Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Professing Heroism

At ninety-three years young, the remarkable Edmund Morgan rounds out a lifetime of work in American Heroes: Portraits of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

This review has been published on the home page of the current edition of the History News Network.

“AMERICAN HEROES. Probably most of the people in this book would have disclaimed or disdained the title,” Edmund Morgan writes at the start of this brief anthology of essays that span from 1937 to the present. I would add that probably most academic historians of the last century would disclaim or disdain the title in another sense: it has long been an article of faith in the profession that self-respecting scholars do not “do” heroes. Indeed, coming from anyone else, such a title would seem to broadcast a lack of intellectual seriousness. But no one could ever credibly make that charge of Morgan, the quintessential historian’s historian, author of the magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) and other landmark books. To read these essays is to be reminded not only of just how fertile and graceful a career Morgan has had, but to understand what he and the great historians of his generation accomplished.

To some extent, Morgan’s title is a bit misleading, because not all the pieces (most of which were published in limited-circulation journals) are celebratory, and even those figures Morgan does admire are contextualized with his customary sense of lightly worn wit and irony. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are here, naturally. But so are people like Giles Cory and Mary Easty, two accused Salem witches whose fatal refusal to “admit” their crime affirmed the greatness of Puritanism in its darkest hour. This is new material, but the longtime Yale historian also has older pieces here on Anne Hutchinson (who he does not regard as heroic) and another on Puritan heiress Anna Keayne, which, along with a haunting essay on Native Americans, demonstrates that his interest in women and Indians dates back to the thirties and forties, as his unselfconscious use of the term “Asiatic” reminds us.

Perhaps the most prescient of these pieces is the 1959 essay “Dangerous Books,” in which Morgan takes note of the Cold War-era anxiety about American education but questions whether a better knowledge of history will actually make young Americans of the future any more pious than the Jacobin-leaning students of the maverick 18th century Yale president Ezra Stiles (subject of an admiring revisionist essay in comparison with his successor Timothy Dwight later in the book). “If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is surely the father of it, and invention is heresy by another name,” Morgan notes with typical grace, later adding that “I am not sure that the effect of wider knowledge will be what some of its advocates suppose.” Many of the next generation of New Left historians would no doubt nod in amusement.

Yet even as Morgan recognizes the power and value of a radical vision – most obvious in his treatment of William Penn – this book makes clear that in both form and content the hallmark of his work is moderation, discipline, restraint. What links the Franklins, Washingtons, Corys and Eastys of American history is at least as much a matter of what they won’t do as what they will. Conversely, the limitations of a figure like Christopher Columbus (topic of another new essay) is precisely a matter of what they allow themselves and others to do. Morgan understands the severity in the vision of John Winthrop (the subject of Morgan’s classic 1954 biography) and Michael Wigglesworth, but he honors their sense of self-aware struggle to do right as God gave them to see the right. He can be every bit as mocking of Cotton Mather as Mather’s contemporaries were; Morgan notes at one point that a girl accused of witchcraft who came to live with the Puritan divine recovered notably quickly “to escape the prayers of that pompous egotist.” But whether in gentle praise or cutting criticism, Morgan’s utter immersion in the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is so palpable as to be a gift to those who experience it through him.

The final piece in this collection is a 1964 tribute to the great Puritan historian Perry Miller, who mentored Morgan at Harvard before his death the previous year. Morgan’s debt to Miller is beyond doubt. But in reading this survey of Morgan’s work, one thinks less of Morgan’s influences than his exact contemporary Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) and the slightly older C Vann Woodward (1908-1999). These historians tilled different fields than Morgan. But all three of them wrote sturdy, gleaming prose that remains more readable than virtually any U.S. history produced since. If you studied the American Revolution in college in the last half-century, you’re probably familiar with Morgan’s little 1956 volume The Birth of the Republic, surely the finest book of its kind ever written for students and still widely in use. You probably read that one because your professor chose it. But you owe it to yourself to read American Heroes and remember the pure pleasure great history by a consummate artist affords.