THE UNMAKING OF A WHIG

And Other Essays in Self-Definition

By Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Georgetown University Press

256 pp. $18.95

RECENTLY Russell Jacoby and others have complained that the United States is no longer producing public-spirited intellectuals. The American intellectual community is seen as the captive of narrow academic careerism; it no longer addresses public concerns or even functions as a community. Without explicitly mentioning such accusations, this collection of essays implicitly rebuts them. The author of these essays shows a resolute devotion to bringing even the most elusive questions of politics and culture into the arena of public discourse, addressing them in a way accessible to all who will make the effort to join him in honest, rigorous thoughtfulness.

Written by a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, this book combines literacy, wisdom and charm. One long essay deals with a feud between Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and Robert Jackson, recounted with objectivity and respect for both men. Eighteen short pieces treat a variety of subjects including literature, law, education, politics, religion and personal reminiscence. Some have been previously published or given as lectures, but they have been revised for the present publication and cohere remarkably well. The central theme of the collection is the author's sense of history: subtle, tough-minded, dispassionate yet compassionate. Edwin M. Yoder's appreciation for the past and its uses is all the more interesting for his not being a professional academic historian. Few academic historians any longer treat the political leaders of the past with quite the veneration Yoder accords them, but then few of us in the academy communicate the moral complexity of the past as well as Yoder does.

THE TITLE of the collection, like the essays themselves, is full of irony. The word "Whig" has a number of meanings: an 18th-century British political party dedicated to commercial expansion and limiting royal power; a supporter of the American Revolution; a 19th-century American party dedicated to economic development and resisting the power of the presidency (of Andrew Jackson); and, by extension from these other meanings, one who believes in progress. The title essay tells how Yoder's deepening sense of history led him first to reject the facile "progress" celebrated in most high-school textbooks and then to question the very possibility of applying present moral standards to judging the people of the past. In this sense, the "Whig" attitudes Yoder (like most Americans) had been brought up with were indeed unmade. However, the term Whig is sometimes applied in still another way -- to mean someone who is interested in preserving the institutions and values of classical republicanism: gentlemanly, enlightened, tolerant, public-spirited. In this last sense, it would be hard to find a more attractive representative of the American Whig tradition than Edwin Yoder of North Carolina.

Even the subtitle of the collection, "Other Essays in Self-Definition," turns out to have its irony. Although these essays do in fact "define" their author, in the sense that the reader can piece together a coherent mind and temperament at work here, they are emphatically public, not private, in their concerns. Even the portraits of Yoder's late parents, undoubtedly written to help the author come to terms with his loss, derive their literary power from their representative quality, as portraits of human nature. "A Whig for Today: Essays in Defining a Public Philosophy" would have been as accurate a title for this book. As accurate, but less charming.

Daniel W. Howe is a professor of history at UCLA and currently visiting professor of American history at Oxford University. He is the author of "The Political Culture of the American Whigs."