Hendrik Hertzberg: Historians for Kagan

Historians in the News

[Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker, where he frequently writes the Comment, in The Talk of the Town.]

An e-mail from Barbara Weinstein, professor of history at New York University:

Since history operates on many levels, we always have to remind ourselves where the person is situated when we discuss them historically (as you did Elena Kagan in your post on her undergraduate thesis). She did write her thesis under the supervision of Sean Wilentz, and he may have been kindly, but he certainly wasn’t avuncular. In 1981 he was one year out of graduate school, didn’t have tenure, and was probably the most junior person in the department, with no prestige whatsoever by the usual standards. Kagan’s decision to work with him—a very bright and up-and-coming but very young and virtually unknown scholar—may tell us as much about her as the thesis itself.

I was kind of kidding about Sean, who in my experience is more fraternal than avuncular (and more kind than kindly)—more Dr. Who than Mr. Chips—but I take Professor Weinstein’s point: Kagan chose the then obscure and unknown Wilentz rather than opting for someone already famous and well-connected. This goes against the dominant “narrative” (God, I hate that word) of Kagan as a remorseless apple-polisher and power-seeker.

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