John Judis has published an interesting intellectual biography of recently deceased historian Martin J. Sklar (1935-2014), whom I had never heard of until I saw this article. (It turns out that there are some very good reasons for this–read on.) Judis’s essay focuses on Sklar’s conversion from committed socialism to being a huge fan of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. It’s weird–you can read the whole thing if you want, but it was the details of Sklar’s professional credentials and ambitions that interested me. He started as a precocious sixteen-year old college freshman in 1951 at the University of Wisconsin, and took his B.A. and M.A. there. However, he got stalled. Really stalled.
If Sklar’s career had proceeded along the same path as some of his fellow graduate students, he probably would have ended up like [Walter] LaFeber as a renowned professor at an Ivy League university. But Sklar had difficulty finishing what he was writing, and he was also pulled to and fro by the impassioned politics of the times. After he got his MA at Wisconsin, he moved to New York to work on Studies on the Left. Then he became a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester. He could have easily converted his research on Wilson into a Ph.D. thesis, but he got involved in student politics and embarked on a reconceptualization of the history of American capitalism, based on a study of the 1920s. Some of this research ended up in an incredibly difficult but original essay in Radical America, but much of it resided in a larger manuscript that sat unpublished in a file cabinet, as did other writings. Sklar would sometimes extract these writings and read from them in order to make a point, but would then stash them back away. Sklar left Rochester and graduate school in 1969 to get a job at Northern Illinois University’s left-leaning history department, which included his friend Parrini. In spite of the enthusiastic support of his colleagues and students, he was denied tenure by the administration in 1976 because he had not finished his dissertation.
He went to work for In These Times until 1979. Then, sometime in the 1980s (?)–Judis doesn’t say exactly when–
He finished his dissertation at the University of Rochester under his friend [Eugene] Genovese. His thesis became the basis for The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism 1890-1916, which appeared in 1988.
Whew! That only took 30 years!
Sklar’s book represented a turn away from his utopian and revolutionary politics. Where he had previously portrayed corporate liberalism as a threat to socialism, he now celebrated it. He still identified himself as a member of the left, but he had no patience with the left that existed, including In These Times. In one letter to me, he described the left as “the triumph of philistinism” and remarked of “leftists” that the “conventionality and in most cases mediocrity of their minds is staggering.” He got a job at Bucknell, and in 1992, published a number of old and new essays in The United States as a Developing Country.His book of essays was largely ignored by historians, but The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism was acclaimed by some specialists. It won the J. Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History. Sklar hoped to land a job at Columbia, which had an opening in his field. He had the support of some graduate students and professors, and was invited to give a presentation, but to his dismay, he was not offered the job.
Sklar was embittered about Columbia’s rejection, which he blamed on leftists in the department. At the same time, he became increasingly estranged from his colleagues at Bucknell, whom he believed did not appreciate his work. He said he fought with them over curriculum. He didn’t think he was being adequately compensated. I don’t know what really happened. I thought he was acting erratically. I got the magazine Lingua Franca, which was covering the academic world, to commission a story on Sklar’s feud with Bucknell. When the magazine went out of business in October 2001 before the article was finished, Sklar wrote me an odd letter accusing me of having somehow killed the article. He was not a happy camper. He retired from Bucknell in 2004.
“To his dismay, he was not offered the job. . . . which he blamed on leftists in the department.” I’m sorry he was so unhappy–but seriously? Seriously? A dissertation that takes you 30 years, one monograph and one edited collection does not make you ready for the Ivy League, even twenty-five years ago!
What an instructive comparison to the women historians of his generation, most of whom were just happy if they could find a tenure-track job and win tenure somewhere, anywhere. And I bet very few of them changed their political allegiances based on the jobs they weren’t offered. Why did so many of the men of the so-called left of the 1950s and 1960s become right-wing douchebags? Sklar became viciously anti-Obama in his last decade of life, writing letters to real right-wingers like Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Henninger, and John Yoo, and praising Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and even Newt Gingrich as the real left!
Why, one has to ask, was Sklar so obsessed with the self-identified left? My guess, based on my acquaintance with him, is that it had to do at the bottom with his feeling that he had never been given due, and that the left, and particularly leftwing historians, were primarily to blame.
Yeah: and it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for those meddling leftwing historians! (I get it that Sklar’s meltdown must have something to do with the vicious infighting among midcentury leftists, about which I am largely ignorant and am very willing to be educated here in the comments below. It’s all just Judean Peoples Front versus the People’s Front of Judea to me. I recognize that understanding these feuds are important to the history of the movement; it’s more that I’m a lumper, not a splitter, and I just can’t tolerate the narcissism of small differences.) Even without the Valentines to Sarah Palin, Sklar’s belief in the awesome power of leftist historians should have clued us all in to the crazzy.
In the end, Judis’s biography of Sklar makes me wonder if Sklar’s lack of scholarly productivity is related to his very tenuous grip on reality in the past decade (or the past twenty-five years, if he thought that one book in 30 years was going to get him a job at Columbia.) Here’s a 100% snark-free question: If he had been in dialogue with scholars and submitting his work for peer review consistently through his professional life, would he have lost it like this? (I get it that this is a chicken-and-egg question, and that it’s possible that he was alienated from his profession is that he was kind of nutty, but still.)
There are habits of mind that engaged scholars have that are not merely or only groupthink. Humanities scholarship may not change the world, but it just might help you as a writer and an intellectual hold on to most of your marbles.