|PULITZER WINNER IN HISTORY|
April 15, 2002
| JIM LEHRER: Finally
tonight, another of our conversations with winners of this year's Pulitzer
Prizes in the arts, and to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: This year's Pulitzer winner in history went to Louis Menand for his book, "The Metaphysical Club." It's an account of the intellectuals who helped create modern America. Menand is Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine. Well, welcome and congratulations.
LOUIS MENAND: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me on the show.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've taken a big bite out of a huge topic: The evolution of American thought over a 60-70-year period. What pulled you in? What got you into this project in the first place?
LOUIS MENAND: I must have been crazy. It was a huge topic, and I had no idea when I started out how huge it would be. I really got interested in this club called the Metaphysical Club, which is a rather elusive event in American intellectual history. It's supposed to have met about ten months in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And the reason that it's famous is because it's supposed to have been in the discussions of the group of young men that the philosophy of pragmatism first emerged.
So when I started out, I thought I would write the story of the club, and what I found out is there's very little information about what actually went on in the club, but that the club represented a kind of hinge in American culture, a hinge between the intellectual era before the Civil War and the intellectual era of the post- Civil War period, which is really our period, the period of modern America.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about the Metaphysical Club and its sort of brief, spit-on-a-griddle moment, but the orbit that you describe these men being in, sort of being involved in each other's intellectual lives and pursuits over the course of decades, was fascinating. They knew each other, spoke to each other, wrote letters to each other, reviewed each other's work, argued with each other.
LOUIS MENAND: Yeah, well, that was one of the reasons it became such a fun subject. I found that you could... over the period of 30 years, 40 years after the club met in 1872, you still found people who had relations with one another that went back to those years. They still, as you say, read one another's work, they bounced ideas off each other, and they had many students and disciples. And together, I think, they created, as I say, the intellectual culture of modern America.
RAY SUAREZ: And it wasn't parochial, it seems. I mean, scientists read what social writers and thinkers had to say, and people who were writing basically about social and political things were reading Physics and reading Biology. It was a very yeasty, constantly boiling pot, wasn't it?
LOUIS MENAND: Yes, it felt like a yeasty thing when I was writing it because I found that I had to learn about a lot of different subjects, way more than I imagined when I started out. Of the four thinkers I concentrate on in the book, one, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a Supreme Court Justice and a legal thinker. Almost all of his thought was exclusively about the law. Another, William James, was a psychologist. He was the first modern American psychologist. The third, Charles Sanders Peirce, was a practicing scientist, as well as the inventor or the founder of the field of the study of semiotics, the founder of the field of the study of signs. And the fourth, John Dewey, was a political philosopher as well as a philosopher of art, religion, logic, and many other fields.
So, yeah, it was very interdisciplinary. People crossed many fields, and you could describe the intellectual movement as a movement that took place in many fields at once and seemed to come to a climax, really, around 1900.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of things were happening all at once: The Industrial Revolution, a tremendous burst in immigration to the United States, the country's borders run all the way out to the Pacific. And the men that you profile-- because they are almost exclusively men-- are very much engaged in all of these topics, talking about what an American is, what kind of country it's going to be. Did you constantly get shades of today's debates in the work you were doing then?
LOUIS MENAND: Well, in many ways I did. In other ways, this was a period a long time ago, and there are many things that are strange and unfamiliar about it, which were also interesting. The book begins with the Civil War. And one of the things that surprised me when I started out was the extent to which the Civil War really was the catalyst for this moment of intellectual change, because it really changed the way people thought about ideas, the way people thought about beliefs and principles, the way people thought about the organization of American life, the way people thought about almost everything.
But also the Civil War, just as a sheer political moment, changed the direction of the country, because once the war was over, the country unleashed this tremendous territorial expansion which, of course, had been held up for decades by the quarrel over the spread of slavery. And with that expansion was an enormous burst of extension of industrial capitalism, and with it the whole modern way of life. So all these thinkers were struggling to come to terms with a social environment which was characterized by uncertainty, by constant change, by advanced ideas in science, by the spread of Darwinian thought or evolutionary thought.
All these things really changed the standard ways that people had believed and thought about that. So that's what I ended up trying to describe. It was... as you say, it became a huge project because I was attempting to weave together the personal stories of these four thinkers I concentrated on with a national story.
RAY SUAREZ: And they hold the stage for a long time, don't they? I mean, John Dewey, because of his very long life-- he dies at 93; he's working almost until the end-- either they or their students continued to influence this country well into the 20th century.
LOUIS MENAND: They really dominated American intellectual life for the first half of the 20th century. John Dewey died in 1952. He was born in 1859. So he was born the year that Darwin published The Origin of Species, and he died in the year of the hydrogen bomb. His was a tremendously long life, and he was productive for almost all of it. He had many disciples. So did William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
One of the interesting things that happened, though, is that after 1950, the influence of these thinkers really waned for a long period, the period of the United States was in the Cold War. And I started working on the book about 1990 and at the end of the Cold War, and just about that time, the whole resurgence of interest in these thinkers and the philosophy that most of them are associated with, the philosophy of pragmatism, began to come about. So my book was greatly aided by a lot of work that was being done and a lot of letters and biographies that were being published about these thinkers, because once again, they had come into recognition as important figures in American life.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you're a university professor. When you look at the constellation of colleges and universities in today's America, so radically different from the period you're writing about, could there be a group like the one that you profile in that sort of intimate, intellectual cross-pollenization you saw in the late 19th century?
LOUIS MENAND: I have a short answer: I don't think so. The reason is that 1872 was really the last time I think in American intellectual life when you could have a group of people who came from various disciplines but shared a common interest in certain kinds of ideas, who could get together and talk to one another and communicate with one another. The reason is because after 1872 you really get the rise of the modern university system, which is based so much on specialization, which people have a very hard time talking to people in other specialties and other fields.
So the Metaphysical Club also stands for a very old-fashioned thing, which is a time when intellectuals from all different areas of thought could get together and have the kind of conversations that these characters did.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, we're deep into spring semester. We're back from spring break. Has your life at the university changed by now being able to append your name with "Pulitzer Prize Winner" in front of it?
LOUIS MENAND: Everybody has been really great about it, so yeah, it's been wonderful.
RAY SUAREZ: And now your papers are coming in on time and your students are treating you any differently?
LOUIS MENAND: I don't know if that will change or not. We'll have to do an update on that.
RAY SUAREZ: Any other projects in the pipeline? What do you want to get to work on next?
LOUIS MENAND: Well, I am interested in the Cold War period, because I think it makes an interesting counterpoint to the period I wrote about. As I mention, the Cold War period was very different intellectually from the period in which these thinkers flourished. So I would like to do something about the intellectual life of that time.
RAY SUAREZ: Louis Menand, thanks for being with us.
LOUIS MENAND: Thank you for having me on.