Historians as Public Intellectuals

Randall Stephens

Our first session of the Second Annual Conference on Public Intellectuals (James Hall, Harvard) dealt with a theme that would interest readers of this blog. Thanks are due to all those who took part. Historian Larry Friedman (Harvard's Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative) deserves special thanks for making this and last year's conference so productive.

James Hall 1305

Chair: Jill Lepore (Harvard University)

Bertram Wyatt-Brown (Johns Hopkins University), “C. Vann Woodward and W.J. Cash: Similarities and

Joyce Antler (Brandeis University), “Gerda Lerner, Citizen-Scholar: ‘Why What We Do with History

Ray Arsenault (University of South Florida), “The Freedom Writer: John Hope Franklin as a Public Intellectual”

The three presenters spanned the career's of historians who wrote and spoke to a large public. All had a very interesting, complex relationship with the American past, and, even had a moralist tone to some of their work. Jill Lepore (Harvard) offered comments before our general discussion. Lepore wondered about how the public reacted to each historian and how they encountered opposition. All of these figures spoke to a large audience and, at times, faced opponents. Gerda Lener, said Antler, encountered Nazi and anti-communist hostility in Europe and America. Wyatt-Brown mentioned that W. J. Cash, not long before his suicide, had a deep sense of persecution, largely imagined, which had spun off into delusion. Arsenault pointed out that there was less persecution in Franklin's case. Though Franklin long resented the exclusion and discrimination he faced in his early years. Bill Clinton eulogized Franklin at his funeral, said Arsenault, as: "a genius in being a passionate rationalist, an angry happy man, a happy angry man."

Like John Hope Franklin, Lerner, Woodward, and Cash all struggled with the burdens of the past and understood history in light of present divisive political and identity struggles. How does a public intellectual historian relate the past to the present?

Hence, there was a brief discussion after the presentations about how each of these dealt with a usable past. Most know, for instance, that Woodward, Franklin, and Lerner had an enormous influence on the field and well beyond it. C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow (as I mentioned on this blog not long ago) powerfully affected Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Gerda Lerner established the first Women's Studies program in the country and served as a role model for thousands of scholars in history and the humanities. And John Hope Franklin turned the public's attention to some of the most desperate moments in American history. Does advocacy history differ from the history written by the deeply committed historicist? The audience and participants considered the work of Howard Zinn and other historian-activists in light of that question.

Like the other panels at this small conference (really like the best kind of grad seminar in its freewheeling discussions) wonderfully illuminated the role of the public intellectual. Later panels on race, religion, the cosmopolitan generation, and a discussion with Robert Jay Lifton further plumbed the areas where scholars interact with a larger public. (Keep an eye out for Lifton's memoir, which he spoke about, due out in June. It will be well worth reading!)