Daniel Aaron's The Americanist.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 28 2007 11:02 AM

Ivory-Tower Ambassador

The studying, and selling, of America.

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There's something a little uneasy in that flat formulation, and Aaron admits to the "ambiguities of my position as a cultural explicator of my country: to sing of its rocks and rills and templed hills (which I gladly did) and to air its dirty linen." Often assumed by his hosts in Warsaw or Montevideo to be a CIA agent, Aaron realized only later that some of his encounters with local intellectuals put their lives in danger. "It never crossed my mind," he remarks, "that my telephone conversations with a Polish acquaintance … might have been monitored or that one of the charges brought against him four years later would be his frequent 'contacts' with me." There's more than a little of the "innocent American" in Aaron's self-portrait as cultural ambassador; he knew that however carefully calibrated in his own mind the templed hills and the dirty linen—America's "unresolved problems of race and class," above all—he was being paid to sell America rather than to explain it.

A kindred balancing act pervades Aaron's scholarly work, which centers on America's internal divisions. Invited by the Ford Foundation in the wake of the McCarthy years to contribute to a series on American Communism, Aaron wrote Writers on the Left (1961), his dispassionate excavation of poets, playwrights, novelists, and pamphleteers engaged by Communism and its assorted exotic tributaries. Aaron was more intent on identifying literary quality than in sorting out ideological positions, noting for example that Dos Passos was a more convincing writer before he taught himself "to subordinate people to conditions." At the same time, Writers on the Left is the work of a chameleon scholar who managed to inspire trust among his informants even as his own status, as a self-styled "irregular in the ranks of the non-Communist Left," remained ill-defined.

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Aaron's other major work, The Unwritten War (1973), published after his return to Harvard in 1971, takes its cue from Whitman's claim in Specimen Days that "the real war will never get in the books." It is a closely argued analysis of how both shirking "malingerers" like Henry Adams and Henry James and veterans like Ambrose Bierce suppressed racial fear as the key factor in the Civil War. American writers portrayed black people as objects "of contempt or dread," or as "an uncomfortable reminder of abandoned obligations," but always as peripheral to the main narrative of the war. "The Civil War was not so much effaced as unfaced," Aaron observes in The Americanist; the larger implication was that only in the 1960s, in American politics and scholarship, was America beginning to "face" its racist past.

While probing a conflicted America, Aaron himself seems comfortably assimilated in academia and the wider world, having survived what he calls "my dehyphenation," the erosion of whatever Jewish-American identity he might have inherited. He portrays himself as something of a fellow traveler in all things—working in the fields among Polish-American asparagus farmers in western Massachusetts during World War II, pitching for a local softball team called the Purseglove Pups, or interviewing ex-Communists in exile in Mexico or London. One feels both the intensity of these encounters and the distance, as the man who takes few real risks confronts those who do. Distant, too, is Aaron's personal life—a wife is mentioned in passing, and three sons, but little else to fill out the texture of his private world.

Aaron ends his memoir claiming to be a citizen of two Americas. "One is the country of Uncle Sam, an America, in the words of Herman Melville, 'intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in the externals but savage at heart.' " The other America is "its blessed double, home of heroes and clowns and of the cheerful and welcoming democratic collective." Aaron, a little regretfully, it seems, says that it is this second America "to which I feel culturally and temperamentally attuned."

Maybe so, but there's nothing clownlike or unduly cheerful in Aaron's clear-eyed account of American unease and inner division. He has always resisted the seductions of ideology while remaining interested in the passionate principles that have stirred up conflicts. Precisely because Aaron is a calm character, he has been able to anatomize those conflicts with rare clarity. In The Americanist and in his other books, he helps us to imagine a third America, one that somehow manages to combine the intrepid ambition of Melville's national vision with the democratic heroism Aaron has so admired.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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