An eloquent critic of his times
Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas
Amherst College Books

An eloquent critic of his times

Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present.
By Neil Jumonville Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 328 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Neil Jumonville examines the intellectual and public career of Henry Steele Commager in this ambitious new study published just a year after the celebrated historian's death in Amherst at the age of 95. Historians, other scholars, and former students will find it a balanced, highly analytical portrait of a brilliant figure whom many of them knew admiringly but perhaps never well.

Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University, portrays both the faults and the fine points of his subject but sees him, all in all, as a "national treasure." That surely he was: an eloquent exponent of history, civil liberty, and dismay at what he thought were abuses of power.

For the most part this is a study of the subject's public persona, not his private side, although intriguingly here and there the author mentions "insecurities" that haunted Commager from childhood. His parents divorced, his mother died when he was nine, his alcoholic father abandoned him, and he was "farmed out" to live with his maternal grandfather in Chicago. By the time Commager was 15 he was expected to earn his own living.

Jumonville speculates that while his prolific newspaper and magazine writing later fit Commager's "conception of history as a public civic discussion," he may also have felt that the public recognition it brought him "elevated his social rank" and "gave him a cachet." Insecurity about pedigree may help explain, too, Commager's lifetime enjoyment of clubs and things English.

But it would be inaccurate to emphasize shadow in the sunny life of one whose nickname was "Felix," and Jumonville stresses, instead, Commager's talent and cheerfulness--as reflected, for instance, in his early landmark historical surveys, The Growth of the American Republic, co-authored with Samuel Eliot Morison, and The Pocket History of the United States, written with Allan Nevins. He notes that Commager in these works "rose to his most commanding vision and his most graceful prose when he was challenged with summing up broad tendencies or movements of history. His tone alternated between intelligent discussion, useful reporting, wistfully elegiac scenes, and proud assertions, frequently bound by an overconfident optimism, all in a lyrical prose."

How much that was true, as well, of his classroom and public lectures and even his extemporaneous speaking. Here, in fact, readers might welcome more psycho-biography: what after all were the wellsprings and inspiration for Commager's prodigious energy and talent, his encyclopedic memory, his rhetorical force?

What, in short, produced such genius?

Commager not only radiated intellectual energy, he spread it hither and yon. Historian David Donald remembered that Commager always had three typewriters in his house and was typing a different manuscript at each. Jumonville writes that his schedule "was enough for a half-dozen people: teaching, writing newspaper and magazine columns, editing a series of books, collaborating on textbooks, doing research on his historical projects, flying here for political lectures or there to give the government historical advice, being interviewed by reporters, doing a radio talk show, being filmed for a special program for CBS or the Public Broadcasting Service, giving congressional testimony."

It took its toll. As Commager himself once confessed to the historian Merle Curti, "I scatter my energies, and fear that I may never have time to get down to the really big works that I keep thinking of."

Jumonville accepts a recurring criticism of Commager's intellectual scholarship. Writing of the historian's 1950 masterwork The American Mind, he says that the book's weakness, "as with much of Commager's scholarly work, is its encyclopedic breadth at the expense of analytic depth. Although he announced that it was 'an interpretation rather than a detailed chronicle,' it read more as
a chronicle than interpretation."

Commager had other shortcomings, too. He could be notoriously inattentive to students and colleagues and often forgot their names. But there was kindness as well. From their earliest days at Amherst the Commagers always shared distinguished guests and their South Pleasant Street home with local students and faculty; and he always gave generous help to his young protégés.

Jumonville's larger focus, however, is on Commager's peerless role as an eloquent critic of his times. A liberal all his life, one who extolled American exceptionalism, he was never--as many colleagues were--a Marxist at one extreme of the liberal spectrum nor a Cold Warrior at the other. He called himself a Jeffersonian, passionately defending--and exercising--the right to dissent. He did this most memorably in strident opposition to two manifestations of the Cold War: the anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s and our anti-communist war in Vietnam.

Commager himself was a victim of McCarthyite absurdity as late as 1959, when William F. Buckley Jr. wrote to him, with a sniff: "A Mr. Streeter writes us that he has reason to belive that you adopted your middle name at a time when you admired Joseph Stalin. Would you be good enough to let me know whether this is true?"

Yet many liberals considered Commager's "anti-anti-communism" during the McCarthy era extreme, for in his 1954 work, Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, he seemed to preach unqualified toleration--acceptance even of those who wanted tolerance overthrown. Commager was "too optimistic" for many colleagues, Jumonville notes, "too much a product of the tradition of Jefferson and Emerson and the belief that everything would work out fine if left to the unimpeded competition between individual ideas."

Well, the Red flag was lowered at the Kremlin in December 1991. Maybe, in the end, Commager's optimism was not totally naïve after all.

Small aspects of Jumonville's book are exasperating. At points it is needlessly repetitious. Much of a long, difficult chapter on "The Character and Myth of Historians at Midcentury" is a treatise on historiography and the evolution of American studies with next to nothing on Commager (Although the excerpt that appears at the end of this review, is from the end of that essay). And at one place Jumonville makes the infelicitous remark that "Commager was to the field of American histpry what a painter like Grant Wood was to American painting." Grant Wood? Could we say, instead, "what Aaron Copeland was to American music"? Some analogies are unhappier than others!

Quibbles aside, this is a dexterous, timely, rewarding study of Commager and his indelible place in the 20th century. Amherst readers who knew Commager will enjoy it and, from it, learn much.

--Douglas C. Wilson


 From the book:

The rejection of Commager's style of 1950s intellectual history and American studies by a younger cohort was part of a generational disagreement between acutely different visions of American culture and society. Should America be built on the midcentury values of a color-blind liberal pluralism, integration, majority rule, shared identity, and a prevention of economic and political exploitation as Commager hoped? Or should it be constructed on the Cultural Left values of multiculturalism, ethnic and subcultural identification, minority rights, personal liberation and a prevention of cultural alienation?

Commager and the older American studies figures were at least as politically radical and activist as their younger counterparts have turned out to be. It is only in the cultural realm, because they could not anticipate our current multicultural ethic, that Commager's generation now seems less "liberal." . . .

In our current period of cultural acrimony there is much to be gained by remembering the example of the former generation of intellectual historians and American studies scholars and reviving at least part of what they offered us: a civically activist dedication to political and economic equality; a commitment to the rights of democratic majorities combined with a protection of minority safeguards; a framework of analysis with a strong emphasis on history, contextualism, and narrative; that liberal attempt to encourage greater democratic participation in economic, political, and cultural life; and a belief in a liberal pluralism whereby citizens are connected by a common, shared culture while not losing their subcultural identities.

--Reprinted with permission of The University
of North Carolina Press

Back to the Top

Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas

By: Robert Thurman and TAD WISE '81
New York: Bantam, 1990. 368 pp. $29.95 U.S.; $39.95 Canada.

In Circling the Sacred Mountain, Tad Wise '81 and Robert Thurman, Wise's former Amherst College religion professor, create a spiritual travelog for the end of the millennium. Wise decides to join a packaged tour that Thurman, America's foremost authority on Tibetan Buddhism, is leading. For Thurman, this trip is the culmination of a dream he has had since becoming a Tibetan Buddhist. Tad Wise records the down-to-earth, around-the-mountain details of the trip with a moaning, groaning skepticism reminiscent of Carlos Casteneda's first book, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Robert Thurman's spiritual monologues and visualizations provide the Don Juan role. The two approaches are not always complementary, but there is an appealing cross-pollination of travel book with spiritual guide.

Mount Kailash provides inspiring terrain for both writers. High physical
adventure is coupled with a concise course in Tibetan Buddhism. Kailash is both in a remote region of Tibet and at the center of the Buddhist universe. Thurman's humor and charisma transfer well to the printed page as he explains that Shiva and Uma are the king and queen of the mountain. He describes himself as a "white giant" in the eyes of the local Tibetans who are more curious than impressed
with his grasp of Buddhist ritual performance.

As a foil to Thurman's high tantra, Wise's task is the less enviable. As the reluctant disciple, he has the role of describing bad roads, bad food and bad attitude. Wise's experience consists more of complaining about demanding situations than of overcoming difficult circumstances and moving toward personal discovery. The arduous journey in Tibet begins to lose its metaphoric power when Wise's story details the costs and logistics and, especially, the inanities of daily travel.

Fortunately, Thurman has a lot to say about Tibet, Buddhism, and the spiritual quest in the age of the packaged tour. Kailash is his "Mount Analogue," the key to his own becoming. His task is to go beyond intellectual achievement and personal celebrity to perform an act for all mankind. Thurman has endured many critics
of his romantic view of Tibet and his unbound belief in the power of Buddhism. Both positions are prominent here. Thurman's arguments for liberation and compassion ring true if the reader has the slightest interest in overcoming his or her own limitations.

The writings of both Thurman and Wise illustrate the pleasures and pitfalls of being Westerners on an Asian path. These parallel accounts of an inner and outer journey fascinate the reader as each distinct personality deals with relentless self-preoccupation and the possibility of transcendence.

--Frank Ward
Frank Ward, the Amherst College Photographer, has made several trips to Tibet.
Back to the Top

Amherst College Books

Europe Today: National Politics, European Integration, and European Security. Edited by RONALD TIERSKY, Joseph B. Eastman '04 Professor of Political Science. Lanham, Md: Roman & Littlefield, 1999. 500 pp. $69 cloth, $29.95 paper.
American and European scholars explore domestic politics, European integration and European security in today's Europewest and east. The chapters provide basic information and explanations, as well as perspectives on current debates, and are tailored for classroom discussion.

The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture. Edited by AUSTIN SARAT, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1998. 263 pp. $35 cloth.
In the United States, public consensus and political momentum are growing in favor of the death penalty. Written by a number of legal scholars, the essays in this book are divided into three sections that focus on three themes: the effects of capital punishment on politics and democracy, the legal system and its intrinsic values, and culture with its inherent struggle between free will and responsibility.

Price Guide to Holt-Howard Collectibles and Related Ceramicwares of the '50s & '60s. By Walter Dworkin. Iola, Wisc.: Krause Publications, 1998. 160 pp. $24.95 paper.
This full-color volume with photographs, collecting tips and price guide depicts the many ceramic products, "Holt-Howard Collectibles," designed and merchandized by ROBERT J. HOWARD '45 (deceased), A. GRANT HOLT '47 and JOHN W. HOWARD '49. Among the items (all with stylized animal, pixie or human faces) are decanters, teapots, mugs, condiment jars, planters, salt-and-pepper shakers, and their favorite, a controversial coffee mug with President Nixon's face printed on a phony $3 bill, which Secret Service agents confiscated in 1973.

A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. By Herbert Raffaele, James Wiley, Orlando Garrido, ALLAN KEITH '59, and Janis Raffaele. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. 511 pp. $48 cloth.
A comprehensive field guide to all 564 bird species of the West Indies, including migrants, this book provides up-to-date information on identification, local names, habitat, voice, nesting and range for birders that tour the West Indies. As well as color illustrations of birds showing variations by age, sex and location, the authors provide a plan for the conservation of birds and animals of the islands.

Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature. Edited by WILLIAM H. NEWELL '65. New York, N.Y.: College Entrance Examination Board, 1998. 563 pp. $29.95 cloth.
As the first anthology of literature written about interdisciplinary studies, Newell's work presents a coherent picture of interdisciplinary literature, assesses its accomplishments and unresolved issues, and points out the directions for future research. Along with a number of his own essays, Newell includes works by other interdisciplinary scholars including GILES GUNN '59.

Indian Summer: The Return of the Myth of the Running Man. By VANCE CORNELL '73. Solon, Me.: Polar Bear & Co., 1998. 192 pp. $6.99 paper. The Indian myth of the running Christ merges with European folklore and mythology to become a science fiction thriller about the information age. Written as a maze, the novel includes a media event that threatens the planet with an extraterrestrial invasion, a sensual exploration of good and evil from Maine to England and beyond, a historical view of the pagan roots of monotheism, and insight into the politics of religion.

The Law of Similars. By CHRIS BOHJALIAN '82. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishing Group, 1998. 278 pp. $23 cloth.
Set against the ongoing clash between conventional and alternative medicine, Bohjalian's latest novel involves three people whose lives are irrevocably changed by illness, healing and love. The plot revolves around a Vermont deputy state prosecutor, his daughter whom he is raising alone, and a homeopath.

Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair. By CAMERON STRACHER '83. New York, N.Y.: William Morrow, 1998. 228 pp. $24 cloth.
Stratcher offers a wry account of his two years at a major corporate law firm, where young associates compete for partnership in a world where honesty and efficiency aren't rewarded, where commitment to the practice of law is replaced with the pursuit of billable hours, and where success is measured by the allocation of space and windows. This is a glimpse into the cutthroat world of corporate law from the perspective of the low man on the totem pole.

The Pathology of Lies. By JONATHON KEATS '94. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books Inc., 1999. 280 pp. $14 paper.
Set in the cutthroat world of magazine publishing, Keats' novel portrays a young, beautiful and brilliant intern who maps out a route to the editor-ship of her magazine. However, is she the killer who hacked the former editor to pieces and shipped his body parts cross-country via UPS?

--Compiled by Elizabeth J. Rolander
Back to the Top