Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #2

John Fiske is another writer featured on the library's rotunda whose name seems to have diminished in recognition over the last century.

Fiske, a philosopher & historian born Edmund Fiske Green in Hartford, Connecticut, lived from 1842 to 1901. As a child, he was already quite the scholar, noting in his adult writings that by age eight he had read about two hundred books, across a wide spectrum of topics, primarily philosophy. By the age of twenty, he could read in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and so on (the list continues with another thirteen languages, including something called Zend, which turns out to be Zoroastrian-based).

Fiske was a supporter of the theory of evolution well before it had gained any measure of popular validation with Charles Darwin's publication in 1867 of On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Darwin's position, however, was not (and often still is not) without controversy, and those supporting it could face professional hardships. Fiske, for example, had been deemed an atheist so he was not admitted to the faculty of Harvard despite having being a well-regarded lecturer & writer. Fiske, instead, in 1872 was given the position of assistant librarian at Harvard. While this was meant to be a demotion, Fiske found the work rewarding and beneficial to his career. [Fiske included the forty page essay, "A Librarian's Work" in his book Darwinism and Other Essays] .

By 1879, Fiske had resigned his post at Harvard, taking to delivering a course of lectures on American history at the Old South Church in Boston & across the Atlantic in London. During this period in his life, Fiske developed a reputation as the most popular lecturer on history America had even known to that point. The majority of Fiske's writings during this time, however, were primarily philosophical volumes such as Myths and Myth-Makers, The Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, The Unseen World, Darwinism and Other Essays, Excursions of an Evolutionist, and The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.Fiske began to focus on historical writing in the late 1880s, a focus which continued into the early 1900s. His works during that time include The Critical Period of American History, 1783-89, The Beginnings of New England, The Discovery of America, and New France and New England. Fiske had made this transition, according to some, based on financial need, and according to others, based on "his wish to study America from the standpoint of an evolutionist" (Source: Dictionary of American Biography, Volume III, page 422].
I asked my brother, a history doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, about how Fiske is viewed by today's history scholars. Below are his comments:

"Fiske isn't read by historians too much today. I don't recall reading anything written by him. However, I am sure, given the dates of his writings and his life, most anything he has written has been debunked by modern historians. He was entering the profession just as it was becoming 'professionalized and most of those guys are looked upon differently now. Not that they were generally bad historians, which some were, but that they didn't have to tools and skills that have been developed since their time. I also know that he was a Social Darwinist, and that theory has pretty much been debunked as well, so if that tinge is in any of his writings, then he would get attacked for that has well."

My brother's sentiments are largely echoed in the Fiske biography written by James Truslow Adams from the Dictionary of American Biography copyrighted 1931 [the source of much of this blog post's content]. "In the historical field," Adams wrote, "Fiske was solely a popularizer ... far from making any original contribution of material or interpretation, he merely narrated conspicuous facts, and he did that not authoritatively, but with a charm of style rare among American historians." Adams, however, did view Fiske's role as a historian as "the prime cause of not a few of the distinguished scholars of to-day first turning to history as their life-work" [both quotes page 423]. So, in other words, Fiske is seen as vital as legitimizing & elevating the study of history, but not as all that great of an historian.

While history, Adams, my brother, or I have not been particularly kind to John Fiske, the architects of our library in 1912-13 did not have the benefit of knowing how our society was to change in the next century. One hundred years into our future, some of our most revered scholars & writers inevitably will be seen as outdated as well. But with their efforts, as with Fiske's, each will have played a vital role in the advancement of thought & scholarship in our country. We can celebrate all who have & will continue that cause.

Up next in the Who Are These Writers Series, Palfrey.Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Bangor Public Library

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