Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Since returning from Arkansas I have been enjoying a stay in New York, punctuated by a very brief visit to Princeton for some necessary domestic business. It hasn’t been a particularly touristy visit, more like a busman’s holiday. I have spent many hours in the Bobst Library of New York University, polishing footnotes. Polishing footnotes surely approaches the acme of pointy-headed professordom, and it hardly requires the world’s greatest city for its backdrop. Still, I have had some fun. I went with good friends to see a fascinating exhibition at the Morgan Library, before going back to their apartment for a magnificent meal. I made an honest blogger of myself by attending a showing of “Waiting for Superman”. (In this I imitated my sainted father who once built a fire-place and then, when it was finished, sought out a book about how to build fire-places.) Last night I had a delightful evening over dinner with my “conversation club” at the Century.

But mainly I have been waiting—waiting for today. For I have just returned from Montclair, New Jersey, where I took part in an elegant evening “celebrating the humanities” with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Furthermore, I myself was a part of the celebration; for an important moment of the evening was the presentation of the annual NJCH book award to the author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War.

Montclair is a fine old nineteenth-century town that is today half dormitory for New York executives and half multicult suburb. For a very particular reason it has always seemed to me one of the most romantic places on earth. The only school play in which I ever got a role was Cheaper by the Dozen, a comedy about an eccentric fellow with twelve children. It was set in Montclair, N.J., a place I therefore thought must be as exotic as Shakespeare’s Illyria, or Elsinore Castle.

The Montclair Art Museum

And indeed there was something castle-like in the elegant venue for the event, the impressive Montclair Art Museum. There is on its lowest level a large multi-purpose room that served equally well as cocktail lounge and lecture theater. In it was gathered an impressive cohort of supporters and abettors of the humanities in the State of New Jersey. Among them I was delighted to discover a number of personal friends and three former students. One of them was a man whose dissertation I had helped to direct forty years ago, and whom I had not actually seen in all that time.

Bloguiste, Leach, and Katz in ideological conversation

The “main event” of the evening was a staged conversation—meaning in this instance a conversation that took place upon a stage. The interlocutors were yours truly and Jim Leach, the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, moderated by my friend and colleague Stan Katz, the former president of the American Council of Learned Societies. I found Leach, whom I had not before met to be a particularly impressive and attractive fellow. He is an Iowan and a former college wrestler. He spent thirty years in Congress. One of his principal initiatives as Chairman of the NEH has been a “civility tour” throughout the country, a kind of intellectual pilgrimage devoted to the quaint notion that it is possible to exchange and discuss conflicting ideas, even passionately invested ideas, without sounding like the Kentucky senate race.

The announced topic of the conversation was “Ideologies and American Ideals from the Cold War to the War on Terror”. Naturally we mainly talked about other things, though with valiant feints toward “ideology”. Should you be really curious, you can judge for yourselves. The conversation was recorded, and will soon be posted on the NJCH website.

I left the evening with such a deep sense of satisfaction that you might think this was the only prize I had ever won. It isn’t.

And so, as old Pepys used to say, to bed.