A Joyfully Serious Man
The Life of Robert Bellah
- ISBN: 9780691204406
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: October 2021
Matteo Bortolini has written a helpful and enjoyable biography of the American scholar Robert Bellah. A Joyfully Serious Man: The Life of Robert Bellah is not so much an intellectual biography of Bellah as it is a biography of Bellah as intellectual. While Bortolini traces ideas and research problems through the decades, the main contribution of this volume is a more complete sense of Bellah as a person negotiating career, identity, and values in the second half of the 20th century.
Bellah’s scholarship can be boiled down to three major areas of research: Japan and modernization, American civil religion, and the long human history of religion. Of these, Bellah’s work toward the end of his career as a scholar of deep history, the Axial Age, and cultural evolution is perhaps best known by readers of my own generation, and Bortolini demonstrates well how these interests were deeply rooted in Bellah’s scholarly intentions from the beginning of his long career. In the 1960s his hope of writing a general theoretical work on religion was perhaps more theoretical, more beholden to the influence of Talcott Parsons, and not yet developed by decades of engagement with other questions, nor with advances of neighboring fields, such as evolutionary biology. Bortolini’s biography shows the last two and a half decades of Bellah’s life’s work as the crowning achievement that they were. But many stories led to this point.
Bellah’s studies began at Harvard University immediately after the Second World War, and in fact were interrupted at their beginning by a stint in the Army during which he did not see battle. The newly formed Department of Social Relations became his academic home and he was mentored from the beginning by the aforementioned Parsons. While Bellah would come into his own over time and not always follow a Parsonian systems approach to sociological questions, this orientation remained throughout his life. Through most of the first decade of his career Bellah taught at Harvard while serving in various positions; this time was interrupted by research at McGill University and, after long delay because of his membership in the Communist Party, to Japan for a year of research. Beginning in the mid-1960s the Bellah family was based primarily in Berkeley with the exception of an acrimonious episode at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies under Carl Keyson, when fierce opposition to Bellah’s joining the Social Sciences program of the IAS led Bellah to abandon the fellowship after only a short and tentative period.
Bellah’s life is presented as a struggle to articulate central aspects of the human experience—between personal tensions of identity and family life on the one hand, and professional controversy, competition, and cooperation on the other. Over the years Bellah was able to connect deeply with values that were enriching, for instance in his fruitful collaborations through the 1980s, or in his coming to terms with and exploration of his own sexuality through the 1970s. However, the tragic deaths of two of his daughters—Tammy in 1973 and Abby in 1976—were millstones of grief that hung heavy within the Bellah family, never reaching complete closure.
Bellah’s scholarly work was always personal. At times this became awkward and questionable to his colleagues, as in the case of his championing Norman Brown’s Love’s Body (Random House, 1966). Nowhere was the personal touch of Bellah’s own values more apparent, though, than in his long-term project with a group of scholars on the relationship between individualism and community in the United States, which was completed during the 1980s and early 1990s in the best-selling Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), and later in The Good Society (Vintage Books, 1991) (both co-authored with Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton), as well as in the public conversations that followed them.
The contribution of Habits of the Heart to its sometimes-odd political milieu is handled well by Bortolini. It is striking how the world from the Carter through the Clinton administrations feels like a completely foreign era, and yet many of the voices (Mary Ann Glendon, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Rusty Reno, Michael Novak, and Charles Taylor, to name a few) are still influential as communitarianism remains a force in constantly developing ways. The work of Bellah and his co-authors on the challenges of individualism and institutions of American society was deeply relevant yet ill-fitted to the two-party assumptions of the American public. Based on Bellah’s reactions to Reagan, the second Bush, and even the tepid centrism of Clinton, it is not difficult to extrapolate that he might have despaired of American civic life had he lived to see the post-2016 world.
Perhaps Bellah’s turn back to bigger and more basic questions was a signal not only of his career coming full circle. Perhaps the door had closed on the possibility of repairing the American covenant and achieving a good society. This is not hinted at in the biography, and Bellah doesn’t seem to have viewed his retirement projects in this way. The pessimism of hindsight, however, does make this one plausible interpretation of Bellah’s legacy. Bortolini’s biography presents a compelling picture of Bellah’s motivations and struggles through a decades-long career. The personal and the institutional are intertwined in ways that add new depth to published scholarly writings. A Joyfully Serious Man is highly recommended for readers in the fields of sociology and anthropology of religion, American studies, or any other of the many corners of academia and public intellectual life upon which Robert Bellah had a tremendous influence.
Evan Kuehn is assistant professor of information literacy at North Park University.Evan KuehnDate Of Review:October 31, 2023