Richard Hofstadter and Me

In the last semester of my senior year, I took a course in American history for the first time since high school because my comrades gently insisted on it—they figured it would lighten me up a little, make me less earnest about becoming a Bolshevik through fanatic study of Russian history and literature. I’d been accepted into the graduate programs at Columbia and Michigan; I was then leaning toward Columbia because I was already yearning to live in New York, although I’d never even seen the place.

The instructor in that 400-level course, Industrial America, 1877-1901, was Martin J. Sklar, a legendary figure on the Left and a formidable presence in the classroom. The syllabus listed about a dozen required books, as I remember, among them W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935) and Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955).

At this time, at the age of 22—I had spent some time out of school, working and fucking around—I didn’t know what “Reconstruction” was, or why it mattered. I knew nothing about American history except that the civil rights movement had tried and failed to redeem the promise of . . . something. I didn’t want to know anything about this ugly past. I was already in intellectual exile from the culture I knew best, just from living it all my life. I was bound for Bolshevism, on my to the Soviet Union by way of New York.

The old guy who sat next to me, our backs against the wall, was Guy Sand. We were fellow seniors, in both senses, and heavy smokers to boot. We’d make fun of the morons in the class, giggle indiscreetly when one of them asked a stupid question, or nod wisely when we heard something vaguely intelligent.

I asked him one day before class why he had gone back to school (he was about 35). He looked mystified. “For this,” he said, gesturing at Sklar, who was assembling his notes at the lectern. “I want to know how this thing works.”

“What thing?” I asked. Guy said, “The whole thing,” and now he gestured out the door. “Capitalism.”

He was in the right place. Sklar made us read everything. Economic history: Fred Shannon, The Farmer’s Last Frontier (1944); Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age (1956). Political history: John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931); Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State (1956, this also qualifies as intellectual history); C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (1951). Labor history: Gerald Grob, Workers and Utopia (1962), plus some obscure articles by a young man named Herbert Gutman. Intellectual history: August Meier, Negro Thought in America (1964); Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence (1959). Also William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). Oh, and The Communist Manifesto (1848). Notice the publication dates—he was teaching the same literature, or rather the same historiographical canon, that had shaped Hofstadter. These were the books that determined their intellectual origins, but not their political destinations.

Taking this course convinced me that doing American history could be as interesting and important as deciphering the Bolshevik Revolution. Now I finally realized that I could be an expert in Russian history, but that neither the Soviet nor the American people would recognize me as the revolutionary I wanted to be. On the other hand, if I knew the history of my people, as Lenin clearly knew his (I was then reading his best book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia [1899]), why . . . . By the end of Sklar’s course, I saw that I’d write a Masters Thesis in Russian history, then switch to US history for the PhD. I stayed at Northern Illinois University because I could do both, and Sklar would be still around. “Career-wise,” a bad decision. Otherwise the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

I remember all those books Sklar made us read—we didn’t write papers or take tests, we kept journals—but Du Bois and Hofstadter stuck with me because they seemed so aberrant, so athwart their discipline, so calmly truculent. They were contentious writers—their arguments with their colleagues and the world were right up front—and yet somehow they didn’t sound polemical. Just authoritative.

I had read enough Marx to doubt Du Bois’s conflation of slaves and proletarians, and I was ignorant enough to be both astonished and unconvinced by Chapter 4, “The General Strike.” I had heard enough from the comrades about Hofstadter—he was one of those bad old “consensus” historians—to discount his anti-Populist position as a warning against the benighted masses who brought us fascism (I didn’t know then that Hofstadter was steeped in Frankfurt School sensibilities).

I turned to Guy one day before class—according to the syllabus we were supposed to be reading Woodward and Hofstadter alongside each other, or rather contrapuntally—and said, “What do you make of Hofstadter? He gives me a pain in the ass.”

Again he looked mystified. “It’s great stuff,” he said. “He can write.”

“What about the politics of the thing, though?” I said, “I mean, the Populists are anti-semites, might as well be Nazis, c’mon, that’s bullshit.”

Guy said, “Well, it’s not consensus, is it?”

Between them, Martin Sklar and Guy Sand launched me on a career of counter-progressive historical writing about the United States, a career in which Richard Hofstadter became something like an intellectual companion—someone I’d call on from time to time, asking what he’d said about such and such, wondering how he’d said it. I never thought he was a great writer, but the how, the prose, was as interesting as the what.

The form of his arguments was always attuned to the audience us Bolsheviks in the making wanted—that general reader, the common folk, the everyday bloke. It wasn’t conversational, exactly, it was just thoughtful, even though its author made plenty of ex cathedra pronouncements. The content determined by this form of argument was, as William Appleman Williams pointed out—with prejudice—the findings of other historians and social scientists. Hofstadter did research after the book on Social Darwinism, but he was mostly a synthesizer, a scholar who used the findings of others in new ways, making them newly useful. To my mind, that is productive work, more productive than almost all archivally-driven monographs, although now that I mention them, what else is there to synthesize?


In the years between 1955, with the publication of The Age of Reform, and 1976, with the publication of Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, so-called consensus history flourished on American premises. The assumption animating this designation was that the consensus historians—Louis Hartz, Irwin Unger, Daniel Boorstin, Lee Benson, among others—denied the formative role of class conflict in the American past, emphasizing instead an ideological consensus on liberalism, or capitalism, whatever, or emphasizing ethno-cultural differences rather than the gradients of social class. These historians were supposedly justifying or creating the illusion of cultural-intellectual solidarity in the face of the Soviet threat.

That assumption and its corollary were, and are, a palliative, a lullaby, for academics and intellectuals who long(ed) for the good old days of the Popular Front, when the CP made the working class, and class conflict, the regulative principles of theory and practice. For the two most important of the so-called consensus historians, Hofstadter and Williams, were steeped in Marxism and Continental social theory—they knew their way around the CP (Hofstadter was a card-carrying member who quit before the 1939 debacle of the Nazi-Soviet Pact), and they admired its purposes if not its methods. They never avoided analysis of social conflict; instead they conducted that analysis as if the people and the polity they studied were, except in extraordinary, revolutionary times, contained by ideological limits on the meanings of liberty and equality. The civil rights movement, for example, certainly called forth conflict, but its leaders told both constituents and contestants that the goal was to live up to what everyone agreed on as founding principles.

The better way to think about so-called consensus history is to rename and rethink it according to Gene Wise’s specifications. He called it counter-progressive history, as in up against the Progressive tradition Hofstadter himself summarized in what I think is his best book.

By my measurements, Progressive historiography was built on three premises. First, class supersedes race as the central category of the narratives that offer to explain the national experience. Think of Turner and Beard as against Bancroft.   Second, “big business” (a.k.a. industry) becomes the predator of the small holder, and therefore of equality, or democracy, as such. Monopoly capital, not capitalism writ large or small, becomes the intellectual and the political problem. Again, think of Turner and Beard, then fast forward to the anti-corporate bias that now serves as a left-wing credential in every relevant venue: Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, Elizabeth Sanders. Third, corporations appear as belated, artificial entities—just like John Marshall said in 1819—rather than original, organic components of American history, of the country created by corporations like the Massachusetts Bay Co. and the Virginia Co.

Hofstadter and Williams refused, or modified, all three premises. Hofstadter led the way. The American Political Tradition (1948) was preface to The Age of Reform, in this sense, because it made us think of the reformers, the revolutionaries, and the reactionaries as characters on a continuum of mistaken identity, not difficult patients with irreconcilable etiologies. A kind of consensus.

So conceived, the key passages in The Age of Reform come at the edges of those places where Hofstadter acknowledges that he’s writing about his own time, not some distant past. They’re awkward moments, when the voice changes and the remaining grace of the prose breaks down. He trips himself; he sounds apologetic.

“If we look at the second of the two great foes of Progressivism, big business and monopoly, we find that by the time of the New Deal public sentiment had changed materially. . . . By 1933 the American public had lived with the great corporation for so long that it was felt to be domesticated.”

A few pages later: “The generation for which Wilson and Brandeis spoke looked to economic life as a field for the expression of character; modern liberals seem to think of it quite exclusively as a field in which certain results are to be expected. It is this change in the moral stance that seems most worthy of remark.”

This is a man who has found his way into the present, but he doesn’t know how to say it, not just yet. But that tremor in both passages, where the voice moves from active to passive, that’s where the divide between Progressive and counter-progressive historiography ought to be marked, because it’s where Hofstadter says that the corporation is not a parasite on the body politic and that individuality (character) can no longer be conceived as routinely enacted in economic life, through work and its correlate, self-ownership.

To find your way into the present, as Hofstadter did in The Age of Reform, is to realize that the Populists played a losing hand by thinking that they could restore equality, such as it was, and reinstate genuine selfhood, such as it was, by abolishing corporations, monopolies, big banks, whatever you want to call the “artificial persons” who oppressed them and us. He finally knew how and why and where Turner and Beard and Robinson and Parrington were wrong, but still useful.

“Consensus” doesn’t begin to describe what Hofstadter offered us as historians and citizens. Counter-progressive will do for now.   But let’s think further on up the road. The Age of Reform makes anybody who reads it think about the filial—OK, Oedipal—relation between the Progressive Era and the New Deal, Old Testament and New. It makes us think about the reach and the limits of Populism, third parties, renegade politicians. It makes us think about the conflicts of our own time, when “unnatural persons,” whether corporations or real estate agents, roam freely across the political landscape.

Can you say that about any other book you pick off your shelf?

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The Angle of the Angel of History


Herewith the promised dispatch from Paradise, where the storm of progress is blowing from no direction.

My girlfriend and I are here for a week courtesy of her mother, who rents a place with a friend for two months here in Puerto Vallarta, on the west coast of Mexico. It’s a spectacular high rise right on the beach. We’re on the 11th floor of Torre II, overlooking pools the size of school districts and the Pacific Ocean itself. The open kitchen and living room are way bigger than my apartment; they’re flooded with sunlight from dawn to dusk, glass all around. In the morning, it’s enchanting. In the afternoon, it becomes a bright furnace, so you have to don goggles—sunglasses—just to see each other.

The routine is pretty simple. I get up at 6:00 or 6:30, start whacking away at whatever I’m writing, my girlfriend gets up an hour or so later, and our hosts wake up around 10:00. I go back to the whacking, and the girlfriend starts real work—writing her new book, watch out. Around 3:00-4:00, we stop, maybe, and go for a walk on the beach or go to the grocery store, or whatever.   It’s all preparation for cocktail hour, which commences, as it always should, at 5:00.

We’re in motion, in a cab headed for Zona Romantica and the Malecon, by 6:30 or 7:00. All the streets except Ascension, the thoroughfare that connects Zona Norte to Vallarta Vieja, sort of, are something like cobblestone, so by the time you get to the restaurant, you fell like your bones have been shaken and your intestines stirred. James Bond would not approve. At any rate you’re disoriented, and wondering how these little Toyotas last more than a month on these jagged edges the locals call streets.

My writerly task here, on vacation, was to finish an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal—you read that right—on the current campus controversies over the inscription and erasure of history in the physical environment of the university itself. The piece was solicited by an editor there, who offered to pay me a lot more per word than the New York Times ever did (not that the Times is begging for my byline). I finished it yesterday and sent it off. I like it a lot, and so does my girlfriend—my old friend Mike, too, and, I’ll be damned, our hosts here in Puerto Vallarta as well, who read it this morning—but my guess is that the editor at the Journal won’t run it because, well, because I claim that these current controversies raise the question of capitalism.

Walter Benjamin is a key figure here—Thesis VII, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Not incidentally, our hosts seized on this phrase, what is it with Prior Walter?) The editor at the Journal asked me to contemplate Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford, Duke, among other robber barons, in terms of their legacies as founders of great universities. I think I pulled it off.

I concluded as follows, with Thesis IX in mind.  Yes, I’m quoting myself.

“If we can follow the examples of Marx and Emerson, we’ll find a way beyond the either/or choice that dictates we must choose between the past and the future, as if the present is the finder and the keeper of an immutable truth. We’ll be able to rewrite our history but not obliterate the past as it’s inscribed on buildings, preserved in archives, embodied in ritual celebrations, and written in the books. We’ll be able acknowledge the sins of our fathers—Carnegie, Duke, Stanford, Rockefeller, among others—without indulging the urge to erase our memory of them. We’ll know that capitalism is the pressing social issue of our time, and proceed accordingly.

“At any rate we’ll avoid the fate of Benjamin’s Angel of History, the devil himself. His face is turned always toward the past because the storm of progress blowing in from Paradise won’t let him close his wings. We will face both ways, and so we will learn that the wreckage of the past—the slaughter-bench of history, as Hegel called it—is not just a catastrophe to be forgotten in the name of the future. It’s the workbench we need to repair the present.”

If you want to quote me, that’s fine, but you might get sued by the Dow Jones Corporation, which, as you know, the Rupert runs and/or owns.


Last night the four of us duplicated the itinerary of Wednesday night, when my girlfriend and I were on our own—rather than head back to a fancy place where a great meal with two drinks will cost you $17.00, we decided to sample the stalls on the Malecon. So we started at Margaritagrill, where the signature drink comes in flagons, tankards, and fishbowls—small, medium, and large—anything but an elegant cocktail glass you might associate with a martini. Guacamole, too.

On that night, my girlfriend and I were fighting about some obscure reference she had made to Gary Oldham playing Sid Vicious—“George Smiley does ‘My Way’ on white and black stairs, what the fuck?” I said—when a beefy guy from around the corner of the curving bar says, “How’re you folks doin’?” I look at him and think Texas or Missouri from the accent, and I think, not now, you hulking mass of stupidity, I don’t want to know where you’re from and you don’t want to know where I’m from because that would be Mars as far as you’re concerned, but I’m polite, I’m from the Midwest, I say “Fine” and I turn back to the argument with my girlfriend, but as if on cue he says, “Where you from?”

I turn toward him, now I want to kill him, I—“New York,” my girlfriend, who is also from the Midwest, says, because she detects my murderous intent, and the Hulk says, “Ah, yeah, it’s cold up there, that’s why you’re wearing that scarf.” I look at him and think, he’d never know what hit him if the rim of my margarita glass landed suddenly and simultaneously on his forehead and chin (that’s how big the medium size is), he’d just fall backward and his wife would call the police and the bartenders would laugh. But then, there goes the vacation. So I nod and turn away, and my girlfriend grins and whispers, “He’s looking for a foursome.” I start laughing but then I think, Christ, he’s a three-way all by himself, where’s his benighted wife, that’s all he needs, I turn back and there she is, looking just as jolly and brainless as her husband, only cleaner.

The laughter silences the Hulk, so my girlfriend and I get to leave before I say something more stupid than what I’ve heard from him. I hate all tourists, but then I am one, and I know they’re the backbone of urban economies, New York included.

We walk down to the Malecon by a circuitous route, looking at menus, scenes, dives, and clothes along the way, hoping to find the right combination of funky and tasty. But we know we’ll have to wait until we get there, like kids in the back seat on their way to vacation. Just before we do arrive on the Malecon, I buy a great hat for 150 pesos over the objections of my girlfriend, who, rightly, says “You haven’t even bargained with her!” (Wait’ll you see it on me. I look like a genetically modified hybrid of gaucho and gandy dancer.)

On the Malecon, finally, we’re really hungry by now, the first thing we find to eat is marinated marlin grilled over charcoal, served on two-foot sticks. It’s chewy, sinewy, ketchupy, but somehow satisfying, at least to me. My girlfriend isn’t impressed, she’s still hungry. We press on to the stalls, where chorizo wrapped in little buns looks like pigs in a blanket, so I ask myself, who stole this from whom? Did the middle class WASPs corrupt a vernacular but noble tradition, or did the Mexicans decide that the tourists would recognize—and buy—a hot dog if it were appropriately bundled? All of the above is the correct answer, of course.

Then we eat some roasted corn, which reminds me of chewing beef jerky—a lot of work, but very little pleasure and no nutrition. My girlfriend is by now desperately hungry. What to do? Tacos! “Well, there’s that place under the bridge,” I say, referring to a hole in the wall beneath the last Malecon bridge over the second river on your way north. I don’t want to go back there, but what the hell, this is a vacation we’re on.

We order five tacos to go, 60 pesos (about $4), there’s no tables, so we walk further north to the Devil’s Bar, where Alan the proprietor lets us bring food into his establishment. Actually, “into” is the wrong word, because there’s no inside to this place. It’s a bar made in heaven: about 15 stools open to the—what?—elements, an old guy on the other side who might be naked (no shirt) nuzzling with a toothless old lady, a young man the size of a tractor drinking something red out of a half gallon Mason jar, a couple of drunken honeymooners, and me and my girlfriend.

The tacos are delicious, the Coronas—you buy one, you get two, that’s the rule—are cold, so I’m feeling pretty lucky. I turn to the tractor-size gentleman and say, “What is that you’re drinking?”

Now he could have responded to me as I did to the Hulk at Margaritagrill. But he was gracious, even generous. “It’s a cierre rojo, red sky, basically a Bloody Mary except with Pacifico instead of vodka or whatever, you know, all the spices and shit but not the liquor.” I think, this is a Red Eye, beer and tomato juice, that’s what I always drink on the plane! “Can I taste it,” I say with more enthusiasm than I meant to convey, and he says, “Sure.” We get a straw, I sample the drink, and, sure enough, we’re both right.  Everybody in the place, the naked guy included, is embarrassed. My girlfriend rolls her eyes, and I say, “What?”

I still haven’t told you about the Doctor Fish of Siam. Next door to the taco place. Where you put your feet in a tank of water swarming with tiny carp, and they feed on the detritus you have gathered over all your years, including anxiety. I quote from the advertisement they hand you as you decide to take the plunge or not. “With the delicate Doctor Fish certainly you can say goodbye to your old skin and hello to a new healthy layer.” On Thursday night I shed that old footskin, and the new healthy layer feels pretty good. Now I’m thinking total immersion might be the way to go.


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The Dustbin of Charleston

I was in Charleston, SC, just once. In November 1983, I flew there for a conference interview with a search committee from the department of History at UNC-Charlotte. I had a job at Illinois State University, but it was a long commute from Chicago via the Greyhound that left at 4:30 AM, and tenure was out of the question. So, I paid for the trip to Charleston.

The interview went well. I was in a good mood when I went looking for my friend Harold Woodman—he was the guy who got me the on-campus interview at Princeton in February 1981, my first ever, where I unintentionally convinced the department that I was an intellectual historian rather than what it wanted to hire, an economic historian.

Hal and I met up in the conference hotel bar. He had driven from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had a fellowship at the National Humanities Center. We drank and laughed for an hour or so, and then he offered to drive me to the airport in his rental car.

My flight was at 9:30 PM, eight hours away. I said, “How about you drive me toward the water, drop me where I can walk through old Charleston, and get a look at Fort Sumter?” It was my first time in the South since I was 10 years old, driving through these benighted places on a family vacation, knowing nothing of slavery, race, or Jim Crow except that the N-word was verboten.

I wanted to experience the epicenter—walk the streets, sit on the benches, and finally see the Fort as Edwin Ruffin, “white-haired and mad,” might have in April 1861, when he fired the first shots at it, and, according to W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction (1935), freed the slaves. I got to the water pretty quickly, but I turned back without even knowing what I had seen.

To me the place was already a museum. Everything looked preserved, or rather embalmed.

So I kept thinking of C. Vann Woodward’s epigraph in Origins of the New South (1951). It’s from Arnold Toynbee, as he remembers the Diamond Jubilee. “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all that. I am sure, if I had been a small boy in New York in 1897, I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”

I was wrong, it wasn’t a museum. But then Toynbee was wrong, too, and I suppose Woodward would be without an ironic twist. History hadn’t been memorialized in this town, or in this part of the world, it had been systematically erased. Everything was a monument to a moment that had passed, as if 130 years of subsequent growth and development—what happened after the Civil War—could be forgotten.

I thought, this is what repression looks like as a material, physical manifestation. This is what denial will do. These people don’t want to remember, they want to forget, and everything they see in this place, every edifice and every artifact, allows and then forces them to do so.

I thought, the adults who run this place are insisting that they will remain small boys, just like Toynbee felt himself to be at the Diamond Jubilee. They’re announcing that maturation, separation, individuation—all the goals we have as people on our way to the genuine selfhood we associate with modernity—are dangers to be avoided.

They’re saying, history didn’t happen here.

I stopped into a park on my way back from the water. It was lovely place, light swells of grass criss-crossed by narrow sidewalks. Still, it felt like a cemetery to me because it was enclosed by concrete walls in which three-by-five foot reliefs of Civil War heroes had been carved—J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, the usual suspects.   The space enclosed was empty except for the Confederate flag in the center, flying thirty feet above them.

There was a tiny sidewalk leading up to the flag, a strip of concrete the caretaker used when he wanted to raise and lower the thing. I looked around, feeling as guilty as an atheist in a church, but it was just me in this moldering place. I walked up the slight incline, hoping to read the inscription, but I stopped halfway because the wind rose just then, the grass flattened out and the flag’s tether started rattling.

“All right, all right,” I said, raising my hands. “Sorry, I don’t belong here, on my way. Just curious. I’m an historian, you know what I mean?”

I got that job at UNC-Charlotte, by the way.

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On Sam Haselby, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (2015)

Here are the remarks I delivered at the Columbia Theory of Literature Seminar on Wednesday night.  Slightly edited and embellished.


To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American. That is simply true because “we” have nothing in common—no national origin, no linguistic affinity, no racial stock, no religious establishment. All “we” have are stories about where we came from, how we fit into the founding (or not), and these narratives imply proper destinations; indeed the desired ending typically determines the choice of a beginning.

Sam Haselby, following Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight, two of the Connecticut Wits who imagined America before it existed except as Europe’s frontier, calls these stories of founding the “songs of a nation.” During the revolutionary war against Britain, Dwight liked to tell his fellow soldiers: “’Let me write the songs of a nation, and you may make its laws.’” (p. 75) Every ambitious writer since then, canonical or not—from Brown, Cooper, and Whitman to Bellow, Roth, and Ellison—and every effective politician we honor or revile, from Jackson and Lincoln to Wilson and Trump, has understood the ideological force or literary possibilities unleashed by a nation without a people, a church without a liturgy, an empire without a stable seat of sovereignty.

As Abraham Lincoln put it in a note to himself: “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. “ And in debate with Stephen A. Douglas: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. . . . Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

The Connecticut Wits understood, or anticipated, this fact—that a nation conceived in liberty and composed as a poem couldn’t ever be fully realized, but would always be a Protestant mission, something waiting on the other side of the present, as the faithful conviction of things unseen. It would always be a restless Empire that resisted every attempt to map it, never a unitary nation-state as per the European, Westphalian design of the 17th century. For, as Dwight and Trumbull sensed, the new residence of sovereignty was out of doors, with the people, not the state, the government, the cabinet, the generals, the leaders. They assumed the supremacy of society over the state avant la lettre, before it was inscribed as a principle in the Declaration and the Constitution.

Haselby’s quirky task, which is also a brilliant insight, is then to inquire into the deviant literary origins of a nation so conceived, as a future conjured by epic poetry and its attendant, eschatological bombast—or vice versa, to demonstrate the deviance of that so-called nation, which was always already an Empire, something that could never be imagined as a community.   One question I’d like him to address is why this narrative form, the epic poem, failed so spectacularly here, in America, from Dwight to Melville (for the latter, I’m thinking of Clarel [1876]). Is it because the epic form is too rhetorical, too declamatory—not individuated enough in terms of style, or, what is the same thing, assuming that the audience is a homogenous, educated elite rather than a variegated mass (here I’m channeling Roland Barthes and his American equivalent, Kenneth Burke)? You could ask the same question another way: is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a parody of Dwight’s Greenfield Hill?

Here are some others. What made Protestantism in its late Puritan rendition, among these Wits, so modern, so secular, so compatible with the mission of Empire and its corollaries, the death of God and the eclipse of His providence? Put that question another way: Why did these men of faith write the deadly poetry of political economy? (see p. 92) In short: was their nationalism religious? Or had Locke already supplanted Habakkuk, as per Marx’s formula in The 18th Brumaire—is modern nationalism even conceivable as a religious project, or does modern religion always appear as an imperial mission?

Friedrich Schlegel, the court poet of German Idealism, explained these correlations, or rather answered these questions, as follows: “The revolutionary desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is the elastic point of progressive civilization and the beginning of modern history.”

But listen now to John White, a preacher from Dorchester, the friend of John Winthrop and the ideologue of the Great Migration that transferred 20,000 Puritan souls to New England in the 1630s.   This long passage is from “A Planter’s Plea,” a pamphlet published in 1630, wherein White argued that the colonization of “empty lands” would renew the broken promise of English life.

“It cannot be denyed but the life of man is every way made more comfortable, and offered a more plentiful supply in a larger scope of ground . . . a large place best assures sufficiency: as we see, by nature, trees flourish faire, and prosper well, and waxe fruitful in a large Orchard, which would otherwise wither and decay, if they were penned up in a little nursery; either all, or at best, a few that are stronger plants and better rooted, would increase and over-top, and at last starve the weaker: which falls out in our civill State; where a few men flourish that are best grounded in their estates, or best furnished with abilities, or best fitted with opportunities, and the rest waxe weak and languish, as wanting room and meanes to nourish them.

“Now, that the spirits and hearts of men are kept in better temper by spreading wide, and by pouring, as it were, from vessel to vessel . . . will [be] evident to any man, that shall consider, that the husbanding of unmanured grounds, and shifting into empty Lands, enforceth men to frugalitie, and quickeneth invention: and the settling of new States requireth justice and affection to the common good: and the taking in large Countrys presents a natural remedy against covetousnesse, fraud, and violence, when every man may enjoy enough without wrong to his neighbor. Whence it was, that the first ages, by these helpes, were renowned for golden times, wherein men, being newly entered into their possessions, and entertwined into a naked soile, and enforceth thereby to labour, frugality, simplicity, and justice, had neither leisure, nor occasion, to decline to idlenesse, riot, wantonesse, fraud and violence, the fruits of well-peopled Countreys, and of the abundance and superfluities of long settled States.”

This “argument [is] from godlinesse,” White notes in a sidebar. He goes on to explain how the political economy of righteousness works.

“But the greatest advantage must come unto the Natives themselves, whom we shall teach providence and industry. . . . Withall, commerce and example of our course of living cannot but in time breed civility among them, and that by Gods blessing may make way for religion consequently, and for the saving of their soules. . . . wee hardly have found a brutish people wonne before thy had been taught civility. So wee must endeavor and expect to worke that in them first, and Religion afterwards.”

In concluding, White sings of “competence”—by which he and his contemporaries meant not skill, but just enough property to be self-sufficient, self-determining—exactly as Timothy Dwight would a century later in Greenfield Hill, the key work, according to Haseby, in the Wits’ corpus (see p. 97: “Where Competence, in full enjoyment flows/Where man least vice, and highest virtue knows”).

“Objection: But the Country wants meanes of wealth that might invite men to desire it; for there is nothing to bee expected in New England but competency to live on at best, and that must be purchased with hard labour.

“Answer. Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency, a truth which Agur hath determined long agoe, Prov. 30.8.”

Translation: Only a man whose will is free can choose to live righteously, and, in this society, this “civill State,” only a man with property has free will. All others are bound by the will of their masters, their employers, their husbands, or their fathers. In this sense, John White might have agreed with Gerrard Winstanley, the millennial, messianic preacher who spoke for the Diggers twenty years later: “A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act.”

Fast forward to the Great Awakening, roughly a century later, and listen to the radical itinerant preacher Gilbert Tennant, whose sermon of 1742, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry,” circulated throughout the colonies, as a proto-bestseller along the lines of Paine’s Common Sense. Here too the social philosophy derived from religious belief was framed in and by the language of political economy. Like Dwight and Trumbull, and for that matter like John White of Dorchester, Tennant insisted on inverting the inherited relation between the sacred and the profane, demanding that the care of our souls was neither more nor less significant than the care of our properties.   It was a mundane and material concern.

“To trust the Care of our Souls to those [ministers] who have little or no Care for their own, to those who are both unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the common Practice of considerate Mankind, relating to the Affairs of their Bodies and Estates [their property]; and would signify, that we set light by our Souls, and did not care what became of them.”

These men did fear the rich, but they were themselves bourgeois individuals who, as R. H. Tawney pointed out as early as 1926, were accustomed to a modern market society. It was, however, a simple market society, to borrow C. B. Macpherson’s designation, already a money economy where the exchange of goods was an everyday event, but where a market in labor power had not yet developed. Simple commodity circulation, Marx called it, C-M-C: money was not the goal of goods production, so the consumption of goods served as both the purpose of and the limit on economic growth. The acquisition or ownership of property was the means to the end of a self-determining personality—“Now wee knowe nothing sorts better with piety than competency”—rather than an end in itself.

The bourgeois society uniformly imagined by these writers, from White to Tennant to Dwight and Trumbull, on towards the Populists of the late-19th century, was an ideological bulwark against capitalism, an unholy system that turned personalities into proletarians, into the means of acquiring more property, more money, more wealth in the abstract. Yes, capitalism couldn’t have developed absent the groundwork of bourgeois society and its perfection of the commodity form, but since the 17th century, the locus of resistance to the hedonism of capitalism, including its persistent commodification of sexuality, has always come from this bourgeois place, where small holders (and now, I would argue, mere consumers) want a competency, not more land, property, or riches—beginning with the Puritans, continuing with the Connecticut Wits, but not ending there, not even in our own time.

The irony of this opposition is of course that the patriarchal household economies that typify bourgeois societies are, historically speaking, the intellectual epitome of misogyny. No wonder the Wits depicted the encroachments and enticements of wealth or luxury as the Sirens’ call of feminine guile (see pp. 98-102). Their ideas in this respect were unexceptional.

So the questions come down to these. Did the Wits grasp the difference between Empire and Nation? If so, how so? Do we? Did they defend bourgeois society as against capitalism? Did this defense animate and regulate their fear of slavery? Why did their choice of epic poetry as a narrative form fail so miserably, at this moment? And finally, what story of origins, of founding, would serve present political purposes? What genre would it require?

These are the questions Sam Haselby lets us ask, and maybe answer, by telling the story of forgotten men. For that, he deserves not just our thanks, but our praise.

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A Well-Ventilated Place

I visited my old friend Mike in Charlotte this weekend. When I met him in 1984 (I was teaching at UNC-Charlotte), he was a scruffy, angry carpenter and an anti-nuclear activist, always scrambling for work or headed to another strategy meeting. He was also a devout Catholic who thought abortion was abominable.

In 1988, his entrepreneurial and organizing skills made him Jesse Jackson’s primary campaign manager in Mecklenburg County: don’t laugh, Jackson won. The next morning, the front page of The Charlotte Observer had a huge photo of Mike, me, and our friend Ray drinking Schaefer Light, apparently celebrating the victory. Mike had called at 3:00 AM and ordered us down to campaign headquarters so he could stage the picture for the paper. We were so giddy we just kept drinking until noon.

Today he’s a successful contractor who owns Southern Door Supply (get it, SDS) with his wife Kathy. They got more work than they know what to do with, so they just bought a huge new shop (7,000 square feet) on West Boulevard that bristles with strange machinery—to make doors, to paint them, to laminate them—and bustles with the guys who’ll install them.

Mike is now a pillar of the Charlotte business community, with season tickets to the opera and the new minor league baseball team. He’s also a fallen Catholic who thinks that a woman’s right to choose an abortion is sacrosanct, because it means she can control her own body and, consequently, can claim equality with any man without calling on her brother or her father or the law to enforce the claim.

We went downtown yesterday morning, where he’s been hanging doors and “upfitting” woodwork for ten years. Law firms decide they need a better look, so they hire General Contractors like Mike to furnish and install it. “Upfitting” the hardware on eight doors will cost them roughly $16,000—no new doors, mind you, the brass hinges and handles get replaced by polished chrome ones, that’s it. The partners don’t care, that cost will be rolled into “overhead” and billable hours.

He brought Ron the fixer with us—the old guy who can make blemishes disappear, no matter how bad the scratch or the stain. When the sun goes down and floods the conference room with orange light, you can see where the subcontractor changed the position of the pulls on the cabinets (vertical to horizontal) but didn’t bother to match the color of the resulting filled-in holes with the mahogany doors. Could Ron fix that? He tried every color in his palate, but no, it turned out that he couldn’t erase the mismatch, so new mahogany cabinet doors are on their way.

Then we went to the shop on West Boulevard, where Mike and Kathy had to interview two guys for jobs on the Southern Door crew. I wandered around while they conducted this serious business.

It feels like an old-fashioned factory. Fans as big as your bathroom blow air filled with sawdust and plastic particulates out three garage-size doors. There’s a Streibig Optisaw 2 that would cover a wall of my apartment, a laminate saw bigger than my kitchen. There are drill presses, jigs and saws, painting stations, belt sanders, and a lot of devices I couldn’t begin to explain. Dozens of doors and hundreds of hardware sets are stacked on shelves, all carefully marked for a specific destination. A Toyota fork lift waits in a dark corner to load the doors and the hardware on the delivery trucks. There’s a real men’s room with a urinal, and a lunch room with a refrigerator. Also, a fancy conference room.

I felt at home, for all the wrong reasons—here I was wandering around a place where real work gets done.

Later we went “boating” on Lake Norman, where Mike keeps his 35-foot cruiser, the one we motored down the Intra-Coastal Waterway in 2009 to Beaufort, SC, across from Parris Island, where Marine Corps recruits take basic training (back then, in 2009, my son had completed his training there, and was already in Iraq). It’s a beautiful old craft, built in 1930, now “upfitted” with a green hybrid engine constructed in London. We roamed around the lake for three hours, dodging the wakes of a thousand jet skis and the over-powered motorboats that gouge the water at a 30 degree angle.

Mike and Ray and I used to sail this lake on a 22-foot boat, just noodling around, looking for a breeze and drinking beer, talking shit. Mike and I sailed this same frail craft from Havana to Key West on December 30th, 2003, across the Florida Straights in six to seven foot seas conjured by a 20 mph wind that, by cancelling the eastward effects of the Gulf Stream, blew us 20 miles off course, until we ran aground at 4:00 AM.

The engine was swamped at 45 miles out from Havana, so somebody had to raise the jib if we were going to make any headway thereafter (the main was already up). Mike did it without hesitation and without a harness or a line, and meanwhile I was thinking, “I’m a dead man if he goes overboard because I can do a figure 8, but he can’t swim.”

I felt like a dead man, anyway. I was throwing up for the last, oh, seventy miles of the trip, until we were being towed against that headwind into Key West by a guy who was very curious about where we’d come from. “Just sailing around,” I kept saying cheerfully. No Coast Guard, no customs, no nothing, we brought the boat into the harbor, gassed up the engine, hoisted it out of the water, and put it on the trailer without a question from any official. So much for Homeland Security.

When we were out there on Lake Norman, I asked Mike if he’d take this cruiser across those Straights. “Hell yes,” he said, “This boat was made for that trip.” He and I have often discussed retiring to Cuba, opening a dive shop and a bar (I would of course run the latter): these are the raw materials of middle-aged dreams, what will remove you from the pathetic pace of your real life.

In this case, though, we share not a utopian glimpse of the future, but a distinct memory of a dangerous past—a place we could retreat to if we had to, if we wanted to.   You could call it nostalgia for the times to come.  Julian Jaynes, a bona fide lunatic, once defined the uniquely human capacity of and for consciousness as the ability to narrate the future. His exemplar was Odysseus, more a mariner than a warrior, a man who straddled the worlds of Mycenae and Attica, when the times were first out of joint—a man who was always at sea, always trying to get back to where he started, the place we call home.

I said, “Well, let’s do it!”

He said, “You know, all we need is time. Get out of this business . . . But that takes time, too, you gotta square it all away.”

“Fuck that!” I said, which is what I always say when my interlocutor disagrees. It’s a bad habit because it typically happens when that interlocutor has said something reasonable, even wise. Who am I to tell anyone to leave a life or a vocation behind? I might as well be leafleting outside a BMW plant in Greenville, South Carolina, calling for underpaid workers to strike.

But Mike surprised me, he said, “Yeah, you’re right, we don’t have any more time.”

Once again, for all the wrong reasons and in just one day, I felt at home.

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Fuck Work

As the author of a book called “Fuck Work,” soon to be published by UNC Press, I feel the need to reply to Barry Schwartz, whose op-ed in today’s Times is called “Rethinking Work.” Maybe, come Fall, we’ll be competing for air time at NPR. He’s written a book called “Why We Work.”

Let me explain that compulsion to work by quoting from my own forthcoming book, before moving on to the details of Professor Schwartz’s ever-so-earnest argument.


What is the point of “full employment” or a higher minimum wage, then, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

Excuse me, that’s another rhetorical question. There’s no good reason to increase wages by legislative fiat if the labor market is broken. But there’s a good reason to replace that market. So what is to be done, for now, is intellectual work. Our question is, how to imagine a moral universe that isn’t anchored to or limited by socially necessary labor. To hell with full employment. How about full enjoyment? Fuck work.

Love and work—the two things we all want, according to Freud and every other student of human nature—have pretty much the same function in our lives. Like good teachers, they take us out of ourselves, into the world. Here’s how.

Love and work commit us to purposes that we didn’t invent, and so they teach us to devise and evaluate our own. When we’re in love, what we most want is that the person we love can become what he or she wants to be, partly because we know that this urgent desire includes us. When we’re at work, what we most want is to get the assigned task completed, because we know that this is what our co-workers need—we know that this completion will free us from the commands of the past, and so let us experience the present, enter the future.

In love or at work, commitment is a condition, but also a boundary and a limit. It requires certain behaviors, and it precludes others. But commitment in either emotional venue doesn’t necessarily mean a cancellation of your own purposes, although of course it can. The thing about love and work is that you typically feel commitment as both the limitation and the liberation of your own volition—as the realization rather than the negation of your self, of your natural talents, past effort, and learned skills.

Think about it as a musical proposition. You can’t play the blues without mastering the genre, which is pretty simple—without memorizing the chords and the changes and the lyrics. But you can’t improvise, make it new, become yourself as a player or a singer, without that preparation, that commitment. “Piety is not only honorable,” as G. L. S. Shackle put it in explaining the Keynesian Revolution, “it is indispensable. Innovation is helpless without tradition.”

Love forces us to acknowledge antecedents—the physical actuality and the moral capacity of other people. You can have sex with anyone without this doubled acknowledgment, but you can’t love someone without it. Broaden that dictum and you find that poor old Immanuel Kant was right, after all, in rendering the Golden Rule as a philosophical principle. To love your neighbor as yourself, he must appear to you as an end in himself, not a means to your ends, whether they’re sexual, economic, or political.

To love someone is to treat him as a person who must be different from you, and who must, by the same token, be your equal. Otherwise you could rightfully decide his purposes for him, which would mean treating his moral capacity as absent or insufficient. Everyone would then appear to you as a slave or a child in need of your tutelage. The obvious limits of this supervisory vantage, by the way, are arguments against the idea that parental love (or God’s love for all his children) is the paradigm of love as such.

To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper, is, then, to care for yourself, and vice versa. That is what we have yet to learn.

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” That’s how Abraham Lincoln put it in an unpublished note to himself. Harry Frankfurt puts it differently, but no less usefully, in a book called The Reasons of Love: “There must be something else that a person loves—something that cannot reasonably, or even intelligibly, be identified as his ‘self’— in order for there to be anything at all to which his self-love is actually devoted. . . . A person cannot love himself except insofar as he loves other things.”

Work seems much different than love in such perspective. TV series like “The Office” and movies like “Office Space” or “Horrible Bosses” exist and succeed precisely because the people in charge quite realistically violate this Kantian principle, the Golden Rule. But that is why the heroes of these fictions say No, I would prefer not to. They’re Bartleby the Scrivener all over again because they don’t stand up to anybody, they don’t even leave the office, no, they subvert the system by hanging around or doing something stupid.

But what these fools—our fools—keep demonstrating is their moral capacity, however bumbling it may seem to their bosses, and to us the audience, at first, anyway. They insist that they must be acknowledged as agents in their own right, as moral personalities who can and should steer this business, and their own lives, as well as anyone in charge. They reject what Hegel, also Nietzsche, called slave morality, the idea that self-mastery is an interior to which no exterior corresponds. (The fascination with manual labor on reality TV, as in “Dirty Jobs” or “Ice Truckers,” has the same political valence, it’s a way of saying that every man, every woman, can decide for himself or herself, without guidance from the well-groomed and the well-educated.)

Finally, love and work similarly remind us that the material artifacts of this world, whether natural or man-made, can be indifferent, even resistant, to our efforts. Here the rules of love begin to look like the laws of science—you can’t make the beloved do what he won’t, or can’t, not anymore than you can bend the earth to your will. And here again that knowledge is a form of self-consciousness, a way of learning the limits of what we can ask of others, of the world. It’s a way of asking ourselves, given this situation, what can I do about it?

Still, what becomes of love when work disappears?


OK, that’s me. Professor Schwartz believes that Adam Smith and Frederick Winslow Taylor—the pioneer of scientific management—are his principal opponents, because they assumed that wage work was mere drudgery, and drained it of any extra-monetary significance. They thought we work for wages, and wages only. We know better—we need meaningful work, and so we turn even shitty jobs into social labor, activity that propels us into the world of others, where we might make a difference.

Fuck that. Why do we have to work to create meanings? Is there no other core of human being than productivity? Why does socially necessary labor now cost so little that you can acquire information—the most basic commodity in a post-industrial society—for free? Why does socially beneficial labor still bear the stigma of women’s work? Why can’t journalists, educators, social and health care workers make a living wage?

Why does everybody have to be employed? Because the job market allocates opportunities and incomes rationally, or at least transparently? Sure, that’s why the fucking gangsters on Wall Street get bonuses. Or because people like Professor Schwartz—the mental laborers among us—believe that work is good for us? Because, like Luther, Hegel, and Marx, they grasp labor as the essence of human nature? (See the master-slave section of The Phenomenology and the preface to The Philosophy of Right for Hegel’s Lutheran references, then see Marx’s exclamation in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, p. 333 in the International ed. of the Collected Works, vol. 3).

Enough already.




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Almost cut my hair

I started cutting my own hair at approximately the same time I stopped eating dead animals, in February 1981, just before my first ever on-campus interview, at Princeton University, where I didn’t get the job even though I was the only person the department interviewed. These regimes lasted for roughly thirty years, and in both cases they were overthrown by my girlfriend, in 2010.

I told the story of my fall from quasi-vegetarian grace in the Coda to Against Thrift, which some of you still haven’t read. Buy the book.

The story of the haircut is more complicated. In the late 1970s, I sported an Afro concocted by a flamboyant hairdresser in DeKalb, Illinois, who was trying, not very successfully, to fuck me. It was an elaborate construction scaffolded by large quantities of hair spray—and that is a confession that comes harder than anything I’ve ever said, except maybe admitting to my third wife that I’d been fucking the neighbor for five years.

When I realized the Afro made me look slightly, no, thoroughly ridiculous, I decided to change hairdressers. My last haircut was conducted in Chicago, on Webster Avenue between Sheffield and Halsted, across from the Lincoln Park Grocery, where you could cash checks, down the street from Glasscott’s, where next door you could eat the best fries in the city, in the Athenian Room.

Thereafter I cut my hair with an electric razor for the sides and some scissors for the top. It was always short, I didn’t know any better, so I always looked like a menacing state trooper, but especially when I was bulked up in the late 1990s.

In February 2010, my girlfriend suggested, ever so politely, that my hair was just weird. I was offended, mainly because going bald had been my deepest fear since I was a teenager—I didn’t want to look anything like my father. My little brother, who is now as bald as my father was, used to taunt me by quoting J. Edgar Hoover on Lenin: “At the age of 21, Vladimir Ilych was rapidly losing his hair.” So any talk about hair was almost political.

But she persuaded me to get a real haircut. Why not? I believe in the division of labor, and I really do hate the idea of self-sufficiency. I also don’t like being weird.

So I went to the A & R Studio on 8th Ave in Chelsea, a tiny shop with four chairs, a drying station, and two recliners for the shampoo. Mark cut my hair. I told him I’d been cutting it myself for thirty years, and he said, “Well, not so bad, but you stop now, yes? You let me do this.” English is his third language, after Russian and Hebrew.

Today I went to the A & R Studio for my regular session with Mark. He was just back from Miami, where he’d been circling in the outer rim of his family’s new American orbit.

“Hair is better here,” he said, meaning New York.

“How does hair get better?”

“You know, you got a blow dry here, it looks good. There, not so good, you sweat so much the hair just, I don’t know the word, it’s shiny, it falls down . . .”

“Greasy?” I offer.

“Yes, yes, that is what I mean!”

“But all the ‘product’ you got”—by this I mean the jars of stuff he wants to rub into my follicles when he’s done cutting—“all that shit makes it shiny, no?”

“No, no, Jeem, you don’t understand, I think maybe because you don’t have enough hair.”

“Mark,” I say, “when you’re done I’m going to kill you for saying that.”

He looks in the mirror at me–the great thing about gyms and hair salons is that you’re never face-to-face with anybody–his brow furrows, slightly, after all he’s holding the scissors, then he smiles, he says,

“But I am the one who cuts it.”

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