The Wide, Humorous Reach Of a 'Public Intellectual'
Maverick's Progress: An Autobiography
By James Thomas Flexner
Fordham University Press
510 pp., $29.95
Few scholars write with vigor and clarity for a general audience. The writer Russell Jacoby calls those who do "public intellectuals" because they increase public knowledge of topics that otherwise might be limited to a small band of scholars.
If anyone qualifies as a public intellectual, it is historian and biographer James Thomas Flexner. Approaching his ninth decade, he has written his autobiography. Entitled "Maverick's Progress," the book is written with candor and humor and is both informative and entertaining.
Flexner's reputation rests largely on his magisterial four-volume biography, "George Washington" and a one-volume abridgment, "George Washington: The Indispensable Man."
Published over a seven-year period, the series won a special Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and later was made into a popular television miniseries.
Washington, of course, was even more of a national icon in the days before Vietnam and Watergate when Flexner began the project. But Flexner's series was successful because it offered a more human portrait of Washington than previous biographies.
In Flexner's words, he moved beyond "the marble image." By demystifying Washington and revealing both his strengths and weaknesses, Flexner made him even more appealing.
Flexner's career is far richer and more varied than this single, albeit enormous, achievement. He has written widely on American art, and his seminal works, America's Old Masters and a three-volume history of American painting, helped establish American art as an academic specialty.
Before Flexner, scholars generally regarded "American art" as an oxymoron that was unworthy of their attention. This does not mean that his efforts were welcomed immediately: Many art historians were scandalized that someone untrained in their discipline would presume to write about their specialty.
Now, of course, American art history is a clearly defined and well respected field.
Indeed, Flexner, who never attended graduate school, was not formally "trained" for any of the subjects he tackled. This was hardly a handicap: He has written about such diverse topics as the history of American medicine, the invention of the steamboat, Benedict Arnold's treason, Alexander Hamilton, Winslow Homer, and the British loyalists of the Revolutionary War.
While the subjects varied enormously, Flexner followed a common approach.
Pick a topic that had not recently (or had never) been studied. Throw away preconceived notions. Investigate the topic with as much care as the most academic researcher. Avoid scholastic and academic minutiae like the plague. Write a clear, candid, and direct narrative that will appeal to a general audience.
His autobiography can be divided into two parts. The first describes his youth and coming of age. His father, Simian Flexner, was the director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University) and his mother had taught at Bryn Mawr. He had prominent relatives on both sides.
His maternal grandfather founded Bryn Mawr and Aunt Carrie Thomas was its second president. Uncle Abraham Flexner was responsible for the emphasis on basic science that underlies American medical education. He was related to both Bertrand Russell and Bernard Berenson. Not surprisingly, much was expected of Flexner from the beginning.
He grew up and went to school in New York City, graduated from Harvard, had a first job at the New York Herald Tribune, took an extended tour of Europe, and failed as a novelist. This last sparked a serious bout with depression and that began to lift only when he undertook to write a book about early American medical pioneers. This part of his autobiography is written with great feeling and conveys a wonderful sense of New York City, Harvard, and the Herald Tribune during the early years of the century.
With the publication of that first book (Doctors on Horseback), his career as a writer took flight. And what a journey! He has written 25 books, and all are in print today. His professional work is the centerpiece of the second part of his autobiography. Unfortunately, when he describes his writings and accomplishments, the effect is rather sterile, as the personal side of his life seems strangely absent.
This part of the book is longer than it need be. Ironically, his autobiography is longer than his most famous works.
James Thomas Flexner's ability to engage both academics and the man in the street has made him a central figure in explaining and defining the American experience.
* Terry Hartle is vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.