The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

Robert Bellah’s Search for Unity

The life and times of a leading American social scientist.

Philip S. Gorski

Robert Bellah;

Intellectual biography is not the most promising of genres. The life of an intellectual doesn’t usually tell us that much about the work, which is what we’re most often interested in. What’s more—let’s be honest—the outer lives of most intellectuals tend to be fairly uneventful, and their inner lives poorly documented, at least as compared with those of, say, politicians and celebrities. Which is why so many intellectual biographies end up being just books about books, and why it’s usually best to simply read the subject’s work.

As it turns out, Robert Neelly Bellah (1927–2013) makes an excellent subject for a biography, and Matteo Bortolini has written a fascinating account that illuminates not only the work, but the life and times of this leading American social scientist. Bortolini, an Italian professor of sociology and the editor of a companion volume to the works of Bellah, did his homework. He conducted dozens of interviews with Bellah and his family as well as with Bellah’s many students and colleagues. He secured access to many of the personal papers of Bellah and his family, including Bellah’s own personal diaries. And he read deeply and widely in the intellectual and political history of the twentieth century. While Bellah’s life might have looked conventional from the outside, it was full of tragedy as well as triumph, much intrigue, and a few closely guarded secrets.

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