Charles A. Beard, An Intellectual Biography

By Ellen Nore | Go to book overview

Epilogue

Beard had a magnificent persona. He was tall and commanded crowds with a rhetorical flair, an actor's sense of timing, that could bring them cheering and stamping to their feet. He read and listened intensely. He laughed and wept publicly on occasion. He was, as someone once said of one of his heroes, the Marquis de Condorcet, a "volcano covered with snow." His autobiography does not exist, except in the most formal sense, for he left no diaries, no reams of private personal observations, few choice letters. He desired to be immortal, if such were possible (and his relativism made him doubt it), through the durability of his own published works. That they are not more widely read today is a tribute to the kind of academic practices he most despised—to specialization—and to the American penchant, true among many academic historians of the United States as among society at large, for believing and acting as though (as with cars and deodorants) "newer books are somehow better books."

Perhaps the ever-tossing waves of relativity will again cast Charles and Mary Beard's writing before the public eye. To a generation now in their thirties and forties who studied the history of the United States in books from whose pages women were absent, the volumes of The Rise of American Civilization come as a pleasant surprise. To a generation of intellectuals seeking to cast off the partisan affiliations of the post-World War II period, Beard's admonition to be critical and independent, to doubt the "experts" is bracing and cheering. Certainly, he asked questions about the policy of the United States in foreign affairs that revisionists are only beginning to explore. We

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