It is a rare thing for a work of intellectual history to win a Pulitzer Prize. This is partly because of the inherently knotty and abstract character of the subject matter. But it is also, alas, because the field seems to attract more than its share of the world’s most turgid writing. It is not clear why this should be so. There is nothing inherently boring about the interplay of ideas and history—far from it—and it seems incredible that intellectual historians should not be able to render that great human drama more compellingly.
Such a state of affairs goes a long way toward explaining the excitement many of us felt at the success, culminating in the garnering of a Pulitzer, enjoyed by Louis Menand’s 2001 book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. They said it couldn’t be done, but Menand seemed to have done it, and made it look—well, not exactly easy, but far from impossible. With a supple and accessible prose style, a good portraitist’s undogmatic sense of human psychology, a talent for explaining complex ideas simply, and a seemingly endless treasury of telling anecdotes and character sketches, Menand vividly brought to life the intellectual and cultural milieu of William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, presenting their ideas as whole-souled human responses to the tribulations of their own lives, and to the challenges of post-Civil War America, rather than mere chalkboard abstractions. In so doing, he introduced a new generation of readers to the intense social web of discourse and experience that gave rise to what is called pragmatism.
Yet Menand’s book was also found seriously wanting by its most knowledgeable readers, for reasons that could not be explained away by mere envy of its success (a force never to be underestimated in such matters). It was by no means clear, for example, that Menand’s framing argument—that pragmatism’s more cautious approach to truth claims was a reaction against the deadly certitudes that were deemed to have caused the Civil War—is sustainable, at least once one gets past the figure of Holmes. Nor was it clear that, in other respects, Holmes and Peirce were enough like James, or one another, or Dewey (who was much younger), to warrant their being brought together in so cozy an arrangement. These were not the Inklings, after all, or even the Fugitive poets. The short-lived Metaphysical Club was admittedly neither interested in metaphysics nor much of a club.
In the end, though, the chief problem with the book was the indebtedness of Menand’s understanding of pragmatism to Richard Rorty, whose supervisory shadow hovered ever nearby, and whose influential version of James and Dewey makes them out to be postmodernists avant la lettre. In a word, The Metaphysical Club, for all its brilliance, projected a late-twentieth-century doctrine of programmatic epistemological blurriness backward onto pragmatism. Among other problems with such an approach, it does an injustice to Peirce, arguably the most enduringly important figure of the bunch, who was deeply committed to the epistemological authority of science and the existence of objective truth, and who forcefully rejected the title of “pragmatist.” To paraphrase Groucho, one should be wary of a club that counts among its members those who have declined to join.
All of which is to suggest that the success of The Metaphysical Club came at a price, and that one should not be surprised to see some of the same liabilities emerge in American Studies, a collection of essays on American intellectual and cultural life that Menand has published in various venues over the past couple of decades. All the essays are lucidly written, all make for pleasant reading, and almost all of them contain interesting observations about the subjects at hand. They embrace a wide, even wild, variety of subjects, ranging from longish scholarly essays about James and Holmes to shorter, breezier takes on Rolling Stone magazine and film critic Pauline Kael. One senses that there is a considerable intelligence at work here, a very American kind of intelligence, one that has a rare ability to engage the high without pedantry and the low without buffoonery.
But the whole tends to be less than some of the parts. The essays almost always draw back from making a compelling argument about the subject at hand. When one reads them in isolation, over a period of years, such a technique seems subtle and unforced, and even to evince a certain elegant reticence. But when they are read en masse, one sees the element of artifice at work, and the effect is quite different. One becomes suspicious of the too-easy resort to what might be called the atmospherics of complexity, in which the essay turns back on itself, dissolving all seeming certainties into a fog of paradoxes, while the author’s ironic smile disappears, knowing and cheshire-cat-like, into the white space. One is meant to come away feeling that everyone else to date has viewed the matter under too simple a rubric. But there is nothing simpler, and less edifying, than a constant resort to “complexity.”
The principled aversion to principle, then, the same position that was being commended in The Metaphysical Club, is constantly on display here. But the final effect is more enervating than stimulating. It comes across less as a philosophical position than as a stylistic tic or a pose, albeit a style perfectly suited to the unphilosophical pages of the New Yorker, where Menand often writes—a style in which epistemological uncertainty is the perfect accessory, the handbag of high fashion, and for which the creation of atmosphere is not merely a means to an end, but the end itself. The essays are eminently readable, but the pleasure is almost entirely in the experience of reading them, and not in anything one takes away.
Almost every essay has something to like in it. But almost every essay also has something else that spoils the effect. In an essay on Holmes, for example, Menand does a good job of encapsulating his subject’s body of thought, and captures something of the range of his mind. He is willing to be critical. But he chooses to ignore the devastating treatment of Holmes in Albert Alschuler’s biography—no doubt a book too passionate for his tastes—and seems willfully blind to what was truly monstrous about the man. He is willing to find fault with Holmes’ infamous Buck v. Bell opinion, for example, which supported the involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded.” But he does so only on the grounds that Holmes’ generation did not yet understand that there is such a thing as a “right of privacy,” comparable to “the freedom of speech.” One wonders for a moment whether Menand is kidding. Surely he doesn’t believe that there is no other argument to be made, morally and legally, against such a barbarity, then and now. And surely any morally sensate reader will find it profoundly chilling to know that Holmes assured his friend Harold Laski that this decision ventured “near to the first principle of real reform.”
A similar lapse occurs in Menand’s essay on the “offputting” historian Christopher Lasch—obviously a dangerously overexcitable chap, who might have started a civil war if given a chance. Menand scores some points against Lasch, to be sure, who was better at criticism than at prescription, and whose praise for the populist political tradition was sometimes excessive, tending to gloss over the shadow side of that tradition. But he brushes aside Lasch’s powerful attacks on the moral poverty of liberalism by blithely asserting, as if it were a statement as obvious as the nose on one’s face, that “liberalism does have a moral conception of the self, which is embodied in the political doctrine of rights.” Well, how nice to have had that cleared up for us. But there is no further elaboration on this apodictic statement, and no clue as to why this very issue has been at the center of a swirling debate in the world of political philosophy for the past quarter century or more.
A different kind of lapse occurs in Menand’s contribution to that already vastly bloated genre, celebrations of the New Yorker magazine. To be sure, he is mildly and genially critical, just enough to keep credibility, and plays to the prevailing sense that the “old” New Yorker was somehow superior, though also the creature of a moment that has passed. But such criticism is a limited hang-out, a form of praising with faint damns. In the end, we are served up the same old line about the incorruptible integrity of the magazine, and its heroic transcendence of commercialism. We are assured of “the firm and enforced separation between the editorial and business sides of the New Yorker.” But if that is so, how are we to make sense of this statement: “Ads for goods that were considered too down-market for New Yorker readers, such as ads for Sears, Roebuck, or that were deemed distasteful by [editor William] Shawn, such as ads for lingerie, were routinely rejected.” How seriously do we take an “enforced separation” that was “routinely” violated?
Menand is on-target in identifying the New Yorker with a certain peculiar form of elitism, one of whose identifying characteristics is precisely its affectation of a bored disdain for elites. Trouble is, this comes perilously close to being Menand’s own attitude, and being anti-anti-demotic is not quite the same thing as having a genuinely democratic cultural sensibility. Hence his surprisingly high regard for the garrulous film criticism of Pauline Kael: it’s because her pose of anti-pretentiousness led her to tout movies that didn’t try to be “art.” Hence his own very similar observation, in an essay on CBS magnate William Paley, that “the banality of network television was the best thing about it.” Hence his utterly astonishing observation, in his Rolling Stone essay, that “authenticity is a high-culture problem,” one that consumers of popular culture never worry about—a baffling misperception that, I predict, would be readily refuted by an extended conversation with his own students.
Perhaps the most indicative essay is the one on Milos Forman’s egregious film The People vs. Larry Flynt. To his credit, Menand utterly demolishes the film, and shows up all the ways in which it, and the people who lionized it, failed to tell the truth about Flynt and his sleazy empire. But he is not content to leave it at that. Some sort of moral equivalence between these noxious foes has to be struck: Jerry Falwell has to be strung up too. After all, he too has an evil empire, and strong, intransigent beliefs, some of which are no doubt shared by ladies in Dubuque. Hence, the essay concludes that “the sexually explicit magazine industry and the televangelist fund-raising industry were . . . working opposite sides of the same street,” both being motivated by a level of cultural sex-obsession from which the rest of us ought to be liberated. In short, these two sickos deserve one another. A plague on both their houses. The rest of us, whose attitude toward sex is presumably more mature and low-key, would be better off without them both.
One could go on, but suffice it to say that every étude on Menand’s music stand has the words “ma non troppo” stamped over the tempo. To be sure, there are worse things. We can all agree, for example, that civil war is undesirable. But achieving genuine moderation is more than just a matter of identifying polar moral equivalencies and planting oneself in the middle of them. It involves some sense of the ends for the sake of which one pursues moderation; and those ends are not always adequately represented by the available options. Sometimes one must act boldly in such a way as to recalibrate the options, by bringing larger moral concerns into view—the very concerns that pragmatism tells us are unavailable. In his essay on Lasch, Menand refers to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 as “one of the noblest political events in American history.” He is right to say this, and he might also have added that it was a supremely moderate act. But its nobility did not consist only, or primarily, in its moderation.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.