Posted on ERIC FONER at Critical Theory and the Arts — introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor

November 13, 2013 

It is more than a pleasure to welcome Eric Foner this evening, to join us in conversation and discussion at Critical Theory and the Arts. – And more than a pleasure, as well, to introduce Eric Foner to several of our faculty, to our wonderful students, and to allies of the department, who are all here at the table with us. — For your own curiosity, Professor Foner, you are following a visit from Michael Katz—and a discussion of the sorry puzzles of American welfare—and preceding Ira Katznelson, to discuss his new book, ‘Fear Itself.’ He will be with us in early December.

We all much appreciate Jeremy Cohan, the moderator of the Serious Times Lecture Series for organizing this evening’s discussion. I’ll be turning things over to Jeremy in a moment.

It is customary in an introduction to name the works, honors and awards of a distinguished guest. But, I suspect that Eric Foner has heard this all, so often enough before, and in such loftier circumstances, that, here in our clubhouse, we can abbreviate the long list of his many books and accomplishments to saying that even a small part of what Eric Foner has written would for most of us amount to a lifetime’s worthy accomplishment.

But, the reason that Eric Foner’s work matters as it does; what makes it remarkable, apart from the shear number of achievements—is the extraordinary convergence we find in it of the most considerable powers of intellectual erudition, on one hand, and of historical motivation, on the other. Throughout his many works, Eric Foner is not only writing about history; he knows himself to have been born into history—not only into its realia and forces, in which endlessly more people founder than otherwise, but he knows himself to have been born into a struggle for the self-consciousness of the impulses in history and, with the self-conscious recognition of these impulses, no less the received obligation to craft the energies and talents to do justice to them.

What these impulses are is not easily described. Difficult as it is, however, Walter Benjamin attempted to say something about them in “On the Concept of History,” when he wrote that the possible transformation of the world is lodged not in dreams of utopia but in the memory of enslaved ancestors.

Eric Foner, for his part, in his essay, “My Life as a Historian,” is effectively glossing Benjamin when Foner comments—in telling how he came to spend nine years in the archival research and writing of his magisterial Reconstruction—that, “If Reconstruction was born in the archives, it was written from the heart.” Anyone reading the book is consistently aware of this. The volume’s entirely sustained human voice through its many often difficult pages would not otherwise have carried; and neither would we readers find ourselves reading, and then repeatedly reading the volume’s last sentences, on p. 612, that after Reconstruction “nearly a century elapsed before the nation again attempted to come to terms with the implications of emancipation and the political and social agenda of Reconstruction. In many ways, it has yet to do so.” It is true, just as you say, Eric Foner, from the heart, and even thirty-five years after the writing of your book: it has yet to do so.

Thank you for joining us this evening. To Jeremy…

Read about Eric Foner at:

What the department looks like
Full program description
Paul Chan interviews Robert Hullot-Kentor
Breixo Viejo interviews Robert Hullot-Kentor about the One-Year MA Program