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The Taliban may have met its match: the American Dream Machine.

September 11 showed us true American heroes. Now let's build on their strength.

Some Sundays back, the New York Times fronted a story from its
Paris correspondent, Suzanne Daley, about the fear and loathing
Americans induce among Europeans these days.

Arthur C. Danto writes about the career of Philip Guston.

Courtney Love's plea to fellow recording artists
to join her in the creation of a new musicians' guild, printed below,
is the latest blow to the beleaguered "Big Five

Those who say that nothing of importance can be decided at Dayton have, at first glance, reason on their side.

So if you managed to endure CBS's three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart's lame commentary, the lip-synced perfor

Readers of this magazine do not need reminders of the costs of the cold war. The mountains of corpses, the damaged lives, divided families and displaced refugees, the secret police forces and death squads, and the resources wasted on ghastly weapons of unfathomable evil are not only markers of a recent past but still-active landmines buried a few inches beneath the surface of our contemporary lives.

What may be harder to remember is the ways the global struggle with the Soviet Union enabled social and cultural achievements that made the United States a decidedly more decent society. From Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to the Brown decision and the 1963 March on Washington, the initial phase of the civil rights movement capitalized on the moral embarrassment of segregation for a nation trying to win the hearts and minds of Third World peoples. Likewise, the rapid postwar expansion of state universities, the infusion of government monies into public schools after Sputnik and the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in 1965 were all episodes in an ideological cold war meant to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the "free world" to the Soviet bloc. It was a strange era that offered both Martin Luther King Jr. and his persecutor J. Edgar Hoover their big chance to bring the United States closer to their ideals.

Two monuments to the cold war stand catty-corner to one another on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: On one side, the brutalist Hoover FBI building; on the other, the restored neo-Romanesque post office that houses the NEA and NEH and bears the name of Nancy Hanks, the liberal Republican chair of the NEA during its glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Care to guess which building will be renamed first?

Michael Brenson's new study of the NEA, Visionaries and Outcasts, emphasizes the cold war origins of the agency in an effort to place the "arts wars" of the past dozen years in historical perspective. Looking beyond the 1995 budget cuts that devastated the endowment, and the earlier battles in 1989-90 over NEA-supported exhibitions by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Brenson tracks the unfolding of a tension between "ideology and idealism" inherent in the NEA founders' understanding of the agency's role in American culture. Arts advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought federal support for the arts to promote international awareness of the cultural vitality of a society dedicated to free expression and civil liberties. At the same time, cultural policy-makers like August Heckscher and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--heirs to the upper-middle-class lampoon of middle-class "conformism" that stretched from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956)--saw in federal arts funding a way to create an American "civilization" equal to Western Europe's, which would inspire their fellow citizens with something more ennobling than the stuff of television and Levittown. Much like Clement Greenberg, the towering figure in postwar art criticism, Camelot culture warriors mounted a two-front campaign against the state-dominated art of the Soviet bloc and the kitsch of a newly affluent society.

Amazing as it now seems, the man (and he was imagined as a man) who was to do such heroic work for the nation was the artist. Kennedy's wooing of celebrity artists and writers--epitomized by his choice of Robert Frost to deliver a poem (he recited "The Gift Outright") at his 1961 inaugural and his subsequent invitation to Pablo Casals to perform at the White House--was not only an attempt to surround himself with glamorous and influential opinion-makers but, according to Brenson, a determined effort to establish the artist-prophet as a symbol of defiant individualism in an other-directed age. Whether it was Frost the aging Yankee reciting from memory at the inaugural or the Abstract Expressionist painters wrenching meaning from existential meaninglessness, the image of modern artists as "visionaries and outcasts" served liberals' war of ideas against Communist adversaries abroad and the benighted middle classes at home. As Kennedy put it in his 1963 speech at the dedication of the Frost Memorial library at Amherst College--the occasion for his most extended comments on the arts--a great artist was the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."

Visionaries and Outcasts sketches the history of liberalism's dream of the visual artist as national hero from the early 1960s to the present. Brenson was originally commissioned to write an internal study of the NEA's visual arts program, but the former New York Times art critic chose to revise and publish his work independently after the dismantling of that program by the Gingrich Congress in 1995. The book he has produced is more than an institutional study of one office in a federal agency, however. Brenson rightly considers the program that gave some 4,000 fellowships to individual artists between 1965 and 1995 as the heart and soul of the Endowment. Although early chapters suffer from the bureaucratic language common to government reports, the book concludes by raising thoughtful and provocative questions about the tragic history of the NEA. As he revised his study, Brenson expanded his vision to include the rise and fall of this heroic image of the modern artist as prophet and redeemer of late-twentieth-century US culture. "The NEA became a lens onto larger issues of the changing identity of the American artist and the enduring problem of...the visual artist in a country that...is still only comfortable with the artist as a maker of high-priced commodities controlled by galleries and museums."

In the story Brenson tells, modern artists were useful to this country's political elites only so long as the cold war was raging. Once that war was won, and the political culture had shifted markedly to the right, the lonely artist was no longer a bearer of universal values but a threat to them. The ideological rationale for the endowment collapsed along with the Berlin wall, and cautious NEA administrators invested their idealism in established art institutions. Better to fund museums than to risk spending money on unruly individuals who might turn out--like Serrano or Mapplethorpe--to be "controversial." Despite the defensive maneuvers of arts administrators and their allies, a vengeful Congress cut the NEA's budget by 40 percent in 1995 and eliminated all grants to individual artists (except writers). The endowment has since limped along into the twenty-first century, but more as an occasion for petition drives and liberal fundraising than as a vital force for artistic creativity. In reality, the NEA of 1965 is dead, and with it the official myth of the artist as critic and savior of American national culture.

During the three decades when it mattered, the NEA's visual arts program gave small grants, no strings attached, to many of this country's major artists, often offering them assistance early in their careers before private money was forthcoming. The mechanism for doling out funds was peer panels composed of artists, curators, scholars and critics, who operated without political oversight from federal officials. In fact, Kennedy liberals organized the peer-panel system precisely because it insulated art-funding decisions from state interference and therefore drew another contrast with the state cultural agencies in place in the Soviet-bloc countries. Artistic freedom, in the view of Camelot arts advisers, required the support of professional panels that would judge art strictly according to nonideological, aesthetic standards. At a time when a Greenbergian theory of aesthetic autonomy reigned supreme in New York-based art circles, the freedom of the NEA's peer panels from politicians' control seemed to most liberals a necessary complement to a Modernist logic that divorced "pure" painting and sculpture from political ideology, representation and traditional subject matter of any kind.

The NEA's panels instantly became objects of criticism from true "outsiders," who interpreted talk of an autonomous aesthetic as a bid for power by art-establishment cronies. Brenson ignores the early history of such attacks, which originally came from the political left, and instead repeats the now-familiar story of the persecution of the NEA by the Christian right and its allies in Congress after 1989. The story is a bit more complicated than that, however. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authority of the peer panels and the autonomous aesthetic theory they defended came under attack from other quarters: from advocates of more politically charged, social-realist and feminist art; from African-American and Latino artists who saw little of their work or their traditions acknowledged, let alone supported, by the NEA in its early years; and from folk artists and enthusiasts of regionalist cultural traditions who disputed the place of New York Modernists at the pinnacle of the NEA's cultural hierarchy. Although the Endowment quickly made concessions to its critics on the left, the peer-panel process remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation until 1995, in the aftermath of the Republican sweep in the previous fall's elections, when the conservative polemic against the tyranny of a "cultural elite" hostile to the values of "normal Americans" finally succeeded in killing off the visual arts fellowships.

Brenson devotes almost half his book to an admiring account of the panels' operations, quoting extensively from artists who served as referees or benefited from the program's largesse. He condemns the system's rightist critics as ignorant and presents the panels in the most glowing terms imaginable as models of aesthetic judgment, openness and generosity. "The peer panel system embodied the idealism and nobility of the NEA," he tells us. Those who applied unsuccessfully during these years may have had another view of the matter, but no one can deny that the award of such a grant at an early stage of an artist's career meant far more than the money involved. Installation artist Ann Hamilton recalls that "winning" her fellowship in 1993 "gave me a very important sense of support from my peers, which is and was very important in maintaining the trust and faith necessary to make new work, to change, to make a leap of imagination toward what can't easily be knowable or containable in language." This was the NEA's visual arts program at its best--"a gift," as Brenson calls it, "in the fullest sense of something given especially to one particular person, with a special knowledge of who that person is and what that person needs, by someone or something that cares--in this case a government agency, on the advice of peers."

What went wrong, then? Given its distinguished history, why was the visual arts program so vulnerable in 1995? Visionaries and Outcasts is not altogether helpful in answering that question, though it offers a rudimentary road map for a fuller account in the future. Brenson rounds up the usual suspects--Jesse Helms, fundamentalists, New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer--and, in a more intriguing move, notes how the ground shifted beneath the panel system in the 1980s as the art market and American artists themselves transformed the cultural meaning of the visual arts. The go-go art market of the Reagan era created a private reward system that made the NEA irrelevant to many young artists on the make, while conservatives inside and outside the endowment began assigning to museums the universalistic values that 1960s liberals once invested in the image of the heroic artist. Meanwhile, radical artists gave up the Modernist ideal of the individual prophet-artist standing apart from his or her culture. The adoption by many political artists of the term "community arts movement" to describe their project was an important sign of a new sensibility among artists who came of age in the 1980s and rejected the endowment's original assumptions even as they accepted its subsidies. Brenson himself adopts some of their critique in the closing pages of his book, acknowledging that the NEA "put artists on pedestals" and "ended up sustaining their marginalization" by perpetuating an image that many Americans found "arrogant and disdainful."

Brenson's second thoughts seem not to have influenced the rest of this book, which hardly registers the effect of such searching self-criticism. That is unfortunate, because his valuable questioning of the Modernist myth that originally inspired the NEA, and his closing call for an art of "connectedness"--to other citizens and to the natural world--should be the starting points for any serious reconsideration of the embattled agency's history. Especially when it comes to the arts, liberal and leftist culture-workers are too quick to attribute their current troubles to the malevolence of strangers (what will the so-called People for the American Way do when Jesse Helms dies?); too loath to acknowledge that they have achieved positions of power, wealth and influence in American society; and too devoted to their flattering self-image as, alternately, daring rebels or beleaguered victims. Such poses may absolve cultural administrators of any feeling of responsibility for their institutions' plight, but they will prove useless when it comes time to sort through the wreckage of the NEA and other liberal cultural programs in search of lessons for the future.

At one crucial moment in his book, Brenson inadvertently hints at a more critical history of the endowment that might better explain its terrible predicament. He compares the panel system to "the United States jury system" in its rock-bottom faith in humans' "need to learn, [their] belief in justice, and [their] commitment to the common good." Maybe those were the impulses that motivated the panelists as they watched hundreds of slides flash before their eyes; but in retrospect it's exactly the extent to which the NEA selection process was not like a jury that stands out as its chief political liability. Juries, after all, are not composed solely of lawyers, criminologists, psychologists and forensic experts. Nor are embezzlers, assassins and car thieves invited exclusively to judge their peers. When those people serve on juries, they do so as citizens, not in their capacity as professionals. Whatever their limitations, juries embody the civic ideal that ordinary voters--informed by the law and the testimony of relevant specialists--possess the wisdom to govern themselves and administer justice fairly. Never did the NEA's founders display a comparable faith in the ability of nonexperts to contribute to the common culture. Indeed, one reason they married a formalist aesthetic to bureaucratic proceduralism in the first place was to secure a space for creativity separate from the presumed ignorance and tastelessness of the general public.

Such a system "worked" well enough in the NEA's early years, when a New York-based art elite had an astonishing confidence about which artists deserved support. As the East Coast NEA panel met in 1966, it was easy for a few insiders to chat informally and select names. "Generally there was a consensus" about which artists deserved grants, sculptor George Segal told Brenson. "There was not too much of a discussion because it was assumed that all of us knew them." The founding director of the visual arts program, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, was openly contemptuous of a request at a West Coast meeting that the panelists examine slides of work by the artists under consideration. As panelist and fellow museum curator Walter Hopps recalled, "The boxes were pushed into the room. Henry stood up and went over and thumped each box with his hand and said, OK, now we've seen the applications and we've seen all this." The boxes of slides were removed, unopened; the applications sat in a pile unread. "We just talked about who we wanted.... It was all over in a morning."

A small art world with a strong consensus on a Greenbergian narrative of Modernist progress could afford to behave this way, especially when it enjoyed support from a liberal majority in Congress. But even when the peer-panel process was cleaned up and made more professional, the complaints poured in that the selection system was unresponsive to the very public this public agency was meant to serve and indifferent to the growing heterogeneity of art practices that transformed visual culture in the United States after the 1960s. What at first seemed like a means of protecting the independence of cutting-edge "visionaries and outcasts" from bureaucratic interference stood condemned by the late 1970s and early 1980s as an institutionalized patronage network that favored specific aesthetic commitments and excluded the vast majority of Americans as incapable of informed artistic judgment.

Coming to terms with the political shortcomings of the peer-panel system requires that we take a more skeptical view of the idea that artists (and their liberal allies) were "outcasts" in the first place, back in 1965. Despite his trenchant critique of the heroic-individualist model of the artist during the cold war, Brenson himself slips into romantic and avant-gardist rhetoric that is long overdue for critical scrutiny. To what extent can one really speak of the modern artists the NEA supported in the 1960s and 1970s as an avant-garde? Wasn't the original mission of the NEA proof that by mid-century the avant-garde ideal had merged perfectly with the cult of expertise that so captivated elite liberals, with their dream of benevolent rule from above by "the best and the brightest"? The class and ideological biases of the cultural institutions that liberals created in that period seem to have escaped no one except liberals themselves.

A quarter-century after the collapse of the New Deal arts programs, with their organic connection to 1930s labor insurgency, the case for federal arts funding returned in a very different political guise. The NEA's original base was in the (Nelson) Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and the (John) Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, two upper-middle-class constituencies that prided themselves on their distance from a seemingly "stodgy" labor movement and a parvenu middle class mired in the "ticky-tacky" vulgarity of the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that Nancy Hanks--once Nelson Rockefeller's personal secretary and then the NEA's chairwoman during the Nixon and Ford administrations--presided over dramatically escalating budgets for the endowment. Republicans still needed to appease the Rockefeller wing of their own party. And it should be no surprise, either, that a new right within the Republican Party succeeded in large part by pursuing a very different brand of cultural politics.

Capitalizing on popular unhappiness with the arrogance of the "New Class" at the helm of the NEA and other official cultural institutions, the Goldwater-Reagan right was able to oust the Rockefeller liberals from its own party and mount a masterful crusade against "cultural elites" in the universities, foundations, mainline Protestant churches, museums and the two endowments. Elite liberalism has not fared well in postliberal America, as conservatives have channeled popular disaffections into a pseudo-populism on cultural matters that they would never tolerate in economic affairs or foreign policy. The result has been an increasing isolation of artists, writers and intellectuals in universities and a delegitimation of the very idea of a common cultural life shared by citizens of different backgrounds.

With its original claims to aesthetic autonomy and professional expertise discredited by years of pounding from the left and the right, the endowment lacks a persuasive language to justify alternatives to the privatization of arts patronage. Its very name, the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks to an era of liberal consensus--on the nation, on the nature and desirability of national cultural standards, on what does and does not constitute art--that has disappeared. With the nation and the arts in dispute, all that remains is the program's pathetic "endowment," mere chump change in the global village overseen by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum chain store.

In an era of market fundamentalism, the panel system that once promised artists protection from political and bureaucratic interference during the cold war deserves careful reconsideration. It is conceivable that panels might again function as "free spaces," this time offering artists a refuge from the commercial imperatives that are ruining publishing, museums and public broadcasting. But to make the case for such spaces today requires a radically different mindset from the sentimental avant-gardism and antidemocratic prejudice still current in elite art circles. It also demands a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the historical complicity of the endowment's defenders in the political logic that threatens our public schools, museums and libraries, as well as our artists.

Starting from ground zero, with the NEA in ruins, advocates of public funding for the arts need a language that recognizes the difference between the authority of collective judgments rooted in shared standards and the exercise of market power, and which assumes, furthermore, that every person has access to varieties of aesthetic experience that may contribute to the formulation of such standards. Opening panels to nonspecialists need not be a Trojan Horse for "Archie Bunkerism" or "authoritarian populism," those bugaboos of elite left-liberalism. Nor is it an affront to the credentials of artists and scholars who benefit from public subsidy (like this reviewer) to insist that they discuss their work with lay audiences in exchange for such support. These are tiny steps, of course, but the suspicion and hostility even such modest suggestions provoke in some quarters are a sign of the bleak cultural pessimism that now poisons all discussion of the civic role of the arts in the United States.

Every few months, I receive a forwarded e-mail message that recounts a reputed NPR story by Nina Totenberg about an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on funding for the NEA, warns that the Court's conservatives are about to kill off the endowment once and for all, and then asks for my name on its long list of petitioners. The petition is a classic Internet hoax, but even if it weren't, the time for forwarding such messages is long gone. The NEA was gutted several years ago, and the rebuilding of public support for publicly funded art is going to take a lot more than e-mail petitions. There are hard, unsettling questions that the people who sign such petitions need to ask about the responsibility they and their institutions bear for the ascendancy of our conservative order and about the blindness that comes with the heady self-image of artists and intellectuals as visionaries, outcasts and perpetual victims. Michael Brenson's book is a valuable starting point for a conversation, barely audible at the moment, that might finally address those questions. Until then, ignore the petition on your computer screen. That delete button is there for a reason.

American intellectuals love the higher gossip because it gives intellectual life here--ignored or sneered at by the public--a good name. Sensational anecdotes (Harvard's Louis Agassiz getting caught in flagrante Clinton), tart one-liners (Oliver Wendell Holmes's crack that Dewey wrote as "God would have spoken had He been inarticulate") and stark biographical details about influential thinkers (William Lloyd Garrison's habit of burning copies of the Constitution at his public appearances) do more than illuminate thought, explain impulses and entertain. In the right hands, they create solidarity with the rest of modern consumer and media culture, injecting the sizzle of boldface revelation into respectable scholarly work.

What red-white-and-blue-blooded man or woman of letters can resist the news that Holmes made his family practice fire drills in which the satchel with his new edition of Kent's Commentaries on American Law was to be evacuated from the house first? Or Alice James's verdict on her brother William that he was "just like a blob of mercury, you cannot put a mental finger upon him"--a man so pluralist all the way down that he resented the notion that everyone should spell the same way? Don't the tales of Charles Sanders Peirce's blatant philandering with a teen belle, his inability to finish manuscripts, his erratic disappearances when scheduled to teach, his failure to include return addresses on requests for money, the impulsive sale of his library to Johns Hopkins, his flamboyant hiring of a French sommelier to give him lessons on Medoc wine in the midst of financial chaos--provide the pizazz of a stellar film, while also giving further force to traditional questions about genius and madness?

These are our cerebral celebrities, after all. For modern American intellectuals suckled on the concrete like their everyday peers--for whom even a paragraph of "abstract" blather is a signal to put the headphones back on, grab a magazine, tune out--such perky additives are necessary. But bringing the higher gossip to American philosophy--the Death Valley of American humanities, when it comes to literary style--is a uniquely forbidding matter. For every Richard Rorty whose unabashed colloquial style reveals he's a native speaker of American English, legions of disciplinary weenies, raised in exotic places like Pittsburgh and Palo Alto, stultify the subject by writing in a stilted English as a second jargon. To entrenched American philosophy types still bound to the flat prose of logical positivism (even after ditching its assumptions), anecdotes, biographical details and colorful examples remain a foreign rhetoric: irrelevant information properly left to bios of the canonized dead by scholars from second-rate schools, but no part of the laughable research programs of conceptual analysis they pursue.

Louis Menand enters this arid terrain with sainted credentials and connections. Having begun as a work-one's-way-up English professor, Menand, now at City University of New York, ranks as the crossover star of his academic generation, a bi-Manhattan emissary between campus and media whose prose travels only first-class, the public intellectual whose pay per word every public intellectual envies. In the media capital of the last superpower, where thousands of professors undoubtedly think they, too, with a little Manhattan networking, could be a contributing editor (and editor heir apparent) of The New York Review of Books, or staff writer at The New Yorker, or contributor to The New Republic, Menand has actually pulled it off as he works out whether he wants to be Edmund Wilson or Irving Howe, or just Luke Menand. Let the naysayers sulk. A few years back, to the annoyance of some careerists in American philosophy, he got the nod to edit a Vintage paperback edition of classic American pragmatists despite outsider status in the field. The specialists who carped about that choice will not be happy to welcome The Metaphysical Club, unless they welcome redemption.

Here, in the major book of his career so far, Menand brings his exquisite literary and philosophical talents together to invent a new genre--intellectual history as improv jazz. In it, Alex Haley and Arthur Lovejoy seem sidemen jamming in the background as Menand samples family genealogy, battlefield coverage, popular science writing and philosophical exposition to tell "a" story (the indefinite article is key) of how pragmatism, the now consecrated philosophy of the United States, riffed its way to prominence through the art of four philosophical geniuses: Holmes, James, Dewey and Peirce. The Metaphysical Club, Menand warns in his preface, is "not a work of philosophical argument" but one of "historical interpretation." Just so. In that respect, it belongs to the grand tradition of American intellectual history staked out by V.L. Parrington, Merle Curti, Max Lerner and Richard Hofstadter. Yet true to the pragmatist spirit, Menand aims "to see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them." His overview of pragmatism's evolution and triumph, told mainly through the lives of his four horsemen of absolutist philosophy's apocalypse, integrates textured biography and superlative storytelling to an extraordinary degree (though a seeming cast of thousands get walk-on roles, too). "I had no idea, when I started out," explains Menand in his acknowledgments, "how huge a mountain this would be to climb." If so, he deserves a Sir Edmund Hillary Award for sustained commitment to an extreme sport. All four of the familiar figures he focuses on have been "biographied" to death, often at massive length. Menand's excellent syntheses of secondary works and primary materials demonstrate exactly how steeped he became in the materials.

Menand's combination of dogged historical research--almost daring the reader to dispute the representational accuracy of his story among stories--with an unapologetic literary stylishness makes The Metaphysical Club a page-turning pleasure to read. Yet it also forces one to sharply different judgments: one literary, the other philosophical (in a perhaps antiquated sense) and historical.

As a literary effort, a daring act of bringing the narrative magic of a Tracy Kidder or Tom Wolfe to thinkers who largely lived on their keisters while reading and writing intellectual prose, The Metaphysical Club is a masterpiece of graceful interpretation. Menand's sly wit and reportorial hijinks, his clarity and rigor in making distinctions, his metaphorical gift in driving home pragmatist points make The Metaphysical Club this summer's beach read for those who relax by mulling the sands of time. If one takes Menand at his pragmatist word--that this is just one "story of ideas in America" that does not preclude other narratives--there's little to complain about. On a Rortyan reading of the book, the type Menand plainly invites (there's less space between Rorty's and Menand's views of pragmatism than between Britannica volumes on a tightly packed shelf), the right question to ask is not "Does Menand have the story right?" but "Is this the best story for us Americans in achieving our purposes?"

At the same time, if one retains a shade of the representational approach to the world that pragmatists largely disdain--the notion that America's intellectual history did happen one way and not another--one can't help rejecting Menand's fundamental organizational claim that the Civil War (as he states in his preface) "swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North." It's a belief expeditiously assumed because it smooths the post-Civil War story he chooses to tell. At one point late in The Metaphysical Club, while writing of the now largely forgotten political scientist Arthur Bentley, Menand describes James Madison as "a writer to whom Bentley strangely did not refer." One might say almost the same, in Menand's case, regarding the father of the Constitution, whose devices for accommodating factions in the structure of democracy were at least as pragmatically shrewd as Holmes's neutralist dissents in jurisprudence. And one might say it in regard to Benjamin Franklin, that larger than life proto-pragmatist who gets only a single mention as the great-grandfather of one Alexander Dallas Bache. Franklin, to be sure, is not a figure helpful to Menand's project, given the author's premise that there was "a change in [the country's] intellectual assumptions" because it "became a different place" after the Civil War. But a closer look at the story Menand tells helps explain why.

His method throughout The Metaphysical Club is to toss out the genetic fallacy and explain, in wonderful set pieces, how the experiences of his four protagonists drove them to the views they eventually held as magisterial thinkers. In Part One, devoted to the young Holmes, Menand thus laces the history of antebellum abolitionism and the politics of slavery through Holmes's own trials of conscience before his Civil War service. Holmes's story serves as a model of how Menand finds an internal pragmatist evolution in each of his leading characters. The future giant of American jurisprudence, Menand reports in graphic detail, witnessed an extraordinary amount of fighting and carnage in the Civil War. At the 1861 battle of Ball's Bluff, he took a rifle bullet just above the heart, but survived. In 1862, at the horrific battle of Antietam, where the Union suffered 13,000 casualties, he took a bullet in the neck, but again survived. In 1863, at a battle known as Second Fredericksburg, enemy fire struck his foot. He returned to Boston and the grim reaper didn't get him until 1935, when he was 93, a retired Supreme Court Justice and the most distinguished jurist in the country. But the war, Menand writes, "had burned a hole... in his life."

In a notebook Holmes kept during the war, the young soldier entered a phrase to which Menand calls special attention: "It is curious how rapidly the mind adjusts itself under some circumstances to entirely new relations." Holmes's experiences taught him, Menand writes, that "the test of a belief is not immutability, but adaptability." During the war, Menand maintains, Holmes "changed his view of the nature of views."

"The lesson Holmes took from the war," Menand continues, "can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence." And so even though Holmes never accepted pragmatism as his official party affiliation, believing it a Jamesian project to smuggle religion back into modern scientific thought, he'd come to share one of its tenets: rejection of certainty. The whole of his subsequent judicial life, Menand contends, became an attempt to permit different views to be democratically heard in the marketplace of ideas and policy.

Too simple? Too slim a reed to sustain the view that Holmes's turn against certainty (exemplified by antebellum abolitionism) came as an adaptive response to a life in which certainty spurred violence--one more Darwinian twist in a story replete with Darwinian themes? Menand's evidence is substantial. Holmes never tired of telling war and wound stories. He "alluded frequently to the experience of battle in his writings and speeches." After his death, Menand reports, "two Civil War uniforms were found hanging in his closet with a note pinned to them. It read: 'These uniforms were worn by me in the Civil War and the stains upon them are my blood.'"

Menand finds a similar evolution documented in James. Famously fragile in his emotions, and a legendary procrastinator, James came to believe that "certainty was moral death." Rather, he thought, the ability and courage to bet on a conception of truth before all the evidence was in amounted to the best test of "character." That remarkably open mind, Menand relates, grew, like Holmes's resistance to dogmatism, out of experiences, such as the "international hopscotch" that family patriarch Henry Sr. imposed on his children's educations by yanking them out of one school after another.

"The openness that characterized both the style and the import of his writings on pragmatism," Menand writes of William James, "seemed to some of his followers to have been specifically a consequence of his disorganized schooling." Similarly, James's close work with Agassiz on the naturalist's famous "Thayer expedition" down the Amazon in the 1860s taught James that "everything we do we do out of some interest," a tenet crucial to pragmatism. Menand suggests that meditations on Brazilian Indians ("Is it race or is it circumstance that makes these people so refined and well bred?" James asked in a letter) may have begun James's relational thinking. Alluding to such influences, Menand concludes, "It seems that Brazil was to be, in effect, his Civil War."

By the time the author gets to Peirce, in Part Three, and Dewey, in Part Four, his entertaining method is in full swing. Menand portrays the pragmatism of his foursome, with their individual idiosyncrasies, as the consequence of experience-driven epiphanies, with epiphany playing the role in intellectual development that chance adaptive mutation plays in what once was considered "lower" biological development. Giraffes get longer necks--Americans get pragmatism.

Peirce proves the most challenging of Menand's subjects because he remained unpredictable and dysfunctional. The son of Benjamin Peirce, professor of mathematics at Harvard at the age of 24 and "the most massive intellect" Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell claimed ever to have met, he had a lot to live up to. But Peirce suffered from painful facial neuralgia and turned to opium, ether, morphine and cocaine over his lifetime to ease the suffering. Violence and infidelity complicated the picture further--Peirce spent many years trying unsuccessfully to regain the brief foothold in academe he'd achieved during a short teaching stint at Johns Hopkins. With Peirce, Menand takes us through a famous nineteenth-century probate action, known as the "Howland will case," in which Benjamin Peirce testified, with behind-the-scenes help from his son, about the probability of a forged signature. A fascinating set piece, it's also Menand's inspired way of backgrounding the younger Peirce's involvement with the increasing importance of probability theory in the nineteenth century.

Peirce's work with "the law of errors," which "quantified subjectivity," was just one experience that drove him to pragmatist views. In time, writes Menand, Peirce came to believe both that "the universe is charged with indeterminacy" and that it "makes sense." He held that "in a universe in which events are uncertain and perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of an individual mind 'mirroring' reality.... Peirce's conclusion was that knowledge must therefore be social. It was his most important contribution to American thought." Only in this stretch does Menand come to the title subject of his book: "The Metaphysical Club," an informal discussion group that Peirce, James and Holmes attended for perhaps nine months in 1872. There the idea that Menand considers a central link among the three, and fundamental to pragmatism--that ideas are not Platonic abstractions but tools, like forks, for getting tasks accomplished in the world--took articulate form for the first time. Here, as elsewhere, Menand evokes the atmosphere and supporting actors of the setting through fine orchestration of detail. He smoothly recovers the mostly forgotten Chauncey Wright, another man who learned in the Civil War that "beliefs have consequences." Wright used weather as his favorite example, and the "notion of life as weather" became his emblematic position.

Finally, in exploring Dewey in Part Four, Menand follows pragmatism's clean-up hitter from Vermont childhood to early academic stints at Hopkins, Michigan and Chicago. Menand's two-tiered approach falters a bit here. When the camera is on Dewey, we see him wrestling with issues of Hegelianism and laissez-faire individualism, and drawing lessons from his laboratory school at Chicago ("if philosophy is ever to be an experimental science, the construction of a school is its starting point"). He gets the de rigueur epiphany--the evil of antagonism among social factions--personally from Jane Addams. He absorbs moral insights offered by the Pullman strike and articulates his own great priority within pragmatism, on democracy as a matter of social participation and cooperation, not just numbers and majorities. But here Menand's characteristic deep backgrounding, particularly on the genesis of the "Vermont transcendentalism" that was more conservative than the Boston variety, seems overmuch. For all of Menand's literary deftness, we sometimes wonder, when taking in the variations on French figures like Laplace, or Scottish ones like Robert Sandeman, whether we're listening to a wonderful stretch of intellectual exotica--fine improvisational solos--or music crucial to the story. At the same time, one of the book's undeniable pleasures is Menand's voyages into the estuaries of nineteenth-century intellectual history, from Agassiz's endorsement in the 1850s of polygenism (the claim that races were created separately, with different and unequal aptitudes), to the work of the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, "a brilliant promoter of statistical methods" who called his approach "social physics." Menand's accounts of nineteenth-century America's intellectual debates, like his sketches of Darwinian thinking and its social ramifications, are models of efficient summary.

Their net effect, of course, is to show that pragmatist concepts--opposition to certainty, evolution toward probabilistic modes of thought--were in the air, and his four protagonists breathed deeply. To Menand's credit, given the compass of this biographical and sociological work, he keeps his eye on the enduring subject--pragmatism as a distinct mode of thought--showing the family resemblance in pragmatist epiphenomena of the time, from proximate cause in law to statistical understanding of the role of molecules in heat. His superbly syncretic summary, late in the book, of what he's found sounds less sweeping than the claims in his preface:

Pragmatism seems a reflection of the late nineteenth-century faith in scientific inquiry--yet James introduced it in order to attack the pretensions of late-nineteenth century science. Pragmatism seems Darwinian--yet it was openly hostile to the two most prominent Darwinists of the time, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley.... Pragmatism seems to derive from statistical thinking--but many nineteenth-century statisticians were committed to principles of laissez-faire James and Dewey did not endorse.... Pragmatism shares Emerson's distrust of institutions and systems, and his manner of appropriating ideas while discarding their philosophical foundations--but it does not share his conception of the individual conscience as a transcendental authority.

"In short, pragmatism was a variant of many strands in nineteenth-century thought," writes Menand, "but by no means their destined point of convergence. It fit in with the stock of existing ideas in ways that made it seem recognizable and plausible: James subtitled Pragmatism 'A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking.'" So maybe it's not true that the Civil War "swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North." That judicious modesty makes it easier to note some of the oddities of Menand's choices, especially given the bold leaps he takes to find pragmatist principles in areas of knowledge far afield from traditional philosophy. Some, considering the prominent space and harsh spotlight he devotes to discussions of slavery and racism by nineteenth-century thinkers like Agassiz, are regrettable.

At times, for instance, Menand can seem more interested in patricians for patricians' sake--or Boston Brahmins for Brahmins' sake--than the tale requires. It's easy to feel that a story with more nineteenth-century black and feminist thinkers, and fewer Northeastern gentlemen, would be a better tale for understanding the development of American thought. Menand's maverick status with regard to philosophy, welcome in his syntactic verve and enthusiasm for complex biographical explanation, perhaps intimidated him in this regard. As an outsider, he arguably stays too respectful of professional philosophy's ossified white-man pantheon of American philosophy, despite the canon wars of his own field. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, ought to be recognized as part of the pragmatist tradition, whether they have been formally or not.

Yet while Menand briefly mentions Delany and his troubles in being accepted at Harvard, he presents him more as a victim (which he was) than a thinker. More happily, Menand does devote respectful attention to the black pragmatist Alain Locke late in the book. But the biggest surprise is that W.E.B. Du Bois, who surfaces about 400 pages into the book, gets short shrift--four pages. Du Bois's famous articulation, at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, of the question black people silently hear asked of them by too many whites--"How does it feel to be a problem?"--provocatively inverted the pragmatist problematic in a way Dewey and James never fully pondered in their model of (white) agents facing their environments: the problem of being a problem to others. One imagines Menand could have made fascinating arabesques out of that peculiarity.

Then, finally, there is the Franklin problem. It's often forgotten, in an era when Franklin's face stands for thrift and prudence in bank ads, that his reputation, as John Adams wrote in the early nineteenth century, was "more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire," that Jefferson viewed him as "the father of American Philosophy" and Hume agreed. Is a thinker who wrote in his Autobiography in 1784 that "perhaps for Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me" far from pragmatism? In his emphases on experience, experimentation and community, Franklin was the proto-pragmatist par excellence. Even in the free-jazz genre of intellectual history, his absence is a large lacuna.

Pragmatism, however, offers special benefits to authors and reviewers. Once one abandons the idea that we mirror the world exactly with our stories, and takes the nervier view that we tell stories about it that may be good for us in the way of belief, the kind of criticism made here--that Franklin, Madison, Delany and other thinkers merit membership in that ironically named "Metaphysical Club"--assumes its humble place. The greater accomplishment--Menand's--is to show that powerfully experienced consequences form beliefs, that beliefs form consequences and that the whole circular process of life teems with blood and pain and laughter that expose the abstract approach of much professional philosophy for the self-interested charlatanism it is. Writing to his father about Agassiz, William James observed that "no one sees farther into a generalisation than his own knowledge of details extends." Accepted as a truism rather than a rebuke, the insight suggests that questions about Menand's choices represent rival stories--what James might have seen as another pluralist tale seeking airtime. Judged by the latter's standards--what difference it makes if this or that worldview is true--The Metaphysical Club casts a vast, brilliant light on the human subtleties of America's most influential philosophical achievement. It's a feast of canny wisdom and sophisticated entertainment, and one hopes Menand's already privileged position in the intellectual elite, and the envy of the specialists, won't muffle the sounds of celebration.

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