Academic journal article Style

On Allan Nevins, Grand Style in Discourse, and John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: The Trajectory of Stylistic Confluence

Academic journal article Style

On Allan Nevins, Grand Style in Discourse, and John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: The Trajectory of Stylistic Confluence

Article excerpt

He wrote well. Among American historians, Allan Nevins was both prolific and eloquent. While working as a journalist from 1913 to 1931 (at the New York Evening Post, New York Sun, and New York World) as well as contributing to Collier's Weekly, Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine, he wrote--in his "spare time"--history worthy enough to become DeWitt Clinton Professor at Columbia University. Upon retiring from Columbia in 1958 (at a then-compulsory age of sixty-eight), Alfred Knopf lauded him as, barring "perhaps two of three of his colleagues, the only scholar of his time who is writing history in the grand manner." After leaving Columbia, Nevins became Senior Research Associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he completed The Ordeal of the Union. After his death in 1971, the Huntington honored him by displaying a three-shelved library cart holding eighty-three books he wrote or edited. As fellow Research Associate Ray A. Billington noted, Nevins was "certainly the author of more than fifty books, edited at least seventy-five more, and published fully a thousand articles and reviews." (1)

Nevins also drafted an important speech in "grand manner" On 23 December 1960, after John F. Kennedy officially was certified winner of the 1960 election, Theodore C. Sorensen as Special Counsel to the President-Elect--and speechwriter--sent this Western Union block wire to ten people:

   The President-Elect has asked me to collect any suggestions you may
   have for the Inaugural Address. in view of the short period of time
   available before Inauguration Day, it would be appreciated if we
   could have your recommendation by December 31. We are particularly
   interested in specific themes and in language to articulate these
   themes whether it takes one page or ten pages. Many many thanks.

The ten recipients were Adlai Stevenson, Douglas Dillon, Joseph Kraft, Chester Bowles, Arthur Goldberg, Dean Rusk, Fred Dutton, David Lloyd, John Galbraith, and the person listed first: "Dr. Allan Nevins." On 29 December 1960, Nevins responded on Huntington Library stationary with a letter and enclosure back to Sorensen:

   Of course Mr. Kennedy can write any one of fifty different
   addresses, and 1 do not know on what lines his mind has been
   running. But here is a suggestion of one particular tone and set of
   ideas that seems to me practicable. I have given it so much work
   that I hope you will read it carefully. If it does so much as to
   point in any useful direction I shall feel immensely pleased.

   You have been bearing a tremendous burden, and in wishing you a
   Happy New Year I hope that you will also find one day of complete
   relaxation.

      Sincerely yours, (2)

That "tone and set of ideas" from California "after so much work" is significant.

In Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America, Thurston Clarke deemed it "the greatest oration of any twentieth-century politician."

   It was also the centerpiece of an inauguration that would turn out
   to be one of the great political events of that century, a moment
   when Americans would step through a membrane in time, entering a
   brief, still seductive, era of national happiness. More than any of
   the countless books about JFK, it is his inaugural that explains
   the Kennedy phenomenon to the heart as well as the mind, reaching
   across the chasm of years to connect the present with the beginning
   hour of his presidency, and the passion and optimism it excited.
   (9)

After using the Kennedy Presidential Library, however, and mentioning the historian's enclosure, Clarke claimed "none of his sentences made the Sorensen draft or the inaugural" (70). In a subsequent, more authoritative account of the evolution of that speech, Richard Tofel also acknowledged the enclosure of 29 December--with his conclusion:

   Unfortunately, the enclosure is not in the file nor elsewhere in
   the Kennedy Library or in Nevins's papers at Columbia University. … 
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