Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mark Halpern

Mark Halpern initiated The Jacques Barzun Centennial project. I hope he will write a piece about his favorite living author.

What so many new doctors of philosophy do . . . is to go on writing doctoral dissertations for the rest of their careers: irreproachably documented articles and books on points that no one has written on before. . . . What was so hard to do when one was a graduate student is now the easy thing, at least as compared with the alternative, and by far the safer thing. The continued production of papers and books modeled on the journeyman’s project that won the doctorate for the professor when he was a graduate student is doubly attractive: it is something he knows how to do, and it is something that, done with ordinary competence, cannot hurt his professional reputation. On the other hand, the writing of a large-scale book that cannot be justified on the grounds that it contains hitherto unpublished facts, but offers instead a coherent, plausible account of known events, is risky all around, perhaps most so when it is by publishers’ standards successful; such success brings with it whispered accusations of abandoning real scholarship and selling out to the bitch goddess Success.

But to fail to move on from journeyman’s projects to works with much higher aims is to stultify himself, condemn himself to perpetual professional adolescence. The newly credentialed doctor must, if he is not to remain a graduate student until the day he retires, move on to papers and books that do not depend for their justification on the claim that they contain information up till now unavailable (if only because no one cared whether it was available or not), and that are written not to impress one’s advisors, mentors, or examiners, but rather the cultivated world outside the academy.

The hardest thing to do in any humanistic study, and the most risky, is to produce a plausible and lucid account of some complex human event or process. This requires not only that the author have read and thoroughly absorbed all the source material relating to his topic, and at least the cream of the secondary material, but also — and most important — that he have a vision of his subject that enables him to give a coherent account of it to intelligent, educated nonspecialists. This is a task many degrees more difficult, and potentially more rewarding, than the adding of some more inert facts to the enormous piles of them already crowding the shelves of research libraries. It would mark a great advance in our conception of humanistic studies if we honored those who have tried, even if not entirely successfully, to provide us with the understanding that only such interpretive studies can offer, and regarded the busy beavers who keep piling up undigested facts as the superannuated graduate students and journeymen they are.

— Mark Halpern, Three Reflections on American Humanistic Scholarship (requires subscription to The Vocabula Review).

See also Mark Halpern.