Am I great? The world seems to think I am.
Of all the essays I have had to write, this one may pose the most difficulties. I have tackled the age of revolution, the nature of migration across the Atlantic, and the American Revolution, but these are simple—and easy to write—compared to considering myself. Talking about “me” does not come to me naturally. It also does not come easily, given how I arrived at where I find myself today.
I don’t do “me” very well.
I should, as our culture suggests, celebrate “me.” I have just won, maybe, the plum award for my field in history, the Harmsworth professorship at Oxford. I am a chaired professor at a prestigious American university. I have been named a member of an honor society that includes about a dozen U.S. presidents for my contribution to American letters. But the lessons I can impart about “making it” don’t comport well with the conventional stories we are told of achievement. Here then begins a counterintuitive exploration of how I got where I am.
“Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now.” How much better off I would be? You will be tempted to say this, as a lament, over and over again as you get older. I am here to tell you to forgo the temptation. You are advised and encouraged to master your own life and to do so early on. Don’t. You are encouraged to develop a roadmap for self-actualization and to make it happen. Forget about it. When we think about these phrases, we usually use them in a way that validates us as actors, as beings in complete control of our destiny: me, me, and another dollop of me. My life suggests a different read on these well-worn phrases. Things are more complicated. You only become who and what you are meant to be by not having a clue and by not trying to curate a life.
I came from a world where you did not proclaim your greatness. You did not think of yourself for your talents. You just got on with it.
My story is a perfect example. I have what could be regarded as lofty status. I have arrived and then some. But that is not how I have seen or now see things. I made it where I am despite myself, my failings, my weaknesses, my mistakes. Or perhaps through them. I did not choose to become a chaired professor at a place like Notre Dame or to win a position at Oxford. I only got here through my many missteps and the journey of discovery they entailed.
Mine was not a privileged upbringing. Not a bad one, but not one that a scholarly career starts from. I was born to working-class immigrants in a city that was turning into a dystopia of deindustrialization. Jersey City sat in the shadow of New York City in every way. So close—yet so far. My parents gave me the best they could. But they had no idea of the life of the mind. Nor did I! When I set off to college, I was clueless. I did not know what I wanted to do. I had no notion of all of the possibilities. I probably would have withered had I known them. I came from a world where you did not proclaim your greatness. You did not think of yourself for your talents. You just got on with it. And you kept your mouth shut, especially about yourself.
I did not make my fit.
I found it.
So, I kept quiet. And I remained clueless for a long time. However, by sheer dumb luck, I attended Notre Dame. I had never seen the place when I first arrived. But I knew it was culturally part of the New York, Irish-American urban world I came from. I had no idea how good of a place it was. Coming from the working-class world of my upbringing, I did not seem to fit with the people who seemed to glide across campus, unconcerned with the world and comfortable in their own skin, so seemingly full of themselves. I was different, though I could not articulate how or why.
Other people knew I did not fit in. While at Notre Dame, several people suggested that I...