Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.27


Bruce Kuklick, Puritans in Babylon. The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Pp. 253. ISBN 0-691-02582-7.


Reviewed by Burke O. Long, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME 04011, blong@polar.bowdoin.edu.

In this book Bruce Kuklick weaves together narratives of personalities and expeditions, institutional history and politics, to deftly describe the invention of the "ancient Near East," that is, the organization and definition of a scholarly field of inquiry. While focusing on early expeditions to Babylon, Kuklick also charts the growth of modern universities and the secularization of knowledge, both of which connect this tale of excavations to broader themes of American intellectual history. Kuklick stresses the moral and epistemological dimensions of a field of study that came more and more to reflect tensions between science and religion. The invention of a captured, cut, and quartered "ancient Near East" may thus be seen as one among many kindred post-enlightenment projects that sought to construct and organize knowledge according to the intellectual assumptions of scientific rationality.

Kuklick tells three interconnected stories. One, detailed primarily in Part One of his book, mostly deals with the late 19th century excavations at Nippur under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Having immersed himself in expedition records and periodical literature of the period, Kuklick brings to life "an odd collection of scholars, soldiers of fortune, educational bureaucrats, and financiers" ( p. 3) who carried out the first American explorations of the ancient Near East. William Hayes Ward, John Punnett Peters, John Henry Haynes, and Hermann V. Hilprecht -- all associated with the Pennsylvania expeditions -- meet men situated by Kuklick in parallel, sometimes rival, venues: Paul Haupt and William Foxwell Albright (Johns Hopkins), Albert T. Clay (Yale), William Rainey Harper and James Henry Breasted (Chicago), and George Reisner (Harvard). From documents and old photos, Kuklick allows us to see mixed scientific and religious motives, struggles to advance personal and institutional reputations, and politics, all of which helped define this emergent field of scholarly inquiry. Kuklick weaves an engaging story of a sometimes high-minded, sometimes petty, often rapacious and imperious, rush to recover ancient Babylon and deposit its riches in the coffers of university museums, satisfied patrons, and intellectual banks of the newly famous guardians of specialized knowledge.

Kuklick's second tale, covered primarily in chapters 5 and 6, is about the "creation of the academic specialties," mainly archaeology, philology, and history, which for Kuklick "typified the professionalization of knowledge and the maturation of the American university" (p. 3). Here one learns how with the participation of patrons and bureaucrats, some of these same scholars organized and institutionalized their knowledge of Babylon by establishing museums, training novitiates in the field, and purveying broadly synthetic pictures of the West's cultural origins to a reading public. Kuklick teases political, moral, and ideological struggles from often acrimonious personal relations. Through such public nastiness as the "Peters-Hilprecht Controversy," he shows us the growing power of academic professionalism and the tensions between religious and humanistic assumptions that lay buried in the heart of scholarly practices.

Kuklick's third story grows out of the peculiar origin of the new obsessions with the ancient Near East. The surface ruins of Babylon fired public imagination because the Bible had located patriarch Abraham in "Ur" among, as the old translations had it, the "Chaldeans." Thus, emergent ancient Near Eastern studies frequently involved a "concern for the history and meaning of humankind," which translated first into theistic and then more humanistic attempts to portray cultural, and particularly Biblical, origins of western culture. Under the press of growing secularization, such concerns led to conflicts between the religious and the secular, and, by holding up James Henry Breasted and William Foxwell Albright as typical of the impulse to create a sense of unified cultural genesis, Kuklick wants us to see that the ideas that came out of such conflicts involved basic premises of historical thinking and the ways in which Western scholarship would approach and try to appreciate other cultures.

In his treatment of these entwined narratives, Kuklick skirts the edges of post modernist approaches to intellectual history. He is clearly aware of current discussions about the construction of knowledge. Indeed, the fundamental perspectives he brings to his topic -- for example, the notion that a field of academic knowledge, even its rules of objectivity, are invented and constructed -- owe much to, or at least are consistent with, recent postmodern theory. Kuklick also acknowledges postcolonial efforts to analyze links between study of the ancient world, European and North American socio-economic imperialism, and self-serving notions of the "Orient." Kuklick is not a captive of such viewpoints, however, and especially in their crudest manifestations. On the one hand, he remains "modernist" in his sophisticated reach to narrate a master story. On the other hand, he is suspicious of the tendency to dominate and objectify the objects of discourse. Accordingly, Kuklick resists simplified pictures of the past and is keenly aware of the limits imposed on intellectual efforts. He even suggests that recent condemnations of "orientalism" owe much to the modes of historical investigation legitimated by the "orientalists" who studied the ancient Near East. As other theorists might put it, the borders between modernism and post modernism, orientalism and postcolonialism, are permeable and dialectically marked.

However, theory remains in the background. Kuklick is a first rate intellectual historian, not a theoretician. He has interrogated his sources, listened to the technical advice of modern day ancient Near Eastern specialists, and has woven narratives that are fascinating, accessible to a wide audience, and nicely exploited for their larger implications.