part of “an ongoing cultural conversation, most immediately a dialogue with a shifting set of interlocking periodical structures and networks.” Eliot, as an editor, had to deal not only with his rival journals, but also with his sensitive patron, Lady Rothermere. There were also those occasionally truculent contributors, such as Wyndham Lewis or D. H. Lawrence, who sometimes abandoned the Criterion for other, better-paying reviews.

Among a number of fascinating episodes, Harding recounts here the controversy over classicism and romanticism between Eliot and John Middleton Murry, founder of the Adelphi. Murry launched the first salvo in 1923, claiming that there was no tradition of classicism in England. Although not the subject of the attack, Eliot felt obliged to respond and published in the Criterion the following month his famous defense of classicism, “The Function of Criticism.” Murry and Eliot were to have a limited rematch at the end of the decade over the humanism of Irving Babbitt. Other scholars have examined the substantive merits of their respective positions. Harding’s purpose is rather to show that the literary rivalries among serious journals spurred Eliot, as a writer and editor, to set out his critical and literary vision. They necessarily shaped the kind of journal Eliot was creating.

In his final sections, Harding examines the evidence for Eliot’s supposed anti-Semitic or fascist sympathies and finds them wanting. Under Eliot’s editorship, several writers documented the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the final issue contained a condemnation of Nazi racial theories. Harding concludes that: “Given the Criterion’s record on these matters, it is remarkable that recent critics have stigmatized the journal by suggesting that Eliot was sympathetic to the aims and methods of Nazism.” Harding realizes that Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and his efforts to “stitch together into some kind of unity the Latin-Christian elements of the otherwise diverse cultures of Western Europe” meant his rejection of the Nazi regime. And even though Eliot was somewhat sympathetic to fascism, that sympathy, as Harding demonstrates, was attenuated and did not cause him to suppress other viewpoints in the Criterion.

Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined materials and private collections, Harding expands upon our knowledge of Eliot as a major twentieth-century figure. His careful research adds a new dimension not only to Eliot as a thinker and editor, but also to the entire period of British literary journalism.

Why the Union Soldiers Fought

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Southern History, The South on August 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Allen Mendenhall

Nearly every Southerner was raised studying the Civil War, or, as some here call it, the War Between the States. By the time I entered the public school system in Marietta, Georgia, in the 1980s, the War had long been a cornerstone of the curriculum, although Lost Cause mythology had dissipated and the Confederacy was hardly treated with tones of admiration. It became clear, however, that the War was more complicated than my teachers let on, that the events leading to and following this great conflict represented more than a morality play between competing forces of good and evil. There was, for example, the case of the Roswell Mill. Decades and decades ago, at this mill, the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and young sons of Confederate soldiers labored while the soldiers were off at war. One day Sherman’s Army showed up at the mill and absconded with the women and children. When the Confederate soldiers returned home, their women and children were gone. No one knows exactly what happened to the women and children of the mill, which is why they are still, to this day, called “The Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”

Recently trends in scholarship about the War have been uncritical in their assessments (or lack of assessments) of Union ideology as a contributing factor to the War. Gary Gallagher’s recent The Union War, a companion text to Gallagher’s earlier book The Confederate War (Harvard University Press 1997), corrects this trend.

This book is a restorative history, and a timely one at that. The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the War, and for the last four decades, Gallagher notes, scholarship on the War has neglected to emphasize the ideology of Unionism.

Unionism is central to any understanding of the War. As Gallagher explains, “[T]he focus on emancipation and race sometimes suggests the War had scant meaning apart from these issues—and especially that Union victory had little or no value without emancipation.” Although Union soldiers may have understood that issues related to slavery precipitated fighting in 1861, for them that is not what the war was “about.” Gallagher adds that a “portrait of the nation that is dominated by racism, exclusion, and oppression obscures more than it reveals,” not least of all because it ignores the vast influx of immigrants and the relative receptivity toward different cultures that Americans championed to varying degrees, even at that time.

Gallagher’s goal in this book is to disabuse readers of the notion that the War was, for the typical Union citizen-solder, “about slavery.” The book asks three fundamental questions: “What did the war for Union mean in mid-nineteenth century America? How and why did emancipation come to be part of the war for Union? How did armies of citizen-soldiers figure in conceptions of the war, the process of emancipation, and the shaping of national sentiment?” In answering these questions, Gallagher’s focus is on “one part of the population in the United States—citizens in the free states and four loyal slaveholding states who opposed secession and supported a war to restore the Union.” Gallagher concludes that the War was, for the aforementioned citizens, one for Union, and that it only happened to bring about the emancipation of slaves. Emancipation was never the goal; it was a result.

“From the perspective of loyal Americans,” Gallagher explains, “their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s.” According to this reading, Southern slaveholders of the planter classes represented the aristocracy that was responsible for the creation of the Confederacy. The Southern elite seemed like a throwback to monarchy. Citizen-soldiers of the Union Army believed that by taking on the Confederacy, they were restoring democratic principles and preserving the “Union,” a term that contemporary readers who lack historical perspective will have trouble understanding. Miseducated by Hollywood fantasies and adorations—consider the films Glory and Gettysburg—the average American today has lost all constructive sense of Unionism as it was understood to mid-nineteenth century Americans, especially in the North.

In five short chapters totaling 162 pages—notes excluded—Gallagher repeatedly identifies problems in the recent historical record, and then reworks and revises those problems, improving the record. He criticizes the tunnel-vision of scholars who write about The Grand Review as an exercise in racial exclusion, for instance, and he suggests that instead nineteenth-century descriptions of this procession indicate that “Unionism” meant something like “nation” and “America,” signifiers that stood in contradistinction to oligarchy and that were only tangentially related to racial ideology. By systematically picking apart various histories while summarizing and synthesizing a wealth of recent scholarship, Gallagher has produced what could be called a prolonged bibliographical or historiographical essay with extended asides about what is wrong in his field.

What is wrong, he suggests, is imposing contemporary preoccupations with race onto the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans. Against this tendency, Gallagher reminds us of forgotten facts—for instance, that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment had more to do with political unity than racial enlightenment, or that, over the course of the War, concerted military action by ordinary individuals (not the acts of rebel slaves, Abraham Lincoln, or congressmen) determined which black populations in the South became free. Gallagher interrogates the difference between Lincoln the “Savior of the Union” and Lincoln “The Great Emancipator.” He supports the study of military history, which other academics have scorned. All of this plays into Gallagher’s claim that although “almost all white northerners would have responded in prejudiced terms if asked about African Americans, they were not consumed with race as much of the recent literature would suggest.”

The take-home point from this book is that devotion to Union had greater currency for most Americans than did any contemporary understanding of a commitment to race. “Recapturing how the concept of Union resonated and reverberated throughout the loyal states in the Civil War era,” Gallagher submits, “is critical to grasping northern motivation.” This motivation was rooted in the belief that Union would preserve rather than jeopardize liberty, and had little to do with slavery, except in that an important side result was liberty for all.

Gallagher has reminded us of the importance of Unionism to the War and to the psychology of the average Northerner. He has reminded us that race was hardly a chief concern to the typical Northern soldier, and that retrospective imposition of our concerns onto theirs is poor scholarship and bad history.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

Glory and Indignity

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Politics, Southern History, The South on February 20, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here at The University Bookman.

John Randolph of Roanoke
by David Johnson.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012

“I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.” Thus spoke John Randolph of Roanoke (1773–1833), one of the most curious, animated figures ever to grace American soil. That David Johnson’s biography of Randolph is the first of its kind since Russell Kirk published John Randolph of Roanoke in 1951 suggests how deteriorated American memory and education have become. Randolph ought to be studied by all American schoolchildren, if not for his politics then for the vital role he played in shaping the nation’s polity. Dr. Kirk declared that in writing about Randolph, he was summoning him from the shades. If so, Johnson has gone a step farther and brought Randolph into the sunshine to reveal just how spectacular a man he really was.

Kirk’s biography of Randolph was in fact his first book. Kirk dubbed the colorful Virginian a “genius,” “the prophet of Southern nationalism,” and the “architect of Southern conservatism.” In The Conservative Mind, Kirk treats Randolph as a necessary link between George Mason and John C. Calhoun and proclaims that Randolph should be remembered for “the quality of his imagination.” Randolph enabled the proliferation and preservation of the conservative tradition in America. He became an icon for decentralization and localism.

Why would a scandalous, sickly, go-it-alone, riotous rabble-rouser appeal to the mild-mannered Dr. Kirk? The answer, in short, is that Randolph was as conservative a politician as America has ever produced, and he was, despite himself, a gentleman and a scholar. Eccentric though he appeared and often acted, Randolph celebrated and defended tradition, championed small government and agrarianism, sacrificed careerism and opportunism for unwavering standards, professed self-reliance and individualism, took pains to preserve the rights of the states against the federal government, delighted in aristocratic tastes and manners, read voraciously the great works of Western civilization, cultivated the image of a statesman even as he attended to the wants and needs of his yeomen constituents, discoursed on weighty topics with wit and vigor, and adhered to firm principles rather than to partisan pandering. Admired by many, friend to few, he made a prominent display of his wild personality and unconditional love for liberty, and he devoted himself, sometimes at great cost, to the ideals of the American Revolution, which had, he claimed, marked him since childhood.

Remembered chiefly (and, in the minds of some progressives, unfortunately) for his contributions to states’ rights doctrines and to the judicial hermeneutics of strict constructionism, Randolph was responsible for so much more. The son of a wealthy planter who died too young, Randolph became the stepson of St. George Tucker, a prominent lawyer who taught at the College of William and Mary and served as a judge on the Virginia General District Court and, eventually, on the Virginia Court of Appeals, the United States District Court for the District of Virginia, and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. A cousin to Thomas Jefferson, Randolph studied under George Wythe and his cousin Edmond Randolph. A boy who was forced to flee his home from the army of Benedict Arnold, Randolph later played hooky from college to watch the orations of Fisher Ames, the stout Federalist from New York, and Madison. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the U.S. Senate, and was, for a brief time, Minister to Russia. A supporter of Jefferson before he became Jefferson’s tireless adversary, he criticized such individuals as Patrick Henry, Washington, Madison, Monroe, John Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. He was sickened by the Yazoo Land Scandal, opposed the War of 1812 in addition to the Missouri Compromise, and promoted nullification.

Many conservatives, Kirk among them, have tended to overlook the more unpalatable aspects of Randolph’s life, whether personal or political. For instance, Randolph was, more than Jefferson, enthralled by the French Revolution and supportive of its cause. He manufactured a French accent, used a French calendar, and called his friends “Citizens.” In his twenties, he referred to himself as a deist “and by consequence an atheist,” and he acquired, in his own words, “a prejudice in favor of Mahomedanism,” going so far as to proclaim that he “rejoiced in all its [Islam’s] triumphs over the cross.” One might excuse these infelicities as symptoms of youthful indiscretion and impetuosity, but they do give one pause.

Not for lack of trying, Randolph could not grow a beard, and although he spoke well, his voice was, by most accounts, awkward, piping, off-putting, and high-pitched. His critics have painted him as a villain of the likes of Shakespeare’s Richard III: resentful, obstinate, loudmouthed, and as deformed in the mind as he was in the body. Yet Randolph cannot be made into a monster. More than others of his station in that time and place, Randolph was sensitive to the problems of slavery, which had only intensified rather than diminished since the Founding. He freed his slaves in his will, granted them landholdings in Ohio, and provided for their heirs. Slavery was incompatible with liberty, and Randolph, despite being a product of his time, appears to have worried much about the paradox of a nation conceived in liberty but protective of institutional bondage. Randolph asserted, in some way or another, over and over again, that his politics were based on a presumption of liberty, which was (and is) the opposite of slavery and governmental tyranny. Read the rest of this entry »

Additional Thoughts on Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization on December 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Allen Mendenhall

Recently I reviewed Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) for The University Bookman.  The review (“Why the Union Soldiers Fought”) is available here.  I have not said all I mean to say about Gallagher’s book, so this post records some additional thoughts.

I began my review with the tale of the “Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”  It was difficult as a child, knowing this story and others like it, to view the Union Army as completely righteous and pure, or to justify the eradication of certain evils like slavery with other widespread and destructive evils like war.  Despite being a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I’m ambivalent about the War because of the various and totalizing perspectives that were thrust upon me when I was young, and because of my general opposition to war and nationalism, to say nothing of the complex figuring of race that played a defining role in bringing about the conflict.

As I went from middle school to high school, and then college to graduate school, the less likely I was to reduce the causes of the War to one or two factors, and the more likely I was to believe that anyone’s view of the War is already tainted by biases and assumptions.  Over time, I learned never to rule out alternate ways of viewing the War or the Confederacy.  I decided that no one would ever discover the intellectual trump card that would prevail over other viewpoints about the War that killed more men than all other wars in American history, combined.

There’s always more than one way of looking at a conflict, be it this War or some other one.  And our imperfect understanding of conflicts—of anything, really—always consists of generalizations based on the confines of personal experience.  We can read about the events encompassing the War, and we can guess at the logic and beliefs that explain those events.  But we can never relive the War or experience it in real time; and if we are honest, we must say that we can never read all there is to read about the period, never fully know the way a nineteenth-century mind thought, never entirely understand the quotidian realities of the men and women of all races at those times and in those places.  Being human, moreover, we make mistakes and assumptions.  Most of us revise our errors when we notice them.  But some don’t.  Some try to rationalize the logic of the unrealities to which they cling.  Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: