Cara Jones tweeted in response to my Did Charles Tilly Labor in Vain? post
She is wondering about a parenthetical remark I made about Tilly’s work being better prior to 1990. The short answer is: I didn’t learn anything from his post-1990 books. In fairness to Chuck, I read few of those books. Why? The ones I did read (e.g., McTeam, 2007) exhibited little if any of what I value in Tilly’s work. The concepts are ill defined, the mechanisms are vague, and proposed relationships are sloppy. Compare it to From Mobilization to Revolution, which not only has precisely defined concepts, clear mechanisms, and precise relationships, but is also sprinkled with caveats that exhibit the shortcomings (most of which point out the static–cross-sectional–thinking, despite the fact that we all want theory about the dynamics). Others may have learned from Tilly’s later work, and if so, that’s wonderful. I only learned that I was disappointed.
It turns out that I am not alone. William H. Sewell, Jr. wrote an essay titled “Early Tilly: The Vendée and Historical Social Science” (pdf). In it he argues that in his
opinion, The Vendée is the best and the most original book Chuck ever wrote…. I miss, in the later work, the sense of creative tension between the particular and the general. Chuck’s style remained as lively as ever but never in later books did I have quite the same thrilling sense of looking over the shoulder of a master craftsman at work.
Sewell even offers a process based account for why this is so.
Chuck’s work speeded up drastically after 1964. The Vendée took nine years from the beginning of research to its appearance in print. For this book, Chuck took the time to gather more data, to weigh and perfect his arguments, to carefully shape his rhetoric. Thereafter Chuck published a major book about every three years – that is, until he learned that his life-span was threatened by Lymphoma and he decided to get into print as many of his thoughts as possible while there was still time. Between 2001 and 2008, Chuck published thirteen books…. I can’t help wishing he had decided at some point to drastically slow down and to write another book or two with the meticulous and patient care he lavished on The Vendée. We all miss Chuck’s eternally boyish character, his seemingly inextinguishable energy (extinguished at last), his vast knowledge, his theoretical fertility, and his unfailing scholarly generosity. But I, for one, have been missing something of that unique voice I discovered back in 1964 for a much longer time.