Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 16 - I found Prof. Beyerchen not in his primary faculty office but rather in the second, somewhat spartan office the department provides to ease his burden as graduate studies chair.  It took only seconds to realize that he saw me not as an intrusion but as a welcome excuse to avoid some onerous graduate-studies-chair chore.  Procrastination, I guess, has its positive aspects.

Probably most departments have a Prof. Beyerchen, by which I mean a professor so memorable that taking a course with him or her is an experience not to be missed.  In Alan's case, the draw is sheer intellectual firepower. He knows more, about more things, and can draw connections between them more quickly and elegantly, than any three of us ordinary profs.  If you were to graph intelligence on a bell curve, with the 50th percentile centered in downtown Columbus and the 90th percentile on the northern county line, you would find Alan somewhere up by Cleveland.  (Besides, according to, he's hot.)  So when I explained my problem he was able to sort things out within moments.

Just as I had done, Alan skimmed the introduction and endnotes for hints about Prof. Samet's approach.  Like me, he found nothing of assistance--with one exception.  Prof. Samet's acknowledgments mention her Yale mentor and Alan suggested I check him out, on the plausible hunch that her approach would likely be influenced by his.  As he paged through the book he offhandedly giving me a very good precis of the history of modern literary criticism, from Ferdinand de Saussure to Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, Stephen Greenblatt, Stanley Fish, and beyond.  He knew enough about contemporary trends to recognize at once that Prof. Samet was doing traditional, almost retro, literary criticism--a very close "reading out" of written texts rather than a "reading in" based on the silences and buried assumptions within the text.  It went on like this for several minutes until I asked the obvious question:

"Alan, do you ever, like, just vegetate and watch TV?"

Indeed he did--and then ensued a quick rundown of his favorite television shows, particularly the various Star Trek series, with a footnoted analysis of several episodes well-designed for classroom use.  Once in a while he noticed that a comment regarding his television viewing habits resonated with a previous comment regarding literary theory. He made the connection like Buffalo Bill making a trick shot from horseback.  One of life's great joys is to witness human excellence.  My quick consultation with Alan turned into a fascinating two-hour seminar.

We'd probably still be talking if the graduate studies secretary hadn't eventually raided the game and forced Alan back to his thankless grad-studies-chair task.  With a scribbled sheet of notes in hand, I headed off to the library, grabbed Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory:  An Introduction (2nd edition, 1996), took it home and added it to my own modest collection of reference works on critical and cultural theory.  Then I began reading up on various schools of literary theory, trying to determine which seemed best to capture what Prof. Samet was doing. 

I also looked up Prof. Samet's 1997 PhD dissertation. No help there:  neither the abstract nor the introduction said a word about her methodology or the works or ideas that had influenced her.

I had better luck with Alan's suggestion that I check out her adviser at Yale, David Bromwich.  Prof. Bromwich writes and teaches on Romanticism and modern poetry.  He's currently writing a study of that great Romantic poet, Edmund Burke--you know, the British member of Parliament whose "Reflections on the Revolution in France" is one of the great documents in the conservative political tradition.  Some years ago, the editors of American Literary History asked twenty American publicly-engaged intellectuals to answer six questions concerning their careers and their experience.  Bromwich was among those asked; the respondents with whom he shared the forum were, by the way, a pretty stellar bunch.  The result was published as "Thinking in Public:  A Forum," American Literary History vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring 1998):1-83.  It's available through J-STOR.  The stable URL is:

With regard to his basic concerns, writes Prof. Bromwich, "From the start my interest has centered on a few moral and imaginative ideas."  With regard to influences, he cites "Hazlitt" as the older critic from whom he learned the most.  That would be William Hazlitt (1778-1830), a British literary critic known for combining a relaxed, conversational style with a brilliant intellect, and, more importantly for our purposes, a moral thinker keenly interested in the metaphysics of political power. (He was also, incidentally, a great admirer of Burke's "Reflections.")  The modern theorist who most influenced Prof. Bromwich is Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), the German philosopher and critic who, again, was concerned with the metaphysics of political power:  he was a sharp critic of Nazism and an even sharper critic of the way in which capitalist society manufactured a culture more or less designed to anesthetize people into political apathy.

Finally, with regard to his attitude toward recent intellectual currents, I get the impression Prof. Bromwich is impatient with the fragmentation of the canon--of present-day undergraduates, he writes, "you could once count on familiar knowledge of some authors, mostly modern:  Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Hesse, Mann, Melville.  Confronted by five such students today, you cannot presume they share a common memory of a single book."  He's equally impatient with both what he calls "didactic pro-Americanism" and "the opposite sentiment more common in academic life today":

People who grew up in America and who know some part of its history with a decent familiarity can now be found writing as if everything about it were foreign to them.  This man-from-Mars approach is tiresome, and I predict it will soon be junked.

It's worth noting that in another piece I read, Bromwich patiently explicates the weaknesses of Foucault's deconstructionism and Stanley Fish's reader-response theory.  So basically it's fair to say that we have in Prof. Bromwich a scholar who is hardly reactionary but nevertheless unpersuaded by developments in critical theory since, let's say, about 1970.

That realization heightens my confidence that the major key to understanding Prof. Samet's approach is  Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), the famed Columbia don.  (For an appreciation of Trilling that appeared in Atlantic Monthly, click the photo of Trilling at left.)  Trilling, who combined literary and moral criticism, was particularly concerned about the survivability of old-fashioned liberalism (especially in the sense of tolerance, moderation, and availability to reason) in the face of the various irrationalisms of the mid-twentieth century.  "Realism was to become an important component of Trilling's moral criticism, too," notes the entry on Trilling in The Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory:  "for him the great value of the novel as an agent of moral education lay in its exploration of reality as more complex than our received notions of righteousness."

That last phrase really helps me crack the code on what (I think) Prof. Samet is up to, and why it may be as valid a path to understanding "the progress of consent" in America as a traditionally historical approach.  Were I to look into the past for direct testimony to what Americans of the nineteenth century thought about the issue of consent, I would probably be greeted with many formulae, definitions, assertions, and other expressions that in what way or another evoked an air of certitude.  Much of the underlying tensions and ambiguities would be lost.  By focusing on a few key texts--drawn mainly though not exclusively from the writings of a few landmark political figures--Prof. Samet hopes to flush these tensions and ambiguities into the open.  The result  is not a complete picture but rather a contribution,  from the vantage point of literary and moral criticism, of a conversation, already begun by social scientists, historians, and philosophers, on the political problem of consent.

She might have said so in the first place.

Continue to next entry

Return to main page.