Permit me one more post on the late, great Barry Karl. I concluded my last post by referring briefly to an important book review that he published 35 years ago, and I want to say more about it.
Barry was reviewing a large and important biography (by Ray Allen Billington) of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, best known for the “frontier thesis” he had first announced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Turner’s argument was that it was the frontier experience of our “westward movement” that had shaped the contours of our democracy. This widely-noted thesis made Turner famous at an early age—he was thereafter widely sought after as a public speaker and considered a sort of guru of American civilization. But, as Billington painfully describes in his biography, Turner never wrote the book summarizing his views of American history that he relentlessly and recurrently talked about. Turner acheived both fame and professional glory, but he never published the book.
Barry’s review was published in the March, 1975 issue of Reviews in American History as “Frederick Jackson Turner: The Moral Dilemma of Professionalization.” In it, he praises the care and thoughtfulness of Billington’s biography, but interrogates the questions Billington puts—his task, he says, is “the questioning of the questions.” He concedes that Billington’s approach was to present Turner with “warts and all,” that is with all of the exaggerations Turner introduced about his own thesis. But Barry sees Turner as possessed of “an ambition too insatiable to be gratified only by the truth. There are warts and warts.” It is not Turner’s thesis, however, that absorbs Barry, but Turner’s failure as a professional. Why was the famous historian never able to write his magnum opus?
According to Billington, Turner was a man “who devoted himself so completely to his students and his meticulous researches that there was little energy left for the ultimate task of his profession: the writing of history.” Which leads Barry to the comment I quoted in my last post: “What is modern historical professionalism but the capacity to surmount the frustrations produced by the competing responsibilities of teaching and writing.” Barry sees Turner himself as the source of all the misunderstanding concerning his own career: “And once one disposes of THE BOOK . . . what is left? A reputation constructed out of mirrors, all of which reflect from rich and varied points of view a brilliant idea articulated in 1893. And who placed the mirrors so effectively? Turner himself.”
But Barry’s larger point is not so much that Turner failed as an historian, as that he failed in the profession of history. “In a very important respect, the Turner ‘myth’ is not simply the frontier thesis, but Turner himself.” “Turner may be far more prototypical of the failures of American historical professionalism than of its glories,” Barry says, and suggests that the greatest failure of the history profession is that none of us is willing to list “the numbers of careers there are in the profession today built almost entirely on promise, some of it getting rather old and dried at the edges. No one does it because no one is willing to cast the first stone. . . . Professionalism is a dangerous game, even if it must ultimately be acknowledged as a necessary one.”
The burden of the review is that the dilemma of false professionalism did not die with Turner. Barry criticizes Billington, whose book was published in 1973), for his “glorification of the professionalism of the 1950s,with its adoration of research, its obliviousness to undergraduate educational needs, its management of the tensions between local institutions of higher education publicly funded and the national profession with its promotion of scholarship for fame and fortune.”
I am pretty sure Barry would have made the same judgment of present-day academe, for he concluded the review by saying that “academic professionalism, like all professionalism, is a universe which includes both good and evil as the base of its morality. It also includes behavior which results from the inability of individuals to resolve the dilemmas created by an ambition they cannot moderate and a standard of intellectual judgment they cannot betray.” In the end, Barry’s judgment is that Turner’s failure, “if only we can not only acknowledge it but respect it unblushingly and without apology, may be a more significant contribution to our understanding than anything he could have given us about the frontier.”
In this stunning essay, Barry is tough on Billington and tougher on Turner. But he is even tougher on the contemporary history profession. And if you knew him well, you would know that he was toughest of all on himself. Barry embodied my idea of true professionalism.