30 Years of Research in Review

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998)

An American Mind in the American Century by Andy Lindstrom

He believed in the American Dream.

Not so much that one about the little cottage on the hill with the white, picket fence. But an equally enduring notion, the dream of our United States as a special nation, chosen by God or some higher power, to lead the world by example into the next millennium so long as we collectively stuck to our first, commonly-held principles of justice, equality and mutual respect.

Henry Steele Commager, who died in 1998 at age 95, stood with a generation of mostly male, unfailingly white, 20th-century scholar-activists who mounted the public stump to rail against what they saw as threats to their optimistic assessment. In newspapers and popular magazines, as well as on the speaking trail and in a handful of highly praised, elegantly written books including The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (Yale Univ. Press, 1959), Commager championed a Jeffersonian belief in the wisdom and innate superiority of the common man over any class of elites.

During the 1930s, he defended with glowing praise Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal welfare programs. Joining World War II against Nazi Germany, he later explained, helped preserve the world's future as one great democracy modeled after the American experience. At the height of 1950s McCarthyism, he stood tallest among those who dared to brand anti-communist purges as unwarranted assaults on the individual's right to dissent. The war in Vietnam, he trumpeted in forums ranging from the halls of Congress to the national press, reflected blatant misuse of American power on the world stage by a government no longer in tune with its people's best interests. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had "grave misgivings about Jack Kennedy's course." Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies he labeled "the program Senator Goldwater advocated and the American people overwhelmingly rejected." As Watergate unfolded, he called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon for "a long, unparalleled record of corruption and illegal activities." The Reagan administration, he told an Amherst seminar just before his 80th birthday, "believes that nothing is complex, that it has easy solutions for everything."

Today, Commager's star has faded. His unabashed boosterism of America the beautifully harmonious is regularly trashed by a new generation of historians who see our national destiny no so much in consensus as in diversity. Instead of a melting pot, they say, we function best as a loose-knit confederacy of independent subcultures with little in common and nothing to be gained from working together.

Not so fast, argues Florida State University historian Dr. Neil Jumonville (Ph.D. Harvard). In Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), Jumonville makes a case for the lessons still to be learned from Commager and his peers.
Neil Jumonville
Unfashionable as it might seem to those who now wage multicultural warfare against the old-time liberals and their so-called "climate of popular opinion," the idea of a permanently divided society doesn't ring much truer. Particularly to those like Jumonville-a firm supporter of much that makes up the multicultural agenda, he hastens to point out-who view its more radical path as leading not to an ethnocentric Eden of equal but totally unlike parts, but instead to the tribalistic bickerings of a New World Balkans.

Ironically, Jumonville says, those who write off Commager and his colleagues as a bunch of conservative, irrelevant, dead white males are actually far less politically active and probably less "liberal" than they were. Today's political correctness, he says, has rejected their open marketplace of tough ideas. Deconstruction by experts and comprehensible only to the initiated has replaced narrative history and literature written for all to read. Ethnocentrism rules in place of common identity.

Perhaps on the surface nothing more than a generational feud between baby boomers and their parents, Jumonville says, the issues that fuel this cultural war are, in fact, more complex than that. And the purpose to his book, he adds, is to straighten out what he considers a misguided and even presumptuous evaluation by modern critics of the midcentury generation and one of its most prominent liberal, some might go so far as to say leftist voices: Henry Steel Commager. "We've been far too simplistic and arrogant in our estimation of our parents' generation," he says. "It's a complex story."

Jumonville's case study has been critically acclaimed in a number of major publications including The New Republic, Chicago Tribune and Washington Times. "Thoughtful and intelligent," says Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University. "Articulate and sophisticated," adds Michel Wreszin, professor of American history at Queens College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "A first-rate 'intellectual biography,' a history of ideas."

"I am very flattered by the reviews I've gotten so far," says Jumonville. "But the truth is, I think every work of history is very much autobiographical. I know it's true on my part." Like Commager, Jumonville sees himself as more than an ivory-tower scholar. As an informed interpreter for the general public, he said, he regularly submits columns to the local news media on contemporary issues and their historical context.

"From the time I was old enough to write, I wanted to address a wider audience," he said. "I wanted to treat history as news, because if we're not discussing the issues of the day so that people can understand them, then our specialty will go the way of philosophy and the classics. It will die. It should die."

As Jumonville describes him, Commager spent a rather considerable portion of his long life making sure that contemporary issues remained firmly in the crosshairs of his historical insights. And that liberal principles focused his aim.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in the Midwest, Commager was convinced early on by his history professor at the University of Chicago that, in Jumonville's words, "historians had a civic duty to their fellow citizens." Although his late-1920s collaboration with historian Samuel E. Morison, The Growth of the American Republic quickly became the most popular college textbook of its time, he found his true calling in thousands of book reviews, magazine articles and other public forums where he promoted his often-contrary views with both style and grace.

Craggy-faced and tweedy, kind of a cross between Mr. Chips and John L. Lewis, Commager might be considered a forerunner of television's modern talking heads. His scope of vision, as Jumonville pointed out, was both his strength and weakness. Like an artist painting a canvas in broad strokes, he avoided the tedium of scholarly analysis in favor of the overall effect. His narrative style made him one of the last of a dying breed. "History began as a branch of literature and has ended up as a branch of the social sciences," Jumonville said. "Instead of stories, we get statistics because historians want to be more certain of what they're saying. So they end up talking only to each other." As a consequence, Jumonville said, "nobody reads history on the subway any more. That's why I adopted Commager as a representative of the old way. He wanted to preserve that narrative connection he had with the general public."

Actually, Jumonville said, his book chronicles not only Commager but also a whole generation of like-minded historians such as Nevins, Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling who committed themselves to the public stage. In a series of neatly concise vignettes, he describes their wide-ranging, politically activist views on the world around them.

Read today, many of those views seem strangely out of touch. Commager only peripherally took up the cause of civil rights. He remained skeptical of such issues as black or women's studies. The very strengths that he applauded in liberal politicians he deplored in those of a more conservative bent. When the Moral Majority led Christian fundamentalists into political activism during the Reagan years, Commager accused them of connecting religion with politics. But when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same thing in the 1960s, he remained eloquently silent.

"Commager's own ideological lenses often caused him to... produce his own inconsistencies," Jumonville said. But when he died at his home in Amherst in 1998, "a breed of midcentury liberals, grounded in the ideas of literature and history, neared extinction."

And the legacy of a once-revered historian whose name has become little more than a footnote to the baby-boomer generation and its already coming-of-age offspring? How will history remember Henry Steele Commager, a leading voice in acclaiming the United States as the best of all possible worlds?

"He was to the field of American history what a painter like Grant Wood was to American painting," Jumonville said. "Can the profession of history afford to ignore and bury its intellectual heritage in a way that painting and literature have not? If so, what a painful irony from a field - history! - that is the least grateful to its own intellectual past."