Amherst Magazine

Commager Recollections

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Former students are invited to recount their memories of Professor Commager.

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I have many memories of Professor Henry Steele Commager during my years at Amherst: 1956-1960. What was quite remarkable to me was how much of a sports fan he was. He faithfully attended many games, and I loved seeing him in the stands, usually reading a book while he watched the contest! I played basketball and baseball, and was not a strong student by any means. I took one of his seminar classes, managed to hang in there without saying too much. But when he learned I was not signed up for the next semester, he was most distressed. Here I was, a gentlemanly C student, and he insisted I stay in his class! Of course I did, and although I didn't say much in his seminars, he did inspire me to read and become a more conscientious student and thinker. He was largely responsible for me becoming a more serious student my last two years at Amherst, and ever since.
After graduating I spent a year in the Admissions Office as the Mayo Smith Fellow. Professor Commager and his wife invited my wife and me to his house for tea one afternoon, so he clearly valued having a "jock" as a former student. He was a wonderful individual.
Professor Commager transmitted to me his love of books and American intellectual history. When I became a high school teacher, I carried out his emphasis on the history of ideas as the focal point for American history. So many more students were influenced by his teaching, beyond this one.
-- Contributed by Bob Madgic '60

I was class of '78. I never took a class from Prof. Commager, but my favorite story was from the late 70's. Bryant Gumbel did a segment for the "Today" show and interviewed Prof. Commager on the War Memorial at the top of Memorial Hill. Gumbel had "cut his teeth" as a sports reporter before making the transition to the "Today" show. Which may explain why he asked Professor Commager the question "what has the National Football League contributed to American History?" You can imagine the look on Gumbel's face when Professor Commager curtly replied, "Nothing." "Absolutely nothing."

-- Contributed by Kevin O'Donoghue '78

In May of 1965 my friends and I were organizing a teach-in about the Vietnam War. As student council president, I was trying to find a well-known speaker who would attract a good crowd. I called Professor Commager and asked if he would meet with us. He invited us to his home near campus and spent more than an hour discussing the war and our plans for the teach-in. Before we left, he agreed to speak at the teach-in where he gave a terrific talk, providing context for the war and the place of dissent in American society. I was struck by his generosity in meeting with us, listening to our ideas, and agreeing to help. He took us seriously and treated us as adults.

Later that year, I joined the marines. By graduation in 1966, when the College awarded Secretary McNamara an honorary degree, I was an infantry scout near Chu Lai. I've been back to Vietnam eight times since the war ended. The story of what I learned as a soldier, War Lessons, is scheduled for publication in 2008.

-- Contributed by John Merson '66

A few times during the fall of '63 American Intellectual History met in Professor Commager's yard. Once our topic was the Civil War. One of my classmates praised Pickett's Charge. Professor Commager almost levitated through the polychromatic leaves: "Pickett's Charge! Pickett's Charge! Everybody talks about Pickett's Charge. Nobody talks about Missionary Ridge. It was just as glorious as Pickett's Charge--and it succeeded."

The South had won the peace. It defeated anti-lynching bills and weakened other civil-rights measures, and it dominated the memory of the War. Whether abashed at supporting the less-colorful side, guilty over that side's having shown the ill grace to beat the martial "section" at its own game on its own field, reluctant to keep sifting the ashes, eager to get on with the next century, or otherwise impeded, Yankees either shut up or affirmatively acknowledged what a wondrous thing it had been to be Rebels.

Not only did Professor Commager's outburst prompt me to learn about Missionary Ridge (which the Professor didn't enlarge upon right then). It hoisted me over any hesitance to advocate the Union cause, even while the Lost Cause enjoyed deference from folks that should have know better than to Grant it. Now there was an educational experience.

-- Contributed by Patrick J. Murray '65

 

I was only a sophomore when Henry Steel Commager asked me to be his 'assistant' for the last 2 years of my time at Amherst.  Traditionally, the position of 'fac totem' had always gone to a senior who was also a History major, and I was not only a mere sophomore but also intending to major in psychology and anthropology.

I accepted the position and for the next 2 years, and another year after that during which I remained a resident of Northampton, drove Mr. Commager (who did not drive himself), handled his appointments and all aspects of his personal life.  I remember almost every evening watching the evening news with him (with a glass of sherry of some special Hungarian wine that he enjoyed) in silence, sitting side by side, sometimes with Prof. Milton Cantor who was a good friend of Mr. Commager and a Professor of History at U. Mass.  Afterwards, I would listen to some of the most creative, deep, and seemingly-so-easy analysis on his part of the day's news.  I was hearing a unique and idiosyncratic and very personal perspective of tomorrow's history unfold in front of me and remember thinking: this experience will never happen again in my life.  I was in the presence of brilliance that lacked presumption and self-importance.

Every morning, we would meet in Mr. Commager's study and plan the day and go over yesterday's mail.  This would often be the time that he would tell me stories of how his own life had unfolded and how in the end it was his hands-on teaching of students at Amherst College that was more important than his fame, than his books, that his lecture, than his travels.  Mr. Commager was a teacher, first and foremost and he loved teaching students at Amherst.

He was very formal.  He never called me by my first name.  He had subtle of ways of communicating to me that I was important to him, (he was shy of comunicating that sort of sentiment directly).  He was a warm man capable of deep devotion and love.  Just as he was capable also of being a curmudgeon and a grouch at times.  He was a full man and a well-rounded human being who wanted to share his experiences and his knowledge with younger people who both kept him feeling young and gave him the most important forum in his life: the opportunity to influence the lives of younger people whom he wanted to see educated, wise and successful.  One of the most generous human beings I have ever met.  I miss my days with him; they were special, especially to a young man trying to become a coherent adult.  He made the world, as cliche as this may sound, a better place for all who had contact with him.  There are so few people about whom we can truly say that.


Frederick Woolverton, Ph. D. 

Professor Commager's seminar met my senior year in his study. We sat around a big rectangular table.  Questions and comments were welcome, but, as there were no papers, Professor Commager asked questions at the beginning of the class, calling a name at random from the class list.

Within minutes of the time he had called on me to answer such a question, I raised my hand to question a point he had made.  "Yes, Mr. ???"

"Sparks," I answered.  Then I asked the question.

OK, so learning who was in his seminar was not job one.  (Everyone got a B+ as I recall.)  But there is no doubt that he knew what he was talking about.  Rather than answering me, he got up, walked slowly to the middle of the room, and reached up to pull a book from among the hundreds on the shelves surrounding the room.  He knew exactly where this book was.  He walked with the book back to his chair at the end of the table, turned immediately to a page, cited the source, and read a paragraph to us.

Guess what:  he was right.

Reflections on Henry Steele Commager by Bill Weary ‘64

 

 

From the spring of 1963 through graduation in 1964, I served as Prof. Commager’s assistant, including house-sitting and research over the summer of 1963. He also was my senior thesis adviser. I don’t remember how the connection between us was made. He had spoken at my high school senior year, and I’d met him then as an Amherst student to be; as a freshman, I’d had dinner at his home (the event recorded in a still-extant English 1 paper); and, a year or so later, I had been one of a number of students in a seminar he led for television broadcast. One afternoon in the spring of my junior year, though, I received word he’d like to speak with me. I went on down to his home, and the work began.

 

Each afternoon after lunch, I’d head “to Commager’s.” Finding sources in the library, checking out books he wished to consult, assembling documents for later review, typing up manuscripts and correspondence -- all fit into the schedule. So, too, did all sorts of other work, like wrapping Christmas packages, driving Prof. Commager and/or Mrs. Commager to appointments, airports, doctors, dinners, etc. The steady back and forth of the banter with each of them and the variety of my assigned tasks made for a delightful parallel to my more normal life as Amherst student and provided me an unrivalled further education.

 

Story after story comes to mind of those days at 405 South Pleasant Street. One in particular exemplifies for me Prof. Commager’s knowledge, wisdom, and style. For some weeks, he’d given me lists of books and documents to assemble at the house. I’d gone to the library to find them or order them on interlibrary loan and had identified the specific passages and documents he sought. Arranged in a stack on the floor, in chronological order, the documents were entered into a final list. One week he announced that the moment had come to put “the book” together. On a rainy October afternoon just after lunch, I met him in his office over the garage, and the two of us went to work. Starting with the top of the pile and moving on down to the bottom, I read out the name of each document, while he, strutting about the room, dictated to me at the typewriter, off the top of his head, a one or two page introduction to its history and significance. Before the close of Valentine that afternoon, the book was complete. It went to the publisher the next week!

 

I also noted with interest the manner in which he prepared a new edition of a popular version of his history of the United States. He’d had me take apart two copies of the paperback, page by page and paste each page on an 8 and ½ by 11 inch sheet of paper. In odd moments over the fall, he went through the bundle and, in the margins, added his updates, changes, deletions, etc. I typed them up, and, again, there was a book!

 

Prof. Commager had an unerring ability to frame an issue in such a way as to make his observations both simple and brilliant. Yet, as I was to observe many times over the years that followed, that ability was taken by many as “glibness,” and it aroused their envy and ire. All of the above, of course, fits delightfully with his conviction that one writes the book before doing the research -- and checks the documentation for accuracy later!

 

I asked him at one point about how he’d been able – I’d been a sophomore at the time – to show up unprepared for an American Studies lecture – he’d forgotten about it and shown up 10 or 15 minutes late, disheveled, shirt-tails out -- and deliver a coherent, cogent history of American judicial review! “Young Weary [I also responded to “McGillicuddy” and “Cadwalader”], if you can’t get up at a moment’s notice and lecture in your own field at my age, what good are you?!” As his lecture concluded, to applause, a number of young professors behind me (W’s were at the back of the room) exchanged disparaging and catty remarks.

 

Late in the fall of my senior year, Prof. Commager suffered a detached retina (I drove them in to Mass General for the surgery the night before), so reading assumed a different role in his life thereafter, including greater reliance on someone like me – and use of an IBM typewriter with a very large font. So it was that I read my thesis chapters out loud to him as I completed them. As a former professor, I now can imagine the agony of such an experience for him! Paragraph after paragraph was tossed! What stuck for me as a student was the importance of grabbing the obvious idea and subordinating all else to it.

 

The spring of that senior year, Mrs. Commager was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her flawless grace and dignity were one of my delights each day in “going to Commager’s.” One day she’d asked me to test some sandwiches she intended to try out on a group of Amherst women coming to tea. I opened one, sniffed it, and pronounced it fine: “Weary, you weren’t made for polite society.” Watching the two of them together also provided steady pleasure. At dinner parties, as Prof. Commager bounced about the room and tossed out wonderfully cutting one-liner judgments, Mrs. Commager glided about, sometimes in trailing, floor length gown with cameo brooch, and distributed understanding smiles, gentle nods, and a sense of comfort and ease. One day, the two of them, uncharacteristically seated together on the porch as I arrived after lunch, revealed the cancer diagnosis and the surgery to come. “What will we do without you?” I blurted out. She turned to Prof. Commager, nodded, and said, “See.” Later that spring, she often spent days in her room upstairs; one afternoon, when she did emerge, I asked whether she were feeling better. “Weary, every woman has the right to stay in her room all day whenever she wants.” I was told later that, at the end, as her family gathered around her, she had asked, “Is it that late?”

 

As a graduation present, Prof. Commager offered me a copy of the 1783 Amsterdam edition of the abbé Raynal’s 10 volume history of the world. Of course, the abbé had been the subject of my thesis, and, of course, Prof. Commager had suggested it, a particularly apt choice given the abbé’s reputation as enfant terrible in Parisian salons and the French ban on his very popular works! Bound in leather with elegant gold stampings, the edition had been ordered from a dealer in Amsterdam. It sits on my shelves today.

 

At graduation, as I walked across the stage and took my diploma from President Plimpton’s hand, he leaned forward smiling to joke that Prof. Commager had better be applauding.

 

Some years later, I returned to Amherst as a member of the history department. Our relationship resumed, but it was, of course, different. Mrs. Commager had died a couple of years before, and tension existed between “Felix” – as he then became for me, as he was for other professors who knew him well – and the rest of the department. As the department launched a new History 11 course (the introduction to the major), an intellectually rich and challenging historiographical investigation, year by year, of a different historian (Burckhardt, Bloch, Becker, etc.), Felix protested that we should be reading Francis Parkman -- and inspiring and exciting our students – rather than burdening them with abstract and professionally-oriented analysis. From my own perspective, the course allowed students – and us as professors – to join together an historian’s life, times, interests, and conclusions in ways normally never explored -- and vital to an understanding of the nature of history and the work of historians.

 

He did continue to offer me his counsel, as, for instance, on style of life: “Young Weary, you work hard, you’re able, and you’re going to do well. Spend money now while you can enjoy it! Borrow if you have to!” As an example of what he had in mind, he waved over at the grand piano in his living room (he’d given it a name, which I’ve now forgotten), which, upon promotion to full professor at Columbia at the age of 28, he’d purchased with a loan. “Look at me now: I can do anything I want, and I can’t spend it!” Or, on “fitting in”: “Always conform in the little things of life. That leaves you free to disagree on the important ones.”

 

We did see each other from time to time at dinners, sometimes at my home. I remember great fun with Oskar and Anne Schotté and the Warnes. There also was a marvelous evening in Paris in January of 1974. Felix and a friend – in town over semester break for the sights -- told me they wanted to eat well. I met them at their hotel on what turned out to be a particularly rainy and nasty evening for the taxi ride to the restaurant I’d selected. Upon arrival, we leapt out of the cab and swept into the restaurant, where we were divested of our coats, seated, and offered menus – only to discover that we’d dashed into the restaurant next door! We explained the error to the staff, collected our coats, made a sheepish exit, and settled in for a long, happy evening at Moissonnier! I still wince and chuckle as I walk by those two restaurants!

 

As I left Amherst in 1976, the relationship concluded, even as happy tales still came in to me from those in touch with him and the “new” Mrs. Commager. Our lives had taken different turns.

 

My current age exceeds Commager’s at my graduation.

As for HSC---who I have fallen into the habit of remembering as "Felix," I could add nothing to your memory of him as a colleague---except to repeat the tale I know I passed along to you many eons ago.:::: He and I found ourselves by coincidence in a plane headed from CT to WI where the famed Professor Commager was making some sort of scholarly appearance, while I was going on to MN to a meeting. We sat side by side during the flight, which allowed Felix to hand two books to me, pulled from his green bag. He retained two others. His explanation was that he had fallen behind in his duties as a book reviewer, and that the four volumes between us were already late in having his attention. So, he asked me to examine the two books in my lap and that by the time we reached WI I would please inform him of the nature of the review they deserved from him. At first I thought he was kidding, but no, indeed. So I did as I was commanded and, leaving his thanks behind, he left the plane in Milwaukee.


The other semi-relevant memory which I believe is one you share has Professor and Mrs. C seated on the uppermost bench seat observing the football field on a Saturday when Amherst was playing some other institution. Both of the Commagers gave undivided attention to the books in their hands and, so far as I could see, paid no heed to the game. Which brings to mind Professor C's famed observation to one of Amherst's most successful student athletes---a swimmer, I recall. When the young man met for conference with Professor C, the latter expressed concern over the lad's pallor and languid state and advised him to get some exercise. So much for Felix's acquaintanceship with the student body.

 

-- From an email exchange with Hugh Hawkins, used with permission

In second semester of 1957, two things were on my mind. First, I had to produce my honors thesis in Am Studs and second, I had to prepare for the NCAA Swimming Championships at the U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was assigned to the great Henry Steele Commager just as he was assigned to guide me on my way. We had a good relationship, played ping pong when we should have been slaving away and seemed to enjoy one another. I never got the feeling that he was really interested in my thesis but tolerated me in good spirit. We always met at his house where in addition to playing ping pong he served refreshments. Despite his passing interest in my work (my perception) I worked diligently to produce a decent paper.

At the same time I was training really hard for the Nationals, three workouts a day consisting of distance in the mornings, repeats in the afternoon and sprints in the evenings. Hank Dunbar had me pretty well worked up about the meet so I put a lot of effort into my swimming. By the time I got to the library to tend my homework, I was pretty well shot. And I still remember aura around the lights from my chlorine reddened eyes. No goggles in those days. Anyway, this is how my life was at that time, mentally and physically weary but happy as the proverbial clam.

Shortly before I was to head to NC, le professeur summoned me to his quarters for an update on my progress with Huey and Franklin. As he welcomed me he declared unceremoniously that I looked pale and wan and that I should take some time out to get some exercise!!!! There had been a fair amount of publicity about the team's trip to Chapel Hill and I'm pretty sure most people knew about it and that I was involved. My response was merely that I was getting plenty of exercise and the session turned to the matters at hand. Afterwards, I thought to myself that HSC really was the absent minded professor so wrapped up in his work that he missed a bit of what was going on around him. But I certainly bore no grudges nor was I offended - I thought the whole episode was really funny and enjoyed telling people about it. I guess then that I must take responsibility for the "legend" though I am surprised that it has persisted through all these years.

As a footnote you might be interested in knowing that the Amherst team at the nationals in 1957 beat the likes of Army, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Purdue, Texas and Stanford and came close to SMU , Northwestern and Iowa! Not bad for the little old college whose swimmers trained in the raw, wore no goggles and focused mostly on academics.

-- From an email exchange with Hugh Hawkins, used with permission

Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I have if anything an even greater appreciation for what I learned, in the widest possible sense, from Henry Steele Commager, who was my teacher and mentor while I was at Amherst.

He taught me the vital importance of being widely informed about as many things as possible while being as deeply informed about my chosen subject as possible.

He taught me that it was essential, no matter how narrow and technical and abstruse the subject on which I was writing, to make my work so clear and direct that even nonspecialist readers could get what I was writing about and why it mattered.

He taught me to do research -- three little words that stand for an incredibly complex constellation of strategies and tactics that blended the arts of a scholar with the gifts of a detective.

He taught me the necessity of having a sound memory -- in particular, a sound historiographical and bibliographical memory -- that in part in self-defense when I was his research assistant and had to come up with all sorts of books or articles or references on a moment's notice.

He taught me that the Constitution of the United States was a quintessential product of the American Enlightenment, yet that it was also made to be adapted to changing times and circumstances.  In that connection, he taught me the true historian's contempt for the pseudo-historical practice of originalism.

He taught me to go beyond him -- never to take his views as Gospel, and always to test what I thought I knew and to challenge myself as well as the conventional wisdom that he had so often helped to define -- while always remembering that what mattered was the work and not who was doing the work.

He taught me, finally, that history was one of the greatest of human callings, and that it was great precisely when it captured the full range of what it means to be human.

He was a great teacher, though some mocked him for his occasional disregard for student names (though I never got called McGillicuddy, he once called me Boorstin instead of Bernstein, and then occasionally used the other name as a gentle satirical barb thereafter, especially in the mutated "errant young Boorstin").  Others mocked him for what they saw as his disinclination to listen to students -- but by that they really meant his tendency not to be awed by students who thought that they were smarter or more learned than they actually were.  He listened, but he was not shy about letting you know that you had an unjustifiably inflated sense of your own brilliance.

I learned all this, and so much more, from him, and now that I am entering my third decade as a historian and teacher, I draw every day on what Professor Commager taught me.  And I always will be grateful for that immersion in what it means to be a historian and to teach history.