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May 15, 2017

IN MEMORIAM: DANIEL AARON (1912-2016)

Harvard’s American Studies Program mourns the death of our esteemed and beloved first graduate, Daniel Aaron (Ph.D. ’43, History of American Civilization).  Known to the wider world for inexhaustible writings and mentorship, here in 2016’s Barker Center we recollect his many post-retirement generosities to students and faculty, current and recent.  Others across the academic firmament will find ways, over time, to memorialize his countless contributions.  We here gather remembrances from Harvard’s American Studies community, and others.  Additional submissions for this page may be sent to americanstudies@fas.harvard.edu.

Werner Sollors (recently retired member of the American Studies Committee).  We thought that his door would always remain open, but on April 30, 2016, Daniel Aaron passed away at the age of 103. One cannot capture Dan’s spirit by listing or reviewing his path-breaking and progressive books, among them Writers on the Left and The Unwritten War, or by mentioning that he wrote essays that opened up whole fields, as his “Hyphenate Writer and American Letters” and “The Inky Curse” did for the study of the literature of ethnicity and of miscegenation. What may capture him best was his office-open-door policy, his readiness to talk with (and gently advise) students, colleagues and visitors from anywhere in the world. His genuine generosity in reading and commenting on anything younger folk would give him to look at was legendary. Having taught in Austria, Finland, Poland, England, and China and lectured all around the globe, he was a true cosmopolitan and a conversationalist spirit with a sheer limitless curiosity about people, books, and ideas. He might chat about Howells, Musil or Edmund Wilson, about a segregated American amusement park, a Polish literary party, U.S. Presidents, or the end of the Habsburg Empire with equal intensity. He loved authors as much as their books and kept close personal friendships with many writers. The first Ph.D. in Harvard’s History of American Civilization Program, he became the official and unofficial mentor for many generations that followed him as Americanists, yet in his self-effacing autobiography, The Americanist, as in his self-presentation generally he never adopted the pose of a star academic and thought of his own role with extreme modesty. Perhaps he was often quoted simply because his surname started with a double “a”, he would say. He liked jokes and could recite startlingly off-color limericks out of the blue, yet he was also the most charming dinner companion who would always call with his thanks the next morning. His deep sense of irony that would make his eyes twinkle came to the fore in stories he would tell, like the Cold War anecdote of the Soviet foreign minister and the US ambassador to the United Nations who are looking at a painting by Fernand Léger. The Russian deems it decadent-modernist, the American sees in it the spirit of free enterprise, but when they learn that Léger was a French Communist, both of them reverse their initial judgment. Dan’s dry humor found unforgettable outlets in his poetic auto-obituaries and his Commonplace Book, published in 2015. Dan Aaron worked steadily in his office, every day, as long as his health permitted that, but he always seemed happy with human interruptions. Now the door to his office will be closed, but he will remain unforgotten.

John Bell (current doctoral candidate in History of American Civilization).  For a person who could have said so much, he was always more eager to listen. “How do you do?”–his regular greeting–seemed a question of character as much as of courtesy. Once he gave me a book that had been a favorite of his. “Infinite riches in a little room,” he wrote inside. I’ll remember him in much the same way: a wellspring of wisdom, tall tales, and wit in the form of a kindly old gentleman.

George Blaustein (Ph.D. 2010, History of American Civilization; assistant professor, University of Amsterdam).  I used to visit Professor Aaron’s office when I was a graduate student in AmCiv who didn’t know anything. I wish I had done so more, because he seemed to know everything. (It feels odd to say “Dan,” because I don’t think I ever called him by his first name, even though he caught me off-guard with an off-color limerick about my hometown after asking where I was from. But I’ll start now.) Once when I was sitting there, the phone rang and Dan answered it, suspiciously. It was a call from someone somewhere who for some reason had a question about Herman Melville. From the half of the conversation that I heard, Dan declined to participate in whatever it was he was being invited to, but in the course of declining he generously opened his inner file of wisdom on Melville, and pointed the caller toward current Melville scholarship. He hung up, and turned back to our conversation.

When I heard that he died I flipped through his poignant, hilarious Commonplace Book, and found the comic obituary he wrote for himself, probably decades ago. It takes the form of an acrostic:

Daniel Aaron

Arrived August 4, 1912

Named after no one, in particular

Invented nothing, except in words

Even disposition

Loved a good deal and was loved

 

Announced early plans for old age

Assisted various and sundry students

Retired at 65

Once released

Never heard of again

The charm, the black humor, the self-deprecation, the irony, the generosity: “Invented nothing, except in words.” It goes without saying that he invented American Studies, and he made “Americanist” both a calling and a creed. That could be daunting for a grad student to contemplate—although it was oddly comforting to read in his memoir that grad students even in the 1930s felt the university’s “chilling indifference” toward them: “Would we arouse the slightest concern or curiosity if we expired in the middle of Harvard Square? Would anyone even bother to turn us over to find out who we were?”

But “Announced early plans for old age” is my favorite line, and to my mind it says something about Dan, about the History of American Civilization, and even about America. In a field that has jumped through so many hoops of self-flagellation, navel-gazing, battles over labels and justifications, Dan Aaron represents an intellectual and cultural continuity, ideas that are alive, open, and moving—the bicycle leaned against the bookshelf. We are old, but also young, and one needs both wisdom and wit to see it. His door was open to us.

S. Collier Brown (current doctoral candidate in American Studies).  For the last five years, I sat across the desk from Daniel Aaron almost on a daily basis, not as a student but as a “fellow traveler,” as he liked to say—and what he liked to say became the most important part of my experience here at Harvard. At any given moment, he might, without warning, belt out an explicit folk song, recite twenty lines from Edward Lear, recall a favorite Russian phrase, or describe a fistfight with Theodore Roethke. Every memory was, for me, a starting point for a thousand journeys. I think he sensed that.

I think he wanted that. Dan once called Edmund Wilson the last great generalist. Not so. After 103 years, the majority of them immersed in the best of what has been thought and said, that honorific belongs to Dan himself.

Kevin M. Burke (Ph.D. 2006, History of American Civilization; Director of Research, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University). I used to enjoy visiting with Dan at the Barker Center when I was a graduate student. Though he was well into retirement by then, he remained a fixture on campus, visible on his bicycle in the Square and behind the typewriter in his study. What remains with me is the way he smiled while telling his stories of Harvard past—the wonder, and mischief, in his eyes and the reservoir of feeling beneath his various critiques of those who had come and gone on the American scene. This past March, in fact just a few weeks before he died, I had the pleasure of visiting Dan at his home on Farwell Place, ostensibly for the purpose of conducting an oral history on the role he had played as a committee member at the founding of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard in the middle 1970s. I had never known this about Dan until Professor Preston Williams, of the Divinity School, and the Institute’ first director, pointed it out to me. Dan, of course, was too humble to accept that he had done anything of importance for the Institute, though, having spent time with Professor Williams, I was aware that Dan’s encouragement and insights, based on his years of experience participating in the birth of Am. Civ. at Harvard, had been invaluable. In those last hours he and I had together, Dan complained to me that his memories were no longer as sharp as they had been, and, at 103, he was frustrated by how his body was failing him, especially in altering the sound of his voice (at least to his ear) and in keeping him away from his bike. Yet there, in the morning light flooding in through his first-floor windows, a Bose radio blasting talk news in the nearby kitchen, he was the storyteller once more—the young man of the Midwest who had arrived at Harvard at a time when, following the Great Crash, America’s experiment in democracy had seemed suddenly fragile; the graduate student who, in attending Harvard’s Tercentenary in 1936, had stood as close to President Roosevelt as I was to Dan in his hospital bed; the teacher-in-training who had sorted out the differences between Am. Civ.’s great triumvirate, Howard Mumford Jones, F.O. Matthiessen, and Perry Miller, and discovered his own voice in their company and that of his students; the progressive who heralded F-D-R and agonized, with others in his generation, over whether to join the Popular Front in Spain; the student of the American Civil War who stood for civil rights more than a century after the Emancipation; the scholar who relished his years at Smith and had seen, and considered, everything about Harvard after returning in 1971; the writer and reader who preached excellence at the sentence level and helped launch the Library of America; the mentor who believed in the open door as fervently as Emerson and Whitman had the open road. In sorting through my own recollections, I’m afraid I’ve come up short. There is no easy way to sum up the magic of Daniel Aaron, except to say he was a keen observer of life and ideas, a man who nobly served for many years as the living bridge between the generation that had founded the Am. Civ. program at Harvard and the generations remaking it through and beyond the new millennium; a man who emphasized good living, nurturing relationships, and the poetry of exercising the mind and body; a man whose curiosity could be felt in the way he listened and the portraits of people he drew from memory; a man who cared as much about the fate of the nation as he did whichever student happened to be sitting opposite him at the moment—or at his bedside. Now, alas, he, too, “belongs to the ages,” bookended by the presidencies of William H. Taft and Barack H. Obama, and we are all better for having known and loved him. May Dan Aaron cycle perpetually in our minds, henceforth and forever, as the perfect embodiment of what it means to study, to teach, and to live in America. Rest in peace, my teacher and friend.

John Stauffer (current member of the American Studies Committee).  Dan Aaron, the first Americanist, virtually created the field of American Studies. Part of the first group of Ph.D students in Harvard’s History of American Civilization Program, he is one of the only ones whose books are still read after some 70 years, including his dissertation on Cincinnati, published for the first time in 1992 roughly fifty years after initial acceptance.  Aaron’s other books include Men of Good Hope, Writers on the Left, The Americanist, and Commonplace Book, 1934-2012.  Dan continued advising graduate students until his death.  He received from Harvard an honorary Litt.D. in 2007, and was a 2012 recipient of the graduate school’s Centennial Medal, celebrating the achievements of Harvard’s most distinguished alumni.

Edward Widmer (’84; Ph.D. 1993, History of American Civilization).  Dan’s greatness as a writer/editor is obvious to anyone who reads his books, with their relentless, unblinking reportage on the American scene.  His greatness as a teacher was also evident, to anyone lucky enough to take English 70 while he was still teaching it, lecturing gamely on the writers we don’t study as much anymore (Howells, William Gilmore Simms, the regional humorists of the mid-19th century).  His greatness as a friend – that undervalued word in a graduate program – become clearer over time, to those lucky enough to experience it.  His door was always open, and his heart was open too.  All you had to do was knock; first, in Warren House, where he seemed to live inside a private treehouse, surrounded by his favorite books, and then in the Barker Center, where he could look at his former office, and all the students going to and fro.

He was famously the first Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization, and he was its genius, as well, in the old sense of the word – the embodiment of the idea.  He was democracy personified.  He laughed easily; he moved quickly (any statue of him should include his bicycle); he celebrated diversity in all that he did; and in his long life, he simply saw it all, everything vulgar and sublime that this nation has to offer.  He never lost a young liberal’s hope that we might become a better country; but he also acquired the famous Niebuhrian serenity about accepting what you can’t change.  It probably helped that he was so adored by the legions of young people who dropped by, year after year, shocked at the Open Door Policy of this Harvard outlier.  All we did was to reciprocate his friendship; but that sustained him a very long time.  There is a minor academic dispute about when “The American Century” actually took place – did it begin in 1900?  Or with the dispatch of American troops to Europe in 1917?  Or with the coining of the phrase in 1941?  Obviously it was the 103 years we had The Americanist.

Zhang Longxi (Comparative Literature Ph.D., 1987; professor, City University of Hong Kong).  I am deeply saddened to learn the news that Professor Daniel Aaron has passed away. Just recently, I was at Harvard for the launching of the new Journal of World Literature at the March 2016 ACLA meeting, and I saw Dan in his office. He was so glad to see me and asked me to visit him in his home in the evening so that we could have more time to talk. So I went to his home on Farwell Place and had a wonderful evening with him. Dan has been a great mentor and a dear friend to me, and his memory will always be with me.