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April 2003 Historically Speaking37 Interview with David Brooks Conducted byJoseph S. Lucas David Brooks, author ofBobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon andSchuster, 2000) andeditor of the anthology Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing {Vintage Books, 1 996), is working on a book called How to Be American (forthcomingfrom Simon and Schuster ). His essays on American culture andpolitics have appeared in a wide variety ofpublications, including the Weekly Standard, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Forbes, the Washington Post, the TLS, Commentary, and the Public Interest. Joseph Lucas: When you were in college, at the University ofChicago, you planned to become an academic historian. What got you interested in history? Did you have an idea back then of what you would write about once you became a history professor ? took a number of courses from him on the effects of technology and other things on culture. Even at an early age I fixated on the books of the late 1950s and early 1960s— Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, William Taylor's Cavalier and Yankee, Cesar Graña's Bohemian versus Bourgeois, and the books that came from that American historical tradition of Richard Hofstadter and Henry Steele Commager. Those were the books I liked the most. Lucas: Do you still like those books? Brooks: Absolutely. I go back to those books all the time. I'm writing a book now that's sort ofan updated version ofDavid Potter's People ofPlenty. In the 1950s historical writing was more for the general public—sometimes a little too broad, maybe, but usually more interesting than the stuff that came before and after. David Brooks: I grew up in an academic household. My father was an English professor who worked at New York University and then Westchester University teaching mostly 19thcentury English literature. And my mother wrote her history dissertation at Columbia University —on Wimbledon Common —and then went on to teach Western Civ. as a traveling , starving professor. So history was basically something I grew up with. It was normal for me to want to become a history professor. It was the family business. I became interested in American history , particularly late 19th- and early 20thcentury technological history, and social and cultural history. One ofmy professors at the University ofChicago was Neil Harris . He was my senior paper advisor, and I . . . our look at the world does not take into account our victory in the Cold War. . . . we9re either too close to it or don't really understand what it means. We're shaped more by WorldWar II and Vietnam than our victory in the ColdWar. admire the serious scholarship ofthat era— on Neibuhr's part or Commager's (his book The American Mind). But there was also a willingness to generalize and the understanding that you were writing for the educated lay reader. Lucas: What do you think has changed since then? Brooks: I would say professionalization and scientism are the two main culprits. I didn 't become an academic in part because I didn 't want to write for journals whose readers numbered only in the single digits. When I was a senior in college I went to a conference which was put on by the Chicago literary magazine Triquarterly. Lots ofacademic all-stars were there, mainly from literary studies, but not exclusively: Wayne Booth, Edward Said, Ronald Dworkin. There were about fifteen or twenty superstars, very impressive people. I sat there for twenty-two hours, and I barely understood a word they said. I wrote in the school paper that maybe this language is useful, and I could go to graduate school and learn it. But suppose it turns out to be a racket? Then I'ILhave wasted ten years, and then I'll have to unlearn what I've learned. So I ended up not going to graduate school, and went into journalism instead. Lucas: At that time, historians were in the habit oftaking on big themes. They didn't hesitate to conceive ofand then tackle subjects like "the history of the American mind." Brooks: My favorite example is Reinhold Neibuhr's The...


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