The Historian-Autobiographers

Harvard in the memoirs of its own history scholars

Should Harvard be grateful to Henry Adams for establishing a tradition of Harvard-trained historians who have written about their own lives, including their experiences as students and faculty members at Harvard? The Education of Henry Adams has become a classic of American literature, named in a widely publicizteed 1999 survey as the most important nonfiction work published in this country in the twentieth century. As a result, thousands of readers have been treated to Adams's sardonic comments about both his undergraduate days at Harvard College in the years before the Civil War and his stint on the faculty during the 1870s. Displaying his disillusionment with Harvard was part of Adams's strategy for demonstrating how unfitted he had been for life in his own times. The college he attended "taught little, and that little ill," Adams wrote, conceding at most that "it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile." His fellow students failed to stimulate him; from his interactions with them, he "got less than nothing, a result common enough in education." And "if the student got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters." In Adams's considered opinion, "the entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life."
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Adams's autobiographical memories, written in the third person, were hardly the stuff of recruiting brochures. But the comments on his student days were mild compared to what he had to say about his six years on the faculty. He claimed to have been reluctant to accept the appointment: "He could see no relation whatever between himself and a professorship. He sought education; he did not sell it. He knew no history; he knew only a few historians." His appointment was part of President Charles William Eliot's effort to improve the quality of the College, but Adams saw little result from that campaign. The students? He could hardly "get them to talk at all," and when he did, he discovered that "the number... whose minds were of an order above the average was...barely one in ten." As for his colleagues, "the lecture-room was futile enough, but the faculty-room was worse....Several score of the best-educated, most agreeable, and personally the most sociable people in America united in Cambridge to make a social desert that would have starved a polar bear." After six years, Adams abandoned Harvard and teaching for the life of an independent man of letters, and he gave the chapter of The Education devoted to his professorial career the resounding title "Failure."

Henry Adams
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Some of Adams's dyspepsia was autobiographical posturing. The Education of Henry Adams is a polemic, and its author was not above a little exaggeration to make his case. To blame Harvard College for not having introduced him to the thought of Karl Marx in 1858, as Adams did, was hardly fair when one considers that the first volume of Das Kapital would not appear until 1867. He was honest enough to admit that the real reason for his dissatisfaction with his experience as a teacher was neither his students nor his colleagues, but his inability to convince himself that there was any meaningful pattern in the history he taught. The most memorable line of his chapter on failure — "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops" — has escaped its context to become a source of inspiration for many of his readers.

None of Adams's successors as historians and memoirists has equaled him in literary art or elegant malice toward Harvard, but the published recollections of Cambridge experiences that run from diplomatic historian Dexter Perkins's undergraduate enrollment there in 1906 to Russian-history specialist Richard Pipes's last years on the faculty in the 1990s show the variety of ways in which individual lives have intersected with the University's own life and with the larger currents of history. Harvard's historian-autobiographers have included many distinguished names — Samuel Eliot Morison, William Langer, the two generations of Arthur Schlesingers, John King Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, Carolyn Bynum — a number of whom, like Henry Adams, played important roles in American public life as well as in the historical profession. Collectively, their publications constitute a large fraction of the autobiographical literature produced by American historians, and an important part of the memoir literature produced by Harvardians, which includes titles such as sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson's bestselling Naturalist. Readers looking for dirt on the occasional controversies that have landed the department on the front page of the Crimson will be disappointed — noted sociologist and historian Charles Tilly once lamented academic memoirs' tendency for "blanding in" — but these reminiscences make it possible to follow the evolution of one important Harvard department and its members in a way that can't be duplicated at any other American institution of higher education.

Samuel Eliot Morison
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Ironically, the memoirs about life at Harvard written by historians born toward the end of the nineteenth century, just when Henry Adams was distilling the spleen that would go into his Education, are those that differ the most from his. Adams saw his life as a microcosm of America's decline from its founding; these authors presented their life stories as illustrations of the processes that led to the country's rise to a justified pre-eminence in world affairs. American historian and Columbus biographer Samuel Eliot Morison's short memoir of his childhood, One Boy's Boston, was an indignant defense of the traditional Boston elite Adams had savaged in the Education; Morison titled his chapter on attitudes toward Irish, Jews, and blacks "Those Alleged Prejudices." For Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a leading specialist in American social and intellectual history appointed to the faculty in 1924, and for William Langer, a major figure in modern European history who received all his education at Harvard and joined the history faculty in 1927, association with Harvard was the essential step that enabled them to transcend humble origins and play a notable part in the pageant of national life.

Henry Adams, born into the American aristocracy, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, could hardly help seeing his life as a story of decline, but Langer, born the son of poor German immigrants, and Schlesinger, who grew up in a small Midwestern town, saw theirs as evidence of the opportunities offered by American society. Langer justified In and Out of the Ivory Tower as testimony to the qualities that made the United States "the most free and most rewarding land of history." His mother's willingness to support his educational aspirations, at a time when "even a high school education was exceptional, and the idea of going to Harvard seemed preposterous" for a poor boy, gave him the chance he needed. Langer had good memories of his college days, even though his social background and lack of money excluded him from most student activities. Military service in World War I allowed him to escape from a dead-end teaching job and inspired him to enroll for graduate training. Learning from professors like Archibald Cary Coolidge, who had been directly involved in the making of history as part of the American delegation to the Versailles peace conference, was exhilarating: "I was studying a subject every aspect of which aroused my interest and stimulated my thought." Langer enjoyed a classic Harvard faculty career, returning to Cambridge after a few years of teaching elsewhere and ascending in 1931 to a chair named in Coolidge's honor.

William Langer
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Langer was a longtime colleague of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, the senior member of Harvard's unique father-son team of history-professor autobiographers (see "Arthur Meier Schlesinger Sr."). In Retrospect: The History of a Historian was meant to show, like Langer's account, that "the American people have attained the closest ever known to a classless society." Schlesinger was also the child of German immigrants, although his family was more prosperous. Like Langer, and unlike many more recent historian-autobiographers, Schlesinger remembered graduate school (at Columbia in his case) as an experience that "opened windows and broke down walls." Joining the Harvard faculty after teaching stints at two Midwestern state universities was a culture shock: to participate in Cambridge social life, he and his wife, hitherto law-abiding citizens, felt compelled to learn to drink and even to negotiate with bootleggers. But Schlesinger, like Langer, remembered the interwar years as good ones. Harvard was the only American university that never reduced its professors' salaries during the Depression, and both men insisted that the history department had been unusually congenial in the 1930s.

This article has 4 sidebars:

H. Stuart Hughes

Ivy League Insider

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Sr.

Harvard Historian's Memoirs


A younger generation of history scholars who came to Harvard as graduate students in the late 1930s shared their mentors' perceptions of the department's liveliness. John King Fairbank, a younger man and, like Schlesinger, a smalltown Midwesterner by origin who had been a Harvard undergraduate and returned in 1936 as a young faculty member in Chinese history, thought that he arrived when the department was entering a "golden age." Henry May was inspired by the budding program in American civilization and its star, Perry Miller, "a brilliant and intuitive scholar" (although he found Miller too intimidating for a dissertation director and worked instead with the more supportive Schlesinger before going on to a long career as a specialist in American intellectual history at Berkeley).

Comments about the department's mentoring style reflect a consistent pattern that goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the future diplomatic historian Dexter Perkins found that Archibald Cary Coolidge "would be pungent in criticism, but for the most part he simply let us report, and said very little." Three decades later, Henry May appreciated the senior Schlesinger's "great gift...for gently guiding each student to a topic that fit his interests and abilities and then leaving him alone." Fast-forward another 30 years and one finds Mary Beth Norton's appreciation of Bernard Bailyn, who "respected me and his other graduate students, for he knew that the dissertation was our work, not his." These comments about Harvard's non-directive style chime with Richard Pipes's claim, made from the other side of the professorial desk, that he "never pressured [his graduate students] to conform."

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

But former graduate students also have less happy memories of the Cambridge scene in the 1930s. H. Stuart Hughes (see "H. Stuart Hughes"), a future faculty star in European history, found the program "dispiriting." He felt like a "second-class citizen" compared to Harvard undergraduates and professional students, and concluded, "it is a not unusual experience to reckon the years of graduate study the least rewarding of one's life. Certainly it was mine." The hard work and isolation drove Henry May to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Harvard, he concluded in his memoir, Coming to Terms, "greatly intensified the worst traits of my character — self-doubt, fear, compulsiveness, rigidity." When he was appointed to a tutorship, he found himself "initiated into the mysterious world of Harvard snobberies," including its pervasive anti-Semitism. That prejudice also struck the pioneering African-American historian John Hope Franklin, the first student from a black college admitted to the Harvard graduate program without being required to start by taking Harvard undergraduate courses, who claims that he was personally well received and recalls that "the most traumatic experience I had there was not racist but anti-Semitic," the refusal of other students to let a Jew serve as president of the history club.

Because graduate study determines their professional lives, historians often have more to say about it than about their undergraduate years, but the 1930s are the setting for the most detailed autobiographical account since Henry Adams's of a future historian's days at Harvard College — that of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The first volume of A Life in the Twentieth Century, subtitled Innocent Beginnings, recalls that tuition in his freshman year (1934) was $400, that the diary he kept as a sophomore had daily headings under five categories, "weather, work, smoking, liquor, and love," and that, in the latter category, "we spent more hours figuring out how to kiss girls than undergraduates today spend getting them into bed. Whether this represents a gain for progress, I do not know." Unlike other memoirists, Schlesinger does not recall being heavily involved in politics or encountering much evidence of a communist presence on campus. Despite the distractions, Schlesinger found time to profit from the history and literature program, and from American-studies courses in which the critical view of the Progressive school was giving way to an "enthusiastic rediscovery of American possibility."

Their Harvard connection gave many future historians who were graduate students in the late 1930s special opportunities during World War II, although being rejected by the war department's history office and the navy reminded Franklin that a Harvard connection was no protection against racial prejudice. William Langer, appointed to head the army's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) research and analysis section in 1942, recruited several of his students and had them turn their skills to studying political and social conditions in the occupied countries. It was a "second graduate school," European historian Carl Schorske later wrote, where young American students and future historian-memoirists like himself, Hughes, and the younger Schlesinger mixed with European refugees like the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the political theorist Franz Neumann. Edwin O. Reischauer, who had just joined the faculty in 1939 and begun, together with fellow memoirist Fairbank, to transform Harvard's scattered courses into a coherent East Asian studies program, was recruited by the state department in 1941. "That I, a fledgling scholar of early Chinese and Japanese history, should be asked for by the State Department showed how scarce American experts on Japan were at the time," he comments.

For most of the Harvard historian-memoirists, wartime posts within the government bureaucracy were extraordinary opportunities to see history being made from the inside. Langer, a generation older than his students, profited from his position to write an "instant history" of American policy toward Vichy France, a project that would normally have had to wait for decades until sources were declassified. For the younger scholars, however, the experience was usually disillusioning. Autobiographical hindsight allows them to underline how often they saw more clearly than their superiors. "With Roosevelt hopelessly bungling American policy toward France," Hughes "felt obliged to transfer my allegiance, at least temporarily, to the leader of the Free French," Charles de Gaulle. Fairbank, studying China, was unable to convince policymakers that Chiang Kai-shek had lost his ability to lead the country and that some kind of revolution was inevitable. In moving from academia to government, he decided, he had gone "from enterprise to boondoggle." But clear-sightedness had little impact on those reading the reports these young historians compiled. Hughes returned to Cambridge "emotionally exhausted" from bureaucratic battles, convinced that most OSS work had been a "futile waste." Like several other future historian-autobiographers, he found solace in Henry Adams, whose Education recounts a similarly frustrating experience working in the American embassy in London during the Civil War.


Recollections of wartime experiences are often colored by memories of what happened after the war. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s efforts to be sent overseas had already been held up by false charges that he was a communist sympathizer. Hughes and Fairbank became targets of the anticommunist hysteria that spread after 1945. Fairbank's life was disrupted when he was called to testify before the Senate's Internal Security Subcommittee in 1952. "When publicly accused, one tends to feel guilty," he recalled. "The flow of adrenalin makes one nervous. Counter statements and arguments go round in one's head. Life is not tranquil."

Richard Pipes
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Despite the threat of McCarthyism, the period from the mid 1940s to the early 1960s appears in most Harvard historians' memoirs as a good time, in their own lives and in that of the history department and the University. Richard Pipes, who had come to the United States as a refugee from Hitler in 1940, entered the graduate program in 1945 as part of the flood of soldiers aided by the GI Bill. The level of the students was excellent. "The air was permeated with respect for intellectual achievement," he writes. "I had never experienced anything like it." "My students had never been better — nor were they ever to be so good again," wrote Hughes. Harvard's faculty had been enriched by the recruitment of European refugees and the first generation of Jewish faculty. Harvard was the richest university in the world, and had the best academic library. "Last but not least, it had a lofty sense of its own worth that easily passed into arrogance," Pipes judged. "If it did not become disagreeably conceited, it was because Harvard deemed its superiority so obvious, so predestined, so universally acknowledged that it felt no need to flaunt it." As with Langer and the elder Schlesinger a generation earlier, affiliation with Harvard turned Pipes from an outsider to an insider in American life.

Many of the historian-memoirists had central roles in the development of Harvard's highly regarded area-studies programs, which flourished in that period. Langer saw this as an extension of the wartime OSS experiment to academia. Fairbank and Reischauer, for example, made Harvard a world center for Asian studies.

Achieving a permanent foothold in this privileged group was not easy, however. Pipes, though he claims not to have worried unduly, describes spending a full year waiting for the senior faculty to choose between him and another young Harvard Ph.D. in Russian history for a tenure-track appointment. "Relations between senior and junior faculty at Harvard in those years were cold and distant," he writes. "Generally, we were observed from a distance, closely and attentively but impersonally, like fish in an aquarium."

John King Fairbank
Portrait courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Some students were put off by the aftereffects of the department's close involvement with the making of U.S. foreign policy during and after World War II. Frederic Wakeman '59 decided to do graduate study in Chinese history elsewhere because he felt his professors' wartime immersion in the war effort had made them too "nationalistic."

Arriving from her native Australia, where many of her professors had served in combat during that war, Jill Ker Conway, later a pioneer in American women's history and president of Smith College, "couldn't believe my ears when I heard my Harvard graduate student colleagues telling me with real pride that they'd been smart and found an intelligence job during the Korean War, and that my faculty instructors had served almost to a man in the OSS during the 1939-1945 war. I could see...that it was another form of American efficiency for the state to preserve the lives of its educated elites, but it didn't square with my old British ideas about civic duty or the codes of honor I'd previously taken for granted."

Although anti-Semitism was no longer an issue, other groups remained marginalized in the 1950s. As he began to accept his own homosexuality, Martin Duberman, whose Cures is one of the most widely read contemporary gay memoirs, recalls his astonishment at meeting a fellow history graduate student at a Boston gay bar, as well as the shock of recognizing one of his professors in the bushes at an informal trysting spot along the Charles.


Harvard alumnus John F. Kennedy's election to the presidency in 1960 strongly affected the campus mood. Richard Pipes recalls that "like the rest of Harvard, I was dazzled by the handsome Democrat, who, in contrast to Eisenhower, seemed so eloquent, so well read, and so respectful of intellectuals." Two Harvard historian-memoirists took positions in the Kennedy administration: Edwin Reischauer as ambassador to Japan, where he had a chance to put his ideas for promoting better relations between the two countries into practice, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (who has promised a second volume of memoirs that will cover his work as a speechwriter in the Kennedy White House). Not every Harvard historian was won over by the Kennedy charm, however. H. Stuart Hughes's Gentleman Rebel recounts his 1962 Senate campaign against Edward M. Kennedy '54, when Hughes tried to turn debate to "the life-and-death issues of the nuclear age" and push for "a militant welfare-state...with a strong emphasis on the rights of blacks and of labor" that went well beyond JFK's cautious liberalism. Hughes won only 2 per cent of the vote, but he saw his effort as foreshadowing the political radicalism of the later 1960s. Latin Americanist John Womack, who joined the faculty in 1965, saw himself as part of that radical surge, but admits in retrospect that "you could run around thinking that you were being very political, although all you did was go to meetings and read the paper with great intensity."

One of the important aspects of the 1960s was the change in the place of women, both in society in general and in the Harvard history program. The numbers were still small — Mary Beth Norton remembers being part of a class of 20 U.S. history students that included only three women in the early 1960s — but significant. Norton, a colonial American specialist, the medievalist Carolyn Bynum, and Jill Ker Conway, all students during that period, share mixed memories of the experience. All encountered supportive male mentors who gave them vital guidance, sometimes by steering them away from women's-history topics. "In my pre-feminist-consciousness days," Norton says, "I did not want to write about a woman, which is just as well; I'd probably have made a hash of it." But all are also outspoken about the discrimination they ran into. "There was no way to expiate the invitation refused, however gracefully, or the sexual innuendo deliberately misunderstood. A woman's work had to be just that much better, more theoretically daring, more brilliantly researched to shame naysayers with ulterior motives," Conway writes. Their greatest frustration was that teaching appointments at Harvard, as tutors or junior faculty, remained closed to them, an injustice that, as Conway remarks, "made a mockery of Harvard's vaunted liberalism."


Although women's memoirs show a dark side to the golden glow that still bathes many of the senior male faculty's recollections of the early 1960s, all Harvard historian-memoirists to date agree that the controversies of the late '60s soured the University climate. William Langer, in his 1977 memoir, expressed relief that he had retired by then: "the tension and antagonism that developed between students and teachers would for me have been heartbreaking." He decided to tell the story of his life specifically to counter the period's "widespread and quite uncritical rejection of the 'Establishment'." H. Stuart Hughes, who had been active in protests against nuclear weapons and who learned in 1966 that he had been spied on by U.S. intelligence during his trips abroad, nevertheless found himself alienated from students who insisted on turning their anger against the University. From the neoconservative perspective of his later years, Richard Pipes — who admits he was still voting Democratic at the time — denounces the "unfocused atmosphere of resentment, induced in part by the Vietnam War," and especially the response to the student strike of 1969. "I had a hard time believing how many of the frightened faculty were prepared to give up all that made our university great in order to pacify the mob and how dishonestly they rationalized their fears," he writes.

The radical spirit of the times did break down some taboos, and it was in this atmosphere that Carolyn Bynum was given a junior faculty appointment in 1969. Her memories are anything but triumphal, however. "The tremendous weight of discrimination against women came down on me like a ton of bricks — the isolation, the difficulties, the opposition, and, yes, even the hatred." Cochairing the Committee on the Status of Women "left me quite politically exposed," she recalls. "I received hate mail, even threats, and at one point had to seek police protection." Conditions improved somewhat when she moved from the history department to Harvard Divinity School, but she knew that there would never be a permanent place for her in Cambridge. As for Hughes, a second marriage, to one of his graduate students, sensitized him to the problems of women at the University, leading, he wrote, to "a drastic shift in my inner priorities." Hughes left Harvard in the 1970s when his new wife was denied tenure, and he used his 1990 memoir to denounce what he saw as the department's hypocritical treatment of her.

It is in the nature of autobiography to report on events long after the fact, and so far we have few historians' accounts of life at Harvard since the early 1970s. John King Fairbank, whose name was given to Harvard's Asian studies center in 1977, realized he was being transformed from a person to an institution: "my public persona was beginning to supersede me, preparatory to remaining after I should disappear." His deep attachment to Harvard comes through in Chinabound, but he comments that in his later years, he found himself increasingly isolated from other faculty members because of the "curious ambivalence to be found in an establishment largely composed of loners." Writing a memoir, "moving on from Chinese studies by Fairbank to Fairbank studies tout court," was both a way of acknowledging his absorption by Harvard and of reasserting his individuality.

This article has 4 sidebars:

H. Stuart Hughes

Ivy League Insider

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Sr.

Harvard Historian's Memoirs

Unlike Chinabound, Richard Pipes's Vixi, a more recent Harvard historian's memoir, returns to the more outspoken disillusionment of The Education of Henry Adams. As the subtitle of his book, Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, suggests, Pipes never saw himself as the sort of person for whom Harvard would name an institute, and the Adams-style disaffection with post-1969 Harvard he expresses has to be read with that in mind. In his view, Harvard's response to the radical protests of the 1960s destroyed the qualities that had made the institution unique: "By the 1970s, Harvard came to resemble more a midwestern state university than its old self." His two years in the Reagan White House as adviser on Soviet policy in the early 1980s further distanced him from academia. When he returned to Cambridge, he found that, "compared to the issues I had dealt with in Washington, [departmental affairs] seemed inconsequential...." He retired at the age of 70, after being on the losing side in a bitter battle over a faculty appointment, and in his memoir he notes with a certain grim relish that the department's ranking in the US News & World Report surveys of the late 1990s no longer placed it among the top programs. (Conspiracy theorists may note that Vixi was published by the Yale University Press.)

Whether they have loved it or loathed it, the memoirs of historians associated with the institution show that no one whose life was involved with Harvard was unaffected by it. "Harvard is a hard place to leave, even for those who have been unhappy there," Hughes wrote. From Henry Adams's arguments with his classmates about slavery to Pipes's clashes with his colleagues over the interpretation of communism, the great issues of the day have echoed loudly in Harvard's halls, and Harvard historians have often had unique opportunities to participate in the making of history as well as the studying and teaching of the subject. Paul John Eakin '60, Ph.D. '66, one of the pioneers of the study of life-writing, has called The Education of Henry Adams one of the first autobiographies to ask, "What does it mean to live one's life in history?" For nearly a century, Adams's successors as historian-autobiographers at Harvard have continued to wrestle with that question. Their efforts remind us that historians are inevitably part of the subject they study.


Jeremy D. Popkin, A.M. '71, is professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of History, Historians, and Autobiography (forthcoming in 2005 from the University of Chicago Press), a study of historians' engagements with life-writing, and of several books on French history. As a graduate student at Harvard, he worked with H. Stuart Hughes, who is discussed in this article.


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