The Americanist

The Americanist

by Daniel Aaron

“I have read all of Daniel Aaron’s books, and admired them, but in The Americanist I believe he has composed an intellectual and social memoir for which he will be remembered. His self-portrait is marked by personal tact and admirable restraint: he is and is not its subject. The Americanist is a vision of otherness: literary and

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“I have read all of Daniel Aaron’s books, and admired them, but in The Americanist I believe he has composed an intellectual and social memoir for which he will be remembered. His self-portrait is marked by personal tact and admirable restraint: he is and is not its subject. The Americanist is a vision of otherness: literary and academic friends and acquaintances, here and abroad. Eloquently phrased and free of nostalgia, it catches a lost world that yet engendered much of our own.”

—Harold Bloom

The Americanist is the absorbing intellectual autobiography of Daniel Aaron, who is the leading proponent and practitioner of American Studies. Written with grace and wit, it skillfully blends Daniel Aaron’s personal story with the history of the field he has done so much to create. This is a first-rate book by a first-rate scholar.”

—David Herbert Donald, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

The Americanist is author and critic Daniel Aaron’s anthem to nearly a century of public and private life in America and abroad. Aaron, who is widely regarded as one of the founders of American Studies, graduated from the University of Michigan, received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught for over three decades each at Smith College and Harvard.

Aaron writes with unsentimental nostalgia about his childhood in Los Angeles and Chicago and his later academic career, which took him around the globe, often in the role of America’s accidental yet impartial critic. When Walt Whitman, whom Aaron frequently cites as a touchstone, wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” he could have been describing Daniel Aaron—the consummate erudite and Renaissance individual whose allegiance to the truth always outweighs mere partisan loyalty.

Not only should Aaron’s book stand as a resplendent and summative work from one of the finest thinkers of the last hundred years, it also succeeds on its own as a first-rate piece of literature, on a par with the writings of any of its subjects. The Americanist is a veritable Who’s Who of twentieth-century writers Aaron interviewed, interacted with, or otherwise encountered throughout his life: Ralph Ellison, Robert Frost, Lillian Hellman, Richard Hofstadter, Alfred Kazin, Sinclair Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Crowe Ransom, Upton Sinclair, Edmund Wilson, Leonard Woolf, and W. B. Yeats, to name only a few.

Aaron’s frank and personal observations of these literary lights make for lively reading. As well, scattered throughout The Americanist are illuminating portraits of American presidents living and passed—miniature masterworks of astute political observation that offer dazzlingly fresh approaches to well-trod subjects.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
Many memoirs try hard to re-create past moments, the arguments around the family dinner table, the horrors of poverty, the elation of first love. But Aaron, now in his 90s, eschews all this scene-setting and melodrama. Instead, he pointedly tells us just what he thought of the many presidents under whom he has lived (starting with Woodrow Wilson) and modestly reflects on some of his students, friends, teachers and colleagues. As a graduate assistant at Harvard, he graded the English assignments of "an intense hungry-looking fellow" named Norman Mailer as well as the "so-so examination paper" of John Kennedy. One of his good pals back then was the poet Charles Olson.
— The Washington Post

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University of Michigan Press
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5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Americanist

By Daniel Aaron


Copyright © 2007 Daniel Aaron
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11577-8

Chapter One

I was born in Chicago, August 4, 1912. Both of my parents were dead by my tenth year and virtual strangers to me before they died-my mother in 1921, in the Pottenger Sanitorium in Monrovia, California; my father a year later. Nor was I in rapport with relatives, friends, or other informants who might have been able to fill in the gaps of family history had I been curious enough or geographically close enough to consult them. The snippets they provided never coalesced into a consecutive story. But over the years, I did pick up a smattering of alleged facts about the short lives of Rose Weinstein (1883-1921) and Henry Jacob Aaron (1879-1922), both small children when they emigrated from their different Russian birthplaces to New York City. I never tried very hard to find out the circumstances that brought them, why and when the two families moved on to the Midwest, and what happened to them after they had settled in Chicago. The few scraps I picked up came from anecdote and hearsay.

One story relates to my father's mother, who long outlived him. It seems that during one tough period, she preserved family dignity by a clever subterfuge: would-be dispensers of charity about to investigate reports of a hungry household were put off by the sight of scrubbed children in scrubbed rooms andby the smell of turnips cooking on the stove. Other reminiscences have to do with one of her grandfathers, who had lived in Baltimore for a time in the 1840s before he returned to his homeland, and with a second grandfather (or was it the same one?), who remembered the frozen corpses of French soldiers, their blue uniforms visible in the snow, on the road to Smolensk.

Grandma Aaron was my last link to a world that then seemed to me constricted by musty orthodoxies and totally incompatible with my secular America. A pious and time-weathered woman, she must have felt responsible for the religious grooming of her eldest son's parentless kids. In her eyes, we had stopped being Jews even before the death of our parents, and she did what she could to retrieve us. It was too late in my case. I was like one of those New England children captured and "Indianized" during King Philip's War who refused repatriation and chose to remain with their captors. My unwillingness and inability to "come home" to what I considered to be a foreign place wounded her deeply and confirmed her worst fears. Even before I married a gentile, she considered me lost. Had she known that my future father-in-law would urge me to change my name before I married his daughter (to him all Jews were "rebaters" and dollar chasers), I doubt it would have surprised her.

I know even less about my mother's murky family history and her early years than I do about my father's. It was as if large segments of her life had been blotted or distorted by rumor or gossip. From the wispy recollections of her in-laws that came to me secondhand, she appears to have been more socially and intellectually unconventional than my father's people and more casual about religious observances. Apparently her opinions and style of living didn't sit well with the in-laws, who, while showering her with superlatives, remarked sotto voce on her extravagance and impulsiveness, the very qualities that in retrospect drew me to her. I like to think that, like me, she envisioned an America that incorporated and superseded the older civilizations from which it derived. In any event, I play with the fancy that one important event in her life foreshadowed my introduction to American history.

That event was the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, a few months before my third birthday. Among the notable nonsurvivors aboard the torpedoed ship were the homespun inspirational journalist Elbert Hubbard and his wife, Alice, revered names in our household. A decade before, my mother had been a member of Hubbard's Roycroft Community in East Aurora, New York, and I and my brothers and sisters grew up in the aura of its founder, "Fra Elbertus," the sage. His strenuous apothegms and preachments echo dimly in my family history. The story has it (for everything I know about those days is second- or thirdhand) that Elbert Hubbard treated my mother as a surrogate daughter. His fatherly admonishments to "Sun-up" are inscribed in her leather-bound autograph album along with other affectionate expressions of esteem from fellow Roycrofters and from such illustrious visitors as Clara Barton and the poet Richard Le Gallienne, who testified to her "glorious womanly nature and magnificent soul." Hubbard's compliments were no less warm. She was his "Whitman girl," his "valued helper," the maker of "beautiful music," the beneficiary of his "love and blessings."

I have no idea when or where she met him (my guess would be at Jane Addams's Hull-House in Chicago) or by what steps she got to East Aurora. Nor can I reconcile my mother's patron with the inspired author of A Message to Garcia (1899), that tub-thumping tract against sloth and incompetence inspired by an incident in the Spanish-American War and distributed in the millions by governments and industries around the world. As Hubbard tells it, President McKinley, after many failures, at last finds the right man to deliver an important message to the commander of the Cuban insurgents, General Garcia. The young officer doesn't waste the president's time by asking a lot of fool questions. Dumped on the Cuban coast, he cuts through jungles, climbs mountains, and evades Spanish troops. Four weeks later, he locates Garcia. Hubbard's Message became a kind of media event and brought him international fame. By the time I read it, serious social historians had written him off as an inspired quack and huckster.

To label Hubbard a snake oil salesman, however, should not discount his importance as a guide for the culturally insecure. He had more than a touch of Benjamin Franklin's and Phineas T. Barnum's sly impudence and, like them, used it to deflate his patronizers. The audience he attracted and delighted consisted largely of outsiders like himself, the intellectually alert and mildly nonconformist people of moderate means, the self-educated graduates of Hubbard's alma mater, the university of hard knocks. My private Elbert Hubbard is still a shadowy composite of secondhand stories and fuzzy recollections, not the brassy public relations pioneer but the friendly bookish man who invited my mother to join him and the other Roycrofters at work and play. Something of that community's period charm and high-minded Victorianism emanates from the autographs and messages in my mother's album and from the volumes in our library signed by Fra Elbertus himself.

My mother appears to me in flashes. She returns me to the classroom from which I fled on the first day of primary school at a loss about what to do after the teacher sent me to the principal's office with a message. She reads to me and my siblings a story about a family who lived in a tree house with their dog, Brave Horatius. She's the haggard woman in a dressing gown who storms into the sleeping porch where my two brothers and I are engaged in noisy acrobatics. She's the person lying on a hospital bed in a cottage we are not permitted to enter (we stand outside and talk through the screened window).

My father seems hardly less remote, although I saw him constantly during our California years. He comes to life in his photographs, a strong man looking directly into the camera. He was the oldest of his widowed mother's four sons and served, for both good and ill, as family head. He studied law at a Chicago law school and, in 1899, set up his own firm in the Loop with his brother Charles as his junior partner. Family lore has it that his first important clients were meatpackers, but it now seems unlikely that they were part of the notorious Beef Trust, as I once believed. About 1915, when I was three, he showed symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and from its onset (so one of his brothers told me years later), he began to vent opinions on social questions that disturbed his conservative clients.

I have only a faint image of an invalid whose cheek I dutifully kissed at bedtime and whom, in my nightly prayer, I asked God to bless and to make well. The only words I can remember him saying to me are "Don't get gay, young man," but I can't forget his terrible sobs the evening that Miss Carl, his nurse and a Christian Science practitioner, gathered us around his wheelchair and announced, "Your mother has closed her eyes for the last time." We recited the Twenty-third Psalm. I didn't cry then, perhaps too alarmed about my eight-year-old self and the imminent future to think about him. A half century later, I read my mother's last letters to him, which were loving, uncomplaining, spirited, confident. Only then did I begin to understand the intensity of their devotion to each other and his feeling of loss and loneliness after she died.

In these last letters, she urges her crippled "dearest and best beloved" to dictate letters to his mother and to his brother Charlie (still in his twenties and soon to become my legal guardian), as it would please her if he did. She writes, "I think of you always and pray for you always and love you always with my whole heart." She adds that she knows he is surrounded by a charming "harem" (his nurses); she takes "great joy in signing myself your one and only Wife." How lucky we are, she tells him, to have had "fifteen years of love and faith and understanding, and mutual happy experience." She concludes: "And now with our darling children gathered about us, with a host of friends surrounding us, we can look back upon our blessings and from the depths of our hearts thank God. We have crowded the joy and happiness of thrice fifteen years into our married life, and joyfully, hand in hand, let us look to the future."

At some point in 1917, my mother and father left Chicago for Los Angeles with their five children. I remember very little of the three nights and four days en route, only the excitement of climbing in and out of upper Pullman berths and the vision of the male passengers of various sizes and shapes filing into the washing compartments at the end of each car: their unhitched suspenders dangle behind their backs; they carry leather toilet kits; I can hear the sounds of razors being stropped and smell the soap and witch hazel. I can also see the blanketed "Indians" on the railroad platform in Albuquerque and the stewards (white) and the waiters (black) in the dining car. It would be the last time our family traveled intact.

In Los Angeles we settled first into what extant photographs show to have been a square smallish house stippled with stones and then, in the next year, into a larger house on Mariposa Avenue, with a rose garden and fruit trees and a wisteria vine that all but covered the roof of the garage. In this haven for invalids, my father must have seemed a prime example of the "unhappy sick" coming west to be healed. I wasn't aware of the campaign then under way to keep the city from becoming a refuge for the ill or impoverished. We didn't fit the latter category, but I was instructed to reply to anyone who asked about my father's condition that he was recovering from a "nervous breakdown."

West coast sunshine seemed to do him good, and for a time he looked relaxed and comfortable. Several years later, as his disease took over, he required around-the-clock care. A bedroom and bath and a good-sized reading room (we called it the "library") were added to the first floor, and it was there that I headed the morning after he died, possibly to escape the buzz of adult voices and possibly to dull guilt pangs. A few days before, I had nagged to go to a neighborhood party on the Fourth of July, which also happened to be my father's birthday, and I made a nuisance of myself by getting sick. His death marked the end of an idyll and the beginning of a period of dislocations and adjustments for me and my brothers and sisters.

What I've chosen to remember about those days aren't my father's medical tribulations or the flu my brother David and I contracted in the 1919 epidemic but the house on Mariposa, our never-to-be-duplicated style of living (a big car and a chauffeur to go with it; maids; nurses, male and female), and an unlikely melange of objects and faces. There were rose bushes and Japanese gardeners; fruit trees (orange, lemon, peach); a waxy white avocado blossom; dead-ripe figs picked early in the morning, chilled in the ice box, eaten at breakfast with cream; an enormous toad nudging a calla lily in a dank recessed windowsill. I recall a conical straw sombrero; a stretch of lawn terraced to the sidewalk where an Airedale named Souvenir bit my thigh; a downstairs bathroom where somebody washed my mouth with soap for calling my sister a "bad name." I remember a "cannibal club" from the "South Seas," a gift to me from "explorer" and documentary filmmaker Martin Johnson, traces of blood easily discernible to me on its bulbous head; a Persian dagger "from the court of the shah," the cotton inside its sheath stained with "blood"; an "Indian club" (a pointed stick with a horse's tail attached to one end and a rock sewn in buckskin attached to the other); a bust of Queen Nefertiti; a portrait of Beatrice D'Este; Abbey's Galahad, pure and pensive, standing beside his charger; two large oil paintings of a churning California surf; a Steinway piano.

To the smart urbanites of the eastern seaboard, Los Angeles in the early 1920s was an overgrown country town of hicks and Yahoos from mid-America, a kind of traffic-ridden rabbit warren on the Pacific. My Los Angeles was a low-keyed paradise spiced with hazards. I often stayed outside from morning to dusk. In the neighborhood's plethora of empty lots, my companions and I built forts, dug trenches, and staged battles with mud slingers (spring wands tipped with clumps of clay), homemade slingshots, and, on occasion, BB guns. I survived these skirmishes without losing an eye, had my share of memorable fistfights, and joined the Daredevil Club. To qualify for the club, you had to slide down the guy wire of a telephone pole, jump from one garage roof to another, hang on the edge, and then drop to the ground. To break into the yards of the Pacific Electric Railway, snitch explosive caps from sheds, and place them on the tracks was to transform a naughty boy into a train-stopping saboteur; and to be chased by the police and to reach home unscathed and uncaught was exhilarating and scary.

My criminal career technically began and ended with a botched attempt to steal a large stick of gum when I was six years old. My companions, all consummate swipers, lifted big items like Hershey bars, whereas I was immediately nabbed by the store owner and threatened into honesty. Thereafter I was never tempted to steal-except once. Six years later, in Chicago's Jackson Park, I went off with a faded blue sweatshirt that had a gold galleon in full sail emblazoned on its back. I found it on the bottom of a rowboat and left a new suede jacket in its place. So the transaction was less a theft than an exchange.

Los Angeles was alive with construction when we arrived there. Small houses and bungalows mushroomed in assorted but predictable styles-Spanish and "Mediterranean" mainly, but all betraying evidence of architectural miscegenation. Although legends of their flimsiness were proverbial (they looked as if they had been hastily slapped together), they were sturdy or elastic enough to withstand the earthquakes that jolted the city. For my friends and me, these pullulating houses were places to rummage in after the carpenters had left for the day and to savor the smells of green lumber, resin, rolls of tar paper, kegs of nails, sawdust, and laths.

Los Angeles was a manageable city, easy to walk and bike in or to crisscross on the fat yellow streetcars, with nothing more dangerous to face than our own violence or the air assaults of red-winged blackbirds at nesting time. Patches of wooden oil derricks were nearby. So were Griffith and Westlake parks and Chutes field, home of the Los Angeles Angels, where, at the end of the games we attended, we would race through the empty stands and ransack every Cracker Jack box in search of baseball cards of Pacific Coast League players. I collected hundreds of these PCL cards and rarer cards of big-league star that dated back to the early and late teens. Larger and of better quality, they featured such immortals as Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Jimmy Archer, George Sisler, and "Three-Finger" Brown-a treasure trove irretrievably lost. They passed into my imaginary world with the Greeks and the Trojans, King Arthur's knights, and Indian chiefs.


Excerpted from The Americanist by Daniel Aaron Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Aaron . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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