March 7, 1998
Jacki Lyden, Washington, DC; Neil Jumonville, Tallahassee, FL

Summary: Jacki talks with Neil Jumonville, author of a forthcoming biography of the historian Henry Steele Commager, who died this week at the age of 95. Commager was the co-author of "The Growth of The American Republic," a standard textbook used from the 1930s through the 1960s. He's also well known for his non-academic writings, and was a great influence on today's historians. Neil Jumonville is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. His biography of Commager will be published by the University of North Carolina Press, Spring 1999.


JACKI LYDEN, HOST: Another chapter of American history closed this week with the death of historian Henry Steele Commager at the age of 95. Commager's writings on American history were college staples for decades. His "Growth of the American Republic" was first published in 1930.

Like the hundreds of books, articles, and lectures that followed, it told of an ebullient and robust nation that owed its fortunes to the Constitution and the common sense of its citizens.

Though his scholarship would be criticized by a newer generation as "too white and too male," Commager continued to engage students and public alike in classroom tutorials and magazine essays.

He taught at New York University, Columbia, and for the last 25 years, Amherst.

Biographer Neil Jumonville says Commager filled a position not often taken by scholars today, that of the public intellectual eager to apply the lessons of the past to current American problems.

NEIL JUMONVILLE, AUTHOR AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY, TALLAHASSEE: He was very much a public man, very much like Reinhold Neibuhr or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Commager was somebody who was probably the most insistent academic voice against McCarthyism in the 1950s, was an early and strong critic of the Vietnam War and American power misused abroad, a critic of Watergate early on.

So, this was a person who was hopeful about democracy but was quicker than most of his colleagues to be an activist and to speak out against it when he found its shortcomings.

LYDEN: You know when you're telling me stories, I was really amused to read the anecdote--and your helping to explain it--that despite his prolific memory, which I guess assisted him as he grew blind, he couldn't remember the names of many of his students so he called them Mr. and Mrs. McGillicutty.


JUMONVILLE: Isn't that great? Yeah, Henry, I think the people who know him also--or always was thought of as a speaker rather than a listener. He loved hearing his students. But sometimes he was so caught up in what he was saying that his students become McGillicuttys, as you said.

LYDEN: We're talking about an individual whose career spans a century: born in 1902, publishing by the age of 26. How will he be remembered?

JUMONVILLE: Well, he'll certainly be remembered as an historian. But I think some of the most enduring of his work really will be his non-scholarly work, that is the work that he's done for general publications.

I mean, here was somebody who from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s nearly singlehandedly wrote the lead articles for the New York Times Magazine. He was a very activist figure. He was a campaigner for civil liberties and for the responsibility of American power.

His enduring legacy doesn't depend on how we view his scholarship as much as perhaps it does what role he played in the world.

History is really, ironically, the least grateful of disciplines. And it's difficult for a historian to be remembered for his history.

Historians tend to after 20 or 30 years, after a book is published, to throw it on the proverbial dust bin. And we don't read our old historians like those in literature read their old greats.

I mean in the field of history, we're far more embarrassed by our past than we should be. You know, we don't look back to our Melvilles or to our Emersons like those in literature do. And so really ironically, history is one of the least historical of the humanities in that respect.

And so if Commager is going to depend on his scholarship to keep him remembered, he's going to be in that same sort of condition that George Bancroft and Francis Parkman and all of our great figures have been. That is, he'll be forgotten very quickly.

And that's why I assume that people want to look at his non- scholarly work as well, because if that campaign for civil liberties and the responsibility of American power, he's been a very important intellectual, as opposed to scholarly influence in our mid-20th century culture.

LYDEN: Neil Jumonville is associate professor of history at Florida State University. He's working on a forthcoming biography of Henry Steele Commager.