Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Michal Jan Rozbicki on "The Rise of Learned Hagiography"

Randall Stephens

The following excerpt is from Michal Jan Rozbicki's review essay in the June 2013 issue of Historically Speaking.  Rozbicki uses Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
(Random House, 2012) to delve into "the cult of great individuals," which even in the present, does not lack enthusiasts.  Rozbicki is professor of history and director of the Center for Intercultural Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 2011).

One would be hard pressed to find a dull period in Thomas Jefferson’s life. Mindful of that, I began devouring Jon Meacham’s 800-page Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power anticipating a gourmet biographical feast. It started off as an enjoyable and well-paced story but it was not long before the taste of syrup began to take over. By the time I reached page eight I had already been informed that “Jefferson was the
most successful political figure of the first half century of the American Republic,” “had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move on, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic,” and was “a transformative leader.” He was a “formidable man” and his “genius” was that he “dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes.” A case of “the rare leader who stood out from the crowd without intimidating it,” his “bearing gave him unusual opportunities to make the thoughts in his head the work of his hands, transforming the world around him.” Not only “a man of Enlightenment, always looking forward, consumed by the quest for knowledge” but also “an inveterate walker,” “fit and virile,” “never tired of invention and inquiry,” “delighted in archeology paleontology, astronomy, botany, and meteorology,” “drew sustenance from music and found joy in gardening,” “bought and built beautiful things,”“was an enthusiastic patron of pasta,” and “enjoyed the search for a perfect dressing for his salads.” Moreover, he “knew Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish,” was “a student of human nature, a keen observer of what drove other men,” “perfectly acquainted” with “subject after subject,” an “extraordinary man.” Politically, he was “the father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, of the American West,” “the author and designer of America, a figure who articulated a vision of what the country could be.” A “builder and a fighter,” he “gave the nation the idea of American progress.” He was able to operate “on two levels, cultivating the hope of a brighter future while preserving the political flexibility and skill to bring the ideal as close as possible to reality.” The world “found him charming, brilliant, and gracious,” friends thought “he was among the greatest men who had ever lived, a Renaissance figure who was formidable without seeming overbearing, sparkling without being showy, winning without appearing cloying,” and “women in particular loved him.” Oh, and “he had great teeth” (xvii-xxiv).

The first pages are a herald of what is to come. The book is a glitzy glorification of Jefferson. But it is much more than that. It represents a new and intriguing genre that is perhaps best described as learned hagiography, an eclectic mix of seemingly incompatible components like old-fashioned hero worship, elite-centered topic, seductive narrative aimed at popular readership, solid scholarly research with a heavy apparatus of citations, and a didactic political objective.

The cult of great individuals has never lacked enthusiasts. Some are drawn to the Nietzschean belief that strong personages, superior to ordinary people, are the driving force of history. Others long for a savior who will liberate us from all evil. Some are passive followers finding comfort in believing that this or that leader is wise, knows best, and will guide everyone through the turmoil of existence. Others are mesmerized by the pomp and majesty of office. All reflect the uncanny ability of people to create idealized fictions and then believe their own wishful thinking. Their heroes have one thing in common: they are not so much who they are as who they ought to be.

Greatness sells, which is why hero-worshiping literature has a long and venerable
tradition, rooted in both popular and elite culture. It stretches from Greek mythology, Gesta Romanorum, lives of saints, Arthurian legends, chivalric romances, troubadour songs, and chronicles of monarchs, through the political drama of Renaissance and the epic poetry of European romanticism, to didactic biographies of leaders (such as Parson Weems’s life of Washington) and historical novels. These writings—as opposed to modern, critical history aiming to explain why things happened—mostly describe prominent people and events in time, often embellishing them with invented episodes, folk legends, and even the personal views and experiences of the authors. The goals are usually fairly simple: exalt the qualities of the great and the saintly, lionize the powerful, and point to their role in changing the course of history. One of the distinctive features of this literature is that it was an instructional tool. Its aim was pragmatic and rooted in the present. Authors hoped that their works would supply the collective memory with worthy themes and symbols that bind societies and invite followers. The enduring attractiveness of such stories lies less in their adeptness in reconstructing facts than in their ability to conjure up ideal types, to celebrate the potential of the individual person, and to offer positive models of virtue—all qualities that defy the incoherence of the world.

By selecting Jefferson, Meacham taps directly into the pantheon of national icons. Reverence for the Founders is perhaps the most conspicuous form of hero worship in America. Politicians, journalists, and ordinary people look to them for usable history, and revel in “discovering” their own views in the Founders’ minds. A suitable quote can buy a badge of legitimacy for a broad variety of endeavors. For writers of historical biographies, this appeal has been a gold mine. Hardly a few months go by without a new volume, and the demand seems insatiable. All things considered, this is terrific for history, and helps thwart a broader weakening of public interest in the country’s past (exemplified, for instance, by the decline of U.S. survey courses as core requirements in colleges). . . . 

Read more from Historically Speaking at Project Muse


Lisa Clark Diller said...

It seems like it was only a matter of time before the glory days of the biography turned into hagiography. But still, it is hard sometimes to study a person/issue before becoming really sympathetic. Or maybe it is that we choose subjects we find really compelling and so have a hard time being objective about a person rather than a time/issue/event....

Randall said...

I wonder how much of the phenomenon is driven by the market. Perhaps hagiography is what the people want. Not in the case of Zinn's People's History, of course.

Unknown said...

I had just read Meacham before I began writing my biography of Charles Knowlton, so it seemed natural to contrast my celebration of a "regular guy" with Meacham's uncritical portrayal of Jefferson's elite life.

As Randall said, people want to read about the founders -- the sales numbers show that. It's unfortunate that a historian hasn't written an equally compelling, but more nuanced and realistic, biography of Jefferson lately. I agree, it's a problem that popular authors and enthusiastic readers opt for caricatures that often serve contemporary political agendas and perpetuate the myth that only elites had agency. But I think to combat this trend, we need to start writing better stories.