Henry Steele Commager (1902–1998), PhB’23, AM’24, PhD’28, was a US historian for the people.
By Lydialyle Gibson
He was everywhere, all the time. That’s how Lisa Commager remembers her father, the American historian Henry Steele Commager, PhB’23, AM’24, PhD’28. All vehemence and irrepressible energy. A poet friend of the family who came to the house for dinner once maybe said it best, she recalls. Amid the evening’s clamor, he proclaimed, “Commager! You’re nine men. Not the nine muses, not the nine justices on the Supreme Court — you’re the nine men on a baseball team!” Every outfielder, the pitcher and the catcher and the basemen and the shortstop. “Yep,” says Lisa Commager. “That was him.”
For the wider public, it wasn’t much different. Henry Steele Commager was one of the 20th century’s most visible and popular scholars. A household name for decades, a public intellectual with an encyclopedic memory and a bouncy dynamism. There he was on television and the radio, interpreting America’s past for reporters and offering up lessons for the current moment; and in Congress, testifying before the Senate about presidential powers and foreign entanglements; and in the pages of newspapers and magazines, where for decades he unleashed a steady torrent of op-eds and essays and book reviews about the issues of the day.
When he wrote for newspapers or magazines, for him it was just another form of teaching. Just a different audience in a different classroom.
For 65 years Commager was a professor, first at New York University and Columbia University and then, for more than three decades, at Amherst College, where he taught well into his 80s. He had visiting professorships at Oxford and Cambridge; in Denmark and Sweden; and throughout Western Europe. When he wasn’t in the classroom, he was speaking to audiences in lecture halls across the country and abroad, for free to many groups that couldn’t afford to pay him. (Lisa Commager recalls her father flying to Charleston, South Carolina, in the mid-1970s, to deliver one of those free lectures, only to realize once he got there that he was in the wrong Charleston — the college he was speaking at was in West Virginia. So he hired an airplane to fly him there that night. “It never occurred to him,” she says, “that he didn’t have to get there on time.”)
Commager wrote and edited more than 40 books altogether. At 28 years old, he published the once-ubiquitous textbook The Growth of the American Republic (1930, a collaboration with historian Samuel Eliot Morison); and later, another popular volume, A Pocket History of the United States (1943, with historian Allan Nevins). More than a few of his books were aimed at young people. Generations of high school and college students grew up reading Commager.
At home, “he was like living with a hurricane,” Lisa says: bounding up and down the stairs at their house in Rye, New York (where they lived when Commager taught at Columbia), talking, shouting, laughing, banging from room to room and then back to work in his study, while Mozart or Schubert or Beethoven rang from the little record player in the living room. He was happiest when he was working, and he was almost always working. He typed — at lightning speed — using only his index fingers; he tapped his foot so hard that it shook the dining table. And he played ping-pong to win. “We had ping-pong tables wherever we went,” Lisa says.
I never met Commager. I knew him first (and for a while, exclusively) as the author of a children’s book, Chestnut Squirrel (1952), one of several rotating volumes in the bedtime story set list my father read to me and one of many works of fiction that Commager wrote for children. With a little-boy squirrel who gets in and out of scrapes for a protagonist, the book originated, Lisa recalls, as a series of stories her father invented on long family drives to keep her from getting carsick.
My father did know Commager, the laughing, banging, roaring one. “Uncle Felix,” he called him, using the nickname Commager’s first wife, my dad’s aunt Evan, had given him, from the Latin word for “happy.” Like his aunt, my dad grew up in South Carolina, and he remembered taking the train all the way north to visit. He celebrated his sixth birthday at the Commagers’ house in Vermont and went swimming with his cousins (besides Lisa, there was a sister, Nell, and a brother, Steele) in a rock quarry down the road, with the lights of Montpelier shining in the distance. Years later, at 14, away from home on his own for the first time, he came up to Amherst for Christmas. A Danish professor was also visiting that week, and he and my father spent the holiday making Scandinavian snow lanterns.
By the time I was growing up in the 1980s, Commager had largely faded from the scene. Fewer people read him, or knew of him. He now seemed old fashioned.
But for more than 50 years, he had been an everyday presence for many Americans (biographer Neil Jumonville recounts how, even with a bandaged eye from detached-cornea surgery, Commager went on television the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to talk to viewers about their fallen president). His legacy rests as much on his public engagement as on his academic scholarship. He was a public intellectual at a time when both halves of the term bore equal weight, when part of that work was to make challenging subjects accessible to all. “Commager always insisted that no matter how technical your subject, you must write so a general reader can understand you,” recalls former Amherst student Richard B. Bernstein, now a lecturer in political science at the City College of New York. “And if the general reader doesn’t understand you, it’s your fault.”
The other part of the job was to fight. His academic peers sometimes groused at the amount of time he spent in front of the camera and on the lecture circuit, but fellow historian Alan Brinkley argued in a New Republic article that Commager wasn’t in it for glory of self-promotion; he wanted “to use his stature as a scholar to advance a set of beliefs to which he was deeply committed.” He felt it was his responsibility. A progressive liberal in the traditional 20th-century mold and a Jeffersonian defender of individual liberties, Commager was “a part of all the brawls,” says Bernstein. From the New Deal to the McCarthy hearings to Vietnam and Nixon, “he was right in the middle of it.” More than once, it proved a perilous place to be.
Commager was born in Pittsburgh in 1902. His parents divorced several years later, and when he was 9, his mother died. His two brothers went to live with aunts and uncles, but Henry, they said, was too energetic. Instead, he was sent to Chicago, to his grandfather Adam Dan, a Lutheran minister and church leader from Denmark, who wrote hymns and taught in Danish, and whose liberal reform beliefs ingrained in Commager an interest in politics and culture, an appreciation for democracy, and a lifelong sympathy for moral dissent.
The family was poor, and Commager was expected to work. In the fall of 1918, just before he turned 16, he took a job at the University of Chicago Library. Working 40 or 50 hours a week, he put himself through college and took upper-level classes with UChicago historians William Dodd and Andrew McLaughlin. They planted in him the idea that historians have a role in public affairs, a responsibility to act and speak out. Dodd wrote essays for the Nation and campaigned for Woodrow Wilson and later for Franklin Roosevelt’s early New Deal ideas. (Dodd’s ensuing ambassadorship to Hitler’s Germany was volatile, and in 1937, under State Department pressure to attend an annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg — at the time the US government was still trying to maintain diplomatic relations with Hitler’s regime — Dodd left the post.) McLaughlin, meanwhile, had supported America’s entry into World War I and in 1918 stumped his way through Britain, giving speeches endorsing the two countries’ alliance.
Alongside his activism, McLaughlin also believed that an important element of historians’ work lay in deciphering a nation’s character, its common essence, what he called “its most real self.” Commager, in his own books, would take up this aspiration again and again: to trace America’s Americanness and distill it into words. The volumes regarded now as his best work do this — 1950’s The American Mind; 1977’s The Empire of Reason; even his 1936 biography of Theodore Parker, the 19th century Transcendentalist, abolitionist, and reformist Unitarian minister.
After college Commager went on to graduate school at UChicago, specializing in constitutional history. He wrote his dissertation on the Danish reform movement led by physician and prime minister Johann Friedrich Struensee, who in the late 1700s abolished torture and censorship, fought corruption and aristocratic privilege, and banned the slave trade in Denmark’s colonies.
An instructorship at New York University brought Commager east from Chicago in 1926. That’s where he met Evan. She was a shopgirl working the complaints desk at Lord & Taylor, a job for which her Southern sweetness was apparently well suited — after talking with her, customers routinely left without filing any grievance. She would go on to become a well-known author of children’s books and young adult novels. Evan and Commager lived in the same building in Greenwich Village, and he sent her wry, punny notes.
At one point during their courtship, he bought himself a piano, perhaps knowing it was too big to get up the stairs of their ramshackle building to his apartment. But Evan lived conveniently on the ground floor, and so it was installed in her tiny apartment. The piano was an excuse to see her often, but Commager truly did love to play, his daughter says. There’d been a piano in the basement of his grandfather’s house, and he taught himself to pick out tunes as a boy — with gloves on, he always said, because it was so cold. “He played by ear,” she says, “and he played horribly, you know. These big huge chords.” He tried to play whole symphonies at once.
The Commagers got married in 1928. That same year, he came to the New York Herald Tribune offices with a letter of introduction, offering to write book reviews. His first assignment: Our Revolutionary Forefathers, a translation of letters from 18th-century French politician (and Thomas Jefferson correspondent) François Barbé-Marbois. The Herald Tribune editors liked Commager’s review so much, they gave him 24 more books to review that year. In the Herald Tribune and elsewhere, he reviewed history books but sometimes literature too, including Gone with the Wind in 1936 and Carl Sandburg’s collected poems in 1950.
Over the next decades, he wrote regularly for a dozen or more magazines and newspapers, channeling his political advocacy into publications like the Atlantic, the Nation, Harper’s, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and the New York Review of Books. From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the New York Times Magazine relied on him constantly for its lead essays. For him, all of this was pedagogy. “He really loved to teach,” says Bernstein, who was Commager’s student and research assistant as an Amherst undergraduate in the 1970s. “When he wrote for newspapers or magazines, for him it was just another form of teaching. Just a different audience in a different kind of classroom.”
What makes Americans American is not ethnicity or religion or race or language, or even culture. It’s ideas.
Commager was known for his richly rhetorical and literary prose style, not surprising for someone who took the general reader as his audience. “History is a story,” he wrote in The Nature and Study of History (1965), a book for fellow educators. “If history forgets or neglects to tell a story, it will inevitably forfeit much of its appeal and much of its authority as well.” In the Iliad and the Odyssey, he continued, storytelling and history are so “inextricably commingled” that “we do not to this day know whether to classify them as literature or as history; they are of course both.”
This was a lesson he hammered home to his students. Bernstein had read The Growth of the American Republic and then, at 15, wrote a fan letter to Commager that blossomed into a correspondence. A few years later, Bernstein arrived at Amherst, where, he notes, the professor never tried to mold students in his image — there is no “Commager school” of history — but he did insist that they write well.
“Henry thought in paragraphs” and loved words, says his second wife, Mary Powlesland Commager, whom he married in 1979, a decade after Evan’s death from cancer. The two met at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where Commager had come to deliver a lecture and Mary, then a PhD student in Mexican history, was his appointed chauffeur. “He kept a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary in the dining room,” she says, ready for when after-dinner discussion turned etymological.
His books were known less for their precise analysis than for their broad sweep and searching narratives, and for his sense of optimism about the American project. “People always felt more hopeful when they went to hear him,” Mary Commager says. “Like, ‘OK, things can get better, things are going to get better.’” And in all his works he sought to uncover the nation’s defining spirit. In the preface to The American Mind, whose subtitle reads, An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880’s, Commager wrote that he was concerned not with “abbreviated histories of American philosophy or religion, sociology or economics, politics or law,” but instead with the “ideas that illuminate the American mind and ways of using ideas that illustrate the American character.”
The reviews were mixed: in a New Republic assessment headlined “The American Soul and the Brave Historian,” Harvard historian Morton G. White called the book “a daring leap”; philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, noting (mostly approvingly) in the American Historical Review that it “leaves the safer ground of documented statements of fact and roams at large over the unfenced ranges of human experience,” praised the way the book forced readers “to see, or to try to see, life whole.” But others criticized its conceptualism and generalizations, the roaming at large beyond documented facts.
Later criticism of the book, and of Commager himself, noted what some historians believed to be a lack of urgency in his attention to the plight of African Americans. (A similar criticism arose from the fact that, although he supported the civil rights movement, he wrote and spoke about it only peripherally.) Reconsidering The American Mind decades later, in 1984, historian Robert Dawidoff wrote, “He does not take very seriously the possibility that American life was corrupt, liberty a privilege of class or race. American vulgarity, materialism, racism strike him not as conditions but as mistakes and faults, likely to be corrected by a fundamentally sound political system.” The ideas behind the nation’s founding, Commager believed, were sound, and so surely those ideas would win out.
The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, Commager’s final full-length book, was the one the New York Times called “his most brilliant.” In the opening pages, Commager asserted his thesis: that Americans of the late 18th and early 19th centuries took the Enlightenment principles that Europe had envisioned and “tentatively” experimented with — principles such as religious and intellectual freedom, constitutional order, commitment to reason, progress, humanitarianism — and “wrote them into law, crystallized them into institutions, and put them to work. That, as much as the winning of independence and the creation of the nation,” he wrote, “was the American Revolution.”
But: those brawls. They were numerous. In the 1930s, Commager defended Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and he was an early advocate for American involvement in the Second World War. He supported John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 and Robert Kennedy in 1968. He warned against sending US troops to Indochina and called the Vietnam War a moral catastrophe. In April 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his searing condemnation of the Vietnam War to an overflow crowd at New York’s Riverside Church, Commager stood beside him on the dais.
The historian was a profound critic of the Nixon administration (three days after Nixon resigned, Commager penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Constitution is Alive and Well”) and a detractor of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose top-secret “black budget” he believed was unconstitutional. When presidents began assuming the war powers that the Constitution had reserved for Congress, Commager — who had initially supported Truman’s war-powers claim — became alarmed. He fought that battle into the Reagan years.
Commager’s best-remembered combat, and maybe his bravest, was against Joseph McCarthy and the anticommunist witch hunts of the postwar decade. He spoke out long before it became safe to do so. Just days after McCarthy launched himself into the public eye in February 1950, waving what he claimed was a list of 205 known Communists in the State Department, Commager addressed a gathering of high school students at Columbia University, telling them that the country had “the jitters” and that loyalty oaths signaled its confusion and insecurity. No nation can flourish for long, he said, without criticism and originality. A year later, his biographer, Jumonville, recounts, before a gathering of 1,000 Barnard College students and faculty, Commager attacked the oaths as “fat-headed” and “feeble-minded.”
Commager had sensed Americans’ rising anxiety almost as soon as the war had ended. In 1947 he railed in the Nation against “guilt by association with a vengeance,” and he published an essay in Harper’s whose title question, “Who Is Loyal to America?,” found its answer in rejecting conformity as loyalty. This “new loyalty,” he wrote, “takes the word for the deed, the gesture for the principle. It is content with the flag salute.” He included the Harper’s essay as one of five in a slim 1954 volume called Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent. (The book’s opening paragraph states, “It is a sobering fact … that each generation has to vindicate these freedoms” — of inquiry, criticism, and dissent — “anew, and for itself.”)
All this public activity made Commager a target. There were lectures canceled and complaints made, and one of his publishers sent a note warning that his statements were making it difficult to sell his book. Commager was accused of being a Communist and attacked in the press. His stridency put him at odds with old friends, including fellow historians Allan Nevins, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
In one bizarre incident, National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. wrote to Commager in 1959, inquiring about his middle name and speculating that he had adopted it out of admiration for Joseph Stalin — stahl being the Russian word for “steel.” Buckley wrote that he had found out “that indeed your name was not always Henry Steele Commager.” That part was true: he was born Henry Irving Commager, and somewhere between his master’s thesis and his dissertation, he took the name Steele. But it was not after Stalin; his great-grandfather, Henry Steel Commagere, had fought with the Union Army during the Civil War. Commager’s reply to Buckley, Jumonville reports, was “hostile.”
Talking now to those who knew Commager, today’s politics unavoidably come up. Midway through a recollection about his exploits against McCarthyism, Mary Commager gives a little rueful sigh. She sees an unhappy parallel between that period in history and the current one, and thinks Commager would too. If he were still here, he’d be writing and speaking out furiously, she says. A friend of hers recently suggested opening a Twitter account in Commager’s name and posting quotes from his work in response to current events. Mary Commager considered it, but said no. “I think that would make me too sad.” Lisa Commager tells me that the night before we talked, she went online to order a used copy of The Great Constitution, Commager’s 1961 explainer for young people. Now more than ever, she says, “I need to know everything in it.”
Bernstein finds himself returning to Commager’s words too, especially to Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, but also to The Empire of Reason, the book he helped research as Commager’s assistant at Amherst in the mid-1970s. He believes that Commager, like him, would be “appalled” at the 2016 presidential election and the turn of current politics. But, Bernstein says, Commager counsels “not to despair” — after all, he never did — and to reconnect with the country’s ideals, the national character he spent half his life trying to define. What makes Americans American, Bernstein says, paraphrasing his old professor, is not ethnicity or religion or race or language, or even culture. It’s ideas.
The Commager book that I’ve spent the most time with is one that fits less readily into his canon than volumes like The Empire of Reason, or The American Mind, or even Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent. But in its own way it seeks — and, I think, finds — the American character. Some years ago, my father gave me a copy of The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants (1950), a massive two-volume anthology of letters, memoirs, journal entries, poems, songs, newspaper clippings, and published autobiographies written by foot soldiers and their wives, generals, politicians, preachers, doctors, prisoners. The book took Commager more than 10 years to compile. In page after vellum-thin page, he gives each document a warm introduction. There’s a letter President Lincoln wrote to General Sherman, urging him to send his foot soldiers home to Indiana to vote in the 1864 state election (“This is in no sense an order, but …”), and a diary entry from an Illinois minister who traveled to Tennessee to recruit black soldiers for the Union.
In her journal, Julia LeGrand describes the “wild confusion” of New Orleans’s 1862 surrender: “The Women only did not seem afraid. They were all in favor of resistance, no matter how hopeless.” A Virginia boy recounts Confederate prayer meetings in woods that “resound for miles around with the unscientific but earnest music of the rough veterans of Lee’s army.” The Blue and the Gray, along with a parallel volume, Documents of American History (1934), led one historian to call Commager “the greatest anthologist America ever produced.” I think it goes deeper than that. I dip into The Blue and the Gray and find it moving to spend time, as Commager did, with the men and women whose words he sifted and gathered. And with the country that was striving, amid its failings and chaos and violence, to live up to itself.
Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine’s Spring/17 issue.