U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mad about the Goy: Gentile Patronage and the Academy

The historian and literary scholar Daniel Aaron died April 30th, at the age of 103. A founder of the field of American Studies, I actually ran across correspondence between Aaron and Sinclair Lewis in the latter’s papers, which is just a small token of Aaron’s longevity and importance in the world of U.S. literature. Aaron was one of the founders of the Library of America, and the author of classics like Men of Good Hope and Writers on the Left. I’ll have more to say about Aaron next week, but for now, here are two warm and informative obituaries (Boston Globe and Washington Post) and a recent profile from Harvard Magazine. Corey Robin also has a brief and heartfelt salute to him here.

One of the many interesting and valuable sidelights thrown by David Brown’s Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing (2009) is its brief but intense examination of anti-Semitism in the academy, particularly within the department of History at the University of Wisconsin during the 1940s and 1950s. Drawing on correspondence especially from and to Merle Curti, Brown demonstrates that even if they often paid lip service to the inclusion of African Americans, Jews, and women, that inclusion generally progressed only as far as the table of contents of the MVHR, the makeup of a conference panel, or—at best—the bestowal of a short-term teaching position. Tenure track positions remained a WASP prerogative. Brown excerpts some heartbreaking letters in his book, and the extracts from Curti’s letters show him paralyzed with good will and lukewarm resolve—between the lines the words float wanly, “I’m doing the best I can; my hands are tied.”

But after reading some of the letters between the historian Carl Becker and some of his Jewish students—many written a decade or more earlier than those to and from Curti—I’m inclined to wonder about the way Brown has couched his narrative. For what I see in Becker’s letters is a much more determined but surreptitious effort to get his Jewish students jobs, one that often took years—many years of wangling fellowships and contingent positions, lobbying deans and chairs about the brilliance of his protégés, and frequent buckings up of at least one promising young Ph.D. about to call it quits. Becker and Curti were obviously different people, and it is possible that Becker just tried harder. But it is also possible that Brown’s focus on the internal dynamics of the UW history department underplayed Curti’s individual success at supporting his graduate students, and I would argue that—while Brown certainly did not need to tell that story as well—someone should.

Consider this: among the figures whom Brown cites as examples of Wisconsin’s insufficient support of its Jewish graduates are Eric Goldman, Warren Susman, and George Rawick, all of whom had long and distinguished careers in the academy—Susman and Goldman even having, one could say, quite secure positions at Rutgers and Princeton, respectively. Brown acknowledges this noncommittally: “Despite his youthful apprehensions and insecurities, Susman went on to teach for many years at Rutgers University” (99) Addressing the larger context of a decline of anti-Semitic influence on hiring decisions, Brown comments briefly, “Within a few years, circumstances abroad made this attitude (at least in its most ugly, overt forms) untenable” (96).

We need, I think, a more robust account of how people like Susman and Goldman broke through to getting history jobs, and what role gentiles like Carl Becker and Merle Curti played in making that happen.[1] For there seems to be a general logic at work in Brown’s account that the Goldmans and Susmans just kept at it and eventually broke through. Perhaps it is the only virtue of today’s job market that we can easily see that this is not really the way these things work under supremely adverse conditions: that persistence and merit are not always rewarded.[2]

One of Becker’s mentees was Max Lerner, who got to know Becker after he had already taken his doctorate at the Brookings Institute and was working at the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences as an assistant editor. Lerner’s career was much less tied to the academy than that of some of Becker’s other Jewish advisees—especially Leo Gershoy and Louis Gottschalk—but Becker also gave him and his first wife, Anita (another Brookings Ph.D. with her own considerable intellectual ambitions) frequent counsel about jobs and probably some letters of recommendation.

Becker and Max Lerner were a kind of odd pair, I thought, when I discovered their correspondence. Becker was known as a very reserved man who provoked people intellectually but seldom if ever caused personal irritation. Lerner’s dramatic political stances and ideological shifts, on the other hand, made many enemies all over the spectrum—Murray Rothbard’s splenetic diatribe against him (it begins, “All my life, it seems, I have hated the guts of Max Lerner”) probably marks the high or low point of this rancor—while his ideas were seldom as substantial as Becker’s. So I looked at Lerner’s biography, by Sanford Lakoff, which described men like Becker and Alvin Johnson as an “old goy network” “not only free of prejudice but positively disposed to encourage members of minorities.”[3]

That seems to me to be a little too neat as a historical explanation (although, to be fair, Lakoff in this passage is not really looking to explain why people helped Lerner, just to note that Lerner was helped by gentiles), and further research would need to look closely at individual cases to tease out various motivations for as well as methods of aid and counsel.

Becker, for what it’s worth, seems to have followed a pattern of caring not only very deeply for some of his Jewish students, but for their whole families and, if I can be freely speculative here, may have felt a sort of extended membership in “the tribe.” He frequently wrote letters not only to his students but often to their wives and occasionally to their children. Michael Kammen’s collection of Becker’s letters (titled What Is the Good of History?) contains a number of nonsense poems that Becker wrote for Max Lerner’s daughter Constance—a bizarre choice on strictly scholarly grounds if a revelatory one for psychobiographical ones. Becker also seems to have been misrecognized as a Jew on occasion—he joked with Leo Gershoy in 1931 that he once overheard himself referred to as an example of one of the “very good Jews” in the history profession.[4]

For whatever reason, Becker worked hard for his Jewish students to get them jobs, and in many cases, he and they won out—the AHA now awards an annual prize in Leo Gershoy’s honor, which is a mark of pretty great success. But it was obviously also more than a personal success for Gershoy or for Becker, and their success is a potential model for change within the academy. Especially today, the lesson of academics from different ranks working together against concerted opposition is both inspiring and valuable.

[1] The work of David Hollinger, especially in Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century American Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) is obviously an indispensable foundation for any further work here.

[2] I am focusing on Jews and Gentiles here because the cases of African Americans and women are slightly different for two reasons. One, Jews—or, rather, Jewish men—have had far more success assimilating wholly into the mainstream of academic culture; two, as Brown notes, Jews lacked a network of alternative institutions which could provide at least some jobs outside the “establishment”—African Americans had HBCUs and women had women’s colleges. But the point remains that more intensive studies are also needed to study the actual work that went into breaking down hiring barriers for women and African Americans—down to who voted how, if possible.

[3] Lakoff, Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 55-56.

[4] Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 145.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, what a wonderful and truly fascinating post. There’s a rich and complicated story to be found here, clearly — or a collection of stories, I guess.

    I’m struck, of course, by your sense of what’s at stake in recovering these stories: “But it was obviously also more than a personal success for Gershoy or for Becker, and their success is a potential model for change within the academy. Especially today, the lesson of academics from different ranks working together against concerted opposition is both inspiring and valuable.”

    I’m mulling over the “concerted opposition,” then and now. My hunch is that they are more closely related than might appear to be the case. Decades of hard-fought behind-the-scenes battles to broaden the demographics of the professoriate, to open up this professional identity and these jobs and concomitant financial security, are “rewarded” by another kind of door-closing and gatekeeping: the casualization of academic labor, the adjunctification of the academy. As the once marginal have gained access to the center, the center is being hollowed out — not accidentally, or by some “law” of the market, but deliberately.

    It’s so demoralizing that it’s difficult to imagine concerted action that could turn the tide — another reason to recover these stories. I do think a crucial step is to forge alliances beyond the hierarchies of the academy, to appeal as best we can for the support of parents and families who are taking on more and more debt for education and might be persuaded to demand that colleges and universities stop educating their children with part-time temp workers.

    Of course you have a couple of zingers in here, one in the body and the other in the footnotes:

    1. Perhaps it is the only virtue of today’s job market that we can easily see that this is not really the way these things work under supremely adverse conditions: that persistence and merit are not always rewarded

    No argument there!

    2. …more intensive studies are also needed to study the actual work that went into breaking down hiring barriers for women and African Americans—down to who voted how, if possible.

    “who voted how” — Wow. Good luck with that — and I mean that sincerely. As inclined as academics are to generate texts like there’s no tomorrow, the culture does a pretty good job of making sure a good part (or a bad part) of the sausage-making leaves no trace.

    Anyway, marvelous post.

    • Thanks, LD! Your point that there may be a hidden connection between the victory to broaden the demographics of the profession and the rise of adjunctification is incredibly important. The many well-documented studies demonstrating a direct connection between the “feminization” of a field and a decline in how it is valued seems to me to be quite pertinent here. This article ties many of those threads together.

  2. I’m with LD that attempts to uncover votes and secret sausage-making processes for hiring and tenure in higher ed will only be pieced together in the personal archives of professors over the next 50 years (i.e. the standard embargo dates given to controversial matters in archived collections). We may never know the full spectrum of failures and successes of all frat-like networks good and bad—old goys, old boys, old girls, old WASPs, old Catholic priests, etc. – TL

  3. I posted this student op ed at the USIH Facebook page, but thought it might be appropriate to append to the discussion here.

    Can Stanford Afford to Lose Professor Aishwary Kumar?

    As I said on Facebook, there’s a history to be written about student activism specifically as it relates to tenure cases — you could write a history about that just at Stanford. (I’m writing a bit about it.) But what’s fascinating in this editorial is the way the students discuss intellectual history and why it matters.

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