David W. Noble, Beloved Mentor, Rest in Peace

What follows is lightly revised from a talk I gave in 2009 on the occasion of my teacher, David W. Noble, retiring from the University of Minnesota. David died on March 11, 2018. Here is an obituary, and no doubt David’s many friends and colleagues will weigh in with more ambitious scholarly reflections about his legacies.  

For decades David was central to the Program in American Studies at Minnesota—for example, he directed 100 dissertations, including those of many people present in 2009. As a result there are places in my tribute where I made inside jokes and presupposed more than may be ideal for this blog. Sometimes I was able to revise these parts, but sometimes not, so please just skip over them or slow down to puzzle about them as you wish. Tonight revising for perfection would be an enemy of the good. Also, for better or worse, I could not write a tribute to David as a sort of wiser intellectual soul mate without the personal dimensions of our relationship falling into place around that. I hope I can chime in again soon with more and better tributes, but for the moment this is the best I’ve got.  

I:  Why Am I Behind This Podium? What’s My Charge?

I’m mindful that many people in this room would be equally appropriate choices to speak today. So of course I feel honored, but also a bit embarrassed. Mainly I feel a sense of responsibility to channel the feelings of our assembled group about what a privilege it has been to have David as a teacher, friend, and mentor.

My spouse said that the key thing was to be short and reasonably entertaining. However, I was asked to “reflect on David’s legacy,” and “talk about what David meant to me in personal and scholarly ways.” I also heard a rumor that he wanted me to talk about religion. I’m not sure how to do all of that. If I try to make it scholarly, it probably won’t be short or entertaining. But let’s forge ahead.

II.  A Little Bit About David’s Overall Project

If you haven’t digested the erudition and brilliance of a book like Death of a Nation, it is probably too late for me to explain it in the next fifteen minutes. Most people here know that David writes about the death or end (or at least discrediting in the eyes of people who can see what is actually going on) of a certain way of conceptualizing U.S. history—and/or of the aesthetic resonance of certain ways of imagining its heroes, and/or its usable pasts for activism, and/or its civil religion. To boil this down to shorthand—“bourgeois nationalism died”—barely scratches the surface of what is implied.

I will try to evoke some of the implications through a comment about my son, Mark, whom you can see here as David probably remembers him, in 1992.

davidnobleMark grew up into a musical prodigy who composes brilliant songs and plays all the instruments. I recently suggested that he read Thomas Kuhn’s argument about paradigm change in science (which would not have happened if David had not drilled this into my head). Out of this he wrote a song, premised on the idea that “world coincides with what our brains tell each other” so that “brainwashing changes reality.” He goes on to talk about perspective:

Perhaps the trees pity us for rotting so quickly

And the rocks pity the trees for being so sickly

And maybe the purest life is in the dead

Seeing dimensions unregistered by our tiny heads.

My head is too tiny compared to David’s, and my time today is too short, to unpack all the layers of perspective in David’s work. So I hope that evoking my son’s words makes sense: that the death of one perspective—what our dominant culture teaches about U.S. national identity—opens space for a range of other perspectives, and that these insights can have a legacy that moves across generations. These are things we need to understand better—whether for seeing the world as it really is, working for social justice, appreciating the riches of cultural creativity all around us, or (we hope) helping avoid a terrible fate for our beautiful earth.

III. How I Came to Study With David

The first time I met David, we arranged to meet for coffee at Manning’s in St. Anthony Park. This was the mid-1980s, and I had finished a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. I was interested in left-wing forms of religious ethics and activism called liberation theologies, and was looking for a Ph.D. program to study it further. At this time there was a well-orchestrated effort in neoconservative circles, lavishly funded by right-wing foundations, to demonize and destroy the network of activists on the religious left. It was fashionable in such circles, as well as among liberal centrists, to quote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (We heard a rerun of such appeals to Niebuhr’s memory in “liberal hawk” attacks on the peace movement during the Iraq wars, and we probably have not heard the end of it yet.) [This prediction was an easy call, and it proved true almost immediately when Obama channeled Niebuhr to justify his drone strikes and continuing war in Afghanistan.]

David and I were both well aware that Niebuhr continually stressed being “realistic,” that is, responding to “the real situation on the ground,” which he often deemed tragic and full of lesser evils. Today I understand better, because of David, how Niebuhr’s working understanding of “reality” was part of a paradigmatic community that he shared with a wide range of intellectuals that David analyzes, such as Robert Penn Warren or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But at the time I mainly perceived that Niebuhr’s analysis was either unsatisfying or was being taken out of context. I was looking for critiques that made sense to me. Around the fringes of syllabi at Yale I had discovered critiques of U.S. empire by William Appleman Williams. I told David I was trying to use Williams to critique the limits of Niebuhr’s assumptions about “realism,” in order to open more space for liberation theologies.

David listened to all this, and then he said, almost shyly, “well, you know, there are a couple of chapters on Niebuhr and Williams in one of my books—I could loan you a copy.” Of course he meant The End of American History. Now, entire forests have been chopped down to make paper for books about Niebuhr, but these two chapters are among the most profound and illuminating things that anyone has ever written about him. And as to the exact problem of critiquing Niebuhr through radical historians like Williams, these chapters probably are the most profound and illuminating.

So, that was it. David had already worked out all these dense conceptual problems I was struggling with, somewhere around the time I was born. Since then he had been relating them to an entire world of things that I still needed to know. And of course by studying with him I gained the benefit of all the other people at Minnesota—including many here today and others whom we are now thinking about and missing—who enriched my life so much more.

IV. Three Things David Taught Us 

I want to mention three reasons that all this mattered—at least to me, and perhaps by extension to others. The first may seem trivial, but it isn’t: working with him allowed me to stay in Minnesota. I had been assuming that I would need to find a top-ranked Ph.D. program, probably back east since no one ranked Religious Studies at Minnesota highly. But American Studies at Minnesota was in the top five. And I did not want to move, since my partner had a great job, my friends and family were in Minnesota, and I felt at home in the regional history and the natural landscape.

David first gave me an ironclad reason to stay. More importantly, he then helped me articulate why this was more than trivial self-indulgence—why if we are not able to think in terms of traditions and roots, this is a fundamental impoverishment. This matters not only for me, but for everyone who loves the people and traditions of this university, or the history of the upper Midwest with its legacies of struggle, its rich mix of cultural traditions, and its landscape of rivers, forests, lakes, and plains.

By extension, it matters for anyone who needs a community and landscape in which to take root—and of course a core premise of David’s work is insisting, over and over, that this includes everyone.

Second, studying with David meant that I did not have to force a choice—study religion or U.S. history.  I should explain that linkages between these overlapping fields are often tricky, and I was not planning to be a historian when we met—although I was well down the road of becoming incorrigibly “American Studies,” falling through the cracks of “normal” disciplines by following my nose into whatever books seemed illuminating. I first learned my neo-Gramscian theory, not from reading Stuart Hall and George Lipsitz, but from studying in Mexico and playing pick-up soccer with left-wing seminarians from El Salvador, then drinking beer with them afterward. Later I applied to Yale largely because Cornel West was listed in the course catalog, but he did not actually show up until my fourth year. So Letty Russell, the feminist theologian, gave me a free pass to read whatever I needed in independent studies—and one result was that I learned my literary criticism from feminist Bible scholars. (My favorite example of reader-response theory is the gap between someone preaching “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and someone else hearing “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”) When for various reasons there were not suitable courses in US religious history, I audited lectures by the great labor historian, David Montgomery, and did independent study with him, too. (In my first meeting with David Noble, I tried to impress him by mentioning that I had worked with Montgomery, and he said: “Yeah, I directed his research back in the 1950s; I just gave him a free pass to work on what he needed to do, and I guess he turned out OK.” [Montgomery has a History Ph.D. from Minnesota, one of David’s hundred.])

The key point here—although note how I slipped in an entertaining joke!—is that I saw myself less as a “historian” than as an idiosyncratic scholar of religion and society, who needed to bridge into some do-it-yourself remedial US history because of shortcomings on the religious studies side.

Kathleen Norris’s memoir, Dakota, describes how Norris seeks to reconnect with her religious upbringing, but then is alienated whenever she visits actually existing churches. Her friend comments, “I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion they can’t even go to church!” This thought could apply to David; there is a sense in which he is so serious about understanding the deep logic of US religions that he is impatient with actually existing scholars of religion. Definitely Norris’s thought applies to me, in that I had long considered history my least favorite subject. I had not yet found the bridge between the sort of history I hungered for and actually existing history classes.

Meanwhile, amid the idiosyncratic influences that I just evoked, I didn’t have many peers who shared my range of interests. Most of my friends in religious studies read little US history, and most of my friends in American Studies read little scholarship on religion.

With David there was never any such zero-sum dynamic. It made perfect sense to us that the language and practice of religion did not refer to some other realm of life, other than the same life that sociologists and novelists were also engaging. Religious discourse was just one form of language and ritual with distinctive particularities, weaknesses, and strengths. To us, it made perfect sense that cultural pluralism included religious pluralism, including profound cosmological differences like the gap between European Christian elites and Native American traditionalists. David was so far beyond a distinction among aesthetic resonance, historiographical metanarrative, and religious commitment that such distinctions more or less ceased to exist for him. He was looking for the deeper patterns—the things that structure what scholars focus upon and valorize—and why these patterns matter for people’s lives in relation to the exercise of power. Importantly, he was looking for counter-narratives—some of them religious—that could hold up after what he assumed was coming sooner or later, the collapse of the neoliberal world-system as we know it.

So I did not fall behind a curve by staying in Minnesota to study US religion instead of returning to the Ivy League. I was ahead of the curve. Today, a hot topic among cultural theorists in several disciplines is whether secularism is neutral with respect to religious value (as opposed to representing a false universality that is, in practice, a form of neoliberal ideology or Protestant hegemony). Here again, David had worked out these arguments before the young turks of postsecularism were born. His books are there, waiting for them—and also waiting to show them how to relate their insights to dozens of things that they haven’t thought of yet.

Third, with David I found support for aspects of my life that go beyond academia. Just as there was no forced choice between studying religion and history, I never felt pressure to choose between scholarship and music, scholarship and activism, or scholarship and parenting. Of course at certain levels the tradeoffs are obvious. But David saw how they fit together, can reinforce each other—and how they all still matter even when they don’t reinforce each other.

Once, when David’s grandchildren were young, we met at his house. I remember the vibe of richness in his three-generation household, as well as the barely controlled chaos that I came to know better after I had children. David and the boys had set up an elaborate “cowboys and Indians” battle on the bookshelves of his study, using plastic toy soldiers. I only saw one moment in this battle, but I presume that over the long stretch of history the Indians won.

I’m trying to evoke what I learned from David about relationships that transmit traditions across generations—whether in families, or teacher/student relationships, or wider intellectual genealogies. At first I was puzzled when he would talk so much about generations and joke about growing old. But I find myself speaking to my own students about such things more and more. I’ve come to consider it one of the most important things I learned from him.

The most important thing, I have not mentioned directly—although I’ve been circling around it. David has been a mentor and a role model for living a good life. I tell my children, when they complain about an intolerable church service or a teacher who drives them crazy with right-wing propaganda, that they can learn from any encounter—either about behavior they wish to emulate or not to emulate. David, of course, is not perfect, and I’m sure his bullshit detector is making him uncomfortable during parts of this event—in fact his graciousness about accepting and forgiving his own and others’ limitations is one of the great things about him. But I have met people equally brilliant, whom I would put in my “negative mentor” category if I were looking for someone to emulate as a person. To be able to say that here, in David’s case, is a teacher who is also a model for how I would wish to age graciously—for how one could hope that one’s own life might play out—the value is hard to overestimate.

V. Last Thoughts

David’s impact on me, considered as one person, is not very important. The key point is that hundreds of people, many of them present today, have stories that intersect with mine.

So to conclude, I will steal a thought from the best commencement speech I ever heard. It is a good example for those of you who may have preferred another speaker today—or have begun to consider me a negative exemplar because I’ve gone on so long—since this was a speech I did not want to hear. Garrison Keillor spoke at my sister’s college graduation, and I was very conscious at the time that he had treated a couple of my musician friends with less respect that we felt they deserved. [Today I wonder if this intersects with his troubles with the #metoo movement, but honestly I don’t know.] I was also very hot, sitting on uncomfortable bleachers, and I had heard too many stories about Lake Wobegon (sponsored by agribusiness conglomerates) that never mentioned the farm crisis.

Nevertheless, Keillor won me over, at least for the afternoon, by creating a structure for people in the room to think about what they meant to each other. He asked the students to consider how their families had nurtured them and helped bring them to where they sat. Then he asked the families to remember how much the students had accomplished—not that anyone had been perfect, since many had faced hardships, some had barely made it, and all had made mistakes. Still, all of them had reached a milestone, and many them had distinguished themselves in major ways. He got us to think about all this, and then, instead of winding into another story about Lake Wobegon (with no farm crisis) he simply stopped. He told the students: “Focus on one simple point—how proud we are of you and how we wish you the best from here forward.”

One of the great things about that speech was how short it was. I have not done as well today on the concision front. However, this is the main point that I hoped to get across today, not primarily speaking for myself but for everyone here—what an incredible privilege, joy, and enrichment of our lives it has been, to have our lives tangled up with David’s as an intellectual guide, role model, and friend.

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