A Historian of Power and Its Discontents


Eileen Barroso/University Archives/Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Columbia University Libraries

Alan Brinkley, who died on June 17 after a lengthy illness, was among the most influential American historians of his generation. What made him so?

Brinkley wrote two books on the politics of the 1930s and ’40s that profoundly changed the way scholars understand the New Deal era. Voices of Protest, which won the National Book Award, explained why Huey Long and Charles Coughlin attracted millions of followers during the Great Depression, revealing the power of a populist tradition most of Brinkley’s academic counterparts assumed had died out years before. I got in touch with him soon after reading that book; it inspired my own work on the “populist persuasion,” and Alan and I became friends. The End of Reform examined how New Dealers abandoned their anti-corporate agenda late in the 1930s and during World War II. In the age of Amazon and Walmart, the consequences of their decision affect us still.

In both works and in the essays collected in Liberalism and Its Discontents, Brinkley showed an unmatched talent for marrying the perspective of his generational peers, the New Left historians who championed “history from the bottom up,” with a critical understanding of the achievements and limits of power in the American state and mass culture. Growing up the son of David Brinkley, the celebrated TV news anchor, helped Alan borrow from both perspectives while avoiding their shortcomings. Gary Gerstle, a fine historian who went to grad school with Brinkley, wrote to me after his death:

Alan’s proximity to power growing up made him a critic of power; it did not seduce him. He saw it, dissected it, understood it. And it gave him, too, a sympathy for the outsider, which explains his openness to we social historians, and his willingness to promote us at a critical time when we were young and on the margins—even as he always positioned himself at some distance from the New Left.

As Gerstle suggests, Brinkley’s greatness as a historian transcended the subjects he viewed afresh and the cogent arguments he made about them. He had a rare sensibility that informed everything he wrote. It embodied the best of the liberal intellectual tradition—committed to egalitarian change, yet skeptical of unbridled passion in pursuing it and suffused with an integrity and generosity of spirit that, in his hands, turned the writing of history into a moral endeavor.

Brinkley’s sensibility, expressed with quiet eloquence, appealed to general readers who cared about history as much as it did to academics who make their living writing about the past. Alan wrote frequently for progressive magazines like this one and was, for a time, a regular commentator on NPR. He was the model of a politically engaged historian who never yoked his work to a narrow political agenda and managed to instruct a large public without demanding that anyone take his side.

A crystalline example of his approach was published back in 1990, in the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times. The occasion for the brief piece was a theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, starring Gary Sinise as Tom Joad. In less than 1,500 words, Brinkley managed to communicate a subtle but powerful set of insights about: Steinbeck’s work, the Dust Bowl migration, how Americans experienced the Great Depression, and how all these subjects should still matter to people midway through the administration of George Bush the First.

Brinkley began by quoting the adapter’s rather banal motivation about why he was drawn to the novel: “We are on the threshold of a new world, at the end of a catastrophic century” [the Cold War was ending]. “This story comes back to us … from a dark time to invite us to reflect on what we really value.”

Alan segued from that comment to an explanation of why “what we really value” about how Americans endured the Great Depression is beset by contradictions and paradoxes, which Steinbeck’s novel memorably, if sentimentally, captures. On the one hand, Brinkley argued, Steinbeck articulated the widespread anger of Americans against a cabal of cruel and venal authorities. He had expressed that anger in two previous, inferior novels about agricultural workers and the forces arrayed against them in California during the 1930s.

Yet that anger did not, for the most part, find expression in mass uprisings or in the making of a mass left dedicated to a radical version of social justice. Tom Joad announces to his mother in that famous speech, “wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

Unromantically, Alan nails this for what it is: a “muddled and at times naive” political message, articulated by a man who is about to run away from his family and, on his own, risk “descend[ing] into helplessness and paralysis.” But in showing that women like Ma Joad and her daughter Rose of Sharon “have the strength to endure,” Steinbeck found a redemptive message that both rejected individualism and spurned what Brinkley called “the Marxist dream of a great collective future driven by history and ideology.”

Steinbeck recognized, as did most of those who read his book or saw the film version directed by John Ford, that “neither despair nor rage adequately expressed the real meaning of the Depression.” The novelist thus evoked the existence of what might be called a populist community—one based on, in Alan’s words, “a faith in the simple decency of common men and women.” Brinkley made clear that such a faith could serve the right as much as the left. He mentioned Ronald Reagan’s “examples of spontaneous neighborliness” and George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” Indeed, Gary Sinise himself soon became one of the most stalwart Republicans in Hollywood.

In a short piece, Alan had done something many historians struggle to do in an entire book. He did not just analyze a major American writer’s attempt to craft a credible portrait of a suffering people who he wished had revolted in greater and more purposeful ways. Steinbeck’s struggle, Alan reflected, also mirrored that of the mass of his fellow citizens at the time.

Brinkley concluded the piece by capturing an essential reason why The Grapes of Wrath and its characters remained symbols of the 1930s both for Americans who lived through that era and for many who did not. “Steinbeck’s novel,” he wrote, “is more than an intriguing period piece. Despite its many flaws it speaks to modern audiences, as it did to audiences in the 1930’s, by evoking one of America’s most powerful and cherished images of itself. It suggests that running like a river beneath the surface of the nation’s cold, hard, individualistic culture lies the spirit of Ma Joad, a spirit of ‘fambly’ and community that, once tapped, might redeem us all.”

While few historians may have the ability to write so elegantly for those outside their profession, Brinkley forcefully argued, in another essay written a quarter-century ago, that engaging their fellow citizens cannot be an optional task:

The attempt to understand the past … is not an arcane academic activity. It is part of a society’s struggles over policy and belief and present action. It is part of the effort to enable individuals to resist power, to make independent judgments, to evaluate for themselves the claims and counterclaims about the past that form the core of much public discourse. … If historians choose not to play a role in that struggle, we can be sure that others, not of our choosing, will take our place.

Scholars alarmed by the prospect of a second term for a man who understands nothing about the history of the nation he prattles about “making great again” had better take the advice of this extraordinary historian to heart.

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