The Formation of a
In 1964 a classroom of Los Angeles high school seniors studying American government decided to compose a letter to the historian Henry Steele Commager. Addressing the sixty-one-year-old Amherst College professor as one “of the more prominent citizens of the world,” because he was “one of those who ‘make the news,’” the young students asked if he would be willing to reveal the “real person” inside himself instead of the “image” the public saw. Did he have one primary goal that he had pursued in life? Had his fame come with a “special loneliness”? 1
Flattered, Commager replied that he had “no personal experience with fame.” But what about his goals? He admitted he had “a deeply ingrained antipathy to abstract questions” such as theirs, because abstract inquiries usually hide what is really being sought: in this case, a curiosity about his moral values, purpose in life, or philosophy of history. There is no reason to assume, he warned the students, that young people, starting out as he once had, harbored such values, purposes, or philosophies. No, he told them, these “are not things that a normal young person deliberately adopts, any more than a normal young person deliberately decides what is the purpose of love before he falls in love, or what is the purpose of children before he has a family. Philosophies of life, if there are really such things, are things that develop with life, and usually only after most of life is over.”
The high schoolers had prompted a candid response from him, and his
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Publication information: Book title: Henry Steele Commager:Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present. Contributors: Neil Jumonville - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 3.
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