This interview by Marshall Poe took place on the telephone and was published by New Books in History on December 15, 2008.
Marshall Poe: I should tell our listeners that we’re talking to John Summers today and we’ll be talking about his book of essays Every Fury on Earth which I think is the best title of any book I’ve encountered in months and months. But we can come to how you chose that title in a moment. I’m sitting here in Iowa. It’s actually not much of an advertisement for Iowa because it’s nine degrees today. Although it’s sunny. That’s something. Nine degrees and sunny. We thank the Almighty for small blessings here. So, let me begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up and where you went to school and that sort of thing.
John Summers: Well sure, yeah, I’d be delighted. I was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and grew up in the 80s in Gettysburg which was, although it was overrun by tourists as it is now, it was a much more provincial place, like a lot of small towns in the United States in the 80s. And my family members were businessmen and high school teachers and—small businessmen and high school teachers and nurses. No one really from academia, no one a Democrat. It was a place of rural conservatism, as I mention in the introductory essay of the book, which contains a little bit of this autobiography. Adams County, Pennsylvania, which is my home county, has voted for a Republican in the Presidential election and every election since 1920. I was also a Republican and very strongly tilted that way, and I went to college in rural Virginia at James Madison University and graduated from James Madison in 2003. It wasn’t until I went to work in Washington, DC at a reference publisher after college that I began to get interested in professional history and then by extension the world of ideas. And that happened in night school at George Mason where it was my good fortune to enroll in classes there, mostly out of curiosity, and to discover Roy Rosenzweig, who passed last year.
MP: I actually knew Roy, and he was quite a titan of the discipline.
JS: Yes, he was. And he was an incredibly decent person and interested in a way that not all academic historians are in the education of young people. And he gave me and others like me in that program a lot of attention. Larry Levine was there as well.
MP: Actually, I know Larry Levine, too. I was in my very early graduate career a reader for him—a reader meaning I graded all his papers.
JS: I see.
MP: I was fortunate enough to get to know him. I remember after he won—I think he won a MacArthur Genius Grant, didn’t he?
JS: He did.
MP: Or something like that, yes. I remember he took us out for a very nice lunch after that.
JS: Larry was also a very, very generous man, and interested in educating young historians. So I really became infatuated and even enthralled with academic history, with professional history at the time at George Mason. And it took me three years to get a degree there. I was working full-time still. And then I applied to graduate school at the doctoral level and managed to get into the University of Rochester, which was another stroke of luck because although Christopher Lasch had died in 1994, I discovered Lasch when I got to Rochester, when I got to, I discovered his body of work, which is a sort of standing challenge. And I studied under Robert Westbrook, who was a friend of Lasch and author of John Dewey and American Democracy—became interested in intellectual history.
And it took me a long time to finish my degree. I did a lot of teaching at Harvard and elsewhere in the meantime, and I finished my degree in 2006. So at Rochester, unlike a lot of places, they didn’t discourage their graduate students from writing for magazines and for newspapers and for the broadest range of scholarly journals as well. So I took it into my head that it was a proper thing to do to begin to express myself in every way I can, what I was learning. And I published in all sorts of different places and this collection is a distillation of my essays.
MP: Well we should all applaud you for writing these. I know that my own graduate students have been told that it is a good thing to try to publish in as many of these organs as possible and to develop a series of relationships with the editors, and this kind of thing, it can help in a scholarly career. And, of course, this is where I think most of the heavy lifting is done in educating the public, as opposed to the kinds of books that I myself have written that, as I like to say, only my mother has read. And she only claims to have read them.
JS: That’s a nice qualification. In my experience, again, I’ve been really fortunate to have teachers who have not been strictly professional. Roy and his colleagues at the American Social History Project in New York, at CUNY, at the CUNY Grad Center, Josh Brown and Steve Brier were working on a multimedia adaptation of their textbook Who Built America—it’s a social history textbook. And when I was at George Mason, Roy founded the Center for History and New Media, which is now one of the leading centers of its kind in the world.
MP: I would say it’s the leading center of its kind in the world.
JS: So, all along, at every step, I was introduced to serious ideas and to academic norms and rituals, but simultaneously a critique of academic norms and rituals—sometimes tacit, sometimes, as in the case of Christopher Lasch and Robb Westbrook, explicit, that serious ideas must be communicated to the public, to many different kinds of publics.
MP: And how exactly did you—this is sort of a logistical question, and I’ll pass it on to my graduate students and anybody who is listening. How did you actually manage to break into some of these journals and magazines and so on and so forth?
JS: Well persistence, I guess. I’m writing a biography and I’ve been studying C. Wright Mills for a number of years. And Mills has a nice kind of sociology of culture which finds its center at the craftsmanship level. So any one of us who have discovered at the outset we are not a genius, well, we work at the craftsman level. And the craftsman level includes a lot of qualities of character that don’t have anything necessarily to do with the formal articulation of ideas, but nonetheless bring the ideas into the world. And there’s no formula. As a matter of fact, since I’ve been writing history essays, which hasn’t been that long—1998 or 1999 I believe is the first publication—all the norms of communication have been upended, with the Internet. And things are changing rapidly. I think once you publish one or two essays, then you can take those to other editors and say well look, I’ve published here. Could you give me a shot here? And in my experience that often works because, at least how it used to be, and I suppose it’s still this way to some extent, editors look to their peers to decide who to bring into print.
MP: A friend of mine who writes in these sorts of journals says that the best way to publish in one of them is to have published in one of them, which is a bit of a paradox. But I know that I went through this myself. I like to show my students a couple of files that I have on my computer. One is published, popular essays. And then I have another file, unpublished popular essays, which is five times as long.
JS: Right. And for every—yeah, right, exactly. That’s important to remember, and I was in—I’m not being facetious when I say about persistence, for every—there are 18 essays in this collection of maybe 30 or 40 published essays, all told and now there are—for every one of those that got published, there are 100 more ideas that I never brought to fruition and there are 200 more, or many more, actually, unanswered e-mails. So you have to really develop a thick skin in this business.
MP: That’s right. I have a friend of mine that I’ve known for many years—and I’ve just actually reestablished contact with him. He used to say that he was not a carbon-based life form because he breathed and ate rejection. That’s what he claimed, yeah. That was his thing. So a very brilliant guy, too. I’m going to read the initial quotation in the book from James Agee which I have to say I really love and has caused a lot of soul-searching on my part. And then I’m going to ask you why you chose this particular quotation. And it goes like this: “Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time as art or as religion or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor.” Why did you choose that quotation and what do you think it means?
JS: Well what I think it means is it poses a paradox, which I talk about a little bit in the forward. How is it possible to believe in the transcendent or even the progressive power of ideas while disbelieving in authority? That is to say if one believes in authority then one is likely to be honored. One is likely to get lots of prizes and lots of—and it’s astonishing how many prizes there are, as a matter of fact.
MP: No it’s funny. We’ll come to that in a second but I—we’ll come to talking about Harvard where both you and I taught. One of the things I learned while there is that it actually is pretty difficult to graduate from Harvard without winning some sort of prize. Because there are just so many of them. But as I say we’ll come to that in a second. I found the quotation absolutely fascinating because one of the things I can say that I did when I entered graduate school was that I wanted to set the world on its ear with ideas and what I discovered was they wanted me to write a monograph on early Russian history—which I guess is a fine thing, but I did do some soul-searching and had my doubts about whether I could do it. And I did what they asked me to do with some effect, I guess, but I must say that in reading your essays that I very much admired the courageousness and bravery of this kind of really speaking out, and not to use a cliché, but speaking truth to power in the way that you do in these really terrific essays. And I guess I should also say—sorry to go on so long but—
JS: No please. It’s all right.
MP: I really see that—and this is why I was so eager to talk to you—that you really stand in an unusual place among historians today, and that is you are a historian and a social and political critic. And you mentioned Christopher Lasch, and he’s somebody that we could mention there but Arthur Schlesinger or Richard Hofstadter and in my own field Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes. Then there’s a new crop of people, Tony Judt and Sean Wilentz and Victor Davis Hanson. Did you see yourself consciously following in their footsteps?
JS: Well I see myself—I don’t know about consciously following in the footsteps. I have disagreements, political disagreements with most of the people you mentioned. But I was very impressed by Christopher Lasch’s work which, it’s hard to tell—it’s hard to tell how much influence Lasch still has. The world is in some ways very different than it was even in the early ‘90’s when he published The Revolt of the Elites. But I thought his work was just exactly the kind of stuff that I would like to do myself.
MP: I agree.
JS: One draws inspiration, I think, as well as particular ideas, but mostly inspiration—and courage, I suppose. The tradition in American scholarship runs back to Emerson, of course, with his Self-Reliance which has, again, become kind of a cliché. But I think if you read that essay in the proper spirit, there’s a lot of ferociousness in that essay and there’s a lot of fierce passion for independence. And I have gone back to Emerson—of course who is not a historian and mostly his stuff on history I actually don’t like very much, his theory of history. But nonetheless I go back to him to draw strength. And I also like James Agee very much for his independence, and Lasch’s independence.
It’s not so much a particular vocation or a particular definition of the vocation. We have this word now thanks to Russell Jacoby called the public intellectual. Which I think is a little bit of a misnomer because strictly speaking there is not anything that’s a private intellectual, you know, sort of private writing. But there’s no antonym. It’s only a matter of, I think, what kind of public one is hoping to reach. And Emerson and Agee and Lasch and people like Sean Wilentz are professors who are trying to speak to—and even Roy Rosenzweig were trying to speak to a broader public, not just talk to other academics. And it’s fine and it’s necessary to drive for disciplinary knowledge, I think, and to try to advance the conditions of the field, but I think one has to make a real effort to blind oneself to the extremely broad range of intellectual resources that are at our command as historians. To see what’s possible, to see what’s been done and then to decide to spend many, many years—or even the bulk of one’s career—devoted to a very small field seems to me a matter of intimidating oneself.
MP: I couldn’t agree more. One of the reasons I did leave academia for a time because I was very frustrated with this. I had written quite a bit on early Russian history, which usually isn’t at the top of anybody’s publishing list. And I remember that my department asked me what my next project was going to be in early Russian history and I had to honestly say that I had learned everything about Russian history I really wanted to know. And so I left because—you know, it’s funny, I’ve said this before on the show but it bears repeating. My wife is a mathematician and to mathematicians, the idea that a historian or somebody thoughtful would work on one topic their whole life is laughable. They can’t imagine why somebody would do such a thing.
And I have to say I’m with them, even though I do work in a discipline and I am a Russian historian. I have much broader interests and I was very frustrated toward the middle of my career with the fact that I wasn’t allowed, actually, to pursue these interests. And I should say—not to point fingers at anyone—
JS: Please do.
MP: It wasn’t as if they disallowed me the option. It’s I really disallowed myself because I was pursuing a standard academic career in that way. And I should say—let me ask you to speak this a little bit. One of things I’ve been tremendously frustrated with recently is I work a lot on the Web, and probably too much, is—and this is going to be a cliché again—is the disconnection between what we actually do as historians and any sort of public discourse at all. And that is to say we don’t really seem to care that nobody reads our books. And you have this very nice essay “History as Vocation.” How would you, if you could change the historical discipline so that—well just let me put it that way. How would you—blue sky, we’ll say, as they say in the corporate world—how would you change the historical discipline, or what do you think we should do in order to reach the public?
JS: Well I think—I’ve done—in putting together these essays as much as I think I can do, and perhaps it can be done—as long as there are—we have a production problem. It’s a pity in a way to revert to the language of industrial production and division of labor, but the profession has been very much shaped upon the needs of teaching the students. And teaching the students in the public universities, at least, has been shaped by the funding of the state legislatures which is—it comes down to a political question. Unless we have professional associations that take seriously the idea of a free and independent professional, profession as a—as a craft, the standards that we can measure ourselves against, measure our losses against, I think are always going to be nonexistent.
I don’t have constructive proposals, but I think that what we need to do is to continue to criticize as much as possible. It is also a cliché, I think, to continue to say oh what a pity it is that we have such narrow specialization. But as long as we have exemplars like Sean Wilentz and Arthur Schlesinger and Christopher Lasch, we can at least try to uphold informally critical standards. As far as changing the profession, I don’t see that it’s going to happen.
MP: I don’t either. I was—this was 10 years ago, 10 or 15 years ago. I wrote a series of relatively ill-tempered letters to the AHA about the overproduction of PhDs in history. There are a lot of PhD programs in history that one wonders whether should exist. And there certainly are a lot of history PhDs produced who never work. And I guess this was my issue back in the day—I’ve kind of mellowed a little bit in my old age, and I’m producing some PhDs myself, for my sins. But I think that—again, to point fingers for just a moment, I do wonder what role that the American Historical Association thinks it has in these things, because it doesn’t do very much about them.
JS: I was fortunate to be on the first committee the AHA initiated on graduates and part-time employment issues. And I sat in committee rooms with members of the AHA and listened to them discuss the issues. And the reason the committee was founded was because Eric Foner was president of the AHA, incoming president of the AHA that year and he decided that it was an issue that the profession had to confront. David Montgomery was there as well. And they were interested in really sharpening this issue, which would involve—I shouldn’t—I’m not speaking for them. But there was a minority strain, I think in the committee’s discussions. And at least I was also very much interested in pushing this strain. Where this issue had to be sharpened by taking the question of benefits-eligible work to the accrediting agencies.
And there are a half a dozen major accrediting agencies for colleges and universities. And that would have involved a real fight, which is to say that this—we’re not going to accredit your history department if you’re employing too many part-time teachers. That’s a real confrontational struggle right at the heart of the question and they just were not interested in doing that—probably wisely because they probably would not have been able to sustain it. The AHA is a very large organization that doesn’t have anything near a consensus, I think, on what the profession should look like.
So as a result the professional ideal I think has mostly collapsed. And what we have are historians who are employees, a difference I tried to talk about in some of these essays between being a professional and an employee, not to be as large as possible. In fact there’s not much of a difference.
MP: Maybe you could talk a little bit about that, the difference between a professional and an employee.
JS: Well a professional, I think, has, should have—to put it quickly—a greater control over their creative life than—at least a free professional—than the needs of their departments and needs of their students and needs of their state legislatures might want them to have. There is a way of talking about intellectual production that I think is very much like industrial production, very much modeled on capitalist work discipline. And I think that the struggle of labor unions, the old AFL and even somewhat to a lesser extent the CIO has been—not only over bread-and-butter-issues but about questions about creativity and questions about skill, questions about the aesthetic component of skill—it’s mostly a matter of control. You can’t give it too much content, especially when it doesn’t exist. But it’s a matter of establishing independence from the point of production.
MP: I see what you mean. And one thing that’s always surprised me a little bit is that once historians get tenure, they don’t seem to become any more adventurous in their work. And this always is something of a paradox for me. Here you have job security, putatively for life, yet you continue to do exactly the same thing that you did before.
JS: Well I think that’s the case but I was arguing about this with a friend of mine at the University of Chicago just the other day, and his argument was that he’s going to do his bit until he gets tenure and then he will become adventurous. This is the—what I told him, he’s going to be equivalent of the man who takes the advertising job or the woman who takes the advertising job and says that once I have enough money and pay my house off, I’m going to start doing my painting or writing my novels. One wonders why it doesn’t happen more.
MP: It often doesn’t happen. That’s been the surprising thing to me is that, especially in terms of writing I guess what I’d just call popular books, not to put too fine a point on it—historians—history books sell well. I’ve studied publishing a little bit myself. And there is ample opportunity to get literary agents to go pitch your book ideas and actually even make a certain amount of money producing popular books.
JS: Is that right?
MP: No it is possible, yes, it is, and I can give some examples of things that I have done to do this in the hopes of reaching a little bit broader audience. I’m not a terribly good popular writer myself. I think my agent is very disappointed in me. But in any event this doesn’t usually happen. Usually it’s the next monograph on something extraordinarily narrow. And I can’t fault people for thinking that they ought to continue as they have. But I do wonder about the—in my own career I wonder what kind of contribution I’m making by writing another monograph or another series of articles. I know the dean likes it but I’m not sure anybody else does. I don’t usually talk about these things terribly loudly, for obvious reasons.
JS: Well I do and I have. But I want to stress that there’s really no plan here. There’s not too much of a formula. I’m interviewing for an academic history job at the end of the month because I need money to pay my rent. And I think that it is possible to—I’m told, I should say, that it’s possible to do serious intellectual work while working at a corporate job or at a nonprofit. Maybe that’s the case. Maybe it was more the case six weeks ago than it was now. But I think that many of us who had this spirit of independence and just speaking out and doing nothing for our career or, in my case, doing nothing for money, eventually we come to a point where we have to make decisions. And there are people who have managed to make it.
I’ll point to Kevin Mattson, who is a professor at Ohio University, and a very good professor, a very good teacher, and a writer of popular history books. He writes for Dissent magazine, who came out of Rochester. Or Dave Greenberg, who writes a column for Slate magazine and has a background in journalism and writes for the New Republican, writes very good books about political history. It is possible. And perhaps it’s as simple as trying to find a place where the administration is enlightened enough to try to promote a broader kind of writing. Higher education is extremely varied in this country, and perhaps even professional history is varied, academic history is varied enough to allow pockets. And perhaps it’s a matter of just finding the right job.
MP: I see to what you mean and I kind of agree with you—well I do agree with you. The chokepoint for me, though, is really this curious fact that once people get tenure, they don’t depart very radically from what they did before. And I wouldn’t say that has very much to do with administrations per se because they can’t fire these people at this point. They can prevent them becoming full professors but being a full professor is not really much of a bump from being just a associate professor. But I guess I just have always been relatively curious about this sort of thing. I’m not suggesting that people should go off the deep end or anything once they get tenure but it’s a certain—one can become a little bit more aggressive once one has—one has real job security. But in our field they tend not to do that.
JS: Well you mentioned math. When do you think the prime point of creativity is for historians? For mathematicians, I understand it’s at a fairly young age.
MP: Well yeah I think that—and I can’t—I wouldn’t really pretend to know a lot about that. But for historians it’s much later, I think. I know that I wouldn’t write some of the things that I wrote early in my career. And I was somewhat embarrassed by them. But yeah I do—I do feel like—I wish there were more historians out there—like Christopher Lasch—who were actively involved in these things. And there are some. The History News Network is something that’s a new development in our field and I think that they are trying to do a little bit of this. And I know that in our department we have people that write op-eds and this kind of thing, and I write a little bit of popular stuff when I have a chance. But I can’t say that I’ve been terribly successful at it. But I think it’s an interesting thing to think about.
Let me shift gears just a little bit. We can talk directly about a couple of the essays that I found particularly interesting. One maybe you could talk a little bit about this really terrific essay about Noam Chomsky and academic history. Now I should say, shamefacedly, that I was one of those people that dismissed Noam Chomsky and just said well he’s a kook. That’s why we don’t deal with you. But your essay, it convinced me that there’s something more going on. And maybe you could talk about that a little bit.
JS: Well whether—I don’t think he’s a kook, by any stretch of the imagination, but I understand that people do feel this way. Unfortunately, Chomsky is somewhat like Mills used to be in the 60s. For a lot of political people, he’s a litmus test. How you feel about Chomsky supposedly determines how you feel about a whole range of political and intellectual issues. Beside the fact that one may feel a number of different conflicting things about Chomsky or about Mills. And I would put myself in the latter category, that there’s a number of things about Chomsky that I don’t like and some things that I do like.
When I went to read him seriously for the first time—just a couple of years ago, really—I was interested to know what historians thought about some of his books because he does raise a lot of historical questions, although obviously he’s not an historian. And I went to JSTOR and other search functions and I found nothing. And then I searched for particular books and I was really just surprised to learn that there was not a single review of any of his books, of his 30 books, in any of the historical journals—at least none that were indexed on JSTOR and a couple of the other major search engines.
So I found this curious and wrote an essay about that I was more or less calling for a debate. Now I think that in some quarters this qualifies me as a Chomskyite, whatever that is. But I’ll leave that to those who prefer their identities and labels. But I was calling for a debate and I thought it would be lovely to find a debate—stimulating, I should say—between something like John Lewis Gaddis and Noam Chomsky on American foreign policy. Who wouldn’t want to read that? But there isn’t any discussion at all. They pretend he doesn’t exist. Now I suppose it’s their prerogative as professionals as to what they’re going to review and what they’re not going to review, but nevertheless there were a lot of people, like Irving Howe and Edward Said, who had been reviewed in the journals who weren’t professional historians, who weren’t necessarily even writing professional books—professional history books.
And that’s it. So I sent it off to Counterpunch and 10 minutes later it was on the Web site and 24 hours later I got something around 1,000 e-mails that were all over the place. The thing won’t go away. That essay got probably the greatest in terms of the quantity of response from people because Chomsky has a very strong network around the world. And unfortunately there are a lot of Chomskyites who look for any evidence of martyrdom in their hero. And I suppose that one can read this as such. Although I didn’t intend it that way.
MP: I thought it was very interesting. I especially liked that coldly empirical part where you actually go to JSTOR and look for reviews of Chomsky’s books and you don’t find any. That is pretty shocking because he—again, I don’t mean to fall back on this notion of public intellectual, but he is one, by any definition, and if we don’t engage him, there are a lot of people that are reading him without the benefit of whatever small amount of wisdom that we could impart. And I think that’s unfortunate. In another essay you talk about the book review as a vehicle for doing serious public intellectual debate. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and what role you see book reviews playing.
JS: Well I haven’t written a book review in a couple of years, because it’s a worthy and serious task that requires a lot of attention. But I read book reviews all the time. And unfortunately I think the conventional wisdom says that the book review space is shrinking in our newspapers and magazines—although I don’t think it must be shrinking in the academic journals. There seems to be as much interest as ever. It’s in fact one of the prime functions of history periodicals to evaluate new works. So I don’t know that I have anything particularly interesting to say about book reviews except for that they have great potential, of course. The discussion of books is nearly important as reading them, I suppose.
MP: I guess what I would say is when I read the essay I thought to myself well actually very few people read these books. So all they’re going to see is the book review. And I am a fan of book reviews myself. I like to read them, especially ones that are written by people that are stylistically adept and have something serious to say—which is, I should also say that there are a lot of book reviews which I don’t like to read because they are—there’s been a certain influence of the flame on the Internet on the book review itself and this I just cannot abide myself. But I do like reading book reviews and I think it is a task that people should seriously take up. I also—I guess I would say in a little bit more pointed way the book review has been poisoned by—especially in academic journals—by the fact that it is now used as an element in the promotion of people. And so I know that in writing book reviews of books by my junior colleagues I am very hesitant to say anything terribly negative, knowing that they face long odds on the job market. I do not consider it my job to decide peoples’ fate. I consider it my job to review their books. And I found myself not really wanting to write many of them because of that.
JS: No one’s fate is hanging on what I have to say in a book review but there are similar reasons why I stopped reviewing books, because the form was just shrinking so much. And one wants to make a real effort to read the other books that the author may have put out, or read widely in the field. Now one of my friends, George Scialabba—I don’t know if you know George’s work.
MP: No I don’t.
JS: He’s a book critic in Cambridge and I think he is—has no advanced degree, although he did study for a year intellectual history, European intellectual history at Harvard a long time ago. George writes terrific book reviews. He’s one of the best, I think. There are people who really put him near the top of the list to make it a primary vehicle for expressing ideas. And essentially they turn reviews into essays. It’s hard to do that in the academic periodicals, I think.
MP: It is very hard.
JS: One expects, is expected to make a digest; thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
MP: 500 words.
MP: That’s exactly right. So you have a number of essays about anarchism and I found what you had to say about anarchism very interesting because I—and I wasn’t really familiar with it. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you—how you understand anarchism.
JS: Well first and foremost I understand it as a terribly misunderstood and frightened—frightening idea. I’ll be teaching next semester at a college in New York and during my Interview of the dean of the social sciences I mentioned that I might teach a course on anarchism. And he said, and I quote, “when I hear the word anarchism I run the other way.” Now in fact I’m teaching a course that—it is called something different but it mostly consists of anarchists and those who have been taken up by anarchists, such as Randolph Bourne and Agee and Lewis Mumford and even to some extent Lasch. In as far as anarchism, I think, is understood, it’s understood as primarily a political doctrine against the state—which is fine, which is necessary, and certainly which makes up the main stream of anarchist thought, at least since the founding of the nation state and the nation state system in the 18th century—which is when modern anarchism takes off. But in an essay on James Agee, primarily, and a few other scattered comments, I think that anarchism as a body of ideas in our history, in American history as well as European history, is much richer than its political entailments. And it has things to say about morality and also about aesthetics that I think are very interesting.
And some historians are just now coming to link the anarchist impulse in prewar American thought with modernism, what we call modernism, what we have been calling modernism. So I think it’s a tremendously interesting and rich vein of ideas that are often clustered around anarchism. And in the essay on Agee I ask why no one has mentioned this about him. He called himself an anarchist repeatedly. So did Robert Lowell, for example. And so did Henry Adams. And Flannery O’Connor. And Dwight Macdonald and a whole bunch of other figures that we don’t necessarily even associate with anarchism. So it was one of those essays, like the Chomsky essay, that I was curious about why the silence. Why the lack of comments. And so I don’t know how much use it is to go about calling oneself an anarchist. But I think it’s a useful thing to keep in mind.
MP: One of the things that struck me while I was reading the essay is how anarchism in a way is bred into the American character. I don’t know. I’m a big fan of Tocqueville and he was quite amazed at the independence of Americans and how they bridle against authority of almost any kind. And I know that perhaps this is just idiosyncratic but I feel that impulse myself. I have a natural tendency, I think as an American, to distrust—well, call it what it is—state intervention on any level, or any kind of an attempt to control exactly what I do. Now I’m not sure. Other people will say that’s infantile and they’re not wrong in many ways. But on the other hand I do feel it’s an important strain in American intellectual history and one that I personally would say is being lost, because it has been shunted off or foisted off onto a group of people who tend to be of relatively right-wing and violent strains. And I feel that’s too bad that there’s not a more-mainstream acceptance of this real skepticism toward state intervention of any kind. But I appreciated the learning that it was—that what I recognized in myself was something that goes back a little bit in American history. And I should tell you that I’m not an American historian, as you know, and I don’t really know much about it.
JS: But it sounds right. The problem is—one of the many problems with anarchism in terms of making it intellectually respectable, even if that’s what we think we want to do with it, is to confront the right-wing use of it, which is called libertarianism, whose origins lie in simply refusing to pay taxes. So this is the problem that we have to overcome. But I think that there’s a—the range of ideas that are bound up in what we call anarchism is very wide, much wider than people think today, people who call themselves liberals or call themselves conservatives or democrats or republicans, which are just, I think, more or less useless categories, all of them, for any kind of independent creative thought. Which is what we want, right?
MP: That’s right. And I think anarchism, really, as you say, does cut across the democratic/republican breach in an interesting way because when I think of myself as a historian and as someone who thinks about the past in an evaluative sense, I see myself not fitting into one of these categories very well, but constantly coming back to this notion that people should be free and independent insofar as it is possible. And I keep coming back to this idea and I almost feel it’s native to me and I don’t—and again, the essay was terrific because it showed me exactly where these values come from. Again I’m a big fan of Tocqueville and he, I think, gets to that part of the American character extraordinarily well. Let me ask you about a trip that you took to City Lights Books that you talk about in an essay. I went to graduate school in California at Berkeley thinking I was going to find something that I did not. And I think you had roughly the same experience going to City Lights Books.
JS: Right. This is one of the few essays that haven’t been published, so I’m curious to know more of what you think, if you care to tell me, about the essay itself. But I—this is—I didn’t find what I was looking for and I think perhaps most of the fault lies with me because I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, except for some difference in style between Cambridge, where I’ve been living since 2000, and City Lights. And the style of politics, the style of cultural criticism—which here is very sedate and very bound up with progressive reform. But in, as I understand from my studying radical history, San Francisco is much different. And in some ways it was. But City Lights was a big letdown. It’s a retail store, like every other retail bookstore I’ve ever been in, which, again is not City Lights’ fault. It’s probably my expectations, which are very much bound probably into the 50s and the 60s.
But I went to see—went to hear a talk by Jeffrey St. Clair in the upstairs at City Lights, which I found a very curious experience. St. Clair. I don’t know if he calls himself an anarchist or not but this is very much in the anarchist milieu, I think. There are varieties of anarchists out on the West Coast and some of them are very much interested in political violence—which is one of the things I mentioned earlier that we really have to talk about when we talk seriously about anarchism’s history. Fascinations are very much a part of anarchism’s history and political violence was very much in the spirit of the talk that I heard when I was there which, in some ways, dismayed me, in other ways shocked me.
So I came away more or less disappointed in what I found but disappointed, I suppose, in a kind of sympathetic way. I tried to convey that in the essay. I’m not sure that I did. Because the left, this kind of left, this kind of left cultural criticism and political criticism has been very much isolated and very much—I won’t say dying out but I think a lot of the faults in that kind of left, San Francisco left, which is, I suppose, surrounded by people like St. Clair who are—he’s the editor of Counterpunch. There were some people from Group Answer about Cuba. They just—they’re simultaneously isolated from politics, from party politics—but they’re also very much isolated from the people or people in general it seemed to me. Certainly, they were isolated from me. Seemed to be speaking entirely a different language, at once angry and curdled anger that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But more importantly seemed to shut down the conversation, shut down the flow of ideas. So I’m not giving you a very good description of the essay but…
MP: No, I quite understand what you mean. I know that one of the things I found when I did go to Berkeley—and I was quite radical at the time, I think. Or at least I guess I would call it—well I won’t try to characterize it. But one of the things I did when I was there is I participated in some protests and I have to tell you that every one of these protests, no matter what they were about, always ended up talking about Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t know how we got there, but every single time we ended up there. And these things were being hijacked by people who weren’t really interested in talking so much as they were interested in yelling. And I found that very, very disturbing because they took yelling for the exercise of deliberative democracy. And I just didn’t see it that way at all. And I became very disenchanted with a lot of these groups and I’ve ceased my activity and I suppose it was—I’ve become much more conservative since then. But I think that was an important moment in my own intellectual development.
Another thing is that San Francisco, for all that it has this—and Berkeley, for all that they have this—especially Berkeley, for all that it has this reputation as being a radical place, it is a really corporate town. The university is it there. And it’s people trying to make their way through the university so that they can end up in the South Bay working for some sort of startup, many of them. And I only realized this once I got there. I didn’t really understand that it was about getting credentials and then moving on to employment of one sort or another. And again I think business of America is to some extent business. But I was a little bit disturbed by the lack of I guess what I’d call intellectual freedom there.
Another thing that I found—and sorry to editorialize during your interview, but another thing I found very disturbing was the extent to which these people live in 1968 and don’t seem to be able to get out of 1968. And I was around in 1968. I don’t remember it very well. My uncle was fighting in Vietnam. That’s pretty much what I remember. But I didn’t really understand why there was this constant hagiographical reference to things that were really a long time ago and had absolutely nothing to do with anything these days. So it was curious. And the lions of the campus were all people who could quote things from the Free Speech movement and this kind of thing.
But in fact what was going on there was—just, again, to tell one anecdote. Again I’m sorry to take up so much time but I lived in a co-op and people in this co-op were very critical of sororities and fraternities. And this was a kind of a hippy co-op. And again I pointed out to these people that at least the sororities and fraternities had in their charter and in fact did a lot of public service. And we did nothing. We did nothing at all except pay almost no rent. And talk a lot about how radical we were. And I must say I found this incredibly disturbing in many ways. So yeah I was a little bit disappointed. I have a lot to say about what I think is going on in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley right now but I will not—I will not—
JS: Well I have only a little bit to say and based on this one trip. And I want to mention it. I think it’s very important that those of us who consider ourselves or think of ourselves on the left—somewhere in the vicinity of the left, at least, really ought to be criticizing those aspects of the left that we don’t like and that we think aren’t going anywhere. And it’s not necessary to be a conservative or to even to become conservative in order to criticize. And this is one of the things that I really like about C. Wright Mills and also about Agee and about Lasch and about figures that I keep mentioning, which is that they were on the left but some of the most interesting work that they did were criticisms of the left. And this is sort of an essay in that direction.
MP: I see what you mean. Well that’s a good segue into C. Wright Mills himself and I wanted to ask you about that. Why should—maybe you should tell our listeners—they may not know—who C. Wright Mills was and why we should care.
JS: Mills was in some ways, not to give it too much of a reductive comparison, like Chomsky has been in the late 20th century. If you were at all political, if you were at all on the left in the 60s or even in the 50s, you knew Mills’ name like you know Chomsky. You would have heard of him. He was a radical celebrity. Even if you hadn’t read any of his books, you may know one or two things about him. Among the things you may know from his enemies was that he was nuts, which is what we get from—you hear about Chomsky. So Mills was a Texan and he came up through University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin. He got his PhD in sociology and practiced sociology as a teacher of sociology at Columbia University from 1945 until his death in 1962.
But more importantly, he was a political writer, a political intellectual. He is not particularly—the phrase public intellectual isn’t good enough to try to establish who coined it, but he did use it in 1958 and he’s one of the heroes, incidentally, of Russell Jacoby’s book The Last Intellectuals. He wrote four bestsellers in nine years. He was a big figure, an important sociologist of power, critic of the American century. But also an interesting character and personality—that sounds a bit dismissive to say he’s merely interesting. He was, I think, one of the characteristic American anarchist thinkers who see the radical potential in the development of personality of character. Which is to say that he’s part of this strain of thinkers and critics we have in America that talk about the new man and the new woman which is, as you know, very important also in Russian history, modern Russian revolutionary history.
But it’s Crevecouer in his Letters from an American Farmer who talks about the American as the new man. So I’m writing a biography of him that works on a couple of different levels, so many levels that it’s not finished yet. One of the levels is intellectual history, which traces Mills’ immersion and his writings on American pragmatism, starting with John Dewey, and trying to repair some broken links in the pragmatic tradition from Dewey to Mills to Christopher Lasch and others. Another is a political history that traces his writings as a critic of the American century really at the point of its inception. Mills was one of the very few people who maintained a critical—more than a critical spirit—critical social thought—from the 30s to the 60s, in part because he wasn’t part of the 30s. He never joined the Communist Party and he wasn’t really very radical in the 30s and also in part because he really wasn’t alive part of the 60s. He died in 1962. But he’s an absolutely crucial feature in the development of a political and social thought that was striving to be consistently radical all through this period.
So he wrote—The Power Elite is his most famous book. White Collar—this is probably his best book. He also wrote a book on Cuba. He wrote a book on labor leaders. He was one of the translators of Max Weber, introduced Max Weber into American social science. So utterly transformed the discipline. A friend of Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter and Dwight Macdonald and an enemy of Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton. So he cuts a wide swath in the mid-century period. So I’ve been working on a biography of him for a number of years now and this fall I put out a collection with Oxford University Press of his writings, called The Politics of Truth.
MP: And if you could boil down the nut, as they say in journalism, of his critique of the American century, how would you do that?
MP: Maybe you can’t do that at all.
JS: If I could do that, the biography would be finished.
MP: I see your point but the thing that’s interesting to me is he wasn’t really—usually when you see people of his stature, they are ex-Communists, or they were on the far left at some time, and he avoided that. Or on the other hand you see them on the far right in the 1950’s, and he avoided that as well. So what exactly was he saying to Americans about the American century that you find so interesting and that we should find so interesting?
JS: Well he was saying something in particular to intellectuals, which is the subject of this book of writings, The Politics of Truth, which is out now. Which is that in order to be radical, in order to be left-wing, in order to be critics, it’s not necessary to become party agitators, like the old communists were, belong to a party. He wanted them to be radical in their own work. And for Mills radical often meant independence, which he just figured would become left-wing, which is one of his many blind spots. But he had a real strong message to intellectuals to stand up for themselves in their workplace and to take direct action, which is another anarchist idea.
So he gave a lot of speeches to white-collar professionals, designers and student groups and teachers. He talked to sociologists but he also talked to ex-Marxists and ex-Communists in England, ex-Communists in Poland. He traveled all over the world and talked to novelists and editors and journalists in Mexico City. Carlos Fuentes was a good friend of his. So he was one of the progenitors of what became the new left and his spirit is very much at work and his ideas are very much at work in the Port Huron Statement. And that’s the conventional story of how he embodied, in his person as well as wrote in his work, a radical critical social thought from the 30s to the 60s.
The criticism of America is panoramic and it’s very hard to boil down. He was a very strong critic of American foreign policy. He thought that America had a real chance in the world in the late 40s and early 50s to stand for the rehabilitation of the enlightenments, which are described in many of our official documents. And he was very disappointed with the Cold War and how the Cold War realignment—and his first book was called The New Men of Power which was published in 1948. And 1948 is often thought of as the last year of the 30s. So he really criticized the emergence of the national security state, a kind of shadow state that produced the CIA. Virtually everything now that the New Left came to stand against, he was against and helped teach young people especially why they ought to be against it.
White Collar, The New Men of Power and The Power Elite are a trilogy. The New Men of Power talks about labor leaders. The Power Elite talks about the elite, the top level of the military and of the executive branch. And White Collar talks about corporate power, mostly. So the criticism is it’s extremely broad. And the three volumes, I think, sort of go to show that, or try to show, that the sources of social protests and social criticism on a broad scale had dried up. The old farmer laborer alliance was no more. The Communist Party and its allies in the 30s were no more. And he wrote as if there ought to be indigenous sources of protest and criticism, and eventually determined that the intellectuals had the best chance.
And what’s important, I think, to remember about Mills, what most people don’t know about Mills, even if they know a little bit about him, was he was very much an international figure. And so I expect that when the biography comes out, that that would be one of the major contributions is to show that we can’t look at this stage of American history, stage of American radical history, especially, only as an American story. It has to be an international story.
MP: Well he’s not one of the names that actually trips off the tongue when one thinks of the intellectuals of the 1950s and 19—the so-called New York intellectuals, I think they’re sometimes called. Who was in charge of his legacy and why did he not enter this pantheon?
JS: Well I don’t know that he hasn’t entered the pantheon. Every sociologist has to confront him at some point or another. Most of them try to—pardon me, most of them try not to. And some of them actually think of him as the moving spirit behind their work. So within sociology he’s still a figure of much contention and controversy and influence, actually. I think many American historians have been influenced by his work. I’m not sure that it’s possible to get through a serious accounting of the 50s especially without talking about Power Elites for sure. So I’m not sure that he’s as—he’s not exactly invisible. But there is an interesting story about his legacy, which is very much in the hands of a sociologist named Irving Louis Horowitz. He was a well-known figure within American social science and a bit of a neoconservative, I think. And that story is told in this volume in one of the essays. It’s a complicated story but it comes down to issues of misrepresentation and fraud and suppression, basically. I expect that’s where you were leading.
MP: I was leading in that direction exactly. That’s right. I’m always very interested to see exactly how peoples’ historical image is made. And I guess I’m old enough now to see it happening. I know that I have been talking to people about David Foster Wallace, who killed himself recently. And there is—you can actually watch the hagiography happen before your eyes.
JS: There was a very silly article recently in the Times I guess it was about his metaphysics. He was not a metaphysician. He was not a philosopher any more than George Bush was a philosopher, or an historian. It’s possible that our writers and our—even perhaps our politicians think in philosophical or historical veins at times, and it’s one of the things that makes their work rich to us, but it doesn’t make them a philosopher or a metaphysician or an historian. I think it’s—I guess I would call it hagiography but something is very strange. People look for things that aren’t there.
MP: That’s exactly right. And I am referring exactly to that article in the Times because I did read it and discuss it with some people and I just—it was the first time that I could actually see somebody’s stature rise posthumously in that way. And to have what I think are really silly things said about him—things that he would probably object to were he alive. Marx not being a Marxist. It was just quite remarkable to see it happen on that level. And I think many people who I was discussing it with recognized this happening. But I think that really we’re almost powerless to do anything about it, especially about that particular figure.
But I do think that once public intellectuals or people of his stature or Mills’ stature pass on that we as intellectuals are to a certain extent in charge of their legacy and we will make them what they are and our memories will be very selective. And in the case of, actually, David Foster Wallace, I—it’s a tremendously—I could talk for a long time about it, but it’s a tremendously tragic thing that happened to him, him dying the way he did and so on and so forth.
JS: Yes it is, right, absolutely.
MP: And I’m afraid that it’s—that the basic message of his addiction and his inability to deal with that, and the inability of the psychological profession to help him, is the thing that’s going to be lost. And that he’s going to be thought of as a kind of tragic artist-like figure who through some rational discourse decided to kill himself. And I just think that’s entirely wrong. But again that’s not—
JS: I don’t know that we’re exactly powerless but we do have risks, I think, to take on with a certain kind of counter-hagiography—which is to say that one has to risk being tasteless. To counter this kind of thing, one must say well no he wasn’t a metaphysician and some of his stuff wasn’t so hot and I found this and that unreadable. It’s a shame that we have to speak like this, but it’s important to do so, I think. We can’t just sit back and watch it take place.
MP: No I think you’re right. I think you’re right.
JS: And in that spirit I wrote an essay on Harvard a couple of years ago—earlier, a couple of months ago, I should say, for which I took a lot of flak for being—I just got an e-mail the other day taking me to task for criticizing my former students.
MP: Let’s talk just a little bit about that. We’ve taken up a lot of your time, I know. But this essay, which did gain a lot of attention, and I have—as you’ll see I provide a link to it on the posting for this interview. It’s called “All the Privileged Must Have Prizes.” Maybe you could talk a little bit about your experience writing that and what followed.
JS: I did debate whether I should write it or not. It’s basically a criticism of my experience teaching at Harvard and I think one of the most important things I was trying to put across is to treat students—maybe not all students, but Harvard students in particular, as independent moral agents. When they become 21 they can vote and they can drink and they can do all sorts of things, so they should be able to make reasoned moral choices about their own education. And I found the absence of willingness to do so to be a very frustrating part of teaching them. I liked a number of them, as a matter of fact, and had good experiences as well as bad experiences. But in the broadest sense the essay was about the influence of class and wealth and privilege—none of which I had anything to do with personally.
So I found teaching in the Ivy League or in Harvard to be a very striking experience, and perhaps a mix of high expectations figured into my experience—although I was there for seven years. So I talked about the students, I talked about the difficulty in bringing them to the point where they could think freely, as opposed to thinking about a career, which is what they seemed to be trained to do. And it was most apparent, I think, where one would least expect it—which is to say in social studies, which is a very liberal concentration, and a very decent concentration with an excellent curriculum, as a matter of fact.
So I wrote the essay and a lot of people criticized me very harshly for it. And a lot of people didn’t. But I got a lot of criticism that I was out of line, that one was not permitted to speak in this way, that one was not allowed to talk about one’s students, a strange kind of ethic. Someone recently wrote to me and said they wanted to tell my department chairman on me. And I wrote them back and I said I don’t have a department chairman, so good luck. So in some respects it’s what Harvard gets for employing adjunct labor. What did they expect us to do?
MP: It is very curious. I taught there for awhile myself. And I had a pretty good experience. They were very nice to me, it’s quite true. And I owe them a lot. And I’ve taught in a lot of different places. And I guess maybe I’m a bit more jaded than you are in the sense that even in my own classes here at Iowa where many of the students are absolutely excellent, I figure that I’m going to get—I don’t know—one in 20 who’s going to be really, really engaged with ideas. And the rest of them will be doing something else. But I guess I’ve come to expect that. I can see why one would expect something different at a place like Harvard but—and again I do want to say that my students here at Iowa are excellent. I really do like them and they are…
JS: It’s the end of the semester, right, there—they’re filling out course evaluations.
MP: No I don’t do that. Actually I wrote—it’s funny you mention course evaluations because I wrote—yeah course evaluations are evil. Let me just say that. They are evil and I’m on the record saying that. I do wonder about this. I remember I used to go to—when I was at Harvard they made us go to seminars at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, where they told us how to properly engage these students. And I found that a very disturbing experience. I had a very different experience as an undergraduate. I went to a small college here in Iowa where there was very little mollycoddling, I guess I would say. And I was required to do a lot more of it at Harvard. And I did—that’s why your essay really resonated with me and I—I know lots of Harvard students, and Harvard grads are my friends and so on and so forth but this business about thinking about the next thing all the time is kind of soul-sucking.
And I know that I’ve done it in my own life. I’m as guilty as anybody. But I did find the essay very liberating. It brought me back to the moment that—it brought me back to why I went to graduate school, in order to seek the truth and speak the truth to other people in the hopes that I might live a better and more—a more reasoned life. That is something that I guess I’ve—I’m having trouble letting go of that in midlife. I don’t know if I should.
JS: The essay has been translated into Portuguese and it’s been published in a Brazilian journal of social science and also in German. And I mention this only to say that it turns out that a lot of places are going through higher education reform, or at least have been until the recent crisis. And they’re restructuring their educational systems and there are parties within each of these countries that look at Harvard as the jewel, as most Americans do, I think, as well—and want to restructure their own systems based on something that looks a lot like Harvard. Now there are other people—wisely, I think—who resist that. And so the essay has entered into a political debate in various places, which I didn’t expect.
MP: Well I should say to their credit there are people at Harvard who I knew—the former dean of the undergraduate college, of Harvard College itself, Harry Lewis, was I think in perfect agreement with you in many ways.
JS: Excellence Without a Soul.
MP: He was in perfect agreement with you and really thought that undergraduate education had gone a little bit awry at places like this—and more generally. We shouldn’t pick on Harvard. I think that…
JS: Oh why not.
MP: Well we can if we want but as I say I’ve taught a lot of places and I’ve seen it very widely, I guess I would say. And what to do about it I don’t know. But this much I’m sure—you are going to do something about it. And I probably am not. But I will be applauding from the wings. Well I should say we’ve taken up a lot of your time and I really appreciate it. Let me tell our audience that we’ve been talking to John Summers about Every Fury On Earth, which is a terrific book. And one of the things I do is I recommend it. If you know any intellectuals or you know anybody in graduate school or if you yourself are one, you should buy this book and read it because it’s really a terrific read. And I just want to congratulate you for all your good work.
JS: Thank you and I appreciate the time.
MP: Good enough. Well thanks for being on the show.
JS: You’re welcome. Thank you.
JS: Bye-bye. MP: You’ve been listening to an Interview of John Summers about his new book of essays, Every Fury On Earth. I’m Marshall Poe, host of New Books in History. Hope you have a great week.