Duberman's achievements and failures stand in stark contrast. The book abounds in scholarly rigor. He scrupulously seeks the exact truth about events at Black Mountain. Beyond the external story, he tries to unearth the motives and even the feelings of the people who wanted to turn Black Mountain into a fulfilling community and is quite aware that in such biographical areas evidence is at best only suggestive. As few writers, Duberman has psychological gifts--a keen sensitivity to personality and an unusual awareness of sexual nuances. He identifies with Black Mountain and comes close to evoking the actual experience of an intensive, tormented, often "sick" community. He will not let the reader forget the difficult challenges, the compelling dreams, the rare moments of joy and fulfillment, the many occasions of self-revelation that relieved its petty quarrels, vaporous enthusiasms, and depressing educational failures.
Duberman writes well. The first, well-organized, tightly-written chapters reveal his potential. But beyond that he rarely composes. The book degenerates into something as artless, as unfocused, as sentimental and self-indulgent as Black Mountain at its worst. Sections of the book are mere compilations of research materials (up to five pages of quotation). With increasing personal involvement, Duberman seems to lose perspective and the ability to select or discriminate. Black Mountain pulls him into its own chaos. He flounders, unable to order it all into a history.
More disruptive still, Duberman increasingly detours into autobiography. The book becomes a confession. He reveals his taste in people, parades his near anarchic and imprecise views on education, throws in clever but naive and ill-informed views about historical method (his practice far exceeds his grasp of theory), bares his own sexual preferences, devotes pages to random notes he compiled on a seminar he taught at Princeton, and even inserts himself as a participant in a transcript of educational debates that took place at Black Mountain. The book becomes embarrassing, pretentious, the very epitome of bad taste. One might feel more sympathetic if Duberman's self-revelation revealed any matured wisdom or compelling brilliance. Instead, it reveals intellectual confusion and a lack of judgment. Duberman erroneously promotes such self-intrusion as a new type of history. Most historians, in preface or conclusion, reveal their own tastes. They do not parade them. This is not, as Duberman suggests, a matter of feigned detachment or intellectual cowardice, but rather a product of simple humility.
- from a review of Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Experiment in Community, 1973I wasn't really reading this book out of academic curiosity. For once, I actually had a practical purpose in mind: the question of what makes intentional communities collapse, beyond the obvious. This I did not find here. Not everyone doing their share of work, disagreements about the relationship between ideology and practice, interpersonal squabbles disguised as policy problems--these are all familiar tropes in the history of intentional communities of all sorts, and, as it turns out, Black Mountain was no exception. These phrases communicate little of how depressing it actually is to read through this stuff, which Duberman describes with enough scrupulous exactness that I was drawn in to the college's blood feuds despite my total indifference to the issues at stake (and the fact that the college closed a half-century ago).
Like this reviewer, I had less use for Duberman's narcissistic, angsty ruminations on What It Means to Be A Historian and The Usefulness of Group Therapy in a Class Setting. Mostly, it seemed as of-its-time as the project itself. I suppose one can hardly blame Duberman, who presents himself as a young radical historian forced out of Princeton for his rad educational innovations (a martyr! with a Distinguished Service Professorship at Lehman College!), for floundering around in the soup of confused ideas about community and human interaction that ended up being the primary product of the 1960s. There were many historians at the time who were much more tasteful, undoubtedly, and confessionalism never completed the transition from tacky to mainstream. (The sole recent example of a relatively successful "first-person-plus" history monograph that I can think of is Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place.) But if Duberman can be faulted for tastelessness, he should also be respected for his honesty: rarely do I find a history book that manipulates me so successfully while explaining the process every step of the way.
Clearly, the mode of writing is in this case linked tightly with its subject matter. Like most intentional communities, Black Mountain College struggled ceaselessly to find a suitable balance between intimate intersubjective exploration and the austerity and isolation of creative labor. Its record on this front, it seems, was quite mixed. As soon as questions of power began to assert themselves openly in the network of human relationships that made up the school, intimacy became a weapon and a liability rather than a source of social goodwill. (This familiar process is strikingly described in Sennett's classic The Fall of Public Man.) Duberman never quite seems to realize that what he is nostalgic for in Black Mountain was integral to its collapse.
But suppose we reversed the process. Rather than a toxic stew of excessive intimacy creating the justification for the historian's oversharing, we can imagine tasteful history-writing providing a kind of guide for the shaping of an intentional community. What do I mean by this? Here are a few characteristics without which tasteful history-writing is, I think, impossible:
1. The historian must always have interests in mind, but interests cannot precede or preexist individuals; real people frequently have desires and motivations that can charitably be described as centripetal or even downright antisocial, and a story that assumes they do not cannot provide a rhetorically satisfying explanation of anything.
2. Methodological questions and questions bearing on the historian's personal activities must be acknowledged but restricted to a well-defined, limited space.
3. Interesting arguments take a lot of work.
We see here the framework for a community in which intimacy is a secondary, not a primary, feature of common life. Its solution for the problems that brought down Black Mountain lies in its resistance to making everything a question of "the sense of the meeting" and the exteriorization of private belief. Rather, it assumes that people are willing to follow rules in order to overcome or police the conflicting elements in their natures, that they need opportunities to compartmentalize their interior lives and ideological principles in order to keep them in check. Moreover, this model builds interior life on a foundation of chores and labor, not in opposition to them, the assumption being that whatever interesting intersubjective development actually takes place in the context of a community can only happen when people can work together efficiently. As it happens, I think this would be a good way of running a community even without the historiographical connection--but it took a reading of Duberman's work before I could see the link.