By Eric Goldscheider
Henry Steele Commager. "Filing," explained his widow this past fall,
"was not his long suit."
Henry Steele Commager was a renowned historian, a revered teacher and a prolific writer. But Commager, who taught at Amherst for 36 years, beginning in 1956, and who died in 1998, was perhaps most proud of his role as public intellectual. He was not afraid to mix it up on the burning issues of his day. So it is fitting that Commager’s papers are available for all to read.
This past fall brought the end to a year-long project at Amherst, led by freelance archivist Anne Ostendarp, to bring order to the often chaotic reams of correspondence, notes, itineraries and manuscripts left after a long career marked by extraordinary intellectual energy. The Henry Steele Commager Papers are accessible to the public in the college’s Archives and Special Collections. To celebrate the project’s completion, a symposium held on campus in the fall brought together colleagues, friends and former students to share their Commager stories.
As his widow, Mary Powlesland Commager, told those gathered, the effort to collect and preserve the papers came with some technical challenges: “Filing,” she explained, “was not his long suit—piling was; he was a great piler.”
Commager’s esoteric approach to organization notwithstanding, the trove now neatly catalogued includes exchanges of personal letters with the famous (Senator J. William Fulbright and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, to name two) and with ordinary people.
A Pittsburgh native, Commager arrived in Amherst after co-authoring The Growth of the American Republic, a 1930 textbook once widely used in high schools and colleges around the country. Milton Cantor, professor emeritus of history at UMass Amherst, was a graduate student of Commager’s at Columbia University. Cantor believes that Commager’s most important contribution to American letters was in the area of freedom. “He was always a vigilant guardian of civil liberties,” Cantor says, “and a very articulate spokesman whenever the government engaged in particularly nasty business that he felt was a violation of the First or the Fourth or the Fifth or the Seventh or the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. He was always in the newspapers and the magazines.”
Commager spoke out against Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades, was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and was an early advocate for impeaching President Nixon.
Wyatt Haskell ’61, a student of Commager’s at Amherst, helped raise the funds to hire Ostendarp. Haskell earned pocket money in college by driving Commager to the airport for speaking engagements. They developed an enduring friendship. Haskell is pleased to note that among the 84 linear feet of materials that now make up the collection, his own letters to the professor account for half an inch or so.
Photo courtesy of the Amherst College Office of Public Affairs.