AUGUST 4, 2010
I am the author of the biography, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970, that was nominally reviewed by John H. Summers in “What Politics Does to History” (TNR online July 19, 2010). The essay was couched as a review, but reads instead like a broadside against my subject, with little reference to the specific arguments raised in the biography. Summers accuses Lynd of refusing to “acknowledge the many-sidedness of history” in part because my subject “knows most of the answers in advance.” Summers’s “review” suffers precisely from his conscious distortion of the record to arrive at this own predetermined conclusions. In other words, Summers “knows most of the answers in advance,” which prohibits him from examining the nuances of Lynd’s scholarship and how it was dealt with in my biography.
The essay opens with a quote from Lynd that he “was to be an American Lenin.” Nowhere does Summers address my book which clarifies that Lynd repeatedly and explicitly rejected such an old left orientation. While Summers asserts that radical historians have “turned history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains,” he does exactly that by setting Lynd up as the villain: an American Lenin.
Summers’s contradictions grow progressively inflammatory and distant from history as “a means of understanding.” He revives the old complaint that Lynd’s scholarship is “anti-intellectual.” To “prove” the point, Summers cites Christopher Lasch and Eugene Genovese, two of Lynd’s most bitter and fierce critics. Failing to present the “many-sidedness” of this historical debate, Summers entirely omits the voices of scholars who offer opinions that differ from his own, such as Gary Nash, Edward Countryman, and C. Vann Woodward.
Equally disconcerting is that Summers relies solely on Genovese and Lasch to critique Lynd, having failed to mention how those two scholars influenced his own studies. Lasch was “the most appealing model to me” (Summers, Every Fury on Earth, p. 6). Any historian concerned with understanding would balance the incendiary remarks from Lasch and Genovese with leading scholars who endorsed Lynd’s contribution to the scholarly project. There is ample supply of scholars from both sides of the spectrum who weigh in on Lynd’s work in my biography. C. Vann Woodward, for instance, understood some of Lynd’s work discussed in Summers’s piece as “closely reasoned” and “well researched.” Here was Summers’s chance to clarify a significant debate, but he chose instead to ignore the “many-sidedness” of the issue.
Summers also could have examined the nuanced arguments in Lynd’s Anti-Federalism in Dutchess County, New York which offers conclusions quite different from other radical historians.
Instead of examining the rich debate surrounding Lynd’s work as well as its nuance, the reader is offered sensationalist quotations, again from Lasch, who saw in Lynd “the special blend of simple-minded sentimentality and real ruthlessness…that is emerging as the chief characteristic of the ‘new’ Left.” The problem here is that elements of the Left did take a ruthless turn in the late 1960s, and Lynd rejected those moves. In fact, in 1967, he refused to testify at the Russell war crimes tribunal precisely because it lacked the “many-sidedness” that Summers imagines Lynd refuses to acknowledge. Lynd also rejected the tribunal, unlike many of his fellow radicals, because he detected ruthless elements among certain members.
Lynd’s radical approach to history and activism consistently flows from “closely reasoned” decisions. Before I researched Lynd’s life and came to know him as a mentor and friend, I relied on secondary accounts and viewed him as a strident New Leftist. The historical record clearly indicates otherwise. I am disappointed that Summers mimicked the mean-spirited approach of his intellectual guides some forty years ago, despite one of them feeling “damn sorry” (Genovese, quoted in The Admirable Radical, p. 129) about what occurred in those turbulent times.