My most important current project has been researching and writing a book on Jane Addams and her decades-long encounter with Leo Tolstoy, a previously untold story of, I’ve found, surprisingly wide import. Yes, Jane Addams the famous Chicago social reformer and Tolstoy the great Russian writer but also, a fact little-known today, a major moral influence, through his religious tracts as much as his fiction, in Progressive-era America. Addams started reading Tolstoy in her twenties (born 1860), went all the way to Russia to meet him in her thirties, and was still invoking him in the last years of her life (died 1935; Tolstoy lived 1828-1910). By her own account he decisively influenced her founding of Hull-House and, later, her plunge into pacifism, the cause that dominated the second half of her life. I argue that Tolstoy’s personal example in trying to live up to his lofty principles, what she called his “sermon of the deed” and for which he incurred both opprobrium and ridicule as well as awestruck praise, sustained her through the setbacks and harsh public rebukes of her own strenuous career, lending it a kind of religious significance. A new dimension is thereby added to the Addams legacy.
The book is titled Two Shining Souls: Jane Addams, Leo Tolstoy, and the Quest for Global Peace – “shining soul” being her term for him and the quest for peace – personal, social, national, international – the single most important link between them. A major theme of the book is the great crisis in the history of pacifism, which by 1914 had achieved unparalleled public support in Europe and America, precipitated by World War I.
Though scholarly in its original research and regular citation of sources, the book is aimed as much or more at students and general readers as at academic specialists – at anyone with an interest in either Addams or Tolstoy but also in women’s studies, World War I and the history of pacifism, social justice issues, religion and ethics. As I say in the book’s Preface, the story of Addams’s encounter with Tolstoy raises issues of public concern that are very much with us today. They include the often conflicting demands on the individual, particularly but not only on women, of family and society; the legitimacy of violence in pursuit of political aims; the role of government in social reform; the problem of poverty; and the place of religion in both public and private life. The distinctive ways in which Addams and Tolstoy dealt with such issues offer lessons, I suggest, that are valuable even now.
Other than that, I continue to be interested in the problematics of history, which has resulted so far in the publication of several articles listed under the Publications tab above:
-“A Berlin for Historians,” in the journal History and Theory (2002), a study of the late British philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin’s advice, as implied in his life and work, to practicing historians: a short version of this piece, “Isaiah Berlin: A Postscript,” appeared in Historically Speaking: Bulletin of the Historical Society, vol. 8 no. 3 (2007), pp. 10-11;
-“Implicit Morality,” in the same journal (2004), calling for historians to make more explicit the moral values they unavoidably employ when writing their histories;
-“Faith in History,” in the Journal of the Historical Society (2007), insisting on the separation between religion and history – between the historian’s own religious beliefs and his or her writing of history;
-“The Specter of Marxism,” in History and Theory (2009), a review article highlighting the influence of the Cold War on the work of a distinguished American historian (Martin Malia): this is also the theme of a chapter on my own work published in Baron and Frierson, eds., Adventures in Russian Historical Research (2003);
-“History as Philosophy,” in History and Theory (2015), a novel defense of professional history against persistent criticisms that historians do not properly theorize their work.
I plan to revise and expand these essays into a book tentatively titled, Professing History: Reflections on a Dying Discipline – “dying” because it seems to me that history driven by the notion of an objective as well as exhaustive search for historical truth has given way, in the wake of Post-Modernism, to history driven by partisan politics: liberal or conservative or radical politics (mirroring the end of consensus politics in the public sphere), or identity politics of one kind or another – ethnic, racial, gender, religious, sexual, nationalist, whatever. Maybe, as post-modernists have claimed, the old notion was always illusory; and maybe, as I sometimes think, the new history is better: more open and honest about its methods and purposes, more “liberating” in some way, more socially or personally beneficial. In any case, it looks to me like a sea-change in the academic practice of history, going back to the 1980s, is well under way (not yet perhaps in the world of popular history, driven mainly, of course, by commercial considerations).