Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present / Edition 1

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Historian Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) was one of the leading American intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century. Author or editor of more than forty books, he taught for decades at New York University, Columbia University, and Amherst College and was a pioneer in the field of American studies. But Commager's work was by no means confined to the halls of the university: a popular essayist, lecturer, and political commentator, he earned a reputation as an activist for liberal causes and waged public campaigns against McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s. As few have been able to do in the past half-century, Commager united the two worlds of scholarship and public intellectual activity.

Through Commager's life and legacy, Neil Jumonville explores a number of questions central to the intellectual history of postwar America. After considering whether Commager and his associates were really the conservative and conformist group that critics have assumed them to be, Jumonville offers a reevaluation of the liberalism of the period. Finally, he uses Commager's example to ask whether intellectual life is truly compatible with scholarly life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Informed and entertaining.

Journal of American History

Jumonville's elegant style engages the reader and compels one to read on. This is an important book.

Journal of Illinois History

[A] thoughtful and intelligent biography.

Alan Brinkley, The New Republic

Neil Jumonville writes history like poetry .

Chicago Tribune

A revealing, engaged assessment of the life and work of a man who taught thousands and was read by millions.

Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A revealing, engaged assessment of the life and work of a man who taught thousands and was read by millions. Henry Steele Commager (1902-98) was a classic 20th-century liberal-a robust champion of civil liberties, dissent, and intellectual freedom. He was also an influential historian, long associated with Columbia University, and the co-author, with Samuel Eliot Morison, of The Growth of the American Republic, one of the most influential history texts of all time. Jumonville (Florida State Univ.), a student of postwar New York intellectuals (Critical Crossings, not reviewed), is Commager's sympathetic yet critical biographer. He captures his subject's inexhaustible energy and many friendships and examines his involvement in countless battles to advance and maintain non-Communist, democratic institutions and practices when they were under attack from left and right. Above all, Jumonville brilliantly assesses Commager's scholarship and writings and sets the historian in his intellectual and professional context. In fact, this is an extended reflection on both the achievements of an activist public intellectual who happened to be a historian and the tensions between activism and scholarship. Jumonville fails only in convincingly distinguishing between a scholar and an intellectual, as if one can't be-indeed, one must be-both. Otherwise, this fluent and graceful book will be read with pleasure and benefit by everyone interested in, among many other matters, the history of historical ideas, the rise of American Studies in universities, Columbia University itself, major currents of political debates, and the lives and ways of professors. It will surely appeal to the thousands who wereaffected by this great teacher in the classroom and exposed to his ideas at the public lectern. This astute, balanced study is a model of intellectual biography, which also succeeds in portraying the full life of the man-no small achievement. (16 photos, not seen) .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807824481
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.53 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Neil Jumonville, author of Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America, is William Warren Rogers Professor of History at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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Table of Contents



Part I. Intellectuals and Historians
1. The Formation of a Public Intellectual, 1902-1932
2. Philosophy Teaching by Experience, 1928-1936
3. Columbia and New York in the Forties, 1938-1950

Part II. Freedom and the American Century
4. Protecting Liberalism in World War II, 1939-1947
5. Anticommunism and McCarthyism, 1945-1960
6. University, Family, and Race, 1945-1968
7. The Call to Political Morality, 1964-1974

Part III. The Meaning of the American Past
8. The Character and Myth of Historians at Midcentury, 1937-1997
9. Liberals and the Historical Past, 1948-1997
10. Legacies, 1971-1997



Adam Dan, Henry Steele Commager's maternal grandfather
Henry Steele Commager at age fourteen
Henry Steele Commager and the New York University history department, 1927
Merle Curti, 1944
Allan Nevins, late 1920s
Henry Steele Commager, 1940s
Samuel Eliot Morison, 1940
Henry Steele Commager campaigning against McCarthyism
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., May 1965
William Leuchtenburg, November 1948
Harold Hyman and his wife, Ferne, 1952
Evan Commager with children Nell, Lisa, and Steele
Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins, 1963
Henry Steele Commager, 1954
Richard Hofstadter, 1960s
Henry Steele Commager, 1977

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