Perish the thought

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
A COMPANION TO AMERICAN THOUGHT. Edited by Richard Wightman Fox and James T Kloppenberg, Blackwell, Pounds 60.

Americans try not to think too hard about thinking. Instead of getting themselves all tangled up in abstractions, they prefer solid, dependable objects to work with, such as hammers, screwdrivers, boards and nails.

This is because Americans - in general - like getting things done as quickly and effectively as possible. Too much pondering only slows you down. Even America's so-called Transcendentalists were pretty down-to-earth. In Walden, for example, Thoreau spends as much time measuring and cataloguing the components of his hand-built parking-space sized house as he does questioning the dubious logic of capitalism..

According to the thousands of biographical and thematic entries in Fox and Kloppenberg's Companion to American Thought, American thinking seems to be divided into two polarised camps. In the leftward-leaning one (Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman), America represents the land of endless opportunity. You're supposed to rush into it headlong, positing Utopias, exploring the unexplored, and either fleeing or overturning all outdated systems of government. In the rightward-leaning camp (Irving Babbitt, William F Buckley, and James Fenimore Cooper), intellectuals are expected to establish and reaffirm the permanent value of "traditional" knowledge. In other words, Americans can either sit by the fire, sipping sherry and reading one of the world's "great books," or run screaming naked through the woods, playing bongos and reciting Beat poetry. It is, after all, a nation of contrasts.

Fox and Kloppenberg's Companion contains numerous concise, readable essays on everyone from Anne Hutchinson to Henry Adams and Hannah Arendt. There are times, though, when the book's organisation starts to grow a little diffuse, and one can't help wondering about the relative space and attention afforded various entries.

Why, for example, is more than a full page given to a fine novelist (though not necessarily an influential "thinker") like Maxine Hong Kingston, while a highly influential (however unpleasant) pedagogue like Buckminster Fuller is neglected altogether, or people like Mary McCarthy and B F Skinner receive little more than a dozen lines apiece? What qualifies a poet, or a chemist, or a novelist to be considered a "thinker", and what eliminates other prominent members of these professions from such a category? Fox and Kloppenberg never really make any sort of argument one way or another. Like America itself, there are times when this new Companion seems abundant with vital information, but lacks any coherent sense of purpose or design.

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