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In Memoriam: Henry Steele Commager

June 2024
2min read

The great storyteller and famed historian lent authority and good advice to our aspiring magazine

Henry Steele Commager, one of the greatest American historians and a friend to this magazine for many years, died at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, on March 2, at the great age of ninety-five. If you studied American history in this country at any time between, say, 1930 and 1970, you probably used The Growth of the American Republic , which he wrote with Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard, as a basic textbook. With the dear friend of this magazine Professor Allan Nevins of Columbia, he wrote America: The Story of a Free People (1942), which became a bestseller, as well as The American Mind (1951), which many think his best work, and The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment , which The New York Times described as a refutation of economic determinism. That great newspaper, which seems to me to have an exquisite sense of the comparative value of events, gave Henry Commager’s obituary a splendid author, Holcomb B. Noble, and a six-columnwide space.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1902, Professor Commager was orphaned as a child and reared by his mother’s father, a strongly religious man of Danish origin who was also active in the Lutheran movement. He grew up in Toledo and Chicago, earning his way up through high school and the University of Chicago, where he took his B.A., M.A., and doctorate. His first book, The Reform Movement in Denmark , won the American Historical Association’s prize for the best first book by an American historian. He was then teaching at New York University, which he left in 1938 for a post at Columbia, only to be diverted soon thereafter by a wartime job at the Office of War Information and the State Department’s committee on the history of the war. In 1956 he accepted an offer from Amherst College, his home for the rest of a long life. He was always active, with a project in every pocket, all of which he selflessly pursued in the interests of history and other historians. A great storyteller, with the gifts of humor, irony, and conviction, he began contributing to our infant magazine in 1958, joining a distinguished group led by Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Carl Carmer, Walter Prescott Webb, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—and later his eminent son Arthur Jr. —and many others, then and now, to lend authority and good advice to our aspiring magazine.

Commager was a delight in conversation, even though I had a little old-fashioned reticence about addressing him, as he told me to do, as “Henry.” He joined our advisory board in 1971 and wrote many fine articles for us, among them one with particular resonance today: “Should the Historian Make Moral Judgments?” This controversy begins with those who would apply modern standards to the bloodstained cruelty in earlier centuries of men like Cortés and Pizarro, a view to which Commager objected with conviction.

Digging in old files recently, I found a letter from the old gentleman back in February 1982. We had just taken breakfast in his club in Washington, when I was working at the Library of Congress. There was something he wished I might do to further the project of a young man with yet another book on Reconstruction and, oh yes, he was himself contemplating “elaborating” (his word) on a book about why the South lost the Civil War. He would call it The Rise and Fall of Southern Nationalism . He would start, he wrote, with the assumption that the South had more things going for it in 1860 than America had in 1776, and ask why, then, it failed so catastrophically—not only on the battlefield, but politically, economically, and morally. He wondered whether I might help him, if he needed to get some good photographs, as he said, “to display Alexander Stephens, Governor Brown of Georgia, Governor Vance of North Carolina, the blunderers whom Davis sent abroad, and other of that ilk …”

All this typed on his portable in the very large type used by those with failing sight. This gallant scholar, never at a loss for words or an idea, kept on writing and publishing for almost another decade. One of the most charming things about history is so often the old historians themselves.

—Oliver Jensen

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