Every Fury on Earth

These sharp essays on intellectuals, academia and politics chart a promising career, Alan Ryan says

February 26, 2009

Although Every Fury on Earth is a scrapbook - it consists of essays of between 1,000 and 10,000 words on subjects ranging from the travails of graduate students to the nature of anti-Americanism, taking in pragmatism and the history of sex scandals in US politics on the way - it hangs together in much the way the author intends. He regards the impersonality - dehumanisation might be a better term - of the way academics are taught to write history and sociology as an intellectual and political disaster. Such thematic unity as these pieces possess lies in their author's politics and - what is much the same thing - in his biography.

John H. Summers has the right heroes - C. Wright Mills, Christopher Lasch and their great admirer Robert Westbrook; he has the right allegiances - the radical populism that animated Lasch and that Westbrook found in the work of John Dewey; and he is enjoyably sceptical about the posh end of the academic world - a decade of teaching Harvard University undergraduates has taught him all he wants to know about the sense of entitlement that animates almost all of them, as Times Higher Education readers will recall ("All the privileged must have prizes", 10 July 2008). One hopes that he is taking pleasure in the fate of the 30 per cent of his students who headed off into the world of banking.

Summers has an interesting background. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, he was born into a family of small-businessmen whose devotion to God and country was absolute. He was not a teenage rebel: "At 16, watching the Iran-Contra hearings on television with my grandfather, I donated a portion of my summer wages to Colonel Oliver North's defence fund."

Ten years later, doing graduate work in history at the University of Rochester, he encountered the radical populism that provided an alternative to rural conservatism on the one hand and what passes for liberalism in the US on the other.

Liberals will think that Summers has the American vice of gesturing at "liberalism" when he means either our old friend the military-industrial complex and its Congressional hired help or "welfare-state capitalism". Neither of those was what Dewey himself, or Dewey's European counterparts such as L.T. Hobhouse, was after when he looked for a "new liberalism". Terminological quibbles aside, something that sharply separates American and British politics is that in the US, there is a strong populist tradition that can swing Left or Right in ways that European observers find confusing. Summers swung Left.

Acquiring at Rochester the ambition to be a public intellectual in the traditional mode, Summers wants to write usable history; usable isn't quite the same thing as useful. It is history from the bottom up, as E.P. Thompson taught a generation of British students to write it. It is also history written to unmask the corrupting effects of power and to show the excluded how to make democracy real. This makes for a decidedly "presentist" approach to intellectual history. On the whole, it is a strength; but not always.

Thus, when he is reviewing Louis Menand's account of the origins of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Summers faces all ways. On the one hand, he seems to agree with Menand - and with William James - that what makes thinkers adopt one or another philosophical position is in substantial measure a question of temperament, and he says that The Metaphysical Club is at its most engrossing when Menand describes the tensions and confrontations within the Boston community of James' day; but he then complains that Menand is too interested in the personalities of his protagonists and doesn't devote himself sufficiently to telling the reader what to think about pragmatism now.

For what it's worth, I agree with Summers that Menand is a better historian of ideas than he is a philosopher, but Summers' desire for an instructive history blinds him to the possibility of a division of labour that allows Menand to tell us about where pragmatism came from, and allows those of us - Westbrook, Summers and myself, among others - who want to explore its persisting potential, to explore that without unduly worrying about its origins, and indeed, that allows some of us to chance our arms on doing both.

The one complaint I would level against Summers is that he doesn't always play to his strengths. Every Fury on Earth ends with 20 pages of criticism of Irving Louis Horowitz's handling of C. Wright Mills' work and memory - and indeed of Horowitz's treatment of Mills' widow, from whom he seems to have wrested possession of Mills' archive without much in the way of permission. But five pages would have been plenty. Once you have accused someone of something rather like obtaining property by deception, you risk a dying fall by complaining that his footnotes and his account of Mills' tastes and temperament are inaccurate.

Summers could have learnt from himself; his short piece on the San Francisco Left and his half-a-dozen pages on Perry Anderson's influential essays of 1965 and 1968 on the strange fact - strange to Anderson and a handful of others on the New Left Review - that the English created capitalism without producing Marxist theorists, show a mastery of the drily ironic style that would stand any social critic in very good stead. It won't endear him to university administrators. But he knows that. It will be fun to see him develop it.

Every Fury on Earth

By John H. Summers

The Davies Group

202pp, $20.00

ISBN 9781934542071

Published 30 September 2008

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