Denver Bar Association
August 2002
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Why America is What it is

by Greg Rawlings

"The Metaphysical Club" delights, disguts

Louis Menand, author of "The Metaphysical Club," is a rare bird in Modern America—a public intellectual known more for his words on the page than his face on the tube.

In addition to being one of the crack cultural commentators at The New Yorker, he also teaches at the City University of New York. His recent opus, "The Metaphysical Club" just won the Pulitzer Prize, and to put it mildly, deserved it and more.

In the past, Menand’s essays in The New Yorker teetered between the entertaining and the annoying, while always being learned and witty. He has a touch of the know-it-all, thankfully mitigated by his sheer delight in the defining anecdote. The entertaining side of Menand is on wide-open display in "The Metaphysical Club," with the more annoying aspects shunted aside. As for learning and wit—the book is a monument to the admixture of drollery and erudition.

The actual Metaphysical Club was a short-lived collection of Cambridge intellectuals. Beginning and ending in 1872, during the tumultuous decade following the end of the Civil War, the club was made up of men like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James and Charles S. Peirce. All went on to make their mark in the national consciousness, with James and Holmes being well known in their time and Peirce achieving later renown as a ground breaking semiotician far after his death.

America in the years after the Civil War was a battleground of ideas, a battleground that has never been treated with the sort of depth that has characterized analysis of the period before the war.

Menand captures the spirit of an era, with an incisive focus on the cultural repercussions of the war on a battered country. In a series of interconnecting biographical sketches, he traces the growth of the philosophy that came to be known as "pragmatism," and in so doing traces the true evolution of Modern America.

It seems that Holmes and his generation, like Hemingway’s after them, came to regard certainties and abstractions as the calling cards of catastrophe. Be it traditional religion, pseudo-science, classical philosophy, formalist legal theory; anything that relied on or proclaimed itself an absolute answer must be disproved. Hence, the eventual disgrace of Louis Agassiz, Darwin’s main enemy in America; hence, Holmes’s proto-realist formulation of the concept of judge-made law, hence, James’s assaults on the gates of "logic."

It is hard to read this grand epic and not be swept into the fray: hard not to lament the treatment that groundbreaking genius Charles S. Peirce suffered at the hands of the moral guardians of American academia; hard not to nearly weep at Holmes’s tragic experience in the Civil War and how it scarred him emotionally and psychologically for life; hard not to be astounded by the dedication and relentless toil that went into the life’s work of people like Jane Addams and John Dewey; equally hard not to be disgusted by the abuse fomented by American Southerners at Oxford toward the first African-American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke. This is a book of flawed heroes, the only kind worthy of the name.

Another bonus is the tale of the rise of the American professional school, of Johns Hopkins and Stanford, of Harvard and Chicago. The power these institutions possessed is almost immeasurable. Menand also deals colorfully with the strife that accompanied their rise, with professors fleeing one school for another over slights real and imagined, with the usual battle of the generations played out in department politics and sectional animosity.

It is nothing short of amazing how petty a man can get with a little power attached to his name. That and a Ph.D. Or a law degree.

My only major qualm with the book is its treatment of Holmes. He makes me physically ill. That a man who hated virtually all other men could rise so high in the American legal pantheon beggars all logic. That Menand does not deal with the Holmes of Buck v. Bell, the Holmes that is nothing short of a monster, is a huge shortcoming-and yet, as soon as I finished reading this book, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy for my youngest brother, who is a first year at Cornell Law, so he would have something truly great to read this summer.

Great books like great heroes have great flaws. I plan on keeping this book in my library for as long as my eyes still function. I know that some of you have been upset that I have led you to works more avant-garde than you can stomach; this isn’t that. This is the book that you have been waiting for, the one that tells you why America became what it is.


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