The Visitor

Max-weber Alan Wolfe reviews Lawrence A. Scaff's Max Weber in America, over at TNR's The Book:

MAX WEBER IN AMERICA? The idea seems almost preposterous. We often think of Weber as the quintessential European thinker: abstract, worldly, brooding, and difficult. The America of his period of greatest productivity, the first two decades of the twentieth century, comes down to us as isolationist, anti-intellectual, bombastic, and about to embark on flapperdom. How could one have any influence on the other?

But as Lawrence Scaff effectively shows in his new book, Weber cannot be understood without an appreciation of his experiences in this country, and America’s special path to modernity is difficult to grasp without a substantial dip into Weber’s extensive body of writing. Like Antonín Dvořák, who incorporated American spirituals and folk tunes into his symphonic and chamber compositions, Weber’s fascination with all aspects of American culture belies any notion that the new world and the old were incapable of meeting on equal terms.

Weber and his wife Marianne arrived in the United States in August, 1904 for a three-month stay. The reason for their visit was the Congress of Arts and Sciences, an offshoot of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Once capable of generating massive fascination, World’s Fairs have lost their appeal. (The 2012 Expo will take place in Yeosu, South Korea and will be devoted to issues of coastal management.) In Weber’s day, by contrast, not only did the events in St. Louis inspire a famous musical comedy, they brought together an all-star list of American and European intellectuals to debate whether there exists a methodological unity linking the natural and social sciences. John Dewey and William James did not show up in St. Louis, which was too bad, because not only Weber but also such extraordinary German scholars as Werner Sombart and Ernst Troeltsch did.

Theodore Roosevelt invited the leading academics from St. Louis to the White House for a reception, much as the current president honors the annual March Madness champion. Weber did not attend because he preferred to go to Muskogee.