Matthew Josephson : the evolution of a historian

Shi, David Emory, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Younger, Edward, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

In the seventy-seven years of his life, Matthew Josephson has led a rich and varied career, distinguishing himself as a literary critic, prolific essayist, award-winning biographer, and one of America'' s most influential popular historians, author of The Robber Barons and The Politicos. Cast in the mold of his friends and associates Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, Edmund Wilson, and Lewis Mumford, he represents one of this century's true litterateurs, a man steadfastly devoted to the art of letters yet at the same time committed to living a life engage; ready to leave his study at a moment's notice in support of a cause deemed worthy. As such, Josephson's life and career provide a microcosmic view of twentieth-century intellectual history. At one time or another during his career, he has been influenced by or associated with Imagism, neo-Symbolism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Marxism, and even Wall Street materialism. This dissertation, ·an intellectual biography, traces Josephson's evolution from a naive young aesthete among the expatriates in Paris during the 1920's to a committed 11 fellow traveler" and best-selling historian of Marxist persuasion in the decade of the Great Depression.

In an illuminating and at times brilliant work, American Historical Explanations, Gene Wise recently called for a new sub-field in historical studies, one concerned with explaining the mind of the historian as well as analyzing his works. “History books are reconstructions of the past,” he writes, “not the past recaptured. Thus, we can concern ourselves with how the book is made, not just with what it says." Pursuing this proposition, I have traced Josephson's development as a popular historian, focusing upon the writing of his three most notable works, The Robber Barons (1934), The Politicos (1938), and The President Makers (1940). Even H. Wayne Morgan, one of Josephson's most strident critics, has admitted that these three works have "remained the standard interpretations of the period for a generation." This study, while concerned with assessing the accuracy and validity of Josephson's historical interpretations as well as analyzing the historiographical debates resulting from them, is more directly aimed at identifying the ideas and events that affected his perspective as historian.

Josephson turned to the past out of a passionate concern for the present and future of American society. Like so many other sensitive intellectuals during the Great Depression, he viewed the contemporary situation with urgency; the need for reforming or even revolutionizing the country was immediate and fundamental. For this reason, among others, he never intended to write as a detached, "objective" historian. Nor did he feel obligated to present a carefully balanced, impartial account of his historical subjects. He wrote subjective history; or, one might say, he wrote propaganda. The term is employed here not in a pejorative sense but in the highest sense, for propaganda represents a valuable historical-literary art form. Some of the most influential works of history have been propagandistic in nature. That Josephson at times, driven by his moral fervor and socio-economic convictions, made villains of men who deserve fairer understanding is obvious. That he sometimes derived his history from his personal convictions is equally apparent. Moreover, one could fault him for not revealing his personal convictions more explicitly. Yet for all their defects, Josephson's histories still excite a continuing interest in the "robber barons," "politicos," and, to a lesser extent, the "president makers." The captivating character portraits and high drama contained in The Robber Barons and The Politicos still challenge comparison. "Great propaganda," one scholar has recently written, "must so convince the public that its ideas or attitudes become generally accepted; so commonplace, in fact, that they are taken for granted and propaganda itself disappears from memory." Josephson wrote history to shed light on the present and help stimulate social and political change. As he recently maintained:

The essence of the historian's art is to recreate the past as it truly was and the motivation of men of past times also; but surely this cannot be accomplished well by persons who are fish-blooded without moral fibre, without any sense of human values, without human compassion or the capacity for 'noble indignation.' The game is to make history come alive, and impress us as true.

 Judged by his own criteria, Josephson has been remarkably successful. A fascinating, controversial character, of diverse interests and tremendous energy, he remains active today, writing and defending his opinions with passionate eloquence. Moreover, his histories continue to enjoy widespread sales and public acceptance.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Josephson, Matthew -- 1899-1978
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