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Dec 31, 2005 9:31 pm

Review of John Morton Blum's A Life with History

Mr. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University, is the author of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (New York: Free Press, January, 2004).

As was the case with Forrest McDonald, I first encountered John Blum as a graduate student. Blum’s first book, Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era, was of significant help in my long-ago and best-forgotten endeavor of writing an M.A. thesis on the issue of hyphenated Americanism in the 1916 presidential election. I was smart enough to recognize a superior monograph (his lightly revised dissertation) when I saw it, but in those days it was not yet clear that Blum would become one of the most distinguished of historians of 20th-century American politics. His A Life with History (University Press of Kansas, 2004), published in his eighty-third year, is his thirteenth, and likely last, authored book. It is significant, not simply as a chronicle of an important career, but also as case study in the social history of the mid-20th century intelligentsia.

A glance at John Blum’s c.v. would seem to reveal another son of the Ivy League establishment—prep school at Phillips Andover; B.A., Harvard; naval officer in World War II; Ph.D., Harvard; a few years on the faculty at MIT, then a long and productive career at Yale. But of course Blum was not a scion of the establishment, as it existed when he grew up. Born to a family of lower-middle class, non-religious Jews who seem always to have been hard pressed to make ends meet, he was in every respect a marginal man. Much of his story amounts to his adoption by a WASP elite that held loose anti-Semitic prejudices, but practiced pluralism all the same.

Andover, he tells us, changed his life. Here and elsewhere as the work moves along, he always encounters some anti-Semitism, usually dismisses it as harmless, and is constantly advised and helped along by non-Jewish mentors who clearly see him as a highly intelligent and exemplary young man whom they want to succeed. And succeed he does, in all sorts of ways—as a student, as a naval officer, as a scholar and teacher. He profits from the assistance of men with names such as Wilbur Bender, Henry Chauncey, Frederick Merk, and Elting Morison. He marries an attractive and talented young Gentile woman, much to the chagrin of her father. She becomes a noted scholar of art. He becomes the first tenured Jewish member of the History Department at Yale, and a good friend and confidant of Yale’s WASP establishment leadership. He also becomes the first Jewish member of the Harvard Corporation—the seven-person board that governs Harvard university.

Blum tells little about his personal life; this is a memoir of a professional career. Nevertheless one is left with several personal impressions. The author is a gentleman, restrained in his criticism of others, frequently refusing to name the people he most dislikes. He is also the sort of person who yields to calls of duty, whether a department chairmanship, larger faculty leadership, or even a one-year appointment as Acting Librarian of Yale University. He is also a political activist, who campaigns for George McGovern in 1972, sympathetically edits the diary of Henry A. Wallace, and deals as best he can with the militant New Left radicalism that consumed so many campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In this last capacity, alas, he in the mode of much of the Ivy establishment inclines toward a form of “dialogue” that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to appeasement. (He recalls being present at a luncheon, given by the assistant to Yale’s president for a number of black militants who persisted in throwing the “m-f word” at their hosts for the entire occasion.) Dialogue, he still believes, was necessary. He is also convinced he is and always has been a “centrist,” to which one can only remark that in American politics the center is a constantly moving target.

A final merit of this book is Blum’s discussion of all his books. Most of us will agree that The Republican Roosevelt and V Was for Victory are the most important. But the Morgenthau Diaries and the Wallace Diary will be profitably used by scholars far into the future. And there is not a bad title in his long list, including this work, which reminds us of how pluralistic our society has become in so relatively short a time.

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More Comments:

David M Fahey - 1/8/2006

Am I wrong in sensing a new enthusiasm among historians for writing their memoirs? In the past I seldom encountered more than one in a year. In 2005 there were several in addition to Blum's. I recall memoirs by McNeill, Curtin, Franklin, and (I think) Clark.

Stephen Keith Tootle - 1/8/2006

And his work has grown on me also. I liked his books the first time I read them and I appreciate them more with each passing year.