As we progress into old age, our perspectives tend to change. Things that occupied most of our active life–accomplishments and “the bubble reputation” are seen to be less important than family and friends. I suspect that even accumulating money loses some of its flavor as the years move on, although I don’t really know about that.
This reflection is provoked by a recent salient assault on what I have considered to be my pretty good reputation as a scholar. That is the publication of Calhoun: American Heretic by Professor Robert Elder. This book has attracted a good deal of attention and praise. The author has been seen on television. The work is intelligent and thorough and deserves credit. The damage to my reputation is by omission rather than direct attack.
It will become the standard work on the subject for the next generation or two of scholars. Because that is the case the book has alerted my lapsed attention to the trivial matter of my scholarly reputation. The book may be considered as setting the way my name as a historian will go down in the future.
Although I have been considered by many knowledgeable people as the foremost scholar on the matter of Calhoun, my name appears only once in Elder’s book:
“The first debt that any biographer owes is to the editors of Calhoun’s published papers, who painstakingly collected, edited, and published those documents of more than half a century, finishing in 2003. Without the diligent and capable work of Robert L. Meriwether, W. Edwin Hemphill, Shirley A. Cook, and Clyde N. Wilson, I should not have written this book.”
A nice tribute to the often neglected value of the work of documentary editors, but a strange emphasis, leaving me at the tail end of a list of editors and mentioning my work nowhere else in his 640-page book.
Robert Meriwether, a man of vision, began the Calhoun Papers collecting and produced an admirable first volume. His successor, Hemphill, was overwhelmed by the mass of material related to Calhoun’s tenure as Secretary of War. He abandoned the original vision of the mission and edited eight volumes of questionable usefulness with many documents in artificial summaries. When I took over in the early 1970s the original vision had to be restored. Mrs. Cook, a very fine lady, was my assistant who was very good at many editorial tasks but is not a historian. I gave her generous recognition. For over thirty years I had to raise outside money to hire assistants, my institution supporting me by taking a generous cut of the funds I raised.
Elder’s is a rather slighting reference to my work as the historian who designed and edited of 19 volumes of the papers, bringing the project to a successful conclusion, in comparison to many other slow and truncated similar projects. Somebody had to know what to include. And, yes, I as well as my assistants, did much of the nitty gritty of editing, often enjoying six-day weeks and two weeks of vacation out of the whole year–no “academic leisure” at all. While performing my other academic duties in what I like to think was a good manner.
Readers of Prof. Elder’s book now and in the future will not know that I was once considered a considerable historian. He seems not to have read anything I wrote. For instance, two books of my own on Calhoun (one in press). There were 19 introductions to edited volumes. Several reviewers said that those Introductions were brilliant intellectual history and that I “plowed new ground by the acre” in historical interpretation. They also pointed out how the volumes came out regularly every two years, compared to similar (and better funded) projects.
I also had a hard fight against experts and funders who thought I was publishing useless stuff in the volumes. I continued against all sorts of odds to carry the project through to a thorough and good conclusion. I think it is fair to say that Elder’s book reflects the scenario of Calhoun’s career that I presented in the 19 volumes that brought out aspects of history that other biographers had neglected.
(By the way, I take the book’s title designating Calhoun as a “heretic” to be more a publisher’s gimmick than a thoughtful statement. The thrust of much of Prof. Elder’s work, as was mine, is that the great man was very much in the mainstream of an American tradition.)
I spent 34 years in almost daily communion with Mr. Calhoun. I have never met Prof. Elder or, as far as I can remember, never had and correspondence or conversation with him. He has written what will be considered the definitive treatment of the subject for the foreseeable future. He has reduced my life’s work–and it was good work–to the tail-end of a list of pencil-pushers.
However, it does not matter much. The honourable and serious historical scholarship and understanding of the 20th century has already gone away and will not likely reappear any time soon. My children and grandchildren love me and a good number of men and women of high quality respect me. I will soon be whisked away to a realm where the “bubble reputation” has no significance.
I doubt if Prof. Elder’s and my paths will ever cross. But if they do, although I am in my 80s, I will strongly insist upon an apology.
Perfect statement of fact and acknowledgement of reality by an esteemed Southern intellectual. May I say: if I ever need Mr. Elder, even far into the future, I will do the same. God bless Clyde Wilson.
Dr. Wilson thank you for writing this article. I will be on the look out for that exhaustive work to add to my library.
“I will soon be whisked away to a realm where the “bubble reputation” has no significance.”
Dr. Wilson, folks like Prof Elder probably have no idea as to what the quoted comment above means. Pity them, not for their lack of scholarship, but for their lack of understanding of scholarship. I am not quite 80 myself, but knocking hard on the door.
But a salute Sir, to you, in my opinion, THE authority on John Calhoun.
i hope I’m not like “Prof Elder”, but this Northerner has to admit my ignorance of not knowing that quote. I turn 60 next month(for whatever that’s worth).
I’m a Northerner because I happen to live in Western,NY. I don’t think of myself as a “Yankee”.
The last county to give up their Confederate heritage was in New York State, under President Truman, a Son’s of Confederate Veteran’s member. I can’t remember the name, but New York State missed seceding with the South by one vote…. God bless New York State!!!
You’re in good company, Dr. Wilson. Think of the thousands of nameless monks in early medieval monasteries who painstakingly transcribed texts, preserving priceless components of our Western patrimony for posterity. We’d be culturally lost and doomed to ignorance without them – and yet we know nothing about them. They earned no money, no accolades, only the faint hope of eternal salvation and the love of wisdom propelled them.
God-willing, you and I can thank them for their efforts on the other side. Perhaps you’ll get a well-deserved thank you from Calhoun as well. (I pray he doesn’t see how insane and depraved his country has become, but your efforts to preserve his wisdom for future, less depraved generations will no doubt be some consolation).
Are we surprised? Our contemporary geniuses have no regard for the past.
Sometimes one forgets that we will not always have those that we honor. As a result, we neglect to communicate the fullness of our respect for these shining lights that illuminate our life path. Not that long ago, such a light, in the form of Tom Moore, was extinguished leaving me broken hearted and ashamed that I had not expressed the praise he so richly deserved. I do not wish to repeat that mistake. So I shall say thank you, Dr. Wilson, for expanding my understanding of our history, political theory, and culture through your laudable efforts. God bless you, sir!
Well said, Terry.
Thank you Dr. Wilson, we truly appreciate your patience and knowledge… Job well done My good and faithful servant…
For those of us who love the Old South, you and your valuable work over the decades are highly esteemed.
I am 72 and have had the very great pleasure and honor to have read many of your essays and writings, and feel that I only gain in knowledge having done so. Only in a society in such deep decline as our own does that society slight such an eminent scholar as yourself.
Thank you, Sir, for your tireless work and scholarship.
America is in a sorry state when such a person as Clyde Wilson does not receive his proper recognition. I think Elder’s “omission” was deliberate and dishonourable. I have been reading Dr. Wilson’s brilliant and witty essays for decades. I have learned so much. God bless him.
Thank you, Dr. Wilson, for your life’s work as a true Educator and Carolina Cavalier, carrying the fire of liberty and Jeffersonian decentralist thought as bequeathed to us from our nobler Southern forebears into the 21st Century. Your writings, lectures and virtual classrooms over the past decades have all served as an instructional guide for me (and many thousands of others I have referred to your works) to learn more of the classical studies which gave birth to those timeless “Principles of ’76” and, to the continuing relevance of the wisdom of John C. Calhoun- whose order of precedence established that our society, which is ordained by God for our benefit, comes first- and the foundational notion that society precedes self-government.
Personally, while Virginia and America are no longer recognizable to me in the 21st century as they were as recently as the 1960s, I can thank God that I had- and continue to have- you as a teacher and instructor in your many virtual classrooms, books, articles and lectures. For all of this, you will have my heartfelt gratitude always. We drank from the same canteen in life- as you guided many of us to the recovery of forgotten truths about our American origins. I will add, among the most distinguished scholars that I have had the great privilege to know in this life, many of them independently referred to you as “America’s Greatest Living Historian,” and I humbly concur with each of them that your well-earned title is safe and secure with all of us.
Dr. Wilson, you have made our Southland, our lives and our world a better place because you are a part of it; and it has been written long ago that to live on in the hearts they left behind is not to die. Your legacy is secure and your writings (keep writing and publishing!) will live on to inspire future generations to recover and regain what has been lost of our original societal values and the federative polity which emerged from it, somewhere, someday, across our American continent. My South Carolina grandmother from the 19th century reminded me often as a youth to, “Always remember your name travels farther than you do, and always conduct yourself in such a manner that whenever others hear your name, they will think well of it.” Through your life’s work and example, you have shown us and taught us what is good and noble- and you have enriched our lives more than you can possibly ever know.
What a tremendous gift and legacy that has been- and continues to be- for all of us.
Godspeed, our Carolina Cavalier Compatriot and friend.
I thank God that I found the Abbeville Institute. I enjoy reading the Daily Dose of Dixie, especially when I see the article was “by Clyde Wilson” :). I love him as a Historian (Southern). I constantly remind people on Southern friendly social media sites to read as many articles, books, & etc. of everything written by Prof. Wilson. I hope to meet him someday, but I’ve shaken the Magic Eight Ball and it reads “outlook not so good.”
Dr. Wilson, though it be not much comfort now, I have no doubt that in a generation or two, one of our descendants will spot one of your books ( I have several in my library) high up on a dusty shelf, and being inexplicably drawn to it, will take it down and read it in one joyful sitting, so proud of his discovery he will enthusiastically insist to his family and friends that they do the same, and “overnight” you will get the fame you deserve! Sign a few books to give to your grandchildren because one day, for them or their grandchildren, they will be worth a fortune!