I found myself as an eighteen-year-old sophomore in Perry Miller's last iteration of his graduate course on Romanticism in American Literature. Dutifully I attended every lecture, even as the old Titan was dying in front of us in Sever Hall. And dutifully I inscribed the master's orphic pronouncements: "Schiller's essay on the Sublime is the turning-point of Western civilization," a statement I could not verify, question, or comprehend. But more dutifully still, I mourned Miller's death in the middle of the semester--though I understood so little of what he had been talking about.

In those days, Miller's influence was felt in one absolutely basic assumption. If American culture had any significant humanistic interest, it came from the strain of religious rhetoric he had so magisterially limned. Andrew Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., indeed anyone worth caring about in our nation's history, was approachable chiefly through the thicket of Miller['s definition of the Puritans' "Augustinian strain of piety." Gone for me, immediately, was the intellectual challenge of progressive thinkers, blacks, Jews--all would pale before what one of my professors announced were the "only three minds worth paying attention to in American history: Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, and William James." I can now only smile at my naivete.

So, ever dutiful, my junior year was a whirlwind tour through James's psychological and philosophical writing, my senior thesis was on Melville, and I peregrinated from the Yard every day in graduate school up to the Harvard Divinity School to drown myself in Edwards.

I suppose that if I had stayed in Cambridge throughout my graduate years, I would have written a dissertation on Edwards's epistemology. As it was, I found myself captivated by teaching, and then beguiled on a winter's day in 1967 by the strange notion of teaching in a museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

Old Sturbridge Village is an outdoor history museum of New England rural life during the early nineteenth century. Its collections have grown to include about forty buildings, carefully restored after relocation from all over the region. With equally careful research, many of the buildings and their surroundings are filled with re-creations of the work activities of Yankee farm families--crafts like blacksmithing and pottery but also more ordinary work such as laundry, dairying, and food preservation.

I had never been particularly drawn toward museums as a child, but Sturbridge came across as an almost overwhelming demonstration of the inadequacy of my academic training. Here I had been reading and writing about sermons that, I suddenly realized, were delivered in a cavernous meetinghouses bereft of religious ornament and of almost every creature comfort. My beloved Edwardseans, I began to see, had wrought their revolutions in the minds of New Englanders above the chattering of unruly children, the shivering of fatigued men and women, the scampering of dogs, cats and swine up and down the aisles -- and yet the words had rung true. Those romances and novels we had carefully parsed in my American literature classes were written in those chambers, with those pens, on that paper, at so many days of an oxcart's journey from the metropolis. And yet written and read they were! And the work lives we had so blithely analyzed in our economic histories--what did we know of skills gained and forgotten, of tools improved and laid aside?

I proceeded to surrender my graduate fellowship, to the astonishment of my colleagues in graduate school. It must have seemed rash--there was a war on, and people didn't leave the banks of the Charles lest one misstep into the Mekong.

But if I foresook academe for that moment, I was still eager to learn. I loved the chance to share my enthusiasm for New England history with bashful ten-year-olds, brash teenagers, infatuated honeymooners, and beaming parents on family vacations. To my colleagues in the museum, the experts in historic architecture, technology, textiles, and ceramics, and the wonderful men and women I met on the frontlines of public interpretation, I owe an enormous debt.

-- Excerpted from The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life by Richard Rabinowitz, whose later career I profiled here.

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