Friday, December 17, 2010

50 Years of Counter-Counter-Subversion

Chris Beneke

Before the year ends, it may be worth noting that 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a classic work in American history. In September 1960, a full tenure-cycle before the appearance of his classic tomes on slavery and abolitionism, David Brion Davis, published a modestly titled article in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (today, The Journal of American History) called “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature.” Perhaps overshadowed by the subsequent publication of Richard Hofstadter’s monumental The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), Davis’ little gem has been, and continues to be, profitably invoked by historians and non-historians alike.

A half century is a long-time for a publication with heavy interpretive implications to stay afloat in the roiling waters of American historiography. Most significant arguments from that long ago now rest under an ocean of dissertations and monographs. Occasionally they resurface—only to be unceremoniously dunked under again by a desperate graduate student. But “Some Themes” has remained buoyant even amid massive shifts of interpretive currents over the last five decades. Google Scholar alone counts 118 citations, many of them fairly recent.

Davis’ topic was antebellum hostility toward three outlier groups: Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, and he discovered conspicuous parallels in the structure of prejudice against them:

What distinguished the stereotypes of Mason, Catholic, and Mormon was the way in which they were seen to embody those traits that were precise antitheses of American ideals. The subversive group was essentially an inverted image of Jacksonian democracy and the cult of the common man; as such it not only challenged the dominant values but stimulated those suppressed needs and yearnings that are unfulfilled in a mobile, rootless, and individualistic society. It was therefore both frightening and fascinating. (208)


The themes of nativist literature suggest that its authors simplified problems of personal insecurity and adjustments to bewildering social change by trying to unite Americans of diverse political, religious, and economic interests against a common enemy. Just as revivalists sought to stimulate Christian fellowship by awakening men to the horrors of sin, so nativists used apocalyptic images to ignite human passions, destroy selfish indifference, and join patriots in a cohesive brotherhood. Such themes were only faintly secularized. (214)

My hunch is that Davis’ argument has avoided the twin perils of irrelevance and infamy because it presaged a discernible shift in the historiographical current. In particular, “Some Themes” provided early American historians with a handy, empirical point of access to the theory of The Other—the ubiquitous scholarly assumption that our understanding of self and community is always developed against imagined understandings of another (usually benighted and/or marginal) culture or people. In the five decades since, few ideas have exercised a more profound influence on historical interpretation. Davis’ article also captured the ideological spirit of the post-Red Scare academy, which has embraced the subversive and the counter-counter-subversive.

“Some Themes” had the additional virtue of not being overly burdened with clinical baggage. While Davis gestured toward mid-century concerns about identity formation and social anxiety, he was clearly more concerned with the cultural and political causes and manifestations of what is nowadays sometimes called “othering.” That too aligned his argument with late twentieth-century (at least post-1970s) historical study, which has never been comfortable with the essentialism of the psychological and philosophical foundations on which so much of it rests.


Unknown said...

Interesting. I'll put that on my reading list. What did Davis make (and what do you make) of intergenerational continuity like the father to son anti-Catholicism of the Morses? Or their fascination with conspiracy theory (Jedediah's Illuminati and Samuel F.B.'s European papists colonizing the American West)?

Randall said...

Chris: I like your metaphor of water/staying afloat.

Your post reminds me of some of the one-upmanship of grad seminar days. It seemed as if a historian from two generations earlier only existed in order to be dispatched to the dustbin of historiography. But, as Leo Ribuffo has recently argued, historians should seriously engage the work of their predecessors. In other words, saying that a book or article is "out of style" won't cut it.

hcr said...

It seems to me, too, that historians of earlier generations often come back into fashion, depending on present circumstances. For example, the political machinations so absorbing to historians in the 1890s weren't very interesting to us in the 1980s, but they are suddenly terribly relevant. I often find much older histories speak more strongly to my interests today than ones only twenty years old.

Chris Beneke said...

Dan--The Morses seem to fit the mold pretty well. I don't know what Davis would have made of the inter-generational aspect. But I suspect that a conspiratorial outlook may be a heritable (behavioral) trait.

Randall--I'll have to get that reference from you. Thanks.

Randall said...

Heather: That's interesting about the 1890s historians.

At the HS Boston office the other day we were perusing the AHR from early in the 20th century. Filled to the brim with political history. More military history coming in with WWI.

Randall said...

Chris: The Ribuffo point about historiography comes from his talk at the HS conference. We're publishing it in the Jan issue of HS.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I feel lucky to have come through grad school at a time when older scholarship was being appreciated again and I didn't feel we had to get pushed into a specific generation, a 'counter' group. Maybe I got lucky in my advisors, but I do think reading older scholarship sympathetically rather than suspiciously has given me wider and deeper pools to pull from. And are we consistently more sympathetic to our "grandparents" in the field than our "parents"--to use the generational metaphor?

I so much appreciate this, Chris. I bet your suspicion regarding the nascent idea of the "Other" as part of the reason for the compelling nature of this is spot on.