Among Larry Friedman’s many considerable abilities—as a scholar, a political operative, a walking encyclopedia of Cleveland baseball, and an erstwhile knuckleballer—one perhaps less visible should not be overlooked: Larry is a convener. Over time, I came to see how Larry worked behind the scenes to bring together people who shared ideas and, in many ways, temperaments. He stood at the center of overlapping circles, and while I initially thought that it was Larry’s intellectual concerns that tied it all together, I later realized that it was also, or even more so, his way of being in the world that served as the center of gravity. One of the gatherings Larry organized played a vital role in my life as a young historian: the Public Intellectuals Conference.

After publishing Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson (1999), and while concluding The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (2013), Larry was interested in further pursuing an important feature that those two figures shared: their standing and work as public intellectuals. That concern carried forward into his forthcoming book about “One Worlders,” as Larry calls them, which began to take shape around that time. In those years, Larry had also relocated to Boston—Somerville, to be precise—where he became immersed in the intellectual life of the city and conducted a seminar in Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative. He was part of regular conversation circles that included his friend Howard Gardner, Nathan Glazer, and Noam Chomsky, among others. Larry was not only thinking about public intellectuals; he was also talking to them. He decided to convene a wider

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discussion, and the Public Intellectuals Conference at Harvard was born.

By the time I showed up a few years into its run, the conference had already brought together an amazing array of scholars from different disciplines and several countries. My lists, reliant upon memory, will be incomplete. (I am thankful to Mark West for establishing the date range listed in the subtitle of this essay.) There were historians, political scientists, philosophers, sociologists, literary scholars, and people who did interdisciplinary work that spanned these columns. There were Canadian, Israeli, Australian, Dutch, German, British, Portuguese, and American participants. There were senior scholars, mid-career scholars, and graduate students.

I was one of the latter. Up to that point, I had attended a handful of graduate-student conferences, one of the vast national professional meetings, and a smaller gathering in my subfield. In spite of some rewarding elements, my overall experience of those events might be described succinctly under the heading: anxiety. The Public Intellectuals Conference was different. At first, it seemed like the most challenging of formats. There were no panel sessions. Each presenter was a session of one—giving a roughly 20-minute talk followed by a discussion. There were no concurrent sessions with panels of four and audiences of three. The conference took place in one large room with a giant table around which all participants sat. Everyone was present for everything. Senior people with books to their names sat side by side with students. It resembled a diplomatic summit without the tiny flags. In other words, there was nowhere to hide. More importantly, there was no need to.

Larry opened each of the conferences with a message about what we might accomplish over the next few days. He urged us to try and build upon each other’s ideas so that we could together develop a clearer understanding of what a public intellectual is and how and why—indeed whether—public intellectuals matter. I recall thinking: This is going to be one big, rolling conversation. For the most part, it was. Larry made clear that in order to move our thinking forward, we had to avoid such diversions as grandstanding, point-scoring, and takedowns. We did—mostly.

As a result, the whole texture of the intellectual experience was changed. I found that in the space formerly occupied by dread,

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other things bloomed: clearer thinking, new questions, distinctions, and connections. Our enthusiastic conversations continued into lunches and along sidewalks and at dinner tables. We were getting to know one another by virtue of getting to think with one another. It was intellectually rewarding and something more: a pleasure.

Damon Freeman, Mark West, Pilar Damião de Medeiros, and others were Larry’s partners in the hard work of organizing the conference and the careful task of setting its tone. Over the years, the conferences moved to different locations while retaining many of the same participants. They became for me a venue to work out ideas and, eventually, most of the elements of my dissertation. Established scholars were encouraging and generous with advice and guidance that demystified parts of the academic journey. Larry did these things, and he brought together others who did them too.

A number of presentations at the conference took the form of examining the work of an individual whose overall public life or, in some cases, intervention at a particular moment, exemplified public intellectualism. The range of these presentations, however, tended to erode rather than solidify our definitions of the public intellectual. One presenter would point to a figure who had been a courageous voice of dissent, but the next would highlight someone for whom public intellectualism had much more to do with celebrity than bravery. Just as there appeared to be a model of public intellectuals as academics who reached beyond the academy, the next presenters would offer convincing accounts of comedians and novelists as public intellectuals.

There was a productive tension between the need, on the one hand, for deeply contextualizing these cases—attending to historical, national, sociological, and even personal backgrounds—and for identifying, on the other, persistent theoretical and philosophical questions that appeared across this range of contexts. At the end of a long day of vigorous discussion, I remember Larry saying something to this effect: we are less certain now than when we began. To me, that suggested a productive day.

The conferences themselves, I began to notice, were a microcosm of something that was emerging in the historical materials I had assembled for my dissertation: in spite of being inconclusive, even bewildering, debates about the public role of intellectuals recurred because participants in them believed they mattered. But why—what was at stake? As we shifted the level of analysis from

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the activities of intellectuals to debates about them—debates in which intellectuals participated but which also engaged a variety of other participants—what came into focus was a contest about the character of the public sphere and the types of authority one might wield in it.

In American political culture, debates about intellectuals have been a forum for conflicting visions of American democracy. Such stakes help to account for why debates about intellectuals have often been characterized by hope and scorn but, rarely, indifference. This line of thinking, which I honed at the conference over several years, would ultimately be at the center of my book, Hope and Scorn: Eggheads, Experts, and Elites in American Politics (2020).

Scholarly labor, particularly in the later stages of graduate school and the early stages of a career, can be a solitary endeavor. The Public Intellectuals conferences, however, gave me the sense that my work contributed to a broader, important—even urgent—conversation that reached beyond the boundaries of my field and the borders of my nation. They also provided fellowship. Larry established the tradition of a pizza party on the eve of the conference, often at his home in Somerville. There we swapped stories and talked politics, ideas, hometowns, baseball, family, and books. In memory, those gatherings glow. I have in mind an image of Larry about to tell a story or a joke, delighted to be among all those he had convened.

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Michael Brown

Michael Brown, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His interests include public intellectuals, public history, American politics, and his hometown of Rochester, NY. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Brown, M. (2023). An uncommon commons: The Public Intellectuals Conference, 2009-2017. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 302-305.

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