John Brewer, Historian and Literary Scholar
One would search in vain to divine a grand theme that connects all of John Brewer's scholarship in history and literature. His literary output is a reflection of his interests at any given time, and those interests have ranged widely, from tourism, to the culture of criminality, and from national power to consumption. Within this eclectic milieu, Brewer has kept a sharp focus on culture and institutions, and on political processes and scientific sensibilities, among others. The sum total reveals a record of scholarship that focuses on both the micro- and macroscopic level, from which Brewer's historical analysis and narrative presentation yields articles and books that capture the stories of individuals, systems, and ways of seeing the world.
Relatedly, Brewer's academic appointments have been varied, and he has often taken his scholarly surroundings as a departing point for new avenues of research. After completing his education at Cambridge, Brewer took his first faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis. He returned to Cambridge before accepting an offer at Yale, and a few years later, Brewer joined Harvard as a professor of history and literature. In 1987, Brewer took a dual appointment at UCLA, where he directed the Clark Library and the Center for Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Studies. While in Los Angeles, Brewer took advantage of the unrivaled collections at the Huntington.
A new opportunity in Florence, Italy, beckoned, and in 1993 Brewer professed cultural history at the European University Institute for the next six years. After a brief period at the University of Chicago, Brewer returned to California, where he was a professor of history and literature at Caltech until he became emeritus in 2017. Over the past two decades, Brewer has taken visiting professorships and lectureships in Europe, and he currently splits his time between Munich and Boston. His scholarship has been supported by the Fulbright Foundation, the Getty Foundation, and the UK Social Science Research Council, among others, and he has been lauded among his peers for having changed the course of historiography at least twice in his career.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, January 27, 2023. I am delighted to be here with Professor John Brewer. John, it is great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
JOHN BREWER: Thank you for having me.
ZIERLER: To start, will you please tell me your title and affiliations here at Caltech?
BREWER: I actually came to Caltech first as a visiting fellow and was there for a year. Then, subsequently, I became a Professor of, I think, both History and Literature within the Division of Humanities. After that, I was then given the named chair, which was funded by Eli and Edythe Broad.
ZIERLER: Do you have a connection to the Broads? Did you meet them? Were they specifically interested in supporting your work?
BREWER: I met Eli on one occasion, in which he tried to explain–I'd been working, at that point, on the art market, and I'd just finished this book, The American Leonardo, which was about this fake painting that had this long and very interesting history dating back to start of the first World War and going right through to the present. And he offered me his wisdom on the subject of the art market. Like a lot of very wealthy people, he's very sure that he knows a great deal about everything. I listened with some interest.
ZIERLER: And that all developed into him supporting your professorship?
BREWER: No, this was after. I think he wanted to find out what he'd put his money behind.
ZIERLER: What about Edythe? Did you ever have a chance to interact with her?
BREWER: Unfortunately, I never did. I realize, from reading about the family, that she was an extremely important influence. I always had this fantasy, actually, about them sitting over the breakfast table and them talking to one another. "What would you like, darling, today?" [Laugh] One of them saying, "Well, we've got a wonderful laboratory, we've got a couple of buildings, and so on. How about a tame professor? That would be nice." [Laugh] I don't know the process by which this occurred. I'm grateful to them for their funding. And Broad is an extremely interesting character. I taught a course, for a number of years with a colleague who's a post-doc, who's an art historian, on the LA art world in the division. We spent quite a bit of time looking at what Broad had gotten up to in his career in LA. I had a lot to do, earlier on in my career, with Franklin Murphy, who was formerly the chancellor of UCLA and then the head of the Times Mirror group, and who was really a great operator in the cultural scene of LA. A man, I have to confess, I admired rather more than Eli Broad. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: With the title Professor of History and Literature, is that a dual appointment between two options? How did that work for your teaching career?
BREWER: We can come back to this issue of my interdisciplinarity. That's something that's been a feature of my work, really, from the 1980s onwards. Not so much my first book, but thereafter. It's never been a particular problem for me. Institutionally, what's good about the Caltech division is that it doesn't create these barriers, really. There are occasions we'll make an appointment in philosophy, history, or whatever. But the sort of disciplinary boundaries are less highly developed in a division which is mixed in that way. When I was at the University of Chicago, I was in the History and English Departments, but I was mostly in the English Department, in terms of what I was doing, who I was teaching, and who I was talking to.
Then, when I was in Florence, at the European University Institute, which is a social science post-graduate institution, I was in what was called–this is the French term–histoire et civilisation, history and civilization, which was quite broadly conceived. It didn't have literary people in it, but it had people who were doing economic history, people who were doing history of science, people who were doing international history, people who were doing history of Europe, and even some people who were doing the history of nations. We may talk more about this, but I'm not a person who's a boundary- or barrier-builder. I believe in crossing rather than building barriers. There are two types of people, people who build barriers and people who cross them, and I think of myself as falling into the latter category.
Eluding Labels Within History
ZIERLER: On that basis, between your major research topics and educational training, at the end of the day, what kind of historian would you call yourself?
BREWER: I don't particularly want to be labeled. One of the interesting things is that at Caltech, for example, there are two groups of people who know my work. And the bits of my work that they know are completely different, and they have very little knowledge of the other bits of my work. [Laugh] There are literary people who know about The Pleasures of the Imagination, and Sentimental Murder, and these sorts of literary works, then there are the people towards the social science side, who know about The Sinews of Power and know much more about the work I did on state formation and public finance. There are certain situations in which you can bring all of those things together. The project I've been working on most recently, which is currently in press, this book about Romantic Vesuvius, which is about the Neapolitan volcano in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, is a kind of odd mixture of the history of travel, the history of science, the history of information, and also about taste, aesthetics, paintings, and so on. It brings together art history, history of science, history of culture, economic history, the history of travel. That's the kind of history that I like to write. It's a bit messy, but I like messy in that way.
ZIERLER: Do you see your work, in emphasizing interdisciplinarity or avoiding labels, in generational terms at all?
BREWER: Do you mean that I belong to a particular generation that was attached to that?
BREWER: I don't see it in generational terms, actually. I see the profession in generational terms, certainly, but I don't see the commitment to interdisciplinarity. There are moments in the profession, maybe in the 80s and 90s, when this was more fashionable. But I don't think that it's ever not gone away, and it's not particularly associated with a particular generation. I would say it's associated more with a particular sensibility, and that's a sensibility, the importance of or attachment to which has fluctuated a good deal through time. But I wouldn't say there's any particular generation involved.
ZIERLER: And by sensibility, does that simply mean following your nose, wherever the interesting research takes you?
BREWER: Partly. I think, though, more, it's a matter of thinking about ways in which you can make a topic, issue or problem interesting. And that can be done in a variety of ways. You might want to do it by number-crunching. You might want to do it by literary analysis. You might want to do it through text-recognition. You might want to do it through the exploration of certain kinds of archives. I think the best historians are those who are most open to a series of possibilities about ways in which you might explain things. I can give you some examples. In my first book, I was writing about politics in the 18th century in England. I had a particular idea about what politics was, which directly challenged what was the prevailing orthodoxy in the field, which was that politics was essentially a game that was played by highly important political figures, and nobody else really mattered. Actually, it was a power play. There was no kind of ideological difference really involved in that struggle.
What I set out to investigate was whether or not that was the right way to see politics. And that's partly a question of who counts historically, which is a question of how you write history. Who do you include? After all, there are almost no women in American history before the 1970s in historical writing. Pocahontas, the Adams family, or whatever it might be. But you did not have a sense that women were major actors. One of the things that I was really interested in–a lot of what I did was to do with the press, publishing, coffee houses, associations, and so on, and showing how ordinary people had a very particular view of politics, which they tried to use or to influence those who were part of this charmed circle or elite. I didn't want to say that the elites simply gave into them or reflected public opinion in. crude way. They had a complicated give-and-take relationship.
But one of the things that a lot of these people were doing was organizing very large demonstrations, which were very highly elaborately ritualized. They had people dressed up in particular ways, they had ceremonies, they had number symbolism, they had special routes they went on, they had songs, and so on. And I was finding it very difficult to know how to–I could see that this was very important to all of these people, but I didn't have a kind of historical analytic for it, really. Then, I heard a talk by a very famous historian at Princeton, Natalie Zemon Davis, called the Rites of Violence, which was essentially using anthropological work on ritual, and rites of passage, and so on and work on group identity in anthropological work, which gave me a way into this that enabled me to see how I could analyze and include this in my account of what their politics was. It came from her, but in turn, it really came from a lot of anthropological writing that was looking at ceremony and ritual, which wasn't religious, not just amongst rulers, as it were, but in larger populations, and what that meant.
ZIERLER: Given the avoidance of titles or even schools of thought, what about methodologies? Do you ascribe to any schools of either historiography or methodology that might serve as an overall guide to the kind of way you've approached history?
BREWER: I'm being very slippery about this, aren't I? I don't think so, really. I've written different sorts of history. I've written political history, economic history, cultural history, history of science, and so on, and I've written micro-histories. I'm extremely interested in the process of historical writing, which I've written quite a lot about, although quite a bit of it hasn't been published yet. I'm very interested in the ways in which we, as historians, connect to and can explain or describe the past and also the relationship between historical writing and writing which purports to be history, but isn't academic history. For instance, I've done some work on historic reenactment, what the implications of that are as a form of recuperating the past or various forms of popular representation of the past, documentary filmmaking. I've written a certain amount about Italian neo-realism, cinema, what its understanding is of the past of how we, as viewers of a neo-realist film, can understand the past. It's those sorts of connections.
Sometimes, I've said about things I've written that they're experiments. I don't think there is one way to write history, and there are lots and lots of histories. When I taught the freshman course at Caltech, which is essentially an early modern Europe course, I used it as a way to try to explain to undergraduates that there are very many different ways in which you could put together the past, many of which are equally valid, but they're all different in their narration or their method, and they're all, in their different ways, illuminating. Of course, there are tests of rigor and empirical verisimilitude, and so on, which we use. But history is a mansion of many rooms, and we need to really know that. It's a shock to them because many of them think that there isn't–they don't understand that history is a kind of connection between the present and the past, which is made through the process of producing history, whether it be in the form of a film, or a text, or whatever.
ZIERLER: What are some of the commonalities or common threads that you might see in all of your literary and scholarly projects?
BREWER: I would say that one question I've always had is, who is it who counts as a historical actor? And what are the ways in which we can achieve certain forms of recuperation? It's partly about using a method as a way of illuminating the past, which hasn't necessarily been thought about before. You take a question. For instance, in Sinews of Power, everybody said, "Britain, there is no state. It's a liberal democracy. There is no bureaucratic apparatus. That's the Germans," or whatever. I thought about ways in which one might reformulate this or think about it in a different way. And that, then, brings into view something that hasn't been seen before. In a sense, the historian is someone who constitutes history. Jules Michelet, the French nineteenth-century historian, always used to say that one of the things a historian does is bring back the dead. I would not go that far, but I would certainly say that one of the things the historian can do is really alter our perception of the past, or what matters, who matters, and how. But in order to do that, one has to be conscious of historiographical traditions.
What's the predominant view of X? Actually, when I think about it, this all goes back to my undergraduate education in England at Cambridge in the 1960s, where every week, we'd write a paper on a topic. You'd write 2,000 or 3,000 words on something. You're given a list of books, you're sent away, and you have to produce a paper. The way I organized my response to this demand was to say, "I'll start off and determine the prevailing orthodoxy on this question. I will, then, for the first part of my paper, reconstruct that in as plausible a way as possible. In the second half of my paper, I will destroy it. I will think, 'What's wrong with this? What other way can we think about this? How can we challenge this? How can we do that?'" And that's, in a way, what I've always tried to do. I want to say to people, "Let's think about things in a slightly different way. What can we learn about our past from that?" There's a sort of political agenda behind that. I've been accused of being a populist, actually, which I was very amused by. But I do have a definitely sociopolitical vision of how the world operates or how it can be understood.
ZIERLER: On the question of who counts as a historical actor, have there been shifts in attitudes about race, class, and gender over the course of your career that have compelled you to shift your own thinking about who counts as a historical actor?
BREWER: Yes. There is a sort of periodization to that, which is in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, certainly in Britain, and I think also in Europe, what were considered to be the important social questions had to do with class. Race has come much later. What's interesting is, early on, there was a lot of interest in empire amongst European historians, but less about the position of indigenous people of color. Class, then gender, then race. I remember being interviewed by a British journalist when I was teaching at Harvard in the 1980s, and he asked me what the most significant change was that'd happened in my time, and I said feminism. He was from a conservative paper. He never said anything about what I said on this occasion. [Laugh] He wanted to write a piece about how private institutions were much better than public institutions, which is the piece he wrote, but I didn't say anything about that, so he just wasn't interested. But class was really the primary issue early on. The question was, how did you analyze the relationship between class and politics? I had read quite a bit of Marx when I was at school, though I was never really a Marxist, but I was very interested in a class interpretation of politics. And I continued to be interested in that, until, really, I came to feel that it was an analysis with diminishing returns. And then, I would think that in the 80s, 90s, and onwards, it became clear that the whole issue of gender, women's politics, and so on, became much, much more important in the academy. I have to confess, I have gestured in that direction but probably not pursued it as much as I might. Then, on race, I think that, really, what's been happening recently is absolutely fascinating, particularly in Britain more than continental Europe and in the US.
I'll give you an example. I'm supposed to be an expert on 18th century Britain, but I did not know until probably 10 or 15 years ago that British slaveholders were paid substantial reparations for the abolition of slavery. I just didn't know that until this very important project in University College, London, investigated all of this. It showed that, for instance, illustrious figures like David Cameron came from families that had received substantial reparations. If you're thinking about a question like, "What is the legitimacy of reparations?" it's worth bearing in mind that a lot of white slaveholders received a lot of reparations in the early 19th century. Anyway, there's been a gradual and progressive shift. It's not that issues of class or gender have gone away, but I see there's a real difference between the Anglo-Saxon world and the European world on the issue of race. There's a very different kind of emphasis in academic work.
ZIERLER: An overall question when you have an idea for a project. When is it appropriate to develop it into a book, and when is it an article?
BREWER: In my experience, all projects start off as being relatively defined, and then metastasize in ways that rapidly grow beyond your control. This wasn't an article, but with the Sinews of Power project, I was asked to write a textbook, and I thought, "I'll divide it up into state, society, culture, three bits, which I'll start working on." And I started working on the state bit, and I thought of that as several chapters in the book. And then, I suddenly realized, "No one's really thought about this question properly." Then, that became something I really wanted to develop. But I think serendipity is one of the very best ways to operate for research. You don't quite know what you're going to come up against.
I remember, years ago, having a graduate student who was absolutely determined to do something, which was virtually impossible, given the material that was available to him. And as much as I tried, he couldn't really embrace the idea of sufficient flexibility to be able to redefine the project in such a way that it was realizable. Especially with historical projects that depend, first of all, on sources, which may or may not exist, and secondly, on what is a very, very scattered collection of data. Not as scattered in some areas as others, but it is. You have, in some sense, to constitute the archive or the data in order to realize the project. How do you do that? If you're just writing an article about a famous political figure, you go off, read the person's archive, look at their interactions with a bunch of other people, and it's pretty well-defined. But if you're doing something slightly more fungible, you're going to have to find different ways of finding out about things, and I find that absolutely fascinating.
For instance, when I was writing Sinews of Power, I knew there were all these organizations that were lobbying the government in order to introduce particular forms of taxes or tax breaks for different kinds of occupations, and these organizations seem to have operated through a kind of network of business associations. But when you looked in their minutes and looked at what they were supposedly discussing, there was nothing there. Nothing. Almost nothing. There was some fragmentary evidence that seemed to show that in all sorts of ways, they were doing this.
Then, I went and looked at the petty account books of these associations. There was a treasurer who had to keep a book. What was in the book? Page two, to X legal firm, so much money for writing a parliamentary petition to do this. Paid for lunch for six members of parliament. All of this stuff, which they were concealing. They didn't want it to be known about. It was all laid out perfectly because this guy had to account for all the money. He kept a great deal of detail. How much money they spent on publishing, or newspaper advertisements, or publishing pamphlets, or trying to bribe people. It was wonderful. But you have to think laterally or try to think in these ways to find the sorts of material that will give you something that you think is there. I don't know that that's an answer to whatever question you asked. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: When you have an article or a book on a topic.
BREWER: The trajectory of most historical writing is one in which people write a number of articles around a project and then eventually produce a book. It's rare, I think, for someone to produce a book–they may want to produce a book from the beginning, but you really need a series of stages. Because on the whole, the reason it's sometimes difficult for people in, say, the sciences to understand why you should write a book rather than endless papers is because in a book, you're putting together a series of things that inter-connected.
I'm very struck by the failure of us in the humanities to explain to scientists that what we do is not what they do, even though what we do is collaborative. At the Clark Library I ran a huge three-year, once-every-two-weeks-seminar research project and brought together all sorts of people. It was a big, big collaborative project. But the object of the project was not, as it were, to produce a series of papers with six authors, and with everybody more or less contributing to the outcome. The object was to create an environment in which individual work could flourish and be better through these interactions. But it still, at the same time, was, in a way, highly individualized. There are quite a lot of historical projects, especially ones involving number rather than language, that benefit from having three or four people involved, or more. But in projects that do involve language–and that's what most, other than social-science history or demographic history, involves–means that, in some sense, the work is going to be the singular product of a particular author. But someone who should draw upon and be stimulated by, and also stimulate others, to do their own thing. It's more atomized, it's more individualized. The best work is always going to be like that.
ZIERLER: On the question of book publication, for all of the hand-wringing about the state of academic book publishing, are you bullish about current prospects, in looking to the future? Is it still good and possible to publish when you have a decent project?
BREWER: Well, in the humanities, the academic-publishing industry has always been a mess, in the sense that there are very large numbers of monographs, which are read by a tiny group of people. And I've never really quite understood the fetish of the book in this context. That's what drives a lot of seeking a publisher, that if it's available, even if it's vetted or refereed in some way, if it isn't in that form, it doesn't have the kind of career-advancing power that the text you can hold in your hand has. That's somewhat diminished, but it's still there. I've always thought that, really, a lot of this stuff, we really don't need to publish it.
Again, it's very different in different contexts. In Europe, there are publishers that do nothing but publish dissertations, for which they're paid by the PhD student. When I was in Florence, I was chairman of the Publications Committee at the European University Institute, and we spent most of our time deciding whether or not we would pay subsidies to European publishers for publishing works produced by our graduate students. That's rather different from the system in which you really need a kind of academic-press publisher. And academic presses have always been hypocrites in the sense that they cry scholarship, but they also always cry money. Some presses have been quite successful. I think OUP, Oxford University Press, over the years has done this quite effectively. They run monographic lists for essentially what are monographic PhDs, but they're lucky, they've got the bible, and the dictionaries, and so on, which provides them with the wherewithal to be able to do this.
What has changed in my working life is that, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, I could write a history book, which a non-academic press would take, and which was nevertheless a scholarly book–a book like Pleasures of the Imagination was published by Farrar, Straus in the US, and by Harper-Collins in the UK. A book like that will almost certainly not be published, unless it's about a very particular topic –if it's about race now, or if it's about 20th-century history, especially the old cliché about Nazis, World Wars, and so on, it'll fly. But really, it's quite difficult. This is true of the publishing world in general, the middle has gone. There's a top, which has a number of famous authors who are promoted and sell very, very large numbers of copies. But there used to be a kind of middle, in which there were people who could make a modest income. I'm not saying, as an academic, I would do that, but there are people who have written history books, which are not pot-boilers, they're more than that, but that sort of historical writing. But that's to do with the decline in reading. And the market for those sorts of books, which used to be broader, is now confined to the costa geriatrica, essentially.
ZIERLER: You mentioned briefly some of your current work. What are some projects you're looking to in the future? What's on the plate for you?
BREWER: I have a whole series of essays, which I've never published or have been published in obscure places, about three of the things I've always been very interested in. One of which is about art market's value in the art world, patronage, and so on. Also, about attribution, authenticity, reproduction, those kinds of issues. There's a group of those essays I'd like to work out. Secondly, I have written a number of pieces rethinking the work we did on consumption in the 1980s, on consumerism. And I would like to include those. Then, there's this third strand, which is a strand about the nature of writing of history. Particularly, I've been very interested in two issues. One is an issue about narrative, but the other is an issue about space and distance and about historical distance.
There's a Canadian historian, Mark Salber Phillips, who's written extremely interestingly about this whole question of places and distance. And this is how I got into the issue of reenactment because re-enactors believe, in some sense, that they're able to collapse the distance between the present and the past in some way, usually through wearing silly costumes. But very rarely, actually, through having philosophical debates or something like that. It's military re-enactment very often. But the question of how you negotiate what is different about the past and what is similar–because you have to build a bridge. People are always saying, "Oh, history is presentist." Of course, it's presentist. It has to be, in some sense, to be intelligible. But at the same time, it needs, in some way, to be able to explain a difference. And achieving some kind of balance about those things, or negotiating, or finding ways of making people see that seems to me to be extremely important. I've written a number of papers about this. One of them is the one I mentioned about neo-realism, because that's a rather interesting solution to the question of how you establish a kind of connection with the past.
ZIERLER: Since going emeritus in 2017, have you remained connected to Caltech? Obviously, the caveat there is the pandemic right in the middle.
BREWER: For family reasons, I moved away from California, so that's been, in some sense, an inhibition. I have been advocating for many years for Caltech to have some kind of program in the humanities in visual studies. Once they'd seen the back of me, they decided they were going to have such a thing. [Laugh] And I've contributed to that on a number of occasions, and I still remain in contact with a number of colleagues. But I haven't spent as much time either in Southern California or at Caltech as I would like, actually. But that's really to do with a set of familial circumstances. When you're the retired partner of somebody who has a job, unless you're really obstinate, you'll move around.
ZIERLER: Where are you currently located?
BREWER: It's complicated. Partly in Boston, and partly in Munich. My wife, who's German, her mother is very seriously ill. We're sort of commuting between the two. She has a job at Harvard, working in the History Department there, partly as an administrator, and partly as a research coordinator. But most of that work can be done online. We've been flitting back and forth. And I have a courtesy appointment with the department, which I was in back in the 1980s.
ZIERLER: That courtesy appointment, do you teach? Or can you, if you want to?
BREWER: Given the crisis in the humanities–what's interesting about this is, I said I would be very happy to do a bit of teaching, and I particularly wanted to teach in the Harvard Freshman Seminar program. I was on the committee, when I was at Harvard, that vetted the proposals for teaching in this program. It's a very interesting freshman program, which ran courses that were outside the usual curriculum. But the regular faculty at Harvard are so anxious, and with very good reason, about getting undergraduates into history courses that they, themselves, want to teach these freshman program courses. Basically, there are not enough humanities students for somebody who, in some sense, has a courtesy affiliation to the institution. I don't want to prevent the exiting faculty from being able to recruit students to their courses. I have done graduate readings, for people who are preparing for their general exams in a field. I've done some of that, individual teaching. But I haven't done any course teaching, no.
From Pasadena to Munich
ZIERLER: Tell me about life in Munich. First, do you speak German? Do you feel at home there?
BREWER: I'm very much a kind of European urbanite. Although I love LA in all sorts of ways, I don't like the fact that there isn't the kind of street life that–there are places where there's street life, but it's not the same. Munich has a very bad, dark history. It was a great center of fascism, although, of course, it did briefly have a socialist republic at the end of the first World War. But it's now a very cosmopolitan city by German standards. As a friend of mine said to me, "Munich is the northernmost city of Italy." And that's, to some extent, true. There are large numbers of Italians, a lot of Greeks, a lot of Turks, of course. It's a city of neighborhoods, and it's a city which is also very corporate. The Google headquarters in Europe is being built here. They employ something like 10,000 people in Munich.
At the same time, there are tons, and tons, and tons of small businesses everywhere, little workshops, people who have funny little businesses. There are thousands of cafes and so on. It's very lively in that way, especially in the summer, when it becomes like a Mediterranean city because everybody's outside. This time of year, it's not quite the same, when it's zero, as it is most of the time. Secondly, it is absolutely a cultural capital. If you're interested in classical music, it's amazing. Even during lockdown, I read some figure that there'd been 400 opera performances or something ridiculous. And there's contemporary music. The Bavarian radio station runs a series of concerts, and it has its own orchestra, which is going to be led by Simon Rattle fairly shortly. But we go regularly to the jazz concerts. You go and sit in what is a recording studio with probably 80 or so people, and you drink a beer and sit at a table, and you have these very, very interesting contemporary jazz musicians perform. They're basically performing in order to be recorded, but you're the live audience. It's very inexpensive.
There's all that culture. There are fantastic museums here. Last week, I went to see this big show of Max Beckmann, a major exhibition of his work. The art scene is very, very good. Culturally, it's very lively, and it has one of the best avant-garde theaters in Germany as well. All those things make it extremely interesting. My German is poor to bad, I would say. One of the problems is the way in which, post-Bologna, the academy is becoming increasingly anglicized. So much that's being done now is being done in English. Also, often, I'll start talking German, and somebody replies in English. Then, I ask them when they spent time in the US or the UK, and they say they've never been there. The level of general proficiency in the language is astonishing, but it's also a problem. [Laugh]
You have to watch TV and listen to the radio for German. But it's a very interesting city, and it's also fascinating because it was essentially reconstituted after the second World War. 85% of the city center was destroyed. There were 700 bombers involved in two nights of raiding. That's a lot of hardware. The city's rebuilt a lot of it, but it was built on the old pattern. In my neighborhood, which is not far from the railway station, which was a prime target then, you walk around, and you can see the modern buildings. Munich was a very, very affluent city in the late 19th to early 20th century. A huge expansion in building went on through the mid-19th century. Quite a bit of that architecture has survived. Not all of it. It's a very interesting place to live, and it's very close to the Alps, and it's very close to Italy. Three hours, and you're in the Veneto. It has many advantages. I like it as a city.
ZIERLER: As you well know, Germany is making international headlines right now for its decision to send the Leopard tanks to Ukraine and all of the concerns about an escalation of the war. What's your sense of the mood in Germany right now?
BREWER: Troubled, I would say. The stakes about so many things have been changing in recent years. Everybody's worried about that, I think. Inflation is much less obvious than when I was back in the US, last. I was in Britain a couple weeks ago. And in both places, the impact of the war is, in some sense, more visible than it is here. Munich is run as a kind of paternalist public city. There's a big subsidy program, which protects people from energy costs. People are worried about the way in which there's a sort of reconfiguring of European politics and German politics as well. In going to Britain, I have a real sense of panic and anxiety, not just because of the war but because of inflation, Brexit, and so on. There's a real sense that things are going in ways that no one can really control. Here, I don't get that same sense. Germany's a very, very conservative culture, in a lot of ways. It moves very slowly. It's very interesting to compare the US and Germany in terms of bureaucratic functions and so on.
The bureaucracy here is huge and very slow-moving. On the other hand, they're processing three million Ukrainian refugees. But to give you a sense of what the bureaucracy is like, on my 75th birthday, I received a letter of congratulation from the Mayor of Munich and from the Prime Minister of Bavaria. How did they know? [Laugh] Because you're documented. At the same time, it's very paternalist that they should think that this is important, congratulate you. It's a very different kind of political environment in terms of its general assumptions about how the world operates and how government should work. There's very much a kind of corporatist, collectivist model. Although, of course, in German business, it's not quite the same. But from the point of view of governance–for example, in Munich, the main power company runs the trains, the trams, the power stations, the electricity, the internet service, all these things. Americans would say, "That's dreadful. It's a monopoly." But actually, it seems to work quite well, a lot better than a lot of private enterprise, to be honest. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: You mentioned previously the crisis in the humanities. I'm sure you're aware of the media attention to the dismal numbers of history PhDs gaining jobs in the academy. I wonder if you have a perspective on what it means circa 2023, versus when you were a newly minted PhD and looking at your prospects.
BREWER: Well, when I was a graduate student, a book appeared called A Crisis in the Humanities. There's been a crisis in the humanities ever since I can remember. Having said that, it was very interesting to me to go back to the Harvard History Department after leaving it in the late 80s. Here is, by all accounts, a very prestigious institution with a very fine humanities faculty in a state of panic, really, about student numbers and getting undergraduates to become majors in humanities subjects. The knock-on effect of that is, in terms of staffing, hiring, numbers–Harvard has taken a policy of really restricting the number of graduate students altogether, which isn't good in the longer run for research. I was at the University of Bologna for a month in November, and I was struck by the fact that a lot of the subjects that are under threat in the Anglophone world, that is to say history that isn't very contemporary, literatures, languages, or any form of investigation of cultures before the 20th century, did not seem to be suffering in Italy in the same way.
And the reason for that is not some cliché about neoliberalism, it's that it's still the case that in the high school system, the gymnasium or the liceo-classico, that the way in which you show you're the best student is, you study classical languages, cultures, or history in high school. What that means is, that's a constituency that is there for the university. It may be under some pressure, but it's a very different kind of situation. One of the things that I think has changed in the States in my time is that, when I was starting teaching in the 70s and 80s in the Ivy League, most of the students I taught were going to law school. That was their career trajectory. But they all thought that doing history courses was an important part of pre-law. Those who weren't thinking about going on to do a PhD–but they were in courses in considerable numbers.
I had a clear sense that a lot of these kids were pre-law. That doesn't seem to be so much the case. It's very difficult because I don't think that the evidence that you're going to enjoy a better life or, in fact, be richer as a result of doing these other subjects is necessarily true. Certainly, in Britain, I know that the work that's been done looking at career trajectories and so on shows that it isn't. Now, that may be part of a kind of more amateurish tradition that operates in Britain, which basically says, "If you're clever, you can do anything." What I'm trying to say is, it's difficult to persuade parents that there's high value in humanities courses, not just at the level of making you a better human being, all those old cliches about the humanities, which I'm suspicious of in many ways. If you learn the kinds of skills you should be learning about in the humanities, how to read and analyze, how to think critically, how to present ideas lucidly and coherently, that's basically what you need.
And having some sensibility or understanding of all of that seems to me to be an absolute good. I used to be the chair of the History and Literature program at Harvard. More recently I heard stories of people holding a meeting where they have students who are potential concentrators attending, and they've had their parents calling them up and telling them to get out of the room, that under no circumstances should they have anything to do with such a program. A lot of this helicopter parenting is really bad news, I think. [Laugh] Michael Sandel's book, The Tyranny of Merit, is extremely interesting on this subject. What have we done? We've created a kind of class of miserable overachievers with serious psychological problems who constantly need medical attention. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I'd like to ask a question as it relates to the importance of institutions for doing history. If you look over your career, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, UCLA, Chicago, all as prelude to what brings us together, of course, Caltech. How important is it for you, in terms of where you are administratively, for the kind of history that you do?
BREWER: I would answer that question slightly differently, by saying that what's important about these institutions is that they all offer something very different. For example, when I went to Harvard the first time in 1968, I was really shocked by the fact that historians were really interested in a whole series of things that I didn't think were terribly important or interesting, and they didn't think what I was interested in was terribly important. [Laugh] But later, when I was on the faculty there, I spent a lot of time with people in political science and social science, who were working on all this project about bringing the state back and state formation. When I was at Yale, I was working with art and literature people. The institution's a resource, and it's probably coincidental that certain bits of it were things that I got more interested in than others, but that's what helps stimulate you to do different things. I have the heretical view that the purpose of institutions is to facilitate the academic work of individuals. And that if they don't do that, they're not doing their job properly.
Why do you want to be a professor? I don't want to be a professor in order to have a title or some silly thing like that, I want to be in an environment in which I can pursue what I'm interested in in a way that's productive. And I have to say that one of the things since retiring from Caltech that I've come to realize is, in a great many respects, Caltech is completely ideal from this point of view. The emphasis there is on research, on letting people get on and do what it is they want to do, and also little sense of vulgar utility on the part of higher research, at least–students tend often to have this sort of rather vulgar utilitarian view until they learn better. But as a kind of environment for work, it's unparalleled.
Of course, its humanities resources are, in some respects, limited, the library and so on. But you're in Southern California, you can walk to the Huntington. The UCLA library is one of the finest university libraries in the country. The Getty Library is unparalleled. The things they have in there are astonishing. You have this incredible range of resources available to you, and Caltech gives you the freedom and environment to be able to do this. It also doesn't micromanage you, which is a cancer that is spreading at astonishing speed throughout the academy. The levels of interference, form-filling, and so on that are being required under the rubric of accountability, in which one needs to make oneself accountable to whom and for what is dreadful. I'm not saying that people should be allowed to get away with whatever they want, but this kind of management is really counterproductive, and it's what makes my friends in Britain totally miserable. They're having to deal with this at a very, very high level constantly.
ZIERLER: It's curious, when we look at institutions like Yale, Chicago, Harvard, UCLA, there are many more historians at these places than there are at a place like Caltech, yet you speak very positively about your experience as a historian at Caltech. I wonder if you can elaborate a little.
BREWER: I came to Caltech quite late in my career, in a way. I think doing the Vesuvius project had to do with two things, one of which was being at Caltech, and the other was having spent this time in Italy at the European University Institute in Florence, when I hadn't actually really written anything that was primarily about Italy. And I felt I'd like to have done that, but I had a sense of the culture, although a lot of Italians tell you that Naples isn't Italian. I thought a lot about how you should write the history of science. There was quite a lot of conflict in the division about this. But I think that, in a way, it was productive because it was something that really made you try to decide how it is you wanted to do this sort of thing.
I'm sure that several of my colleagues won't approve very much of my Vesuvius book, but I don't care. But being in a scientific institution and seeing–I did a project with a visitor, Frank Trentmann, and with people in the Sustainability Institute on scarcity, in which we brought together people who are engineers, scientists, economists, people in development studies, and so on. We had this two-day conference on scarcity, which eventually produced a book on it. It was very interesting to see all these different cultures clashing and the assumptions they had. There was no great make-up ending to this story, in which we all kind of agreed. That was far from the case. But it did bring out very starkly what these things were like. And going into a lab is a really fascinating experience because it's so far from what we do and so different in culture.
ZIERLER: With Caltech's focus, unique among all the places you've worked, on engineering and science, did that change your research at all? Were you immune to Caltech's idiosyncrasies, the way HSS fit in with all the other divisions?
BREWER: I think I was pretty immune. I spent quite a lot of time trying to explain to some of my colleagues how they needed to explain themselves better to the scientists, and I spent some time talking to scientists to try to explain to them that they didn't understand very well what we were doing. What's interesting about Caltech is, there are hierarchies that shift. It seemed to me that somehow, biology became more and more important. There was a sense that the biological sciences were doing better than the physical sciences. Maybe I'm completely wrong about this. It's just a general impression that I got. But I also always felt that the social scientists felt they needed to beat up on the humanists because the social scientists felt the hard scientists were beating up on them as not being scientific enough. [Laugh] And I always felt this was a waste of time as a kind of issue.
I wouldn't have done anything differently as a result, but I also think that's partly a matter of age and experience. I know some other colleagues have–we're all mindful of the place we occupy in the institution, but it is also a very privileged place. I always tell people that HSS is a small part of an institution, and humanities is smaller, but we're steady-state. The wisdom of those who oversee the institution in making sure that people have to continue to take humanities and social science courses is such that we're not in a position like the big schools, where the dean says, "Your student pool has shrunk by 60%. What are we going to do about it?" That doesn't happen to us. The anxieties that I find–because I was really surprised. I thought, "Harvard? Why would people in history be worried about this?"
That was also true in my historic experience. I was at Harvard in the 1980s, when a lot of very exciting things were going on in the History Department, a lot of very dynamic young faculty were there, student enrollments were high. We were a visible presence in the institution, and it was great fun. There were a lot of graduate students. Even though there were those who might say, "The hard sciences are where it's at," it didn't really seem to matter in the same way. But now, it's much, much harder. The danger, I think, is that it produces a kind of balkanization, that people hold onto their little bit and try and build their own bunker, which is an understandable response to the threats that exist, which are real. I'm not trying to pretend they're not. But I think there might be other ways of dealing with this situation. But it's very hard.
ZIERLER: Did you have, or could you have had, graduate students at Caltech?
BREWER: No. There are graduate students in economics and the business studies, but not generally in the humanities program.
ZIERLER: Was that troublesome for you?
BREWER: When I was teaching in the European University Institute, in the 90s, when I was in Florence, I had a huge number of graduate students. I was supervising something like 30 or 40 PhDs. Because there were no undergrads, that's what they were doing. People always said, "You only have to teach one seminar a week for three hours. It's an absolute boondoggle." And it's true that you had your own seminar every week, and that was it. But on the other hand, looking after 20 or 30 neurotic graduate students from all over Europe, many of whom were deeply confused–but no, it was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience and absolutely fascinating.
Partly because everybody came with a different set of assumptions and expectations, and a different education, which you had to understand in order to help them. But it was very, very exhausting. And I had some graduate students at the University of Chicago, which I was at briefly before I went to Caltech. But to begin with, at least, it was, in some ways, a relief not to have–on the other hand, I came to really feel the lack of being engaged in graduate education. The Huntington, to some extent, provided an outlet for that because there are regular seminars and meetings, and I'd meet a lot of people who are either graduate students or recent PhDs. But there's nothing more interesting than teaching a seminar of very highly motivated, relatively well-informed graduate students.
And in Florence, I taught these seminars where I'd take a general topic, like text and image for example –because people would be writing all sorts of things. I had students who wrote PhDs on North-European students in 15th-century Italian universities or World's Fairs in the 20th century. I'd find something I thought had an interesting body of work, and we'd all read and discuss it. What was great about it was, if something happened, you'd have 20 or 30 students, and you'd think, "Oh, we should follow that pathway." There was no course requirement, it was your teaching seminar, so you could then say, "We'll change things around a bit. We can look at this here," and so on. It was ideal in the sense of flexibility, and also that you had this student clientele that was diverse and extremely talented.
ZIERLER: What about on the undergraduate side at Caltech? Most of the students, of course, did not come here for history or literature. What were some of the challenges and opportunities on the teaching and mentorship side?
BREWER: I mentioned the fact that in this freshman course, I didn't think they needed to know all about early modern Europe –although, I remember some Asian students writing it was so fascinating to learn about European Christianity. [Laugh] Fine, fine. But what I hoped they would take away with them after they had done this course was a sense of how history was practiced and what it means as a discipline in many different kinds of ways, so they could say, "This is history," and why it might be good or bad. Also, to teach a little bit about how to engage with material from the past, reading original sources as well. When it worked, it was very satisfying. And of course, there's resistance. Quite a number of freshman come with a sort of very positivistic or fixed way of thinking, in which they think, "This has no validity because it's not demonstrably true in some way. It's worthless."
To try and overcome that is something I think is important. When I taught the course on the LA art world, we would go to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. We'd take the students there, and it was very interesting that there were two standard responses on the part of students to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. One of which was to enter into the spirit of the thing and to see that it is, in some ways, playing around with the authority of the museum, the power of the exhibit, and so on. Students would then say, "It's cool," in that deeply uninformative term. But some of the students would get really angry, and they would say, "This isn't true. It's a falsehood. It's a lie." And some undergraduates have what I call a fear of fiction. They want a certainty of a certain sort. They don't understand that fiction can open up worlds, and create different kinds of imaginaries, and so on. And that's something that's okay. I always worried that if students confined themselves exclusively to certain kinds of technical knowledge, they're depriving themselves of a larger imaginative world that is probably a better resource than TikTok.
The Foundational Basis for Humanities at Caltech
ZIERLER: Did you feel like you were fulfilling the vision of the Caltech founders who insisted that a humanities education was absolutely important to create a well-rounded Caltech alumnus?
BREWER: Yes, I think so. I think that would be certainly how I would construe what I was trying to do. In some cases, it worked. In others, it didn't. One thing one learns over the years as a teacher is that actually, the degree of control you have over the outcome of a course is–I remember I taught a course at Harvard on life-writing, biography, and so on. The first year I taught it, it was like taking a match and throwing it into a huge pile of petrol, and it would explode. The students were fantastic, wonderful, the discussions were great. One of them is a professor at Princeton now, another is a professor at NYU, another was one of the first women Rhodes Scholars. I taught the same course the following year, and I had no kindling, no tinder, no fire. [Laugh] Same course, same teacher, same thing. But it just didn't work. The group dynamic just wasn't there. We have to be humble, in a way, about what it is we can do. Which isn't to say we shouldn't try and do it. You're constantly surprised, though.
I remember a student in a course I taught on the history of collecting, who wrote about sampling in Caribbean clubs, in Jamaica. And it was an extraordinary piece of writing. You could've published it as it was. It was amazing. Every now and then, you'll get a student how will produce something really remarkable. Of course, it doesn't happen that often. One shouldn't expect it to. But that's where the rewards lie, I suppose. If I think about students in my courses, the ones I cherish and remember are the ones who are kind of odd. Like the lesbian couple who turned up to a seminar late because they had to take their pet rat to the vet. [Laugh] Or in the collecting course, the student who brought masses and masses of 60s and 70s computer equipment that he'd been collecting for years and years. Or the two students in the course who brought a collection of cans of processed meat because they treasured the labels. That's wonderful.
ZIERLER: Finally, last question for today, just a broad question about all of your scholarship. Is there one book or article that you're most proud of, that's had the greatest impact, that's changed the historiography in ways that have perhaps surprised you?
BREWER: Three or four of the books I've written, others have claimed have changed the historiography in the field. But do I have a favorite book? No.
ZIERLER: Is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?
BREWER: No, it's not. Every book has these sort of downsides and upsides to it. I don't know. I hate lists. [Laugh] I don't want to create this kind of hierarchy, I suppose, is the response. And I don't tend to look back a lot. I tend to look forward and think, "What's am I doing now?" That's the focus more than looking back.
ZIERLER: I suppose you could consider the question in two ways, if there's a book that was the most fun to research and write, or maybe there's a book you were most pleasantly surprised with how it was received.
BREWER: I think, in a way, this book on romantic Vesuvius is probably the book I've enjoyed writing the most. It hasn't seen the light of day yet, and I know it's going to make quite a lot of people cross because it touches on a whole series of fields and areas people are quite proprietorial about. I don't want it to be a book about that field, I want it to be about the interconnection of fields. The book that's had the biggest response in a way that's gratifying is Sinews of Power. I actually stopped writing that book because I got fed up with it, and I had to sort of wind it down and find a way of getting rid of it. But that's a book that's read–political science students in Seoul in South Korea read it as well as people in South America, as well as people in Europe. I don't know why, but it struck a chord.
There are books that are timely and untimely in historical writing. Someone needs to write this book now. And Sinews of Power seemed to be that book more so than any of the others. My first book was an attack on a widespread orthodoxy. It was at a kind of game-changer; with a lot of what happened after that happened as a result of what I take to be actually a misreading of the book, but never mind. Then, the big project on The Pleasures of the Imagination was actually a kind of synthesis of this research project I'd run for three years, and then beyond. That was a sort of ending, in a way, of a cycle. That was such a big project that I then wrote a series of little books. I don't know what more to add, really, about that.
ZIERLER: This has been, as an initial conversation, a great overview of your research and career. In our next discussion, we'll go all the way back to the beginning, learn about your family background and childhood, then we'll bring the story up from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Thursday, February 2, 2023. I'm delighted to be back with Professor John Brewer. John, once again, it's a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much.
BREWER: Well, thank you for having me.
ZIERLER: In our first conversation, we did a wonderful tour of your overall approach to research and scholarship, your wide-ranging historical interests. Today, let's go all the way back to the beginning. I want to learn about your family. Let's start with your parents. Tell me about them.
BREWER: My father was a surgeon, and my mother was a nurse. They met in Normandy during the Allied invasion. My father used to go back to Normandy every year and explain to the French how he'd liberated Europe. He had a rather grand sense of himself. But he was both a very, very conservative man–and I grew up in an extremely conservative environment, an English provincial, suburban environment. I went to a very, very conservative school. And my father was a sentimental conservative who took me to museums, and galleries, and so on all the time when I was a small kid. We used to go on these weekend trips to different country houses or museums in the north of England. I think a lot of my interest in material environment, consumption, and so on derived from him, although the way in which I understood that was very, very different.
I suppose I followed his sort of view of the world until I reached adolescence, then I jumped completely in the other direction. In our family, we always say that I left my father for my uncle, because I had an uncle who was a journalist, a very raffish character who we all said had debts, mistresses, and wives. [Laugh] And who was a quite successful freelance writer and also ran as a Communist Party candidate in Hampstead in the 1930s. He was very much on the far left, but also something of a libertine. A prodigy, really. Whereas my father, who felt jealous of my uncle, his elder brother, because he was sort of lionized as the great intellectual in the family, the one who went to Oxford, won a scholarship, and so on, my father always felt that he was the one who stayed at home, he went to the University of Liverpool, he became a very, very successful surgeon and a star student, and so on.
But he didn't quite get the recognition, I think he felt, from his family in the same sort of way. My father would quite often use my uncle's name, Leslie, when addressing me and vice versa when he was talking to his brother. He saw us as kindred spirits in certain ways. My mother was an absolutely typical–I'm the eldest of five children born in five years. It was a busy time, parenting. [Laugh] And she was a classic kind of 50s housewife, but at the same time, she was somebody who was extremely well-read. My father was professionally extremely successful, but he didn't have any literary interests. He was very interested in antiques. He wrote the standard guide to antique clocks after he retired. That was one of the many kinds of artifacts he was interested in. I'd come back from school, and the dining room table would be covered by the parts of some long-case clock that he'd taken apart. Maybe he thought there was some relationship between the sort of evisceration of this clock to the way in which he carried on as a surgeon. I don't know. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: For our American audience, where there's a very different connotation to the word conservative, when you use that term for your father, do you mean more in the mold of an Edmund Burke kind of person?
BREWER: Yes, I think that my father believed in tradition or thought that we all ought to believe in it, in various ways. He wasn't a sort of more modern conservative like in the US. He was undoubtedly racist and something of an antisemite. And in that way, I think he was very typical of somebody growing up in the 1930s in Britain, although British people don't like to admit that. But he was very politically naive and unsophisticated, I think. My mother was the wily one, the one who knew how to organize, maneuver things, and so on. He was something of a bull in a china shop, and that's one of the reasons why, although he was very highly regarded as a surgeon, he often wanted to become a professor in the university, but he had too many enemies and too many people who thought he was too outspoken.
ZIERLER: What were your parents' experiences during World War II?
BREWER: Well, they loved it is the short version of that. That is to say, for some people who were young people in that time–my mother was a nurse in London and dealing with rehabilitation in Scotland, then she went to Normandy. In retrospect, at least, they always spoke of these times very fondly. There was the nurturing of their romance, but it also gave, for instance, my father, having stayed at home all the time, occasion to go to India, to Egypt, he spent quite a long time in Palestine. He was working in a hospital where people from the African front were flown to be operated on and patched up. He enjoyed himself. Of course, that's far from the experience of lots and lots of people. But for them, the War was a kind of epiphany. It was an important moment for them. I still find myself sort of feeling, in certain ways, dominated by the second World War in a way that I think is actually very much a part of my generation.
ZIERLER: A fun question, a speculative question. For people who have an ear for such things, if they were to hear your accent, what might they assume about your class status, the neighborhood you grew up in, the kinds of schools you went to?
BREWER: Well, I don't sound like a Liverpudlian. I can talk like a Liverpudlian and explain to you what's going on, but I don't really talk like that. The only person in our family who ever talked like that is my little brother, and he did it because it was a form of rebellion against his parents. People will know that I'm probably from the North of England, but I have this sort of rounded-off version. People would say that I was middle-class but definitely not upper-class. Although, of course, in my generation at university, people did make a point of not speaking perfect Queen's English. Your accent was one of the ways in which you revealed not so much your class position, although that was part of it, but your politics. Your language was very important in that way. But so was the way you dressed. When I was a student, you could see very clearly when I was in Cambridge the difference between–there were two main groups in the college I was in, one of which was the rowing club, although not everybody rowed in it, but they were the conservatives. And then, there was the labour club, which was not the Labour Party club, but this amalgam of groups on the left, which included anti-Apartheid, CND, all those other things. And those two groups were very, very different and had separate cultures. They did come into conflict quite a bit as well during the 60s.
ZIERLER: Growing up, were you a voracious reader?
ZIERLER: What did you like to read?
BREWER: Well, in my adolescence, I read a book by a man called Colin Wilson called The Outsider, which is a kind of Mickey-Mouse guide to existentialism and talks about Sartre, Camus, Barbusse, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, and so on. I read this book when I was about 14 or 15, and for the next three or four years, I read everything that the book was about. I read a huge amount. I didn't read Jane Austen or anything like that. I was rather snooty about British novels. I'd never really liked Dickens because I think, like a lot of English school kids, you were forced to read Dickens perhaps at an earlier age than you should. I read a lot of continental European fiction and some philosophical work as well. That was one thing I read a lot of. The other thing I read a lot of was sociology. I have to explain that although I was a very cynical child, I was also very committed to this idea that social science, if practiced properly, could produce a much better world.
And that was part of a political moment in Britain when the idea was that there were all these old fogies, the Tory government or whoever, who weren't really competent to run anything, but who had run things almost by hereditary right, and that what we had emerging in Britain was a kind of meritocracy, in which people who were smart and well-informed could create a kind of better world if they were acquainted with social sciences. I read a lot of contemporary work on schooling and things like that. And in fact, I wasn't going to be a historian. I thought of myself as wanting to go and study social science in an interdisciplinary way. I was going to go to the University of Sussex, which was one of the new universities in Britain, which had this very flexible interdisciplinary curriculum. I didn't go, mainly because I won a scholarship in history to Cambridge at a very young age, and it was virtually impossible for me to refuse it. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: At least in your early childhood, did you witness the post-War recovery of Britain? Would you see bombed-out areas?
BREWER: Oh, yes. Liverpool was quite badly bombed in the second World War. When I was young, I used to go with my father, who went as a surgeon on what they would call domiciliary visits. A general practitioner would say, "Would you go and see this person?" He'd take me in the car, we'd go together, I'd have a book, and we would drive all over different parts of the city, including some inner-city neighborhoods and some very poor neighborhoods. All over the place, there was bomb damage. There wasn't much rebuilding in the city before the 1960s. There was a lot of scarred landscape.
ZIERLER: When would you say you started to form an independent political identity?
BREWER: I would say about 15. There's an irony about this. The local library was an Andrew Carnegie Foundation library. He gave money to all kinds of public libraries in Britain. The Pittsburgh handloom-weaver-come-millionaire. I used to go into that library to sit and read. That's when I first started reading Marx. As I think I mentioned before, it was the work on the 1848 revolution and the Communist Manifesto, not Das Kapital, which I would've never understood. And I also had a very close school friend who became an architect who also went to Cambridge with me, who came from a radical family. He's related to the Pankhursts, the English suffragette family. And he used to give me quite a lot of things to read. We used to hang out together and talk a lot of politics. I think that was really the point at which I really started to feel a very different kind of political identity.
I'd always been a rebellious student. I went to this public, i.e. private, school in Liverpool, which my parents were very keen that I go to. It was basically Victorian muscular Christianity. The headmaster said once in response to a question, "How do you know you're getting closer to God?", "You know you're getting closer to God when you heel the ball cleanly in the rugby scrum." That was the level of it, really. Again, it was an incredibly conservative institution and not really a particularly academically distinguished one. It had one history teacher who was enormously important for me and one literature teacher who was also immensely talented. And I studied geography as a third main area. In Britain, from 15 onwards, you're only studying three subjects. It's very, very narrow.
Those teachers were important, and they were invaluable, even though I thought that the general school environment was one that I didn't care for at all. I played a lot of sport, but as I got older, I found ways to kind of exit from this move towards–I actually, in the last year or two at school, played hooky an enormous amount. I just didn't turn up and read or whatever it was. I was also the school atheist. The headmaster, who used to teach these religious classes, all my friends would try and get me to argue with him so they could read or do something else in class while I was arguing with him. Liverpool, at that time, was extremely interesting. This is the early 60s. Although there was this suburban life of tea parties, bourgeois gentility, and immense snobbery, if you got outside that world and went into the city, which I did more and more with this friend who became an architect–we spent a lot of time going to theaters, or poetry readings, or performance art.
A lot of this culture was built around the area near the Liverpool art school, which is where John Lennon was a student, of course, but many others, all these Liverpool poets and so on. There was this sort of avant-garde–I remember when Yoko Ono came to Liverpool before she began her relationship with John Lennon. She sat in a theater space in which you were invited to take a pair of shears and cut her clothes off. All this épater la bourgeoisie stuff that was going on, happenings that were organized through people who taught in the art school. And people don't really realize that the Liverpool music scene, which everybody does know about, was actually part of a much broader-based scene. Paul McCartney's brother, for example, was a quite well-known Liverpool poet. He never became the star that his brother was. But there was this whole environment, and there were these magazines people produced.
There was one called Underdog. There was quite a vibrant culture out there, in which you could slum into, in a way. My parents didn't like this at all, but it was somewhere to go in the evenings or on the weekends. Also, there were a number of very famous pubs in Liverpool, great Victorian drinking palaces of the most extraordinary kind, with pink marble toilets and special areas where you could sit and commune with one another. There, you could go and just join in a conversation or meet people in that way. It was very, very vibrant. The most famous of those pubs was called The Craic. Craic is the Irish term for kind of rigorous conversation, the craic. That was what it was like. There was, of course, in Liverpool, a very strong Irish influence.
ZIERLER: Did the Cold War loom large in your childhood, duck-and-cover, those kinds of things?
BREWER: I think at an institutional level, there was much less of that than there was probably in the US. I remember, however, being very, very frightened in 1953 about the possibility of a war with China. And we did have people who came to the school, who again, I got into fierce arguments with, who gave anti-Communist talks, in which they claimed that trade-unionists were actually reds under the bed. But I don't think it was as obtrusive as it was in the US.
Awakenings at Cambridge
ZIERLER: Getting into Cambridge, it raises the question, if you were playing hooky your last years of high school, how did you get in? Who did you impress?
BREWER: I partly played hooky because I'd taken the scholarship exam early, and I'd already gotten the scholarship, so I didn't need to go to school. [Laugh] But with Cambridge, it was interesting, there was a very small group of us at school, about four or five boys, who were doing history or English and were thought of as potentially going to Oxbridge and were taught separately, actually, from the other pupils. And we did a lot of very, very interesting work. I was thinking about this the other day. I remember I was very interested in Russian history at that point. I remember writing an essay about pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century, which I had to research all on my own. I'd also written about Peter the Great earlier. But we had these teachers who would encourage you and help you to do things on your own. And then, in those days, you did the scholarship exam, which was a two-day examination that included Latin, which I was not very good at, and a series of history papers, then kind of general-knowledge public/civic stuff. You just went to Cambridge and sat this exam, then you had an interview with some of the teachers in the college. Those were the people you had to get past.
ZIERLER: What year did you arrive at Cambridge?
ZIERLER: What was the scene like at that point? What do you remember?
BREWER: This sounds terrible, but I had been at the Sorbonne for six months before that, and I'd been living in Paris on my own. When I got to Cambridge, it was like going back to school. It seemed very narrow to me, in a lot of ways. People who were getting their first outing in the world, in a way. Although, you lived in a college, and it was a single-sex institution, and they closed the gates at 11 o'clock, this kind of thing. But otherwise, I was in a college which was primarily made up of people from grammar school, Sidney Sussex College. It's a small college and not the sort of college where toffs go, although one future cabinet minister of Margaret Thatcher was one of my contemporaries, but he was regarded by most of us as an aberration. [Laugh] But politics was very, very prominent. Everybody talked politics.
It was interesting, compared with when I went to America in 1968, there were almost no drugs. It was a boozy culture rather than anything else, as British academe still is to this day. [Laugh] In retrospect, I can't get over the privileges we enjoyed. I went back a couple years go to give a talk to my old college history society at their annual dinner, the so-called Confraternitas Historica, and it reminded me of just what an incredible privilege it is to have an education like that. We were a tiny group of people, probably 2% of the cohort at that point, but what we got was something quite extraordinary. You're being taught one-to-one by a professor, you're writing every week, you're writing two or three thousand words, you're given a reading list to go off and do your own work, and if you are a talented student, you're given a lot of recognition. At the end of my first term at Cambridge, my teacher arranged a lunch party in which he invited a group of graduate students, the English literature professor. He put on a little lunch for me.
I don't think many freshman in many institutions have this experience nowadays. Of course, in my year, we were 10 students doing history, and we had three professors in the college. All of them, I think, wonderful people. Some better teachers than others. But the resources available were astonishing. The library facilities, the other people you could meet. When you have a very small elite like that, one of the things is that inside it, it can be much more egalitarian than a more egalitarian, a bit more of a broadly based system. Especially given that the English idea is, it's always about whether or not you're clever. It's not about what you know, it's about what you can do. That's part of a very longstanding amateur tradition in Britain, and it's not so much concerned with technology. I say that I wanted the world to be led by people who knew about technical things, but still, the idea was that the people who did that were people who had competence.
My closest friend at Cambridge became a leading civil servant in the British Treasury. Straight after he graduated, he was put in charge of the matrix whose job it was to predict what the British economy was going to do. This was in 1969. He had studied no economics. All he had done was a special subject on political economy in India in the 19th century. He went onto be the Treasury spokesman, he was a brilliant guy, but he wasn't an economist. [Laugh] He was simply the person who came top of the civil service exam, and so was put in this position. It's a very different sort of world. It is very enclosed and very privileged, and you were aware of a lot of things, but you were also very closeted, I think.
ZIERLER: Were there women undergraduates, non-white students?
BREWER: At that point, the colleges were separated by sex, so there were women's colleges. There were no mixed colleges. In the 1980s was the beginning of the way in which the colleges started to cease to be single-sex institutions. I forget what the ratio was, there was probably one female student to 10 male students. And the female students were different from the male students in the 1960s because they were nearly all from very wealthy backgrounds, whereas in my time, a lot of the students–many of my fellow students came from blue-collar or skilled-worker backgrounds, or had gone through state schools, grammar schools. In the 60s and early 70s, Oxbridge was more democratic than it became in the 80s and onwards, until more recently.
On race, I knew two people of color when I was a student. One of them was Prince Patrick Ruhinda, who was a lawyer and who was subsequently disappeared and murdered by Idi Amin, and the other one was an Indian guy I shared lodgings with when I was out of college. His father was head of the Delhi police force. Both of these people were very upper-class, ex-colonial. It was only in the 1980s, again–oh, no, that was the 70s. Diane Abbott, who is Afro-Caribbean, who became a shadow minister, and who I knew quite well, was the only woman of color I knew. She was a very active university presence. In that period of the 70s, when I was in Cambridge, I was very much involved in efforts to make institutional reform and curriculum reform, and she was also very active in that. But these were essentially white institutions.
ZIERLER: Was your academic focus as an undergraduate history from the very beginning?
BREWER: It was only history, yes.
ZIERLER: What were some of the big schools of thought in history, some of the historiographical debates that you remember from those days?
BREWER: In 1966, the Times Literary Supplement published a special number called New Ways in History that laid out an agenda for what history should be or should become. Essentially, that was a history of ordinary people. In that issue, there was no gender history. There was nothing about race, although there was about empire, which is where kind of race got parked in Britain in the 70s, I would say. There were schools of what were thought of as social history or the new social history. When we were talking last time, we talked about this question of who counts in history, putting different sorts of people in different classes in, ordinary people. And there was also the beginnings of a school derived from France, from the Annales school.
There was an institute for the study of population that began around about that time. But really, the big debate was one between a political history, which as I mentioned last time, was a narrative history, not analytical, and was about a tiny number of players, and any other sort of history, whether it be economic history, social history, or demographic history, that was more inclusive and which, in some sense, took societies rather than elites as their primary unit of study. That, I would say, is what the map was like. That said, Cambridge was full of very larger-than-life senior professors. My PhD supervisor was a man called J. H. Plumb, a leading figure of a certain kind of social history. A man called Geoffrey Elton. A Jewish refugee from Germany whose name was Ehrenberg, he was a very traditional political historian and made a very strong powerful case in the institution for that kind of history.
At the same time, there was a long tradition in Cambridge of both economic history and also the history of empire. Not just as a kind of top-down exercise, but many very distinguished scholars of Anglo-Indian relations, for example, taught in Cambridge. The other thing I haven't mentioned, and which was probably the most exciting when I was there, was what subsequently has become known as the Cambridge school, which is the study of political thought and political and social theory as a historical object, and whose star was Quentin Skinner. We would get up very, very early, or what we thought very early, to go to the lectures he gave, which were full of people because he was really working out what he thought about a great many things in his lectures. And they were stellar performances. He's one of those brilliant people who's dangerous in a way because even when they're wrong, they're staggeringly persuasive.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your decision to stay at Cambridge in 1968 for graduate school and if you thought of yourself as a Cambridge man at that point.
BREWER: Well, I didn't stay in Cambridge in 1968, I went to Harvard, the other Cambridge. I went on a fellowship for a year, and I studied with Bernard Bailyn. That was the first time I sort of denaturalized the history I was doing, realizing that history is something that's very different in different places with different kinds of preoccupations and concerns. It gave me a sense of perspective that I've always had. It also made me realize that different institutions offer very different sorts of intellectual resources. It was a very interesting year. 1968-69, the university was closed for much of the spring, there was this strike in the university because there was an occupation of the university buildings, which was cleared out by the local police rather strong-handedly. There, politics was everywhere. It was fascinating to be somewhere where there was only one big real topic of discussion, which was the Vietnam War. It was so interesting to be somewhere something was so present, and yet so far away.
Of course, it was as also the point at which most of the people I knew who were undergraduates–I remember everybody talking about what they were going to do regarding the draft lottery, whether they were going to go into the Peace Corps, people fabricating a kind of gay identity for themselves to get out of it, and lots and lots of protest. I thought what happened at Harvard in spring of '69 was extraordinary. The university had these huge town meetings in the football stadium, and they had microphones set up so that you could go and speak. And there was a guy in the center who had the switch. You were allowed 10 or 15 minutes, and then you were turned off. But people successively went, hundreds of people, who then engaged in this kind of debate. It was quite remarkable. It's sort of like Athenian democracy or something. But it was very intellectually disruptive. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: To clarify, you came to Harvard to start a PhD program? It wasn't a short-term appointment?
BREWER: No, I came as a visiting fellow. Basically, I could do whatever I wanted. I went to John Rawls's lectures on justice, I went to some philosophy things, Stanley Cavell. And I audited various courses. Then, I was trying to formulate a research project, which was actually what I used as an application for a research fellowship back in Cambridge. I was enrolled as a graduate student in Cambridge, but actually, I never was a pure graduate student. I was this visiting fellow at Harvard, then I went back to Cambridge, and I was what's called a research fellow, which means that you can also teach, and you become part of the fellowship of the college. I gave my first lecture course a year later in 1970. It's very fast. [Laugh] It's an extraordinarily swift trajectory, if you'd like. And I remember, I wasn't going to do a PhD. People like Quentin Skinner never had a PhD. It was something that you did if it was necessary. And I remember having a conversation with Plumb, my research supervisor. He said to me, "I think you maybe should think about doing this. The world is changing, and jobs are getting more and more difficult. It's probably better if you have this kind of qualification, especially if you end up outside Cambridge."
ZIERLER: Did you give consideration to staying at Harvard for graduate school? Would that have been an option for you?
BREWER: I talked a bit about it with Bailyn, and he would've supported me doing so. But I wasn't really ready for that. And I found the year at Harvard–I misinterpreted it radically in the sense that I thought what 1968-69 was like was what America was like, whereas, of course, it was a sort of world turned upside down. [Laugh] And I had still mentors and friends in Cambridge, England, who I wanted to go back to.
ZIERLER: To return to a previous question, did you see yourself as a Cambridge man? Meaning that Cambridge is the best place in the world, and why would you ever be anywhere else?
BREWER: Oh, no, I never thought along those lines. Those sorts of institutional questions, I'm not really the person to respond to them because I'm not a very institutional person at all temperamentally. I will do my due diligence and so on, but it's not what matters with me. When I was a research fellow in Cambridge, I can remember sitting at a high table, where all the fellows sit separately at dinner, and thinking to myself, "Am I going to spend the rest of my life sitting with these people? My God." [Laugh] And I was very intellectually excited by America. I was very much captivated by the sort of can-do attitude. The opportunity to try anything seemed so much greater. There's a wonderful book called Microcosmographia Academica, which was written by F. M. Cornford in 1908. But it captures perfectly what British academic politics was like for almost ever. One of the first sentences in the book is, "There is only ever one reason for doing anything. All of the other reasons are for doing nothing."
And the reason why British academe got shafted by Thatcher in the 80s is partly because they put up such a poor showing for themselves. A lot of people who were interested were working very hard, but an awful lot of people, especially outside the most prestigious institutions, were doing very little work at all. And I felt that America was more intellectually vibrant. I had this circle of friends and so on in England, but I think in some ways, we felt rather embattled, whereas I felt in America–it was a cliché about the being the land of opportunity, but intellectual opportunity more than anything else. That's one of the reasons I then did move to the States. I was interested in going back. And then, I went to St. Louis for a year to Washington University, where there were two very distinguished British historians there. Each was on leave for one of the two quarters, so I spent a year teaching for one, then teaching for the other. And that was a fascinating experience as well.
ZIERLER: You mentioned experiencing political tumult at Harvard. What about back at Cambridge? Did the sixties appear on campus? Was there a counterculture and anti-war movement on campus?
BREWER: Oh, yeah, very much so. But the politics were a mixture of groups. I mentioned anti-Apartheid. People forget anti-Apartheid was very, very big. And that's the sort of racial politics with this sort of ex-imperial context. But there were lots and lots of demonstrations. I remember, though, riots in Grosvenor Square outside the American embassy in London because I had friends who had gone there and had ended up fighting with the police. I remember meeting them when they came back and them being terribly, terribly upset about what had happened, that they'd gotten themselves into this kind of conflict. One of the things that always interested in me, like in Harvard in '68, '69, some of the most radical people were very upset about what happened in the university, whereas other people thought it was great who weren't really very political. It was a kind of party, or spring riot, or something. But others who were perhaps more thoughtful found this confrontation with authority, although they thought things were wrong, difficult.
ZIERLER: Did you become political? Did it change your scholarship during those years?
BREWER: There is no conversion moment here. The politics was already there, and the ideas that I had about what I wanted to write and how I wanted to do it were already formed. What I was trying to do in my early work was combine the sort of work that was being done by the Cambridge school, which was about ideology, ideas, political ideas, with a kind of social history, which most of my contemporaries and friends felt should only be a history of the laboring classes. To me, that didn't make a lot of political sense. I've always been very interested in writing about politics, and I wanted, in a way, both to redefine the kind of political history that was being done, but to do it by taking this detailed analysis of political arguments and political ideas, but also putting it into a context of political activity. Not necessarily electoral activity, but rather in other forms of political association, organizing, radical groups, and so on. There was always this political context. It was always there.
ZIERLER: Tell me about developing your dissertation topic.
BREWER: In my final year as an undergraduate, I had worked with a man called Sir Herbert Butterfield. You probably know him as the guy who wrote a rather bad book about the history of science, but he also wrote a good deal about politics, and he taught a special subject. These special subjects are a final-year thing where you read loads and loads of documents, and you have to construct your own version of history out of them with the guidance of some professor. And he worked on 18th-century politics, and particularly the politics of George III. And I started reading all of this stuff, and at that point, I had been interested, actually, in writing something about the history of early American education. But I found this special subject absolutely fascinating, and it was also the center of this very conservative political interpretation.
I thought, "Here is an opportunity to go into the heart of this and really stir it up, change it." And that was the impetus behind the dissertation and its topic. It focuses on the first 10 years of George III's reign. Namier, the historian who was famous for defining all of this, wrote a book called The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. And I published a book that was called Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III. It was a deliberate sort of challenge in the face of the orthodoxy. That was the impetus for it, and it entailed reading vast numbers of newspapers and pamphlets. What I'd learned from Bailyn at Harvard in '68, from his work on the ideological origins of the American revolution, was that this kind of literature was enormously important in shaping opinion, values, and commitment. What I was doing, in a way, was taking something Bailyn had been doing in the American context and putting it into the English context, where it had been largely ignored.
ZIERLER: Did you see yourself as innovating in that regard? Was this a new approach in the British style?
BREWER: Yes. Definitely.
ZIERLER: Did it catch on? When you look at the literature, do you see an impact from that approach?
BREWER: That's a very interesting question. The impact it had was that people started taking notice a lot more of all this kind of source material and analyzing it. That is true. But what I was trying to do there was not just say, "There's this alternative political world," but examine the relationship between the more institutional political world and this other world that I was uncovering. It was about the dynamics of those two things. That's something that people didn't really take up in a way that I would've hoped. One or two people have done, but on the whole, not.
Entering American Academia
ZIERLER: After you defended, did you think when you went to Washington University that you wanted to build a life in the United States? Was that sort of the goal?
BREWER: I was very interested in doing that, yes. I wasn't quite sure how it was going to happen, and I think I still felt that a lot of my intellectual roots were back in Britain, even though, as I say, they were quite restricted. What was so interesting about Wash U was that it was full of very, very radical women. The reason for that was that there were all these young radical women whose parents didn't want them to go to those dens of vice and communism on the East or West Coast, and sort of persuaded them or pushed them into going to Wash U, where they were extremely discontented. young people like this. The first time I met Juliet Mitchell, the famous English feminist, was at Washington University. It was a real hotbed of radical feminists who were all fighting with the kind of European high theorists, who were, of course, European sexist males. [Laugh] It was great fun, a lot of pyrotechnics about it. But it was a very good institution, very interesting literature and political science departments, sociology department, all of them.
ZIERLER: Were you focused on revising the dissertation into a book project at that point?
BREWER: Actually, I hadn't defended my thesis at that point. I'd written most of it. In a way, that year was a sort of revising, waiting to go back to be examined. And I had actually thought about leaving the academy because I was not altogether happy about–I don't know, I think it was just my usual intellectual wandering. I was interested in actually doing something in investigative journalism. Which is very similar to what you do as a historian, really. I always thought it would be really interesting to do that, but I couldn't really see a way of–I decided what I would do was apply for jobs, and if I didn't get a job, I would sort of start over. But unfortunately, or fortunately, I did get a job, so I didn't do it. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: When you came back to defend, did you have the lecturer position in-hand at that point? Did you know you would stay on the faculty?
BREWER: Yes, I did.
ZIERLER: Who made that offer, or how did you come to have that opportunity?
BREWER: Well, it's an open competition for a university lectureship. I came back to England to have an interview and got the job.
ZIERLER: This is tenure-track?
BREWER: The short answer to that question is yes. I was an assistant lecturer, but basically, as long as you didn't blot your copy book in some major way, you just went up the ranks. The leap in those days was between the lecturer ladder, then you could be a reader, and then a professor. In those days, it was rather like the German system. There were special chairs, so there was no opportunity to be promoted to professor, although that changed in England, again in the 80s, I think.
ZIERLER: Once you defended, were you then focused on turning that into a book? Or you wanted to do new projects?
BREWER: I was primarily concerned with turning it into a book, but I was also working with a group of people in Cambridge on the history of crime, criminality and the law, which was the second book that I did as a collection with a number of people. And that was partly about the politics of the law.
ZIERLER: Was moving into the history of crime the beginning of your intellectual wandering, not staying on any one topic for too long?
BREWER: Well, I think as you've already seen, even when I was a school kid, I was bouncing around. That's one of the things I liked so much about being an undergraduate in Cambridge. At the beginning of the week, you'd have a topic, and you'd spend a week studying nothing but that topic. One week, you might be doing Hegel, the next week, you might be doing the 12th-century Renaissance or whatever. And I'm sort of a happy hooker about these things, in a way. If it engages me, then great. I'm rather indiscriminate in that way. That's why I said serendipity becomes an important part of one's intellectual strategy. It's not very focused. The crime stuff grew out of the new social history and the group of people I knew in Cambridge, who were mostly doing this sort of more working-class history. The point of convergence was really the work that was being done at the University of Warwick under the tutelage E. P. Thompson on law, crime, and class. And we got involved in that debate.
ZIERLER: Your first book, the one you revised from your dissertation, were you pleased with its reception? Did it land the way you wanted it to?
BREWER: Yeah, on the whole. People like Lawrence Stone, for example, wrote a piece in the New York Review of Books about me and said, "Not many people have changed the field twice." He said I did it in my first book and then again in Sinews of Power. My most successful book is The Sinews of Power, no doubt. But the first book had quite an extensive influence. I'm not complaining.
ZIERLER: That's quite high praise. How do you think it changed the field? What were your innovations?
BREWER: We've already talked about the way in which we were kind of reconfiguring politics. That's the first book. With The Sinews of Power, which was quite a bit later, and all the work on the social history of consumption comes between those two political books, it really got people to think, again, about how we should think about British politics and the state. I wrote that when I was at Harvard, and I was talking to all these people, like Theda Skocpol and so on, and Peter Hall and Tom Ertman, who were writing all this stuff about bringing the state back in and putting politics and institutions back into a kind of social science history. That's where that came from, in a way. One of the things I think is important always is to be aware of what other fields are doing, so that you can then rethink or reconfigure your own field. That's why it's good to have people to talk to, not even in your own discipline.
Most of the people I was talking to at Harvard in the 80s were political scientists, sociologists, and some philosophers. The other strand of what was going on in Cambridge was this history of consumption, of consumerism. And that was something that my research supervisor, Plumb, was very, very interested in, as was his acolyte, a guy called Neil McKendrick, an economic historian, who's the person who pushed this consumption stuff further than anybody else. I think too far, seeking to use consumption as an explanation of the Industrial Revolution. But we'd been kicking this around in different ways, various talks and seminars in Cambridge. Then, Neil decided we should do a book called Birth of a Consumer Society. I don't like the title, and I've written actually a kind of mea culpa about all of this, but nobody wants to read it. It's very interesting, people don't want you to change your mind about things. We produced this book, the three of us, and that had a big effect.
ZIERLER: What year did that come out?
BREWER: 1982. Actually, there was a great delay about it because it was all in in the late 70s, and then Neil McKendrick failed to produce his introduction. I remember writing to the publisher. The publisher said, "Oh, we're still waiting for this material to turn up." [Laugh]
ZIERLER: The collaboration that led to the project on the history of crime, do you think that scratched the itch about you perhaps going into investigative journalism?
BREWER: Well, it scratched it, but I wrote another book, A Sentimental Murder, which is much more of a kind of investigative journalism-type book, which is looking at all the different accounts of a particular crime of passion and trying to reveal all the different stories and sides of it. But that was much later. But it was also an experiment in writing about narratives rather than writing about facts. But the consumption stuff ran for a very long time in the 80s because that was something I continued to do. Then, when I moved to California in the 80s, that was the big research project I ran at UCLA for three years that produced these three big volumes on different aspects of consumption.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your decision to join the faculty at Yale. Were you looking to leave Cambridge? Were you recruited?
BREWER: I was looking to leave Cambridge. It's interesting, in most of the jobs that I've gotten in my life, I've not been the first-choice candidate. I've been fortunate that the first-choice candidate has turned the job down. But yeah, I was looking to leave. And there was the possibility of this job.
ZIERLER: In leaving, you just wanted a new environment? You saw that that would be good for your research and career?
BREWER: A lot was going on at Yale, mostly around the Yale Center for British Art. In the Mellon bequest, there was money to set up a British studies program, which would've been an interdisciplinary program, and which did exist very briefly, although it only ever produced two graduates. Mainly because, in the way that these things happen, the building consumed all the cash, so there wasn't the money left for programming. For me, it was extremely attractive to go somewhere there was this tremendous cache of material. Also, of course, the Beinecke Library has an astonishing collection of materials from the 18th century. The Yale Center for British Art has fabulous book and print collections, not just paintings.
And it was wonderful to be able to teach seminars inside the building and have all this material, the actual material, to be able to show the students. And at that point, there was a guy in the English Department called Ronald Paulson, who had been brought back to Yale as the British studies professor, who I worked quite closely with. He treated me slightly like a history reference book. [Laugh] He'd say, "What's the historical view on this, that, and the other?" But there was an opportunity to do lots of different things. The Center had money to do programs and conferences. It was a very lively environment. The Yale department itself had a lot of fairly close-to-extinct volcanoes in it. But the English Department was also very interesting with Geoffrey Hartman, Hillis Miller, and so on. Really important literary critics.
ZIERLER: Given all of these archival resources at your doorstep, how did that influence your research? What did you take on at that point?
BREWER: I wrote a book about the ways in which engravings, prints and etchings portrayed the laboring classes, and much of that work was done through the collections in the Yale Center for British Art. I was still doing work on consumption. There were no particular collections that sort of stimulated me into doing this. And I was only four years in New Haven.
ZIERLER: You mentioned some extinct volcanoes on the faculty. Was it a time of transition for the Department of History?
BREWER: I didn't have that sense, actually. I had the sense that it was fairly steady-state. There were the grandees, and there were the junior people. Many of the junior people left or didn't get tenure. I think that, in a way, the problem in the department was that it wasn't in transition. [Laugh] It may subsequently have been, I don't know. But when I was there, I certainly didn't feel that.
ZIERLER: As associate professor, did you come in with tenure? Or did associate mean untenured at Yale?
BREWER: I came in untenured and then was given tenure while I was there.
ZIERLER: And yet, you still left for Harvard? Did they give you tenure hoping that might retain you?
BREWER: I think so, yes. That's the short answer.
ZIERLER: But it didn't work, obviously.
BREWER: No. I think if there's any university that I have a slight romance about, it is Harvard, although it's actually mostly the library, I think. When I walk past the library, my heart flutters. Because it's just unbelievable. It is truly unbelievable, the library. When I've been working more recently on obscure Italian things, I think, "Oh, they can't possibly have this." But there it is, maybe in some offsite vault somewhere, but they've got it. It's astonishing. The British studies program didn't take off at Yale. The opportunity to run the History and Literature program at Harvard at such a young age was really exciting, and it was very much in line with what I wanted to do in terms of interdisciplinarity. It's an old program, over 50 years old when I went there. It was originally a sort of thing in which gentlemen read a bit of literature and played around with a bit of history, but it got much more serious. And it had become one of the largest concentrations at Harvard. One of our biggest problems was dealing with the numbers we had. A lot of my Springs were taken up with interviewing candidates for mostly lecturer positions. I probably hired between 8 and 15 people a year, which requires quite a lot of interviews. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Do you have a sense of how this program came about at a time when perhaps interdisciplinary studies was not nearly as popular?
BREWER: I think the origins of the program lay in a sort of gentlemanly idea of how–of course, that was also in a period when literary studies were more historical than they became. I think the idea of combining the two was something that–it may well have had to do with some of the late 19th-century thinking about introducing concentrations into the curriculum in a way that had not been the case before. But I'm afraid I don't really know the answer to that.
ZIERLER: Was it attractive for you not just administratively, but because it would be inspiring for conceptualizing new projects?
BREWER: What attracted me, and what I thought was really important was that you had a significant number of young scholars at a relatively early stage of their careers who were willing to engage in cross-disciplinary conversation through teaching small groups of undergraduates. There was no research component to the program as such. The people who wanted to teach in this program were all very, very interesting. And one of the things that happened to me when I came back to America after I'd been in Italy is, I kept on meeting people I'd hired at History and Lit who were now kind of associate or tenured professors in institutions all over the place in the United States. And one of the things I really liked about History and Lit was that it gave people a kind of buffer. You could teach in History and Lit for three or four years as a post-doc, and that would help you a lot in terms of getting a job. It's much easier, I think, to get a job when you're a couple years out than when you've just immediately finished your dissertation. It wasn't exploitative in that way. I actually got Henry Rosovsky, who was the dean then, to agree to pay the lecturers the same rate as assistant professors. That made me popular. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: And did people have primary appointments in this program, or everyone came from either literature or history?
BREWER: Everybody had an appointment in another department. The lecturers didn't have an appointment in a department. The lecturers had an appointment in the program. But any faculty involved were part of a discrete department.
ZIERLER: What about graduate students? Did any of them have primary appointments here? Or they also came from one or the other?
BREWER: The graduate students who taught in the program were all in a particular department. They weren't doing a PhD in History and Literature, they were doing a PhD in one of the departments, but they were teaching in the History and Lit program.
ZIERLER: And what were your administrative responsibilities? What were you responsible for?
BREWER: I was responsible for hiring, the program, overseeing the admission of students into the program. Because you had to apply, you couldn't just automatically declare it as a major. Also, dealing with issues of policy made by an advisory committee that was made up of about 20 or 25 faculty members of different departments.
ZIERLER: Who did you report to? Did you have two chairs to report to?
BREWER: No. I reported to the dean.
ZIERLER: Did this affect your research? Was it exciting to have this interdisciplinary approach for your next book project?
Historiography and Impact
BREWER: When I was in History and Lit, actually, I started working on The Sinews of Power, which was all about finance, numbers, and so on. It wasn't really about literary things. Really, the trajectories were rather different. I regarded the History and Lit program as an instructional program that was really interesting. You can do more than one thing. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I was curious because there is a distinction between what you were doing administratively and the origins for The Sinews of Power. As our last topic we'll cover for today, given its significance, what was the originating idea for Sinews of Power? How did that come about for you?
BREWER: I was asked to edit a series and write a book in a series, in which I was supposed to write a book about 18th-century Britain. I divided it up into state, society, and culture, and I started thinking about how to think about the state. As I read what had been written–I thought, "This is a synthetic job. You read a bunch of stuff, and you put a little bit of your own in it, job over." But then, I started reading this stuff, and I thought, "This is all terrible. They haven't thought about this in an interesting way at all." It became a kind of black hole into which I got sucked by my own desire to sort it out. But also, in the context of the work I'd done on consumption, I was very interested in process at that point. One of the things that nobody had ever really talked about was, how do you actually get money from people into the treasury to be spent? Because there are statistics that are provided by the treasury, but how do you get there? What was the process? How was it collected? What form did it take? Was it done on credit? Were there huge movements of specie? No one had ever really thought about how, in a certain kind of society–it was a pretty commercialized society, but communication and so on was very different from what it is now. How does that work? What do you need to do in order to do that? What does it entail?
ZIERLER: What were some of the myths in the historiography that explained, rightly or wrongly, England's rise to power in the 18th century? What were the kinds of things you were specifically looking to correct or even refute?
BREWER: There's a myth about social mobility and Britain, which I've never seen demonstrated. It's asserted time and time again. I didn't actually address this issue in Sinews of Power, but it's always struck me as being something that someone should really write about because there's no evidence. That's one of the cliches, along with the fact that there was no state in Britain, and that was great because then, the economy could flourish. These kinds of cliches. I think if you're looking at the British case, it's a very good example, just like Silicon Valley, of the collaboration of private enterprise and centralized state power and funding. I'm trying to remember the woman in Seattle who wrote that book about Silicon Valley. She told me one of the extraordinary things is, when she was interviewing people while writing her book, no one would ever admit that they'd ever gotten any federal support. And when she told them that they did, they would deny it. [Laugh] It was not part of the Silicon Valley myth. It could not be said. It was all about the genius of young boys and individual entrepreneurship. And it's the same with the railways. Joan Didion is quite interesting on this subject in the context of myths about the development in the West.
ZIERLER: What about colonialism as an intellectual framework? How did you deal with that in conceptualizing the book?
BREWER: Badly. [Laugh] I think it wasn't an issue I went into in any great depth. I did write about how one of the things about British state power is that it became more brutal, more direct, and more intrusive the further away you got from the metropole. But I didn't really deal with that as extensively as I should have done, I think.
ZIERLER: What about the relationship between the monarchy and the parliamentary system? How did you deal with that, the evolving government of England during this period?
BREWER: I've written a lot, both in my first book and, to some extent, in Sinews, about royal power and the constraints on royal power. Also, in the first book, very importantly, the debates about the nature of royal power and its extent or operation. I suppose, in as much as I took a particular view about that, I tended to see royal power as much less extensive than is commonly supposed.
ZIERLER: Is that a way, in part, of answering how England became so powerful during this period? Do you see them as connected?
BREWER: No. Not particularly. You need to ask Phil Hoffman, my colleague, about this. I don't have a very clear answer because I haven't really studied it in great depth. I haven't, as it were, set this up as a kind of question that I want to answer, so I haven't really thought it through. I don't really want to give a judgment on it.
ZIERLER: Given the significance of the book, in our next talk, we'll pick up on once it was published and its impact. But last question for today. Given its significance, I wonder if you knew, even before it was completed, that this was going to make a splash, if at that point in your career, you had a sense of just how impactful one book may be over another.
BREWER: The reason I'm slow in responding to this is that I don't really think in that way. I'm thinking, "All right, let's think about things in a different way," and I want people to do that. And I'm persuaded, in my own capacity, to do that. But the issue of reception is not one that overly concerns me. If everybody said it was rubbish, I'm sure I would be concerned about it. [Laugh] But I don't really think in that way. I think, "This is the project I want to do, and it's interesting." Quite often, I forget about what it is that I've said. I remember, I was reading a book some years ago, which was about politics in the 18th century, and it had this one passage quoted about how the idea of the 18th-century constitution, for many, was rather like the idea of the Newtonian clock winder, which is that the clock winder winds up the mechanism, then vanishes, recedes into the past, and no longer has any kind of influence or impact.
I can't remember the exact quote. It was much better than that. I thought, "Gosh, that's interesting." Then, I looked at the footnote, and I saw it was something that I'd written. I'd completely forgotten about it. [Laugh] I think, actually, when books prove to be timely or to strike a chord, it's not because the author necessarily intends that. It's rather that, for all kinds of complicated reasons, which they may not even be able to articulate, it is the book that the historical profession wants or needs at that moment. You get PhD students who sometimes think that they've got to double guess what is going to be sexy in five or six years' time when they finish their dissertation, and I always tell them it's just a waste of time.
ZIERLER: Because you just don't know.
BREWER: You just don't know.
ZIERLER: And that's probably not a good motivator for excellent research, anyway.
BREWER: Absolutely, it's not. You should have the passion for whatever it is that you're doing. Of course, that's one of the things that you do. Writing is about creating a different way of looking at the world. If you have the passion and persuasiveness to do that, then you change things. But doing something, as it were, to fulfill a kind of rubric that you think is out there that will get you a job? No.
ZIERLER: On that note, we'll pick up two topics for next time. Of course, how Sinews of Power was the right book for the times, what might've been going on, and then, personally, your decision to move the UCLA, what was going on in the late 1980s and what that meant.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, February 7, 2023. It is great to be back with Professor John Brewer. John, as always, it's great to be with you. Thanks for joining.
BREWER: Thank you.
ZIERLER: Today, I want to continue with the reception of Sinews of Power. I'm curious, we were talking last time about how there are certain things that might be happening in a contemporary sense that might influence the way a particular book is received. Thinking about the rise of British power in the 18th century and the late 17th century, if you look at the publication date, this is a tumultuous time in terms of American power, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Do you think those sort of strategic transnational events influenced the way people might have been interested in learning about the rise of English power from hundreds of years previous?
BREWER: I tend to think of this in a slightly more abstract way. That is to say, that people were thinking a lot about the relationship between state power and economic power, and about the relationship between forms of governance and economic effectiveness. That's the sort of context in which I might place this. I don't think there was any sign in the reaction to the book of trying to place it in the context of the Cold War. I think it was much more a question of thinking more generally about the sorts of models of economic development that you might have. It may be that people were thinking about that, but also, I think looking at it in a slightly longer term, it's interesting to me that the reception in Asia has been both so extensive and positive. It's there that these questions of what role the state should play and its relationship to capitalism–you think about the old kind of modernization theory, which essentially says, "You can't have autocratic states and true capitalist societies," and of course, the Chinese example and others prove that to be nonsense. I think that whole question of what the relationship is between political power and economic power is something that has continued to be a major issue. What does it mean? Certain forms of economic organization or capitalism, what does it mean that you can have those, and yet at the same time, you can have states in which there are highly attenuated individual and corporate rights?
ZIERLER: What aspects did you see in this research that were peculiarly British? What could be extrapolated in thinking about state power and economic practice globally, and what only worked within an English or British system?
BREWER: What I was doing was questioning the peculiarities or singularities of the English case. I was saying that in many respects, there are marked similarities that people haven't made with other kinds of European regimes at the time, which would be thought of as less open and more autocratic. I was drawing a question of similarity rather than singularity, although at the same time, one of the things I was trying to get people to think about is the relationship between certain formal power and the exercise of power. In other words, you may be entitled to do all sorts of things, but do you have the capacity to do it, do you have the mechanisms, the people, the values, or whatever? And in a way, what I was trying to say is that in a state in which it might seem that there are fewer centralized overweening powers, if those can be exercised highly effectively, they may, in fact, turn out to be more powerful than those in which you have an autocratic monarch who can lock up anybody any time they want, but doesn't actually have the capacity, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe because they couldn't run the right kind of economy to be a major imperial or military power. There, I was drawing on some of the sociological work of a guy called Michael Mann, not the filmmaker, who, at that point, was a professor at Essex, but moved to UCLA more or less about the same time that I did. But who I'd known back in Cambridge many years before.
ZIERLER: You mentioned how well the book resonated in Asia. I'm thinking specifically in a modern context about China and its aspirations to national power and how it might balance those tensions with a definite loss of personal liberty. Is that one of the places where the book really caught on in Asia, with people who think about China's ambitions in the 20th and 21st centuries?
BREWER: It's ironic that, yes, but on the other hand, it was also true in Japan and South Korea, where you've got rather different sorts of regimes. Although, I don't know actually about South Korea, but Japan is a state which has a very highly developed bureaucratic mechanism. It's a very bureaucratic society, in many ways. Whereas the cliché, at least, about Britain was that it was not very bureaucratic. It was extremely bureaucratic in certain respects. Some parts of it. Another question I was trying to raise was whether or not these kinds of overall characterizations of states as powerful, autocratic, or whatever were very helpful or valuable descriptions, when we didn't know perhaps as much as we should know historically about the different parts of the state apparatus and how they worked. For example, in the English case, you have an incredibly effective and efficient revenue-collecting system, which to its critics, at least, seems like a kind of many-headed monster that is everywhere with a capacity for constant scrutiny. Yet, at the same time, you also have, in many respects, a criminal legal system in which you have a much more highly developed sense of subjects' rights. It plays out in different ways in different places.
ZIERLER: Not that there would be a sequel to the book, but in the grand sweep of history, where do you place Brexit and this precipitous decline in British power in our current era, how do you understand that in historical terms?
BREWER: Well, the decline of Britain as a kind of subject of investigation–I used to say to people that the only growth industry in Britain was the decline of Britain literature. But the decline of Britain, really, that whole language or preoccupation has been going on since the second World War. Although there was this sort of epiphany in '45, and then the new Labour government, in the sense that there was a new transformation, it very rapidly became clear that the economic effects of the second World War were highly deleterious to Britain. But also, in Europe, ironically, societies that had sustained much greater physical damager were then regrowing. There was a sort of rebirth. When you look at, for example, the building industry in Germany after 1945, it's absolutely staggering.
But it is also partly a function of the fact that you're starting from a flattened playing field. But there's also, of course, the decolonization, the end of empire, which happened in the 50s and 60s, and the very important moment of Suez in '56, when the Americans refused to support the British and the French in the conflict with Egypt. That's a really important moment, I think, for a lot of people, and also a recognition that it's the end of empire, and you don't have another role. Then, of course, Britain goes into the European community, what was then called the common market, and it's always had a highly ambivalent or complicated relationship to the rest of Europe in that way.
But it's very interesting, when I worked for the EU at the European University Institute, I came to learn that one of the stories that everybody tells in their national history, even the Italians, is that, "In Europe, everybody is cheating, but we aren't. Therefore, that's a disadvantage to us." There's an assumption that, "Everybody is getting benefits out of this, but we're not getting the same benefit." But I think Brexit draws, in part, on the sense of alienation that existed amongst unskilled workers, in a similar sort of way that the non-college-educated workers become so important in the rhetoric about the rise of populism in the US. That's an element of it.
But in Britain, around about the time of Brexit, I was in Newcastle in the Northeast of England, and for bizarre reasons that I won't go into, I was attending various meetings of the Rotary Club. This is an organization, at least in Britain, made up primarily of people in small businesses. These people are actually quite well-off, but they are all very hostile to bureaucracy and regulation, and with some reason, in the sense that the cost of regulation to small business is much greater than it is to large corporations. It's harder to deal with. But also, with a sense of the power of particularly French and German business, these people are not ignorant to what is going on in any way. Many of them are actually carrying on various sorts of business with them. And I think that this very, very skilled campaign with the slogan, "Take back control"–who is against the idea of taking back control? Nobody's against that idea. It was a brilliant in a way. Dominic Cummings claims to have formulated this as a slogan for it all.
And then, this sense that, "If we got rid of all this encumbrance, certainly, we would be liberated." It's an incredibly simple-minded, but also seductive, appeal. And it does draw with all the voters. I was very surprised that my father, who was actually about 100 at the time of Brexit, was against it because I always thought of him as somebody who would actually have been in its favor. We never really had a proper conversation about why he took this view. But that was very untypical in an awful lot of older, small-business people. Those sorts of people really felt that this was an opportunity–look, I'm a cosmopolitan nerd, I'm one of those people that Theresa May condemned as, "If you don't belong somewhere, you're a sort of nobody, really, if you don't have this kind of allegiance."
I don't have these allegiances, so it's hard for me to understand. And it's very interesting. Now, all the polls show that everybody's against Brexit. 58% or something of people polled think it has been a disaster, and the figures for support are down in the low 40s, I think. There's been a real shift as people have come to realize that the promised benefits–most people on the left say that the conservatives were extraordinarily mendacious about it, that they were just lying. But whether or not they were, they ran a very skilled campaign. But British politics is in a state of implosion, really. The fact that you've had three or four prime ministers in a small number of years is symptomatic of that. And some of that is somewhat similar to what has happened in the US.
It's interesting, my son was involved in and working with some educational lobbyists. He has a company that produces an online subscription service for sheet music. They were trying to get the government to subsidize this in schools where music was being played. He was working with a lobbyist, and my son said that what he was really appalled at was the fact that there was an absence of interest in policy. He said, "The term 'policy wonk' or whatever is a term of abuse, really." He said that most of the people he was dealing with all had attitude, but they had no policy. And they weren't interested in policy, they were only interested in attitude. It was as if somehow what you put on your Facebook page or what you told your constituents about the way in which you saw the world was what was important politically, not whether or not you were going to manage anything. This was him talking to the parliamentary committee on education. And he said these people were clueless. And I think that's part of a shift in politics, which has not actually been to the public benefit. Let's put it that way.
ZIERLER: Moving back to your own career trajectory, tell me about the decision to move from Harvard to UCLA.
BREWER: As I've already said, it's partly my bad habit of wanting to try something new. But I saw it as an opportunity to do something that was very unusual. I could actually run a humanities research center, be the boss, and there was a fairly considerable budget available. Programmatically, it was a tremendous opportunity. I didn't realize a lot of the downsides, which had to do with the way in which UCLA was trying to make this work. Essentially, they were taking a library budget and trying to massage it in various ways to move it in the direction of research. Which was a good thing, but which didn't allow for the very considerable vested interests that didn't want to see this happen. I was put into a kind of struggle around all of that, which I hadn't anticipated. To me, what was attractive about it was that I could set up a whole series of interdisciplinary programs of the sort that I was interested in, and I was in a position to run it for some time.
The resources were very considerable, and that's really what attracted me. I also was attracted to Southern California because I'd been at the Huntington Library in the early 70s, and I had found that–if you grow up in Liverpool, where the sun rarely shines, and it sort of rains and is 45 degrees for 9 of the 12 months, then Southern California has its attractions. But I've always found it a very interesting and dynamic place, and I've always preferred it much to Northern California, where there is this sort of religion amongst many people I've met in the academy, that there are only two places, really, Boston and San Francisco, where civilization exists.
But what attracted me about LA was precisely the fact that it's the center of the entertainment industry, the music industry, television, film, all the things that I was very interested in. Also, I was always getting into arguments in England with people who would say, "Los Angeles is a philistine place." And I'd say, "Well, what about the Norton Museum? What about the Los Angeles County Museum? What about the LA Symphony?" There are real cultural riches which, in the minds of many outside of Southern California, are largely invisible. That's less true now than it was back then.
Literature and Libraries at UCLA
ZIERLER: You were both Director of Clark Library and Director for the Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies? Or that was all wrapped up into one appointment?
BREWER: It was one appointment. Then, I had another appointment in the History Department because they created the Center and put the two things together. The Center couldn't really exist or function without the financial wherewithal that was tied to the William Andrews Clark Library, which had its own endowment. It was the sense in the university administration that this endowment had not really been used properly. They saw this as an opportunity.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the Clark Library, some of its special collections.
BREWER: William Andrews Clark was the son of a copper magnate in Montana. He inherited the money. He was a person who thought of himself as an aesthete. He was a big music patron of the LA Symphony, he was a collector, and he bought a lot of late-17th-century material rather than early. He started off being interested in Shakespeare, and he bought some, but it was too expensive. And he built the Library, and there was an observatory. He more or less owned an entire block in downtown LA just around the corner, in an area near USC, which, back when he erected the Library, was a very fashionable part of town. Fatty Arbuckle lived next door, I think. Hollywood types lived there.
Subsequently, of course, it became really quite run-down and dangerous. One of the big problems about the Library was that people wouldn't go there that much because they felt it was unsafe, and with some reason. One of the things I did as director was, I put the UCLA K-9 unit, I gave those guys free accommodation in the gate house of the Library, so they had their dogs there and could live there rent-free. There were quite extensive grounds, people were climbing in, there'd been a break-in, and so on. [Laugh] They told me that gangbangers would come by and fire messages into the exterior wall of the Library. It was not, at that point, the safest spot in town. Anyway, Clark had this collection and library. It was bequeathed to UCLA with a large portfolio of energy shares, which provided the endowment, and they've continued to collect. Primarily, in this British 16th-, 17th-century area.
Clark was gay and, in fact, was arrested on a number of occasions, and he brought a lot of Oscar Wilde material, including a number of manuscripts by Wilde. Really fascinating. Wilde was extraordinary, he seems to have written some of these books with almost no corrections. It's amazing. There was also quite a lot of material from early 20th-century British writers. There was also some Edgar Allen Poe material. It was a kind of mixed collection, and not a lot of users because it wasn't on the UCLA campus, you had to travel some distance. The facilities were–I think the librarians were happy that is that wasn't the most visible library at UCLA.
ZIERLER: Were you the inaugural director for the Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies? Or does that go back before your tenure?
BREWER: There was a pro tem appointee made, who, I think, did a couple of years. But the intention was always to try and hire somebody from outside to build up the Center. I mentioned before Franklin Murphy, the head of the Times Mirror group and the former chancellor of the University, who was still hugely powerful and influential. It was, to some extent, a project of his. He was very, very interested in the libraries generally, and he is one of the reasons, for example, that the UCLA library has one of the finest collections of Aldus Manutius, this very early printer. He arranged to buy many of these materials. He was very actively engaged in all of this. In the meetings I had before I was actually hired, many were with him rather than members of the University administration.
ZIERLER: Besides scratching that itch for a new adventure, getting some more sun in Southern California, what were your goals? What was attractive about directing this Center?
BREWER: One of the things I'd really enjoyed about History and Literature at Harvard was what I might describe as a sort of enabling function. I've been thinking about this since we've been talking. I really like the idea of being able to help young scholars either to buy time to get a job, to develop their skills as teachers, and to learn about their work. Mentoring, I suppose. I thought, "One of the good things is, there's lots of incredible talent out there, and it would be really good to be able to bring these people together. That would be extremely productive." I had a certain particular agenda, which we can talk about in a minute, but it was also that the kind of environment I like to work in is one where you're bringing people together to work together.
As I've said before, it's a slightly different model from that of a laboratory, but it's an invaluable one. I always thought of an academic career as, in a way, about learning things, not just about teaching. I don't think of think of myself as, "I'm going to teach people about what I know about." I like to learn about things in a way that then leads me to think about things differently or to get other people to think about things. If you're not learning anything new, then it's incredibly boring. Pontificating about things that you've known for years and years holds no interest for me. "Let's do something different, something new. Let's learn something, and then let's share in the experience of that learning." That's what seems, to me, to be valuable.
ZIERLER: Let's talk about your agenda. What was it, going in?
BREWER: I wanted to have a project that could involve people from a wide range of disciplines. And I chose this work that we'd been doing back in Cambridge on consumption and consumerism because I thought that was a very good way of bringing together–you can have an economic historian, you can have a historian of theater, you can have a historian of textiles, you can have a literary critic, you can have political theorists, you can have people who are interested in legal theory and what constitutes a commodity or property, all of these things. You can put all these people together, and you can get them to talk to one another. Because all these things I'm interested in have many dimensions. You may have an object, whatever it might be, and you can look at it in so many different ways. How did it come into being? What did it do? How did people think about it? What did they value?
But you need a bunch of people with different sorts of expertise to put that all together, usually. Some people can do it, but it's not easy, and it's much easier if you do it with a team of people. I wrote a big NEH proposal, which was called Cultures of Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries. I was fortunate, I had already worked with somebody in the NEH who was a program officer when I had taught one of these summer seminars for college teachers, so I had a contact there, which actually turned out to be very important. I don't think we would've gotten the grant otherwise. But it was a big grant, I think something like $275,000. Which, in the 1980s, for a humanities program, was a lot of money. On the basis of that, we were able to run a three-year cycle, and we were also able to offer a number of fellowships. I was matching money from inside the Institution with money from outside. We had fellows, and we also had a longstanding visiting professorship called the Clark Professor, who had organized, in the past, six lectures or so a year. We still kept the lecture series, but we bolted onto that a whole series of workshops and seminars. We were running workshops and seminars once every two or three weeks for three years, so we had a lot of material and a lot of people.
ZIERLER: As an interdisciplinary endeavor, what fields were represented at the Center?
BREWER: Predominantly, three fields, literature, history, and art history. But also, law, political theory, legal theory, lawyers, political theorists, historians of science and technology, historians of the book, economic historians, philosophers, people who did the history of philosophy, political and social theory.
ZIERLER: What were some of the outputs of the Center? Would it host conferences, distinguished scholars? What kinds of things did it do?
BREWER: We did have this lecture series, which brought in heavy hitters, but my model was much more one in which I wanted to bring in people who were less well-known, but whose work I thought was very interesting and who were often quite junior. Also, for instance, before I became head of the Clark, they'd have this Clark professorship. No woman had ever been Clark professor. The second and third Clark Professors I appointed were both women, one from Brandeis, a literary scholar who had also worked in the Harvard Law School, a feminist who worked on women's property rights, the representation of women, women's ownership in literature, and so on. The second one was a professor of art history at UC Santa Barbara, who worked primarily in landscape, but who knew a great deal about agricultural history. These kinds of people. Also, I brought in fellows who were recent doctorates, mainly. I ran it as a kind of forum in which periodically, I would sit down with a group of people from different disciplines to think about, "How should we develop the program later, next year, or whatever?" And we'd spend two or three hours just brainstorming. It was partly about the themes we wanted to pursue, and the people we thought were really interesting. And out of that, I would eventually produce a program. It was very much a cooperative endeavor.
ZIERLER: You mentioned your growing interest in consumption. I did want to ask about the anthology, Consumption and the World of Goods. What prompted your interest in this area? What was going on in the historiography as it related to consumption?
BREWER: I think I mentioned before that actually, my PhD supervisor was one of the first people who tried to push this as a historical subject. He wrote a number of essays, then we did this book called A Birth of a Consumer Society, published in the early 80s. And that triggered a lot of interest, which in turn, started–one of the reasons for doing this subject was that it was a field in its infancy and that had places to go. It wasn't something that was already chockablock with scholarship, although there were a lot of people playing around with it and thinking about it who had worked in related subjects, who then suddenly thought, "If we start thinking about consumption, how do we then reinterpret what we've done previously?"
You take a debate. For example, in early modern Europe, there's a big debate about luxury. It goes back to classical antiquity. Then, you start thinking about the relationship between this debate about luxury and about the changing world of goods that exists in Europe. It's clear that in some societies, suddenly, there's a much greater density of goods than there's ever been before. How do we know this? You need an expert who works on testaments, inventories, a lot of boring technical stuff that enables you to say that suddenly, there are clocks, or whatever. A collaborator of mine I did a crime book with, he used these criminal descriptions to trace changes in popular or plebeian fashion through a long period of time. There are all these descriptions, and they have details. There's a family hospital in London where, if you had an unwanted child, you took it, and it was raised there. The people who took the children, many of them were not literate, but the way in which they connected with the child was through a piece of fabric or material. They attached a piece of fabric or material to the child, and they kept another piece of it for themselves, so that they could match up, if necessary, subsequently. But those pieces of material, he used as a way, again, of tracing. Were they cotton? Were they muslin? Were they dyed? Were they part of a changing pattern of fashion? That's one ingenious way in which you can get, through these sorts of materials, criminal materials or these institutional materials, changes in habits of dress, comportment, or behavior.
ZIERLER: Besides consumption, did your directorships at UCLA influence your research and the kinds of things you wanted to pursue?
BREWER: After the three years, I then wrote The Pleasures of the Imagination, which I couldn't have written if I hadn't run those three years of programs. Those three years of programs gave me a kind of working template and knowledge of many, many different areas. Music, theater, painting, as well as everyday life, architecture, whatever it might be. I decided that what I wanted to do was to write a kind of synthetic work, which also embodied quite a lot of my own research, that sort of surveyed and explained why–essentially, it's a book about culture industries. It's about the relationship between, say, a painting or a painter, and a system of painting. How did they arts work? Galleries, patrons, markets, all these sorts of things.
You put all these things together to see how this world operated. You did with different sorts of life worlds. What was it like to be an actor, or a playwright, or an author? We tend to be very productionist obsessed. What's the first thing you ask about a picture or a book? Who wrote it? Who painted it? Which, of course, is incredibly important. But there's a whole system that lies around, behind, beside that.
Also, you've asked me questions about how my work's been received, understood, in what kinds of contexts it operates. While I was doing all these programs, and we haven't talked about it, but I was doing a huge amount of administrative work–never be in charge of a building. I had to learn about things like microwave alarm systems. For instance, the Clark Library, if you wanted to change a lightbulb, it cost about $75 because somebody had to come from UCLA. No one was allowed in the Library to change a lightbulb. Someone had to come the 15 or 20 miles from UCLA, get on a ladder, and change it. But all these logistical things about buildings and so on, there was a lot of that.
Then, there was a lot of tension in the Library amongst the librarians, who were having to do things that they hadn't had to before. Many librarians feel that readers are a hazard and best avoided. Not by any means, but especially with rare books. That culture is changing, has changed in so many ways. But there was a lot of conflict around that. Then, also, there were vested interests in the Library who'd been doing various things that, it seemed to be, were extremely iffy and not very legitimate. Which is a view that the University authorities concurred with, but that also created difficulties. I wasn't really able to do very much research in the three years that I ran those programs. Once that ended, that was very different. I had time.
ZIERLER: Do you think your administrative experience had a dampening effect on being on a trajectory where you might be a dean at your next college job?
BREWER: I was asked several times whether I would like to become a dean while I was at UCLA. This was a question that was extremely easy to answer, which was, "Over my dead body. I have absolutely no interest in doing that." I've done a lot of administrative work. I was head of department in Florence, I ran the History and Literature program, I've done a lot of that sort of stuff, but it was not what I wanted to do. Indeed, when I came to Caltech, I said to John Ledyard, who was interested in me helping develop humanities at Caltech, "Look, I have this intellectual input, I'm prepared to help, but I'm not going to take any kind of administrative role or position." And I was asked, actually, to be head of the division at one point, and I said no.
ZIERLER: Just to foreshadow, when you were at UCLA, did that put HSS within range? Were you collaborating or aware of what was happening in History and Social Sciences at Caltech?
BREWER: I knew on an ad hominem basis. I knew Phil Hoffman, I knew Dan Kevles, and I knew…
ZIERLER: Jean-Laurent Rosenthal?
BREWER: No, he's a babe, really. [Laugh] At that point, in the 80s, had he just finished his PhD? He hadn't been appointed at UCLA, I know, because I would've known about that. But there were a number of people I knew, and I had visited Caltech. As I may have mentioned, the very first place I stayed in Southern California was the Athenaeum. I had talked to people there. But my focus at that point was more–I wasn't trying to set up particular things with Caltech, or even with the Huntington, or whatever. I was running a much broader research project that brought people from all over the place. Of course, it was Southern California, we relied on a lot of people from there, and those sorts of people came to many of the events and workshops that I organized. But there wasn't really an institutional link at that point.
ZIERLER: To go back to The Pleasures of the Imagination, was there a useful, generally accepted working definition of what high-culture meant in Europe or England during this period? Or was one of your motivations to help set those parameters for what exactly that term means?
BREWER: I think I wanted to try to explain how certain forms of cultural activity became privileged and aestheticized. Also, how writers became authors or painters became artists, the elevation of status, and how what they produced became more valuable. I was interested in those processes by which an aestheticized view of certain kinds of cultural activity became more highly valued by elites and how certain sorts of distinction, certain kinds of work were of artistic or–how certain forms of facture or making had lower or higher status or esteem. I was interested in doing that. But again, there was also a very strong political component to this, which comes back to some of the things we were talking about earlier, about monarchical or royal power. One of the big themes of The Pleasures of the Imagination is the replacement of royal patronage by something that is much more like a kind of market-driven or market-structured high culture.
The relationship between patronage and the market is a complicated one. Patronage never goes away. There are some people who see it as a zero-sum, where as patronage goes down, the market goes up. It's not. What happens is, the patronage changes in the context of the market. But certainly, royal power, and the court, as an institution, determining taste and power, shifts in the 18th century, and it becomes much, much less powerful. And that also has to do, to some extent, with the shifting power of the monarchy in more general terms, which is that it has private income, but its income is controlled by parliament.
ZIERLER: I'm not sure if the parallel is too crass, but is it useful to think about the Renaissance arriving in England a few hundred years later, after the fact, in Italy?
BREWER: I wouldn't put it that way. I think that the two things are as different as they are similar. Obviously, classical literature has a huge part to play in neo-classicism. It's antiquity mediated through the Renaissance, ending up in 18th-century England. But if you look at the arts, you'd be surprised, for example, who the most fashionable painters were. They weren't the people you might think they were. Guido Reni, a painter from Bologna, was the most highly regarded painter, at least in 18th-century England. The hierarchies are perhaps a bit different. I wouldn't draw a direct connection. Of course, there are traditions and histories that are drawn upon as part of this, and certainly–actually, the models were more likely to be classical in the sense of going back to antiquity than they were to be models–you were more likely to think of Maecenas than you were de Medici. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: What about parallels to draw potentially with Sinews of Power and the way England wanted to think of itself? In other words, as a world power, wouldn't it need, in some regards, to have a thriving cultural industry at the national level?
BREWER: I'm sure that patriotic endeavor was very much a part of the story, and there are lots and lots of debates, which I write about in the book, around this tension. And of course, so much culture comes from outside. That is to say, music comes from Germany, painting comes from Italy. There's a huge debate in the 18th century about opera because it's in Latin or Italian, and it's not in English. Eventually, that problem is solved by a German [Handel], who becomes English, which is the oratorio, which becomes sort of pious, and British, and patriotic. But those tensions around national–because all of these cultures are very, very international. The artists are moving around all over the place, of all sorts, painters, musicians, writers. Less so writers because there's the constraint of language. Though, even there, already, you've got a huge translation industry at work.
ZIERLER: What about the American colonies? Did you look at the colonies as a source of culture to be imported back to the homeland?
BREWER: I think most of the direction is thought of as going the other way. Although, what happens in the colonies is–a colleague of mine, Neil Harris in Chicago, has written rather brilliantly about this, the way in which certain kinds of metropolitan styles get reworked in different parts of the colonies. You'll have, say, very similar sorts of furniture, which are derived from certain kinds of manuals or samples that are imported, which then get their own inflection. A Philadelphia bookcase is quite different from one that's produced in Boston or whatever. But actually, an awful lot of culture is exported to the new world. If you read a Philadelphia or a Boston newspaper in 1770, you would be better informed about what was going on in London than you would be what was going on in the other city. It's only really during the Revolution that you start to get this intercity connection in the same way. Otherwise, it's a whole series of connections between the metropole and different parts of the colonial empire.
New Directions in Italy
ZIERLER: I know already what your answer is going to be in explaining your desire to move to Chicago. You get restless, and there's a new opportunity. But the wrench to throw in the matrix here is that you can't compete with the weather. It was obviously not the weather that was compelling you to Chicago.
BREWER: You've left out Italy in between.
ZIERLER: Was that a visiting professorship? Or you took a permanent position?
BREWER: It's complicated. The European University Institute is a social-science, post-doctoral institution. I went there to visit a friend who was teaching there, who said to me when I got there, "Oh, I suppose you're interested in this job that we have," which I didn't know anything about at all. [Laugh] But when she told me about it, I thought maybe I would apply for it. But the way that worked was, the faculty rotates. There's no tenure. But you can work there for eight years. I actually stayed there for six, not eight. That was before going to Chicago. In fact, what happened essentially is that I had to resign my position at UCLA in order to stay at the European University Institute in Florence. Then, I was getting towards the end of my time in Florence, and I didn't have a job. I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of problems getting a job, but I was worried about getting a job that I wanted. I was looking at a number of positions towards the end of the time I was in Florence.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the position in Italy. What were you working on, what was the larger intellectual atmosphere there?
BREWER: I was called a Professor of Culture and Politics, I think it was. Seemed appropriate. But what I worked on there mainly–everybody who worked there had to have a research project that had something to do with European-ness. Because the European University Institute was funded by Brussels and by the European Union. This produced many peculiar distortions. It was my first experience, really, of operating in a department in which everybody told an official story about what they were up to, but was actually doing something else. Because we all had our paymasters in Brussels, who had these crazy ideas about what we should be doing, creating European harmony, all this sort of nonsense.
But I worked on two projects there. The first one was about graphic imagery in Europe, looking at the ways in which different techniques of reproductive imagery operated both within countries and across borders. Looking at a distribution of prints and images. Not just aesthetic ones, although they were very important. The history of art was essentially created by image-makers who could reproduce works. How can you know the history of art properly if you can't see the images? You can spend your whole life going around Europe, as many connoisseurs and experts did, but for most people, that's impossible. But you can have a collection of reproductions, which are organized in a particular way, by nation, artist, genre, or whatever, which then create an idea of a history of art.
I was interested in their role in creating a history of art, collectors of prints, etchings, and so on, how that created a notion of art. But also, about the economics of it all. Because some countries didn't have very many image-makers, and others had many. For instance, the Dutch are exporting images all over Europe on a fantastic level in the 17th century. They are the center of this world. That was a project that was supposed to be European. I would be asked every year if this was helping European harmony. The second project I worked on was on American money and European art, and it was really about two things. First of all, it was about the explosion of the art market in the late 19th century as a result of the intervention of all these robber barons. But it was also about the emergence of ideas of cultural patrimony, and national heritage, and of protection of heritage of the sense that what you had was not just a work of art that was owned by a French aristocrat, but was also part of the national heritage, and therefore, there were certain kinds of constraints on whether or not you could dispose of it.
In the early 20th century, there's a huge amount of legislation throughout Europe seeking to protect cultural property from the marketplace. Interestingly, the very earliest legislation–some of this legislation dates right away back to the Renaissance. In Italy, they had regulations in particular states trying to prevent movement of artworks. But in the early 20th century, the first legislation is actually about buildings, about moving buildings, like the Cloisters in New York, which was transported brick-by-brick across the Atlantic. There are many other instances. If you think about period rooms in museums, it's similar. I was interested in the impact of this on the market, but I was also interested in ideas of cultural ownership and cultural property. And that leads me into another aspect of things that I've written about later. That's what led me to The American Leonardo, a later book. I had these two projects, but really, as I mentioned before, you were supervising a very large number of PhD students from all over Europe on a whole variety of different subjects.
ZIERLER: To clarify, was the position in Italy not a permanent position? Had you needed to give up a tenured position to do this?
ZIERLER: That must've been quite adventurous or even risky.
BREWER: I never thought of it like that. I was very concerned towards the end of my time in Florence about having a job somewhere I thought was going to be interesting. But I never had doubts that I would be able to find gainful employment.
ZIERLER: Was it a shorter employment that you extended for a second term?
BREWER: Yeah, I extended it for a second term. I did four years, and then I extended it for another four years. I had to go through a review process. And then, after two years, I decided–I was offered jobs in Britain. I had tried to set up a kind of research institute in London, but that didn't work out. Then, I was offered a job at the University of York, and I was also offered jobs at Stanford and Chicago. I chose Chicago.
ZIERLER: How international was the faculty? Was it mostly Italians?
BREWER: Oh, no, it changed, but I think when I was there, we had two Italians, a Belgian, two Brits, two French, a Portuguese, a Spaniard, and an Indian who was the Vasco da Gama Professor, which was for Europe and the rest of the world. It was quite mixed, very different backgrounds. When I was there, also, it was still bilingual in the sense that teaching was going on in both French and English, whereas now, it's all in English.
ZIERLER: You said The American Leonardo's intellectual seed was planted during your time in Italy.
BREWER: Actually, the inspiration for the book, which is about painting and the art market, was a seminar at the University of Bologna. I had some friends at the University of Bologna who were economists and economic historians, and they were running a seminar series on trust. This guy, Carlo Poni, who did brilliant work on the textile industries in France, said to me, "You're interested in art and all that, why don't you write a paper for us about trust in the art market?" I wrote a paper for them about trust in the art market, and while working on this, I looked at the art market in the 20th century, and I came across a number of cases and examples in doing so, and this particular painting and story about the painting sort of took off. I learned more and more about it. Then, eventually, I found the daughter of the owner, and I traced the picture, so I could build up a kind of history. That book is essentially a history of a picture, but it's also a history of the stories that happened to it. But that started off because of this seminar. The Economics Department at the University of Bologna is enormous. They have something like 4,000 students. [Laugh] The department's not that huge, 20 or 30 people, but they teach these enormous courses. Many registered students in a place like that don't ever appear or appear very rarely. But the scale of it was preposterous.
ZIERLER: Obviously, you're quite glad that you took this adventure in Italy. It all worked out.
BREWER: I think it was tremendously important, partly for family reasons. My two children both spent large parts of their education in Italy. They're bilingual. It was a really important experience for them. For me, the European University Institute was fascinating because I learned so much about how different European education systems operate, how different they are as well as their similarities. Also, I had the most interesting group of graduate students I've ever had on those fronts. There's no better place in which to live everyday life than Italy. There's no question. In terms of food, sociability, everyday life, it's the tops. It has serious problems about politics, it has terrible problems about bureaucracy and things like that, but it's a tremendously invigorating and interesting place to live.
ZIERLER: What was it about the program that attracted such a strong group of graduate students?
BREWER: I think most of them were fleeing from something rather than drawn to something. The Italian students were fleeing a kind of dysfunctional PhD system, so they tended to be among the very, very best students. Because the very best students in Italy were looking for somewhere else to go rather than doing an Italian PhD. That was very different from the French or British students, where there's a very standard trajectory about what you do in your PhD career, what kinds of institutions you go to, what kinds of networks you create. It's all very well-developed. The British students I had, on the whole, weren't nearly as good as the other students. They were very unusual, in some way. The students from each country varied according to how the national system operated. The Greeks were all very, very good. There's a long tradition of Greeks working outside Greece for their post-doctoral work. Many of the people from the Iberian Peninsula already had jobs but hadn't gotten PhDs and were coming to do PhDs because of the system there. It was a very mixed bag. But usually, it was people who were slightly odd or didn't want to follow the conventional pathway. Except for the Italians, who had the idea that this was the place to come in a very positive way.
ZIERLER: Last topic we'll touch on for today's discussion, your decision to move to Chicago. First, it was a relatively short tenure there. Did you intend to stay longer?
BREWER: The reason I didn't stay very long in Chicago did not really have much to do with the University. It had to do with the dynamics of the family. And I don't really particularly want to get into all that.
ZIERLER: Of course. Although, at a general level, after Florence, you were probably rather spoiled. Chicago was a tough sell.
BREWER: The eldest of my children, she grew up in LA and then Florence. [Laugh] But it was a very complicated situation, which grew out, in part, of a kind of back-and-forth about where we should be and what we should be doing as a family. But that's really the primary reason things didn't work out in Chicago. On the one hand, the University is wonderful, although it does slightly have this view that it's the only real university in the world. [Laugh] Which can get a bit tiresome.
ZIERLER: Among the opportunities you were considering, you had many, thinking about where you would go after Florence. What was compelling to you, at least from the outside, in coming to Chicago?
BREWER: I was offered an appointment in two departments, and I knew people in both departments who I had a lot of time for. I found the general intellectual atmosphere very, very stimulating. I thought there were very, very interesting people, and there was a kind of cultural policy center there, which attracted me. In terms of personnel and the general vibe, I did not like Chicago at all. I found it a very difficult city to live in. I always felt it was a bit the opposite of LA. I think LA's a very difficult place to visit, but a good place to live, and I always felt Chicago is probably a good place to visit, but not a good place to live. But we all have our own versions of cities and experiences, and I have to admit that my experience of Chicago is very much colored by family circumstance.
ZIERLER: Were there any centers or libraries that were particularly useful to you as there were at UCLA when you were at Chicago?
BREWER: The main University library is a good library. But it was more to do with people than it was to do with facilities. It was more to do with particular scholars I already knew and found exciting.
ZIERLER: Just a fun question, it would've been totally out of your research field, but did you interact with Tom Rosenbaum at all at Chicago?
BREWER: No, I never met him. I don't know whether he was a dean or anything like that at that point, but I didn't know him, no.
ZIERLER: In the way that there were some intellectual seeds that were planted at other institutions, looking ahead, in the early 2000s, you're quite productive in terms of your publications. Was there any specifically that came out of your time at Chicago that led to a significant article or book?
BREWER: I think that I wouldn't have written A Sentimental Murder if I hadn't been in Chicago.
ZIERLER: How so?
BREWER: I taught a course there, which was about crime narratives. I thought a lot and read a lot about–I was reading a lot more literary stuff in that period than any other time in my career, reading and talking to people about narrative. When I was there, I spent much more time in the English Department than I did in the History Department, as it happened.
ZIERLER: Was that about dynamics in the department, your own interests at the time, or some combination?
BREWER: I think it was both. Also, the History Department there was going through a kind of transition. It wasn't a very happy department. Whereas the English Department was so full of itself, it was almost absurd. But it had some reason. It was a really exciting place. They'd hired relatively recently a lot of very exciting people. I found it extraordinary. The only thing about Chicago is that, for instance, in the English Department, a department meeting would last two and a half, three hours. And one person after another would get up and make these astonishing speeches about the issues that were being raised. When we had to consider any kind of promotion or change, everybody was supposed to read everything, and did, which often doesn't happen, in truth. I thought, "How does anybody manage to do much work of their own in these circumstances?" Because being part of the Chicago way and so on was so all-embracing, at least in the English Department.
ZIERLER: Do you see your interests in crime at this time as revivifying your interests from earlier in your career?
BREWER: That's an interest that never really went away. It was very much on the back-burner for quite a long period of time, but I think that issues of crime also raise issues that, for the historian, are important, about evidence, storytelling, so it's very easy to connect. What's interesting is, we haven't actually talked about the crisis of the 80s, the hegemonic claims of literature in that period, when students used to walk around with copies of Derrida rather like Protestant missionaries with the Bible. What subsequently was called the hermeneutics of suspicion, the idea that whatever is said conceals something beneath it, or the opposite, is an idea that has grossly overplayed, just like the idea that everything is a text is also grossly overplayed. But there are lots of very interesting things in there because historians have all sorts of, "How to read beyond the surface," of these things. Criminal records and accounts of crime, where both revelation and concealment are a crucial part of the process, are great areas to investigate. They're fascinating in the way in which they create these intellectual puzzles.
ZIERLER: Last question for today, a methodology question. In conceiving of A Sentimental Murder, making a book of it, how did you ensure that the topic at hand was not parochial, that this particular crime of passion was about something larger than this one specific narrative? How do you go about doing that?
BREWER: Well, I never thought of it as a piece of parochial historical writing. I set out to investigate this particular case in a particular way in order to explore a particular method. That wasn't something that emerged, that was upfront from the beginning. "Let's think about this in terms of units of narration rather than in terms of fact." That was very explicitly what I set out to do. I described it as an experiment, in a way. Which was intended not to prove a particular thing about the murder, not to produce a particular outcome, but rather to suggest that this way of approaching a question might produce new kinds of understanding or answers. It was never narrowly conceived, although some people interpreted it as such. It was a very interesting case because a lot of literary people thought, "Oh, this is terribly interesting. I never really thought about this in this way." And some historians, too, particularly cultural historians. But as I think I mentioned previously, some of my hard-nosed economic history friends couldn't understand why I'd written this book at all. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I wonder if you see it, among all of your books, as one that required the biggest intellectual stretch, given the methodology that you employed.
BREWER: I don't think so. In a way, one of the most difficult things of all of the books I've written was trying to understand the financial history that was so important for The Sinews of Power. Because there's a very good, very technical literature there, a literature that doesn't actually explain its larger meaning or impact very well, but deals with the technicalities of it with great power and precision. And it took me a long time to understand all of that and to find a way of making that accessible and building it into the general argument that I was trying to develop. That was, in a technical sense, the most difficult thing I had to do. And the most difficult thing I've had to do otherwise is what I've been doing most recently with Vesuvius, which is trying to put together something that is very, very disparate and buried. A Sentimental Murder was not a difficult book to write. It played itself out pretty easily. And I did, in fact, then write a thriller set during the time of the first Gulf War, which was based on the story of the politician, and the mistress, and the murder, and the clergyman, and so on, which was set in LA. What were the dates of the Gulf War again?
ZIERLER: '90, '91.
BREWER: Yeah. I wrote that shortly thereafter. It's never been published, and I haven't found a publisher for it. I'm always thinking about going back to it and seeing if I could publish it. Several friends who read it really enjoyed it. But that was a sort of summer exercise in a different sort of writing.
ZIERLER: Well, on that note, we'll pick up next time and bring the story right to the present, when you joined the faculty at Caltech.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Program. It's Tuesday, February 14, 2023. I'm delighted to be back once again with Professor John Brewer. John, as always, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining.
BREWER: Well, thank you for having me.
ZIERLER: Today, we're going to pick up in the narrative for what brings us together in the first place, your decision to join the faculty at Caltech. We touched on this briefly, but circa 2001, first, you came as a Moore Distinguished Scholar. Was that on the basis that you would eventually join the faculty? Or was that really a short-term position that did not have a clear transition point?
BREWER: The latter, I think. I'd had a whole series of conversations with John Ledyard, who was, at that point, the chair of the division, about the state of the humanities, and what could be done at Caltech. And I think this was an occasion in which we could continue those conversations with the possibility of something opening up. But it wasn't very strongly predetermined in any way. And indeed, I think there was some time before it became possible or potentially realizable that I could join the Caltech faculty on a more permanent basis.
ZIERLER: Given how unique Caltech is, you've been at institutions with a much greater emphasis on humanities in your career, was it also useful for you as a tryout period to see if this would be a good intellectual home for you?
BREWER: I think it was useful, but I don't think it was crucial in any way because I think I already had a pretty clear idea, both about Caltech and also about the Huntington, which, as I've mentioned before, it was really the conjunction of these two institutions that really interested me. I knew quite a lot of Caltech faculty in one capacity or another. I mentioned Phil Hoffman and Dan Kevles. I also knew Brian Barry, the philosopher, I was a big fan of his. I had actually written letters for Kevin Gilmartin and been one of his tenure assessors. And Robert Rosenstone was the person I was trying to remember last time who I also knew. I knew a range of people in different disciplines from the division already, so I had a fairly clear idea of what it was like. And I also had spent quite a bit of time at the Huntington over the years, dating back to actually 1973. I had pointed out when I renewed my card recently that it was something like 40 years or more since I'd been using the library. [Laugh]
The Import of the Huntington
ZIERLER: It bears going into a little more detail. What are the collections at Huntington that make it so special and useful for you?
BREWER: Well, until fairly recently, there were two main focuses of the collections, one of which was British history from really the medieval period through to the late 18th, early 19th centuries. Maybe even beyond that. And there were incredibly good manuscript and rare book collections in the library. If you're interested in working in the field of British history or British literature, this was the place in Southern California, and it was one of the best research libraries. When you put it together with the UCLA university library, which is one of the best university libraries in the country, it gives you, in Southern California, this amazing, really rich range of materials. The second area, of course, was the American West, and California and American history.
The very first time I came to the Huntington in '73, I was really amazed and shocked by seeing a guy wearing western boots and spurs, sitting in the Huntington Library, reading dime novels, who was doing research on this popular literature about the West. I wasn't working on any of this Gringo-American stuff, but I was very interested in the British materials. More recently, there's been this big addition of the history of science material, and there's been more European material in the Library as well, so the collection became a bit more diverse, and certainly became more diverse once the Dibner Collection went to the Library. Those were my particular interests. I knew there were these resources available there as well as the faculty I already knew at Caltech.
ZIERLER: What books were in process that might've been useful in thinking about these collections? This would've been 2000, 2001.
BREWER: Actually, I spent a lot of the time in 2001 writing a film script for a documentary by the BBC, which was based on my book, Pleasures of the Imagination, so I was using the Huntington Library for that purpose. I was also trying to find a lot of visual material that could be used in the documentary. When I went back to England, I then made the documentary over a period of a couple of months. That was a new experience for me, actually writing a film script. And then, I presented the documentary. That took up most of the time and intellectual energy then. I think that I was also involved in starting The American Leonardo. I worked off and on on this project, but the former owner of this particular painting lived in West LA, and I spent quite a considerable amount of time interviewing her and persuading her to give me quite a lot of documentary material that her family had on the case. And that was very interesting because that's the only project I've ever done, really, where you actually were faced with living humans. Which creates all kinds of very interesting issues and problems, which are not ones I was necessarily familiar with. And then, you can never, ever interview anybody once. You probably know all this. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: We're on our fourth session. [Laugh]
BREWER: There are a number of actors in this story about this painting that was supposedly a Leonardo, which was brought into America and then was the subject of a major legal case in 1929. But when you interview people, I realized after a while that when you talk to them more than once on the same topic, their story changes, and very often in interesting and revealing ways. Which I find very useful. And also, things that people don't say. Because I was really trying to piece together a history of this picture and all the issues that it raised for the different actors about authenticity, about value, about the art market, and about the legal framework within which these cases of authentication took place.
ZIERLER: Tell me a little bit more about this painting and why you found it so significant.
BREWER: I first came across the painting when I wrote this paper on trust for the economic historians of the University of Bologna. At that point, I wasn't so much interested in the painting as I was in the family and the case. But then, I started to look at the picture, and I began to see how it raised all of these issues. Who imported it, was it a cultural treasure? How this object, by moving, raised issues about the art worlds. Once the heavy hitters get involved, people like Joseph Duveen, the most powerful art dealer in the world at the time, who then dismissed the picture, the family who has the picture, which now they have in Kansas–how many Leonardos are there in Kansas City, Kansas?
And also, how was it that this picture lived in a kind of limbo for a very, very long period of time, in which some people believed it to be authentic? As I explored that, I found all kinds of different historical actors who had views about this at different times. For example, there's a man called Helmut Ruhemann, who was a German Jew who left in 1933, who was one of the great art conservators and taught art conservation in England for many, many years. He became fascinated by this painting, wrote a good deal about it, and tried to get it authenticated. There was another man called van Dantzig in the Netherlands, who was also obsessed with the picture because he wanted to use it as a case study for a particular methodology he had, which was actually a quantitative methodology about authentication. You had a series of boxes and categories of characteristics, and you checked them off.
And if you got beyond a certain number, then you could say it was an authentic Leonardo. All sorts of people were kind of using this for pushing their particular interests. And then, later, it became involved with people who were basically crooks, who were using the painting as a pyramid scheme. This was in the Midwest. They'd go to somebody and say, "I have this great painting. It's worth millions. But I need money to hire people to authenticate it, to do all this testing, and so on. I'll give you 10% of the sale price when we sell it if you give me, say, $100,000." And these guys raised several million in this way, which they never had to return. The only point they'd have to return it is when the picture was sold.
And the picture was never sold. It was quite a business. There were all these different actors involved. And the art world is very, very interesting in a lot of ways because it's full of shady characters. The art world actually rather likes this. When you talk to people, they say, "Oh, he was such a rogue," as if somehow being a rogue qualified you to be a significant figure in the art world. [Laugh] And I wrote a paper about gossip. Gossip is incredibly important in this world. And of course, it's true in every world. In universities, businesses, whatever. But somehow, gossip in the art world has a greater weight than almost anywhere else that I can think of. I suppose the entertainment industry is probably the pinnacle of the gossip world, but the art world is very close behind. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: In the course of researching this book, did your own opinions about the provenance, the authenticity of the painting, change?
BREWER: As I've said on several occasions, I'm a deeply skeptical person. I never felt that there was any really high degree of probability that it was authentic. On the other hand, I was very interested in the question of how it was that it managed to persuade people like this man, Helmut Ruhemann, who was really one of the world's great conservation experts, to think of it as possibly authentic. The received opinion throughout of the majority of the art experts was that it was a very nice picture, a very good picture, quite probably a very early copy of La Belle Ferronnière, which is in the Louvre, which, in itself, is a picture which is disputed. It's questioned the degree to which Leonardo or people in his studio painted it. I didn't really change my view about the picture very much.
I came to think that it was almost certainly a Northern European, probably early-17th-century version of the picture. High quality. The other exciting thing about this project was that I gave a talk about this picture at the Huntington, and a woman came up to me who was a lawyer, who had written a thesis at Bard College in their material culture program about Joseph Duveen's legal cases. She persuaded me to try and hunt down the people who still had the picture. Because the woman whose parents had owned the picture, she or her parents had consigned this picture to these rather iffy characters, who had then refused to return it and were still using it for nefarious purposes.
She and her law firm decided to pursue these guys, and we eventually got the picture back. As part of the deal, it had to be viewed and cleaned by the Getty Conservation Institute. The head of that Institute at that time was actually a man who had been a pupil of Helmut Ruhemann's in London, David Bomford. They cleaned the picture, and it was put up for sale at Sotheby's. It was sold at Sotheby's as an after-Leonardo. It fetched $1.5 million, which is a lot of money for a copy. Really, a lot of money. And it was, in fact, I believe, bought by a Hollywood producer of all these CGI–
ZIERLER: Yeah, computer-generated images.
BREWER: Yeah. My lawyer friend said they were going to use it one of their series so he could have a tax write-off, but I don't know. [Laugh] But that was the sort of adventure that went on for a considerable period of time and which had to do with the art world. This lawyer, Marcella Ruble, was very important to me in LA because she had a salon, essentially. She was head of the Decorative Arts Council at LACMA, and she was involved in things at the Getty. She had these salons, in which she would invite a sort of mixture of film and TV people, a lot of art curators, and academics, photographers, those sorts of actors. And she'd have these evenings–at that point, they had a house right on the top of Crescent Heights, right next to the building you always see in this photograph of a modernist building in LA, where there's a woman sitting in a glass box overlooking the city. Their house was next door to that. Had the same view. And she had a huge dining room with five or six tables, and people would sit around, and drink, and talk. And you'd meet all kinds of famous Hollywood photographers, or people who had lived in Andy Warhol's factory, that sort of thing, as well as senior curators from the Getty or from LACMA. It was a very interesting and diverse group of people.
ZIERLER: The scientific aspects of the book, some of the advances in analytical methods like spectroscopy and others that advanced the authentication game in art in the 20th century, did you lean into that further than you otherwise may have just by being at Caltech?
BREWER: I certainly wanted to know more about that. The difficulty is that there is a narrative, which a lot of people want to embrace, which is that somehow, we were getting closer and closer to fully determined authentication. In fact, we've gotten much, much better at showing that things are not what they seem. But to prove what they are is still exceptionally difficult. There are many tests you can use. One of the things that's used increasingly is incredibly high-resolution pixelated images that compare the ways in which artists' techniques have been used. But people's techniques change. It's still inevitably an area in which the final determination to say yes is only an expression of probability, never an expression of certainty, which is, of course, what a lot of science is anyway.
And people get hooked on different kinds of method and think, "This is going to be the key." But really, what matters most, actually, about authentication now, and this has to do with the history of how authentication has been done in the past–in the past, there's always been a big tension between the person who's looked at thousands of images, and uses the kind of sudden glance, and says, "Ah-ha, I see Leonardo." It's hard for them to explain why, and actually, very often, they may be quite right. But those sorts of people, who have actually exercised huge power in the art world, have always been–this is one of the themes of the book–hostile towards scientific authentication. Partly, because it does them out of a job, but also because they think, as Berenson said about the properties of a painting, "Does it matter whether Shakespeare was written on paper or parchment?"
It's the act of genius that is what's really at stake in this world. That notwithstanding, of course, the capacity for testing in all sorts of ways has gotten better and better, with pigments and the methods that you've mentioned. But what has happened is, there has been, in many institutions, a kind of truce between those who are interested in the technical and material properties of a work of art and those who see themselves as these highfalutin aesthetic types. And what you see now increasingly is groups of people who use a range of methods, including the well-trained eye, in order to make authentications. And there are now a number of companies that exist as independent bodies that you can hire who don't have a financial interest in the picture, because that's one of the problems that occurs constantly. Of course, if Salvator Mundi is really a Leonardo, as opposed to this kind of reconstructed image–I don't know if you've ever seen what it looked like before it was restored, but it was butchered beyond belief [Laugh]–then it transforms. That's one of the things about these decisions, they are of enormous value, or not, as the case may be.
ZIERLER: Between the European origins, of course, of the painting and the American story that plays out that you focus on, did you feel like this was your first foray into American history? Or is this really a transatlantic story?
BREWER: I have a chapter in the book about Kansas City and what it was like in the 20s and 30s, which was great fun to do, I have to say. Because it was a bit Wild West-ish out there. The combination of criminal syndicates, but also kind of regional boosterism. It was very interesting to me. I have written a little bit about Colonial America a long time ago, but I've never really written anything other than this that has a sort of element of American history. But I saw it, I suppose, not as being either a European history or an American story, but as being an international, transatlantic story. Because one of the things about the art world is that, really, from the late 19th century onwards, it's been a global world, not just Europe and America, but primarily around that sort of axis.
ZIERLER: Some questions on the teaching and mentorship side at Caltech. First, I wonder if you've heard about this origin story where the founders of Caltech insisted on a humanities program to ensure that their science and engineering undergraduates would be well-rounded humanists in the world. Did you feel like that tradition had continued as sort of part of that original mandate?
BREWER: Yes. And after all, if you're thinking about some kind of story which is going to justify the fact that this small group of people is this institution, that's the rationale. You've also got this research component, but I think the fact that every professor, however senior, named chair, what have you, we all taught freshman. I think that was a good thing. One of the things I remember Ed Stolper saying to me is, "People say, 'Why these terribly small classes?' I say to people, 'Don't you think that it's really an amazing privilege for 12 Caltech undergraduates to be sitting around with some kind of famous historian, learning with them?'" [Laugh] It is. It's a great thing.
ZIERLER: What was your impression of Caltech students, given you've had a chance to teach at so many other top-flight universities?
BREWER: It's important not to confuse time and place here. That is to say, students everywhere are different in 2010 than they were in 1980. If you're comparing students in one institution at one time, you need to make allowances for that. Expectations about the quantity of reading and writing that students have to do have plummeted everywhere, not just at Caltech. It's a general phenomenon. The students are extremely intelligent. I always like the rather eccentric ones. I found the freshmen rather intellectually naive. Clever, but intellectually naive. Although, I had the general impression that they became much less naive by the time they were in their junior and senior years. They were more sophisticated in their thinking.
I suppose that shows that the institution had done some good. [Laugh] In my time at Caltech, one thing I did not like, which I see again as a more general phenomenon, is the gaming that goes on, which is a way in which students sort of think, "What is necessary for me to do in order to achieve a good grade?" rather than thinking, "This is an intellectual enterprise that might be emancipating, liberating, illuminating, or exciting." I think there's more of that. Again, I think that's not in any way a peculiarly Caltech phenomenon. It has to do with the way in which people are taught to think about their education. One that I don't particularly care for. Other than that, the other big change, of course, is around gender. Which is that although I'm a relatively late arrival at Caltech, when I started, there seemed to be very few female students compared with how many there were at the end. I don't know whether that's actually statistically true or not, but that certainly seemed to me to be the case.
Are women students different from men students? [Laugh] We'll leave that as an open question. But I found the students stimulating. And again, this is not to do simply with Caltech, but the amount of general knowledge and cultural baggage of a kind of received form that students have seems to have grown less and less. What you can assume that they might know. Of course, why should students all know about what was–this is the sort of argument about the canon, in a way, that we should all know who X is, or why. Why should we? Partly, when you have a more diverse culture, you have more diverse backgrounds, and inevitably there's going to be more of you needing to explain who people you think it's obvious we should know about, who they are or why they might matter. But that's just a matter of pedagogy, really. And I think I noticed that more because I'd been teaching mostly graduate students at Chicago and in Florence, so again, we're comparing apples and pears, really.
ZIERLER: Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to ask next. What did you think about the fact that humanities at Caltech lacks a graduate program?
BREWER: I've been thinking about this because you asked me about this before. I was also thinking about it in the context of the relationship between Caltech and the Huntington, which I'd like to talk a bit more about. There are 23 or 24 professorial faculty in the humanities, and that's history, history of science, economic history, philosophy, literature, now visual studies, and so on. It's a very small group. And it's difficult to run a graduate program like that. In my time at Caltech, I've been struck by the fact that quite a number of junior faculty in the humanities have found it difficult, and the reason for that is that you're not in a department where you've got 30 people all doing something, which is somewhat similar or in some ways related to what you do. If you're like me, an old guy who comes along and knows exactly what he wants to do, then Caltech is great. If you need a complex support system of similar, likeminded faculty, it's harder. You may well find one or two people, and there are these little clusters that exist within the division, but it's not the same. Professionally, it's a little bit more difficult. As I say, if you feel established, you know what you want to do, that's a very different situation.
ZIERLER: The relationship between Caltech and the Huntington, how aware were you of that in your previous visits to the Huntington? And what were your expectations, being a Caltech faculty member?
BREWER: One of the reasons that I came, and one of the conversations that I'd been having with John Ledyard was really about trying to use the resources of the Huntington in order to kind of leverage up, if you like, the humanities program at Caltech. And when I was arriving, we were having quite a number of conversations about what might happen there. I knew Roy Ritchie, who was the head of research for the Huntington before. I've known him quite a long time, probably 10 or 20 years. There was really a sense that maybe we could do something which would–John, I think, was worried about the coherence of the humanities group. I think he felt that it should be perhaps more coherent than it was. I'm not sure that's the right way to look at it, but I think that's what he felt.
But part of the problem for the humanities was that there'd been a succession of heads of the division who were social scientists, who all paid lip service, and a little bit more, to the question of what should happen about the humanities. But all of them, I think, were not really–to be fair, John Ledyard was very well aware of the fact–he said, "I don't understand how this all works. Tell me how it works. When I can do that, maybe I can do more." But I think it's very difficult when fundamentally, what you have is a culture of language and a culture of number, and the two can intersect, do sometimes intersect, but don't necessarily understand each other. Although there was always a kind of lip service paid to the idea that the division should, in some way, connect more with the Huntington, and that would help the humanities, it was lip service, in my view.
What had been happening at the Huntington is, essentially, Roy Ritchie had been building what was the biggest humanities program in the US. 150 fellows a year, that's a huge body of people. And I think that really, somehow, people at Caltech didn't really understand what had happened. Many of them thought of the Huntington rather like it was when Ritchie arrived, which was like a sleepy gentleman's club, which was chiefly inhabited by rather old scholars, who were not particularly dynamic.
And that had completely transformed. There was an opportunity there to do more, but I've been thinking a lot about this, what happened is that in 2004, I think it was, Ritchie set up these institutes with USC, one of which was on the California and the American West. I think the American History Institute was later. The other one, though, was on early modern studies. They were each trying to get at the major strengths of what were then the Huntington collections. I always thought we should've been in on that action earlier for reasons that are complicated and I don't especially want to go into. Basically, we dropped the ball.
ZIERLER: We as in who?
BREWER: The Division. The opportunity to do this–I wrote a proposal and so on that just vanished into hyperspace. The division chairs didn't really understand that we weren't doing the Huntington a favor, the Huntington was doing us a favor. And also, to be fair, it's not the fault of the social scientists. In my time at Caltech, I regularly, probably two or three days a week, went to the Huntington, had lunch there, talked to the fellows who were there in each individual year, a changing group of people, and I went to seminars. I can't think of a single colleague who was similarly involved in the institution. They occasionally came for things.
They were interested in talks, but in terms of real engagement, being part of the fabric of it in a way which would then lead you to be asked or consulted with to do certain things, work on projects, or whatever, there was none of that. And then, somehow, there was this idea that somehow, at a higher institutional level, things were brought together, they would work. And basically, that didn't happen. From the point of view of Roy Ritchie, you have this 20-odd faculty in the humanities, and some of them are not going to be interested in the things, understandably enough, that have to do with the Huntington, so maybe you've got a pool of 15 people. The Early Modern Studies Center has nearly 60 faculty from USC who are affiliated and involved with it.
The scale of it means that it's very difficult for Caltech to really play a kind of leadership role in all of this. We can ride along and do some things. More recently, there's now this Science and Technology Center program with the Huntington, and there's also the visual culture program. For years, I was pushing for visual culture to be part of the humanities program as it was sort of seriously developed. When I left, they finally did it. [Laugh] That was the price. I don't know. I never really understood that. When I was up in Stanford around about that time, they were obsessed with the idea that visual studies was the way to connect the humanities with engineering and science. That was what they really were looking for or wanted to develop.
ZIERLER: Given how much you've thought about this, in an ideal world, what would the Caltech-Huntington partnership or relationship look like?
BREWER: I think the model that's emerging is probably the best one that can be done. I started this Materiality Text and Image program in 2013 with the Huntington when we had a series of seminars and programs, and we had two visiting fellows. We took a little bite out of the fellowship pie, and we used that to develop a kind of specific program, which also connected to Caltech faculty. And subsequently, there was a decision to use that model for different topics. I think Warren Brown did two years on the history of violence, something he's written about in the medieval context and which, again, brought people in. What has happened to this program? I don't know.
I looked on the website, and every time I clicked on this collaboration, there was nothing there, which was rather alarming. But there is the Science and Technology initiative, and there is the Visual Culture initiative. I've come to feel that one needs to recognize that Caltech, rather like what humanities does within the institution, that we can do this outside as well. We can do small things very well with small groups of people, connecting to a larger institution. And that's probably where the future lies. I think we need to be modest about ourselves. I felt that somehow, people at Caltech expected that the Huntington was going to come to them rather than we going to the Huntington.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your project about tradition and invoking your own experiences as a student. This is the notes from the field, the tradition in the journal, Art Bulletin.
BREWER: Oh, that, my little peroration about how useless tradition is as a concept. [Laugh] That was slightly tongue-in-cheek, really. But I just think that the term tradition is used in a very sloppy way. That piece is rather like the piece I wrote about patronage, which is to say, "Come on, guys, let's sort of face up to what we're doing here. We're fudging things in a major way, and we need to recognize that." Clearly, if you go back to my undergraduate years, then there was this idea of really breaking down this notion of tradition, to, I think, an absurd and exaggerated degree. But placing ourselves in a tradition makes people feel comfortable, safe. It's not necessarily the best way, I think, for knowledge to develop. I prefer sort of something slightly more paradigm-breaking.
To attach oneself to a tradition is very often to resign yourself to practicing normal science, is what I would say. But I actually very much like writing these short pieces, and that is one I would perhaps expand on, which would be one of the number of essays that I plan to publish as a collection of essays. The one on patronage is similar, which caused great outrage when it was given. [Laugh] I was accused by a well-known art critic of being a kind of post-modern tenured professor. I said, "Well, I'm not post-modern." At that point, I was in Florence, and I had no tenure. It was ludicrous. But that was because the critic was very committed to the idea that there is some kind of primary way of thinking about a picture, which was the way, and to introduce all these other kind of circumstances and context was really to defile what was a work of genius.
Volcanoes and the Notion of the Sublime
ZIERLER: When you started to think about the Vesuvius project, the concept or term sublime tourism. First of all, did you coin that? Was that something in the historiography?
BREWER: I don't think it's been used in quite such an emphatic way. The sublime is talked about a lot, and tourism is talked about a lot, but thinking of it as a kind of conjunction is–I don't think I'm unique in doing this, there's been some extremely good work on sublimity in volcanoes, mostly by literary critics. I wouldn't say it was unique, but it is an important idea for me, at least in the first half of the book.
ZIERLER: What larger concepts from the 18th and 19th century use sublime tourism as their starting point?
BREWER: I think a lot of the discussion around technologies of representation grows out of that. The last chapter in my book is all about technologies and the sublime, which is all about being able to create the sublime experience or sensation without actually being there–to witness a simulation or simulacra of a volcanic eruption, which produces in you the same kind of feelings it would if you were actually there on the slopes of the volcano, but with the added benefit that it's comfortable and safe. And the discussion of those technologies has a lot to do with ideas about the sublime and how it affects your emotions. For instance, panoramas, dioramas, and early immersive experiences, some of which are static, and some of which are mobile. In a panorama, you're in a 360-degree enclosed environment in a way that actually induces what one critic has called seasickness because you don't know where the horizon is.
And in moving panoramas, it seems as if you're actually–for instance, one of the Vesuvian panoramas is one where you sit in a boat–it is a physical boat–and then, a series of huge, long canvases are wound past you, so you seem to be moving. There was one for the Mississippi. This one starts off in London and ends up going down the crater of Vesuvius. But these technologies raise a debate about the nature of this experience and about the character of illusion. Artists don't approve of illusion because they want imagination, they want you to use these faculties. They're not interested in verisimilitude. Even realism isn't really about that, it's about creating a–whereas these panoramas and dioramas are thought of as a simulacra of the real, which are both educational and emotional so that you have the experience, but you also learn things.
It's not about aesthetics so much. I write in the book about a very early model of Vesuvius created by Sir William Hamilton in Naples, and which uses clockwork and light to create a simulacrum of an eruption. And he sends this to the Royal Society, understandably, but he also sends it to David Garrick, the actor who's the proprietor of one of the London theaters, who's employing an artist called Loutherbourg, who is transforming the London theater by creating these amazing simulacra on stage and who also develops something called the Eidophusikon, which is an experience where you go into a room, and before you is a kind of in-depth stage, which then produces moving images of various sorts using, again, clockwork, but also light. Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, was also a person who developed these dioramas, which, by changing the light, created a sense of motion.
And there's a big debate in the 19th century about these, both about their legitimacy, their audience, and also their effect. A lot of the discussion is like the debate about early cinema. For example, people write about how people are terrified by what they see and think it's real, just as there are all these stories about early cinema about the train coming towards you, and people trying to leap out of the way. I'm very skeptical about all those stories, I have to say. It also ties in with discussion about travel. Dickens writes a very interesting article in Household Words, in which he ventriloquizes a traveler, who says, "I've been here, I've been there, I've been everywhere, and I've never left home.
What I've had is, I've had this virtual experience through this new technology, so that I've been able to travel to the Far East, I've been able to travel to Vesuvius, I've been able to travel to the jungles of Patagonia through this system. And it's really good because it's cheap. I'm not a wealthy man. I have access in this way, and it's comfortable, and I don't have to deal with foreigners," which is a very important point. [Laugh] It's about comfort. And actually, it absolutely chimes in with and connects with what people like Thomas Cook are doing with travel in the second half of the 19th century, which is that you don't have to deal with the alien, the foreign, because he has–on Vesuvius, they have a restaurant that serves English food with English-speaking waiters, there's a post office where you can buy postcards to send back home, you have vouchers so you don't have to handle foreign money.
Cook had English-speaking representatives at all the major European railway stations. You just went to the Cook representative. And the rhetoric of all of that is about comfort, convenience, ease, efficiency. Whereas in the romantic era, in some sense, a little bit of suffering goes a long way. There's a book, actually, which is called The Suffering Traveler written by a scholar taking this theme. The model for a lot of people going up Vesuvius, for example, is Alexander von Humboldt's ascent in Chimborazo, where he goes higher than anybody's ever been before, but he suffers some altitude sickness, but they suffer for science.
Travelers feel somehow that as part of their sublime tourism, the unpleasantness, the danger is actually a part of that. It's like sort of dangerous tourism, the thrill of it all. Of course, it isn't, and that's one of the things that's really important about Vesuvius in a way is that it's both thrilling and ostensibly–and it is potentially quite dangerous, but not very dangerous. You're having the thrill and excitement, but you're not actually going to be engulfed by a pyroclastic flow. [Laugh] You're not like the poor inhabitants of Herculaneum in 79CE.
ZIERLER: The discovery and excavation in the 19th century that this was the site of a calamity in the year 79, before this discovery, what did people think of the site? What did they associate it with?
BREWER: It's a bit earlier than the 19th century, it's the 18th century, from the 1730s and 40s onward. There was knowledge that there had been a famous eruption. There wasn't a lot of knowledge about the details of it except that it had been bad. Until, really, the excavations in the 19th century. And to begin with, the excavations were all about objects, finding these precious and remarkable objects. But it was also very important for archaeology because it was felt that this was the first time that you could really reconstruct everyday life. It was not about great statues or whatever, it was about the impedimenta of cooking, and tools, and so on, so that you had a new version.
And it's only after the 1760s that bodies start to emerge in any significant numbers. In the early 18th century, people say, "Well, nobody very much died because we haven't found any bodies, and it took a long time, so people got away. Maybe a few old people got caught, but nothing much happened." By the middle of the 19th century, people are saying 250,000 people died. Now, both of those positions are crazy, but they also show you how the whole thing had changed. It's a disaster, and then it becomes an exemplification of human suffering in the early 19th century. And then, it becomes part of a whole series of stories about volcanoes, and science, and revolution.
ZIERLER: On that point, I wonder how you used Vesuvius to look at something of a transition point from medieval mysticism or superstition and enlightenment, rationality.
BREWER: Yes, in Naples, there are powerful old religious traditions about the volcano, which don't go away. They're still there now. After all, the liquefaction of St. Januarius' blood, and St. Januarius was supposed to have saved the city of Naples from the eruption in 1631, or maybe even earlier. That's still celebrated. And the enlightened critics and travelers treat that as just superstitious, and they find it incomprehensible that people continue to live in the shadow of the volcano, even when there are these eruptions. But they don't really understand what the volcano means to the local people. Who tell them, actually, "Okay, we get an eruption every so many years, and we then have to start over, but the ground that we have is incredibly fertile, we can produce huge quantities of crops. And when there's an eruption, we just run away, and then we come back again. But we have to rebuild things." And the rebuilding happens often very quickly. Also, people are very mindful of the fact that the volcano is a big attraction for tourists, scientists, visitors. And the raw materials–the roadways of Naples are made of volcanic material that is mind. It's literally built on a volcano, and many of the buildings are made out of volcanic material. One of the themes in my book is partly about closeness and distance, and when you're very close to this phenomenon, it has a very different sort of meaning from when you're very far away from it, or you're just visiting it and then exiting.
But no, there is this enlightenment view, which also fits in with a prevailing view that volcanoes are fundamentally benign. They may kill a few people in an eruption, but in the longer run, they're part of a kind of homeostatic view of nature, and it'll all work out for the best, and that the problem with local people running away and feeling frightened is that they don't really appreciate what's going on, as it were, below the surface. But that view is challenged in the 19th century by a return to a religious view, which doesn't see itself as superstitious but rather recognizing that the volcano is, in some sense, a God, a form of divine intervention. The 19th-century Christian view, which is also a very conservative one, now becomes this story about how Pompeii was this terribly decadent, irreligious, polytheistic, sexually licentious, extravagant, luxurious place, which got its comeuppance because of this.
And the stories that are told about what happened set up this kind of dynamic so that even when they include Christians, even if the Christians don't survive, they go to heaven, but they're redeemed or saved in some way, that the volcano has this agency as a moral arbiter. And it also is a conservative arbiter who punishes people who look like French revolutionaries, who are in favor of divorce, and democracy. The way you look at it is inflected–just as earlier. During the Terror, the volcano is seen as this purgative thing, which is getting rid of bad, old things, and then regenerating a kind of new order. That's the kind of revolutionary model, which is then largely replaced by this much more conservative model in the 19th century. They're still kind of in dialog with one another, but the balance between them shifts.
ZIERLER: Back on campus, your decision to go emeritus in 2017, did you feel at that point that was a true emeritus status for you? Had you considered going to teach elsewhere?
BREWER: No, I think that I felt that what I wanted, really, was to be able to–I taught my first course in 1969. I really used to love teaching, but it got a bit stale, I wanted say. I was dutiful and responsible about it, I would never want to be otherwise, but I didn't have the same sort of engagement in it as I had in former times. And I also felt I wanted to be freer, in a way. Small groups of people generate hard work as groups, I think. [Laugh] I played a role in that group, which I had been playing for quite a long time, and I felt it was time to stop. It was a combination of those things, really.
ZIERLER: Was the plan to remain in Southern California, or did you want to move?
BREWER: I had originally planned to go to the Huntington for a year. But as it happened, my wife got a job in England, and I thought that it was therefore incumbent on me to go with her. I became a fellow traveler, or partner, or spouse, or whatever.
ZIERLER: Circa 2016 or 2017, I wonder if the political situation in the United States made that decision even easier for you.
BREWER: Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Brexit. As I finished a letter to one of my old English friends yesterday, my blood still boils when I think about Brexit. For somebody like my daughter, who was educated in Italy, is bilingual, and thinks of herself very strongly as European, it's an absolutely terrible situation. The political transition was–it was difficult to know where to go, really. [Laugh] I was not surprised that Trump got elected. I was surprised that Brexit succeeded. And I remember sitting in a pub in London with a very distinguished Harvard professor who's now retired, who said to me, "Oh, it's absolutely impossible that these things are going to happen." It reminds me of the famous remark, when the Labour government was elected in 1945, when some aristocrat is supposed to have said, "The people would never allow it." [Laugh]
But America is a culture of polymorphous uniformity is how I would characterize it. You have to belong to a tribe, and you have to behave in that manner. And there are many tribes, probably more than anywhere else on the planet. But when you're in them, you sort of belong to them. I think one of the difficulties for a lot of what we'll call liberal faculty is, they don't really understand how deeply conservative America is. They don't really understand that. And they have sort of fantasies about what things are really like. But it's interesting as a foreigner coming to America, one of the things I've noticed is that new arrivals are always very certain about what the culture is like, how it works, and so on, and the longer you live in the US and the more you know about it, the harder it is actually. [Laugh] I said the generalization about polymorphous uniformity, but that's a sort of cop-out, in a way.
ZIERLER: What was the impact of retirement on your scholarship, not being connected to an institution?
BREWER: Well, I don't think it had a very big effect one way or another. And I think that's because I also already had a kind of network of people that I was talking to about this subject, the Vesuvius project. And I was also still giving talks and lectures pretty regularly. After I retired, I was a visitor at the University of Durham Institute of Advanced Studies, I gave talks there, and then I was in the Netherlands at Radboud University in Nijmegen for a term, and I was there for a term, and I think I gave six or eight talks. Almost too much. But it wasn't as if things sort of stopped. When my wife was in Newcastle–and Durham's just down the road, so that's when I was there, so there wasn't much discontinuity, really. I think that the only thing is, I miss this population of a group of younger scholars that I connect to. I nearly always at some point had this sort of group around me, and that's become less true more recently, and I regret that.
Because I think for me, the most exciting part of being an academic is actually interacting with a group of people, working with them together, and exploring different things, and learning things from them, and feeling that you can enable them to do certain things. And that sort of point in the careers of people, when they're mature doctoral students getting close to finishing, or in the early years–I've never really understood why institutions don't risk more by appointing more people in mid-career rather than cultivating status objects who may turn out to be burned-out volcanoes. I've always felt that period, 30 to 55 or so, at least in the humanities, is an age where people are beyond the PhD project, and they're kind of opening out and really flying. If you can work with people like that then, that's the most satisfying.
ZIERLER: Moving the conversation right up to the present, how well-articulated was your research agenda post the Vesuvius book? Did you know what you were going to work on after it came out?
BREWER: Well, it hasn't come out yet, but I have been playing with the idea of publishing this material on different aspects of historical issues and method. And I actually sort of put a list of them all together.
ZIERLER: This would be a monograph, or more of an anthology?
BREWER: It's an anthology. And I wrote a piece quite a long time ago called Talking About My Generation, the title of The Who song, about my experiences from the 60s, and I'm rewriting that as sort of more autobiographical, but about my sort of professional and personal interests. Because the two have never really been very distinctive.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, that's a perfect place to ask a few retrospective questions about your career. Just as you were indicating, do you see being a product of the 60s, of the intellectual ferment, sort of present in your scholarship in one form or another?
BREWER: I think it's more than just the 60s in the cliched sense, but certainly, the point of intellectual formation which runs from reading Marx in the public library as a schoolboy to thinking about how to run a research institute in the 1980s, those are the formative experiences and the formative period. And I think that's not gone away, and it hasn't changed very much. I've been interested by the fact that many of my contemporaries' views have quite often shifted considerably. I think that in an odd way, although I've moved around, metaphorically as well as literally, in all sorts of ways, I've nevertheless felt that I've always been pretty much in the same sort of place in terms of what I want to get out, what I do, what I value as a historian, what I enjoy, and so on. I don't think that's changed.
Embracing Fads in Historical Scholarship
ZIERLER: You've been a historian long enough where you've seen many fads in the historiography over the decades. Is there value to that, to historians gathering around particular ideas in current periods of time?
BREWER: Yes, absolutely. History is historical and dynamic, and should be. And if it were not, it would be boring. Of course, it's a feature of fads that they tend to be perhaps oversubscribed and treated uncritically, for a while, at least. But again, there's always a history to these fads, in which they come and go. The obsession of historians with the threat of post-modernism, which was never really a threat at all–there's very little post-modern history you can find. It exists in literature and so on, but actually in terms of producing a history that can be characterized as post-modern, there's very little of it. But where has all that gone? It's just vanished. And even in literary studies, you find people sort of thinking back to the moment of the 1980s, when I say, everybody was carrying Derrida around like the bible. It's gone. There are still some practitioners, and when you come across them, you think, "Oh, that's quaint. How 1980s." These things come and go. But all of these fads, I think, have something to offer as long as they're treated critically. You may learn to see things in a slightly different way. You don't have to buy the whole package. But if you're thinking all the time that one of the things is that history moves, and that you need to move with it, and that that's what will make you, in some sense, not just topically but more generally, a better historian, then that's what you need to do.
ZIERLER: Going off your astute observation about the difficulty of comparing students across decades and institutions, just as a counterfactual, a thought experiment, do you think the major scholarly projects that you've undertaken, the books, would they have been more or less the same if the chronology in which you wrote them changed? In other words, if some of your earlier works, you actually wrote later, and some of your later works, you wrote earlier. Would they have been different? Or is there an immutability to those projects?
BREWER: I'm sure they would've been different. But on the other hand, it's a sort of impossible counterfactual exercise to imagine what that would actually be like. I would say yes, they would be different. If you asked me how they would be different, I couldn't answer that.
ZIERLER: But essentially, each book is a product of your time and place.
BREWER: Yes. One of the things I've done periodically, which has always proved extremely unpopular, is to sort of auto-critique. To write things which said, "Well, I did things in this way, and now I don't think that's quite"–I did this with consumption material, and people were really quite shocked. They'd think that you shouldn't really change your mind, that consistency is the virtue. And that's not what I value. You may well want to be consistent about certain things, but holding on to what you have done in this way is not valuable because it fails to recognize how it is that–historians are very bad at historicizing themselves, I think. They historicize everything, but they don't historicize themselves. And I understand that it's difficult. Being an object of study rather than being the studier is always difficult. We all want to be Malinowski, and none of us wants to be the savage. And that explains partly, for instance, the kind of reaction to that work of Bruno Latour's on the laboratory. Scientists couldn't bear the prospect of being an object of study. "We do the studying."
ZIERLER: Let me ask one last question to wrap up this excellent series of discussion. It'll combine past, present, and future. For all of the decision points you've had to make about ideas for scholarly projects, when to make it an article or a book, when to abandon ship entirely, on the latter category of projects not pursued, do you have any regrets, anything you wish you had written on? And does that perhaps serve as a guide for what you want to do for however long you remain active?
BREWER: There is one project I started before I got distracted by the volcano, and that was a project about museum curators. I was very interested in the position, particularly in art museums–I was interested in how people in museums constructed their view of themselves and what their institutions were doing. This was provoked originally–I was very struck by the fact that art-museum curators could not really admit the degree to which they were implicated in the market, and they had a rhetoric of kind of being above it, whereas in fact, they were incredibly implicated in it. And it created all sorts of problems for them because in a sense, they were always covering up or fudging things.
And I was very interested in the idea that you could construct a story or a way in which you could legitimate your involvement in the marketplace without kind of completely compromising your distinctive position and relation to it, that you're not a dealer, but you have certain kinds of commercial interests and so on. More generally, I think that museum curators have faced a very difficult time. It's been very exciting, there's tons of art in the market and museums, but there are all these issues about cultural patrimony, about restitution, about ownership. And to navigate through that is a very difficult issue, which actually is quite longstanding.
One of the things I did is, I read quite a lot of professional literature, not the sort of publicity or exhibition catalogs, but those journals that dealt with the kind of nuts and bolts of being a curator, running a museum, what you cared about. Which was primarily, almost exclusively, read by other curators as a sort of source to try and begin to talk about this, and how you shift it more recently. I have a huge archive of material that I had a research assistant collect, which I haven't had an opportunity to really delve into. And I may get round to that. It's still an issue that I'm very interested in. I know a lot of curators quite well, I have a lot of curatorial friends, and I've talked with them about this. But it's difficult because many curators do not want to–it's a much less transparent world than the academy has to be, although it's become more so and will continue to be.
ZIERLER: What's it going to take for you to jump into that project with both feet? It sounds great.
BREWER: I want to get this other project out of the way first, the essays. And then, I will see. I'm not actually quite sure where that collection of material is. It's somewhere in a storage facility in rural Massachusetts or something. [Laugh] I've got to organize my life so that it's more in one place.
ZIERLER: One thing at a time then.
ZIERLER: On that note, it has been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this, talk about your career and history at Caltech. Thank you so much.
BREWER: Well, thank you.
- Eluding Labels Within History
- From Pasadena to Munich
- The Foundational Basis for Humanities at Caltech
- Awakenings at Cambridge
- Entering American Academia
- Historiography and Impact
- Literature and Libraries at UCLA
- New Directions in Italy
- The Import of the Huntington
- Volcanoes and the Notion of the Sublime
- Embracing Fads in Historical Scholarship