By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 6, 2007
By Daniel Aaron
Univ. of Michigan. 199 pp. $24.95
A good memoir generally needs a theme, a way of organizing the hurly-burly of life into some kind of pleasing order or pattern. In the old days, that theme might appear as a rather literal subtitle: "My Forty Years in Publishing" or "The Making of a Scientist." But Daniel Aaron, the first person to receive a Harvard PhD in "American civilization," can define his career even more simply. For seven decades he has been one of our most distinguished Americanists.
Aaron's memoir is loosely structured around both his lifelong study of our nation's history, politics and literature and his attempts to convey to others some understanding of what it is to be an American. Born in 1912 to non-observant Jewish parents, he spent his early years first in Chicago and then Hollywood, where his lawyer father had moved after the onset of crippling multiple sclerosis. The young Aaron played with child movie star Jackie Coogan, glimpsed World War I's Marshal Foch at the Ambassador Hotel and knew Wilshire Boulevard when parts of it were still a dirt road.
But by the time he was 12, Aaron and his four siblings were orphans, and he was back in Chicago, living with relatives. There he attended Hyde Park High School, passing Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House on the way to class; there, too, he once received the honor of opening the car door for visiting aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Aaron tells us that he otherwise graduated "without distinction," unable to read a foreign language with any facility and innumerate to boot. Accepted at the University of Michigan, he earned his B.A. in 1933, then worked briefly for a news service, before traveling east to begin graduate studies in English at Harvard.
Many memoirs try hard to re-create past moments, the arguments around the family dinner table, the horrors of poverty, the elation of first love. But Aaron, now in his 90s, eschews all this scene-setting and melodrama. Instead, he pointedly tells us just what he thought of the many presidents under whom he has lived (starting with Woodrow Wilson) and modestly reflects on some of his students, friends, teachers and colleagues. As a graduate assistant at Harvard, he graded the English assignments of "an intense hungry-looking fellow" named Norman Mailer as well as the "so-so examination paper" of John Kennedy. One of his good pals back then was the poet Charles Olson. He neatly ends a pen portrait of his mentor Perry Miller, the intellectual historian of colonial America, with this wry summary of the scholar's later life (and that of many another aging college professor):
"World War II both energized and undid Miller. He entered it in some noncombatant role and returned from it a romantic swashbuckler boasting about the Germans he had slain. After the war, Miller became an alcoholic, was ejected by his wife, and courted pretty graduate students."
As a newly minted PhD, Aaron was offered a job teaching at Smith College. To his surprise, he stayed there for 30 years, growing fond of Northampton, Mass., and its people (he pitched for the town softball team). He also admired Smith's president William Allan Neilson, who once asked him what he thought of his colleague Newton Arvin's latest book on Whitman. Neilson himself considered it "inferior or at least more tendentious than Arvin's earlier study of Hawthorne." Notes Aaron, wryly: "He must have been one of the last of the college presidents to read the publications of his faculty."
Besides the doomed Arvin (whose career was wrecked when his homosexuality became public), Smith's faculty included not only famous teachers (critic Elizabeth A. Drew, musicologist Alfred Einstein) but also the dashing Alfred Fisher (who between marriages -- one to the writer-gastronome M.F.K. Fisher -- "charmed a number of Smith women into his bed") and the glamorous Mina Curtiss (the sister of cultural impresario Lincoln Kirstein and the lover of theater director John Houseman and poet St. John Perse). During Aaron's tenure, the college's students included Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath.
Much of the central portion of The Americanist focuses on Aaron's research for Writers on the Left, his classic study of the radical American activists and novelists of the 1920s and '30s. Aaron interviewed such figures as Upton Sinclair, Mike Gold ( Jews Without Money) and, not least, Max Eastman. During an adventurous life, Eastman, the editor of the Masses, encountered Mark Twain, Anatole France, Sigmund Freud, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, Isadora Duncan, Leon Trotsky, George Santayana and Ernest Hemingway -- and was moreover a noted ladies' man. Around this same time, Aaron got to know the "arrogant and irascible" critic Edmund Wilson, whose letters he eventually edited. Wilson, we learn in passing, generally used the name "Robert Watson" on "hotel registers during his tomcatting days." He once told Aaron about two very different responses to his novel, I Thought of Daisy, "one from a suicidal Englishman, to whom it brought relief, the other from a Spanish woman who wrote that her husband had died of a heart attack while reading it"; to which Wilson added, "So you see, I can save or kill." Other critics Aaron came to know and admire included Kenneth Burke ("Aristotle with a dash of Mr. Magoo") and those emblematic New York intellectuals Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin.
Yet of all Aaron's colleagues, the one he -- and everyone else -- seems to have loved the most was the historian (and one of my own heroes) Richard Hofstadter:
"As he aged, Hofstadter grew philosophically (and ruefully) more conservative. ('I never thought I would come to this,' he wrote me in 1963, 'but I suspect that by the time I'm an old man, I will be locked in the arms of Metternich.') One could sense as much in his alertness to symptoms of disaster and in a latent melancholy that his elaborate joke telling and bursts of high spirits never quite extinguished. . . . I saw him a week before he died of leukemia in 1970. Propped in a chair beside his bed and fearfully emaciated, he spoke as if he had dismissed any thought of mortality, but though outwardly composed, he had the look of a deserted man who was already seeing what we couldn't see."
Throughout his career, which he capped by returning to Harvard, Aaron also took up lecture opportunities and teaching assignments in Austria, Finland, Poland, Uruguay and many other countries. "I went to these places not to 'sell' the USA but to 'explain' it, not to palliate its blemishes but to contextualize them." His comments are always frank, and sometimes acid about the McCarthy era, the New Left of the 1960s and our various presidents, especially Richard Nixon:
"I once saw him fleetingly in Northampton, where his daughter . . . was then a student at Smith College. President Nixon was getting out of a car warily, I recall, as one might step on a minefield. . . . Our detestation of him was almost as aesthetic as political. We were embarrassed by his appearance, style, manners, posturings, and fakery; by his macho voice talking football; by his trying to be what he wasn't. . . . How emblematically right that the 'leader of the free world,' when addressing the nation in the [Watergate] scandal's aftermath, should stumble over the word integrity."
In his last chapter -- "Aftermath" -- Daniel Aaron describes himself as "a citizen of two Americas. One of them is the country of Uncle Sam, an America, in the words of Herman Melville, 'intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in the externals but savage at heart.' The other is its blessed double, home of heroes and clowns and of the cheerful and welcoming democratic collective. . . . It is this second America to which I feel culturally and temperamentally attuned." Alas, these are sad times for a true Americanist. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.