Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fawn Brodie's Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character 3

On page 129 of Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, Fawn Brodie says that two published articles that Richard Nixon wrote as a Duke Law School student related to traumas or unfortunate incidents in his own life, or in the life of someone from his family.

One article that Nixon wrote was entitled "Changing Rules of Liability in Automobile Accident Litigation," and it discussed "old horse and buggy accident laws" (Brodie's words).  Nixon fell out of a buggy when he was a small boy, and his father as a motorman on a train got fired after the "train hit an automobile at a crossing" (page 129).  Brodie states that Nixon "cited laws holding that the driver of the automobile must stop, not just look and listen, thus indirectly exonerating his father of the old accident."

Another article that Nixon wrote was entitled "Application of the Inherent Danger Doctrine to Servants of Negligent Independent Contractors."  This related to incidents in which the negligence of a contractor led to injury or death of an employee.  Brodie states that "the choice of subject suggests that he was still seeking an answer to the question 'Who was really responsible for the death of my eldest brother?'  He seems also to have been researching the question 'Could we have sued to collect damages for his dying?'"

Here are two items:

1.  Frodie's discussion here is an example of her overall methodology: to explain things that Nixon did and said in light of what occurred to him earlier in his life.  The book, after all, is about "the shaping of his character".  This is one reason that Brodie's book has been criticized, and it is also one of the characteristics of her book that makes it so interesting.  Although Brodie makes some of the same points that Bruce Mazlish made in In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry, she does so more artfully than Mazlish did, in my opinion.  When Mazlish made some of the points that he made, he seemed to me to be stretching and reaching, whereas Brodie narrated the same points more effectively----perhaps because she could get the reader to feel for Nixon in terms of his predicaments, or her line from cause to effect was simpler.

At the same time, even when reading Brodie, I feel that some of the connections that she makes are not iron-clad.  Why?  I guess it's because her work and other books about Nixon have shown me how hard it is to define a person and to get a handle on what truly happened in the past.  Brodie herself goes into contradictory or different eyewitness accounts: about what Nixon's mother was like, about events in Richard Nixon's life, etc.  That being the case, can we really pick a couple of things from a person's life, and assert that one event influenced a tendency or a much later event?  The data field is much messier and complex than that, in my opinion.

2.  That said, it is plausible that events in Nixon's early life and in the life of his family shaped his interests, and the sorts of topics that he wrote about as a Duke Law School student.  That encourages me to ask: How does my background influence my scholarly interests?  Well, I grew up in Armstrongism, which professed to observe the Old Testament law.  I suppose that it's not a stretch that I would study Judaism at Jewish schools.  My worldview was rocked when I learned that Jews and historical-critics had different ways of interpreting the passages in the Hebrew Bible that many Christians applied to Jesus, and that set me on a path of wanting to learn more about the Hebrew Bible.  I've also wrestled with the question of how a person can be at peace with God, since I look at myself and realize that my own flaws make me insecure in terms of my standing with God.

The thing is, this was stuff in my past.  I'm not sure if I care about these issues to the same extent, anymore.  Religion and the Bible seem to me more and more to be the product of human beings, and I am feeling that attempts by theologians and evangelical scholars to claim otherwise are wishful thinking on their part, or stretches.  I am getting back into reading about religious studies, however, and there are different reasons for this.  One is that this is my field of study, and I need to learn more so that I can teach and write.  Another reason, I have to admit, is spiritual: I wonder if there is something that I can learn that can make my life make sense to me, or that can encourage me to fall in love with God, as opposed to going through the religious motions.

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