We Know Public Scholarship When We See It: On “America and Other Fictions”

Ben Railton reviews Ed Simon's recent essay collection, "America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion."

We Know Public Scholarship When We See It: On  “America and Other Fictions”

America and Other Fictions by Ed Simon. Zero Books. 272 pages.

I’M NOT SURE what public scholarship is, or for that matter that we can define it at all. That’s a striking thing to say for a scholar who has spent much of the last decade moving toward precisely this type of scholarship as both a goal and an identity. Indeed, I am committed to doing so for the remainder of my scholarly career as well. But I am primarily a professor of English Studies. Everything else — blogging and other writing, book talks and lectures, adult learning programs, and still more — falls in my thinking under that amorphous “public scholarship” category.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say of public scholarship that, as with art and pornography, we know it when we see it. If that’s the case, I’ve never seen a clearer and more inspiring instantiation of it than in Ed Simon’s America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. From its origin points and structure to its vital central ideas to its delightful and moving nooks and crannies, Simon’s book embodies this genre and goal and deserves the wide audience promised by that ideal of “public.”

Simon has come up with a unifying theme that ties those strengths and threads together and makes his book even more valuable as a public scholarly contribution to our contemporary community and conversations. Implied in the book’s title and fleshed out in the introduction, Simon’s thesis is that “America” itself has been at its best a form of spirituality: a theological concept voiced by and embodied in radical visionaries like Thomas Paine (a central focus of the introduction) and carried down through the twists and turns of history into our own contested moment. Nowhere are those contemporary echoes more prominent than in the book’s concluding piece, “The Sacred and the Profane in Pittsburgh,” which dwells in the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting, but at the same time complements the introduction.

I can’t stress enough the significance of Simon’s framing idea. For one thing, public scholarship depends on our ability to offer such lenses, ways of seeing (the past, a nation, ourselves), that can shift audience perspectives. This book has something to offer every American — and indeed every reader beyond our imagined borders. And it does so in large part because it presents a groundbreaking way to think about American civil religion, about a country founded in both religious communities and civic ideals, with an innovative separation of church and state, and yet a set of founding mythologies that have echoed down throughout the centuries. As Simon himself notes, too often American Studies scholarship has either focused on overtly religious topics (à la Sacvan Bercovitch) or limited itself to various founding myths (much of the “myth and symbol” school). Simon’s book bridges that divide, considering the very American intersections of those threads and how they can help us both understand our past and move into our future.

One piece that particularly embodies and extends those defining questions is the essay that gives the book its title: “Chair’d in the Adamant of Time: On ‘America’ and Other Fictions.” Taking his title from a Walt Whitman line and his opening images from the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, Simon moves in the course of this compelling piece through a series of moments and texts that have sought, with at best partial success, to define “America.” Along the way, he complicates and enriches our understandings of such superficially familiar threads as origin of the term with the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who named the land after explorer Amerigo Vespucci, immigrant and nativist battles over its meanings and reach, and the Civil War’s bloody conflict over whether “that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” As this piece reflects, Simon is not simply using such overarching questions as the frame for his book — he is willing and able to get into their particulars, to examine the fraught, frustrating, and fundamental ways in which these defining debates have echoed throughout our history.

The benefit of this kind of public scholarly collection, though, is that it can complement such overarching ideas and threads with the detours that open up the weird and wonderful sides of American history as well. Simon does so with pieces that reframe well-known subjects (such as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass), highlight overlooked ones (such as his eulogy for Sister Frances Carr, one of the last Shakers), or movingly link past to present (as in the Pittsburgh piece). My favorite is “American Jezebels: Let Us Now Praise Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer.” Linking the famous (or infamous, as the Massachusetts Puritans would say) Hutchinson to a more forgotten but just as compelling historical figure in Dyer, Simon engages in this piece with Puritan history and theology, proto-feminist voices in and after the 17th century, and how a sense of faith’s radical possibilities can help free figures like Hutchinson from the grip of both orthodoxy and narrow historical understandings. “American Jezebels” alone is worth the price of America and Other Fictions. Hopefully its presence here can help it find new audiences beyond its original publication at Berfrois.

I have to say, however, that I don’t agree with all of Simon’s readings of texts or analyses of history. Indeed, as an atheist, I worry about visions of America (in overarching ways, not so much in the pages of this book) that leave little room for those with no religious faith. But even the fact that I’m prompted to think about those questions is yet another reflection of this book’s exemplification of public scholarship, and of its author’s ability to wed a conversational voice to rigorous examinations of some of our most fraught, fragile, and fundamental American themes.

Inspirations are not easy to come by in 2019 America. Yet, America and Other Fictions offers a great deal of inspiration: for public scholars, for American Studiers, and for us all. If that’s not the best of public scholarship, I don’t know what is.


Ben Railton is professor of English Studies and coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.

LARB Contributor

Ben Railton is professor of English Studies and coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He is the author, most recently, of We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American (2019, Rowman and Littlefield). He also writes the daily AmericanStudies blog, contributes a bimonthly column to the Saturday Evening Post, and is the Boston Chapter Leader for the Scholars Strategy Network.


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