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Suddenly Staughton

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 354-359 | 10.1353/rah.2011.0068

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Staughton Lynd is hot. Over the past year or so a number of Lynd projects, compilations, and re-editions have appeared. These include the marital memoir Stepping Stones (2009), written with his wife Alice; From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (2010); and a fresh printing of his 1967 Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution with a new forward by Robin Einhorn. And now comes Carl Mirra's engaging political biography. Lazarus-like, the radical Lynd, banished from the academy some forty years ago, is suddenly a bona fide icon. More than a historian, he has become a mythic knight-errant in the folklore of the American historical profession.

We seem to like our generational totems in threes. A canonical review of twentieth-century historical writing in the United States includes the following typology: progressive scholars Frederick Jackson Turner, Carl Becker, and Charles Beard problematized the past by reading conflict into the American narrative; then along came postwar liberals Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward who collectively emphasized complexity and consensus; but their reign foundered before a revived radicalism, peaking in the 1960s, that was associated with Howard Zinn, Jesse Lemisch, and Lynd. This last cluster has, in recent years, drawn increasing attention. The controversial culture-war debates of the 1980s and the subsequent Near Eastern invasions and occupations have produced, in some quarters of the academy, a renewed interest in the possibilities of oppositional scholarship. In this regard, Lynd and his cohorts embody the promise of providing a "usable past"—the blending of critical research and dissenting politics—to address contemporary questions.

You can count Mirra among the converted. "In the interest of complete disclosure," he writes, "I must state I share many of Lynd's political views and decided to write this biography in part to accent America's radical tradition" (p. 3). To be sure, his book is peopled with heroes and villains. At its core rests a generationally informed clash between Left and liberal scholars to define the nation's past and thus shape its future. Mirra interprets Lynd's famous Sixties' struggle with the Yale history department as an important beachhead in this conflict. Briefly, the Yalies denied tenure to Lynd—author of three scholarly books and, by all accounts, a sterling classroom instructor. Then a slew of Chicago schools labored, without luck, to push a Lynd appointment through their administrations. Each individual rejection—amidst a then robust job market—builds the case that a defensive profession refused to make space for the kind of historical revisionism and personal commitment to social justice advanced by Lynd. He fell victim, in other words, to a firm, if informal, blacklist.

Without this drama, the story of Lynd's academic turn lacks luster. Indeed his judicious study of anti-Federalism in upstate New York or various essays tracing the relationship between race and the Constitution hardly beg biographical treatment. Rather, it is the scholar-in-the-streets example of Lynd's life—his early support for the civil rights movement, uncompromising antimilitarism, and principled dissent from the main pillars of postwar liberalism—that animates Mirra's narrative. More than a compiler of status quo–challenging texts, Lynd's research and politics earned, by turns, both admiration and condemnation in an academy that never quite knew what to do with him.

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Lynd was the son of Robert and Helen Lynd, authors of the famous Middletown study of 1920s Muncie, Indiana. Pronounced progressives, their book cut against the popular view of an era defined by prosperity. Charting "Middletown's" rocky road from a mainly agrarian to a predominantly industrial city, they emphasized its class- and race-based segregation, lack of labor unions, and conformist culture. This is all suggestive in regard to Lynd filius' strain of go-against-the-grain scholarship; and Mirra offers brief but thoughtful paragraphs on the cross-generational distance separating Old and New Left—the mater et pater political thread.

Like many young radicals, Lynd gravitated, with varying interest during his collegiate years, to a number of communist-front organizations. Not a "real" Red, he seems to have responded, rather, to a Quaker sense of...