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.