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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 102-128

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Errand into the Wilderness:

Perry Miller as American Scholar

It may be, if we carefully guard ourselves against self-deception, that the most valuable product we have to export is our self-distrust.
Perry Miller, "The American Humanities in an Industrial Civilization"

Few topics in American studies have proved so irresolvable as that of the public intellectual.1 The problem dates back at least as far as "The American Scholar," in which Emerson challenged the self-conception of his Harvard audience by suggesting that "[t]he scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant" (70) and then proposed a relationship, tenuously formulated, between intellectual work and social activism. The question of how intellectuals—most of whom now reside in the academy—may best effect social change persists with unabated urgency in our present moment; as David Farber notes, "democratic publics and purveyors of elite knowledge are not and, virtually by definition, should not be easily mated" (794). While Emerson may continue to challenge readers to imagine "precisely how intellectual work [might] constitute . . . political intervention" (43), Lawrence Buell writes, the verdict is still out on how precisely to harness the often baffling, if symbiotic, relationship between the social, cultural, and political realms.

It is fitting that Perry Miller struggled with the problem that continues to vex the discipline he helped bring into being.2 While Miller is largely remembered for his still influential scholarship on Puritan thought and theology, he in fact struggled for much of his professional life with Emerson's call for intellectual activism as well as with the contradictions engendered by that call. "There are at least two things you have to keep in mind about Perry," his former [End Page 102] student Edmund S. Morgan recalls: "The first was that he was brilliant, the smartest person I've ever known. The second was that he hated to be thought of as bookish. He wanted to be Ernest Hemingway, to go where the action was. To do things with his intelligence. And the tricky part is that he tried to combine both these sides of himself." J. C. Levenson, another former student, recalls the active life of the mind Miller strove to achieve: "At the height of his career, he bespoke an intellectual vitality that relished the prospect of working through great jungles of fact and idea and finding what would connect a possibly very minor incident to major histories that mattered deeply to us all" (Levenson). And to David Levin, Miller "seemed to express the hunger to achieve and reconcile" a wide range of contradictory roles: "The scholar and the creative artist, the scholar and the man of the world, the scholar and the hearty democrat, the historian and the original philosopher influencing his own time" (816).

However skeptical Miller was of transcendental optimism—however restless, contradictory, and voracious he was as a thinker—Emerson's performative and urgent mandate that the intellectual act in times of crisis would remain a potent challenge and model for him, shaping his understanding of literary history as, at the very least, a sometime social activity. His lifelong desire to fuse thought and action is most memorably described in what might be taken as the opening chapter of American studies's book of Genesis—the preface to Errand into the Wilderness (1956)—when in an "epiphany" on the Congo River Miller experienced the "pressing necessity for expounding my America to the twentieth century" (vii).3 Thus began a career of historicizing the American past in a manner that served both as cathartic self-explanation and as a call to national destiny. This project, predicated on ideals of American exceptionalism and a fictive historical integrity that have since come under substantial scrutiny and revision, initially led him to the spiritual origins of the American past. He chose the Puritans, he tells us in a characteristically evasive tautology, because "I wanted . . . a coherence with which I could coherently begin" (vii). But the inner logic of his project eventually led him to reconceive his work under...


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