Category Archives: memoir

a strange journey

I had an invitation to attend a conference at Ditchley, a Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire, early last December. On my way to Dulles Airport, I learned that my father was in some danger; a cancer that we thought had been removed might have spread to his lungs. But the lab results were not expected for several days, my trip was short, and I decided to proceed. I arrived at Heathrow early the next morning, worried but not in panic.

The journey from the airport to Oxfordshire was familiar; I had taken the same early-morning ride every time I arrived for terms of graduate school at Oxford. That morning, the views from the van were exceptionally beautiful: the landscape miraculously green compared to Maryland in late fall, and perfectly trimmed and manicured. Some of the villages northwest of Oxford–clusters of limestone buildings behind ancient walls–are so picturesque that they have been purchased by international billionaires as vacation homes. One that we drove through apparently belongs to a Saudi prince.

And then there was Ditchley. Some sentences from Brideshead Revisited just happen to describe it, down to the details: “We came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. … The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green … ; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide-open green spaces … and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs.”

The house itself (the real Ditchley, not the imaginary Brideshead) was a great stone rectangle, its stern lines broken by cheerful statuary on the roof and curved symmetrical glass passageways leading to the wings. We sat, still dressed in clothes worn overnight, in a Louis Quinze “saloon” beneath an elaborate ceiling of plaster and fresco. There were antlers on the walls among the stucco pilasters and a misty view of the folly through the grand French doors.

It was hard to communicate with the States: no cell phone coverage and only two cranky computers in the basement. But news of my Dad was beginning to trickle in and it was looking very worrisome. Still, there didn’t seem to be anything to do but participate in the reception, the first “debate” (as the English call a plenary discussion), and a fine dinner.

The next morning, there was still no definitive information from home. After the morning sessions, I went along for a visit to Broughton Castle in the afternoon. Broughton was four centuries older than Ditchley. Apparently, Henry James called it “perfection, what with moat, gatehouse, church, and gorgeous orange and buff stone.” We drove over the moat and into the front court to park beneath the gothic windows of the great hall. The door was opened by none other than Lord Say and Sele, resident of the house, as all his ancestors have been since 1306. He and Lady Say and Sele collected small admissions charges from each of us and then took us on a tour of their home. (Broughton has a castle blog, by the way.)

They were a completely charming elderly couple, unpretentious, humorous, and apparently interested in the opinions and backgrounds of their visitors. Lord Say and Sele took particular delight in the fake stones and synthetic carpeting that Hollywood film crews had left behind after using his house as a set. The moat, he told us, had no military purpose; it was just one of those things you had to have (in the fourteenth century) to impress your neighbors. One fireplace upstairs was carved by the same continental artisans who decorated Henry VIII’s palace of Nonesuch, which later burned to the ground. Thus the Broughton fireplace is one of a tiny number of truly sophisticated Mannerist works that survive in England, where it looks two centuries ahead of its time. The kitchen, built in the middle ages beneath Gothic arches, is still the best place to prepare food, so now it has a refrigerator with art by grandchildren, hanging cabinets, and a range.

Not long after we had returned to Ditchley, I spoke to my mother and learned that my father’s cancer was aggressive and untreatable. He had only a short time to live. I made arrangements for an early return but could not get out of Oxfordshire until the next day at the earliest. So there was nothing to do but attend another reception and then the formal dinner. It was a black-tie affair, although I had forgotten to pack mine. We spoke of the differences between US and British social policy. A countess sat opposite me and a retired British Army officer to my right.

I like to think I am blasé about stately homes. Not only did I grow up partly in England, but my father was an authority on some aspects of English historical culture. He wrote, for instance, a whole book about neoclassicism; and Ditchley is a neoclassical house. I was not to the manner born, but I was to many manors dragged from a tender age, and I know a thing or two about places like Ditchley–even a bit about its architect, James Gibbs. But it was hard not to be impressed by the candle-lit dinner scene.

Not too many hours later, I was sitting with my father in his hospital room, showing him brochures of Broughton that he managed to enjoy. He was being quite amazingly brave. Less than two months later, he was dead.

chamber music

Last Saturday in Syracuse, my Mom and I heard the Rossetti String Quartet play works by Mozart, Dvorak, and Debussey. Such events always provoke nostalgia for me, because chamber music used to play a very important role in my life. In my young adult years in New Haven, Oxford, and Washington, I used to attend concerts at least once a week. I usually went by myself. In childhood, however, I usually attended with my father, who died just weeks ago. He and I often had tickets to the very same concert series, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. In London, we went to many venues, but I especially remember the rather drab hall of the Ethical Culture Society, in which we heard fine performances. And other locations occur to me as stray thoughts–for instance, a basement in Lucca, Italy, where we once heard the Chilingarian Quartet. To tell the truth (at last), I really went along because I liked Dad’s attention on the trips to and from the concert halls. I used to count the minutes until each recital ended; but a habit formed.

I had other reasons to be nostalgic last Saturday. The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has moved from the University to a public middle school. It’s not a school that I attended, but it’s part of the same district, and the students’ art and official warning notices on the walls were timelessly familiar. The concert program contained a memorial notice for my own music teacher, who recently died. I recognized many subscribers to the notice; some were parents of my childhood friends. And I knew members of the audience. They were almost uniformly white-haired. The median age must have been 75. These were the same people, indeed, who belonged to the Friends of Chamber Music 35 years ago. They were much the same kind of people who filled Wigmore Hall or Alice Tulley Hall in 1970 and who still predominate at the Phillips Collection or the Library of Congress recitals in Washington.

When we consider why the audience for chamber music has aged and shrunk, it’s tempting to revive the usual explanations: inadequate musical education, limited funds, the kids today. But I suspect a deeper reason, which makes me even more nostalgic or elegiac. If the heart of the chamber music tradition is the string quartet, the piano sonata, the art song, and the trio, then it really lived from about 1750 to 1950. When the audience at last Saturday’s concert was young, Shostakovich and Bartok were still writing chamber works in that tradition. The latest works of that era commented on the classic ones in the repertoire. To be sure, there are still composers today, and they still produce quartets and sonatas. But as far as I know, their style is abruptly different from that of the nineteenth-century masters. They are too hard for almost anyone to perform, and rather difficult to enjoy. They have an audience, but it is small and highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, the tradition of Mozart and Brahms is no longer alive. It is an antiquarian or historical interest. I doubt it will ever die off completely; in the age of, even the most obscure tastes can find markets. But I don’t think it will fully revive unless contemporary music itself reconnects with the classical background–which may not be a natural or even a desirable development.

Joseph M. Levine

(Syracuse, NY) My Dad, Joe Levine, died at 6:50 am today after a long struggle with cancer that gave him many trials and indignities. I have some misgivings about using a blog to write about his death. Even the word “blog” seems unworthy of the occasion, which should be observed privately by those who knew and loved him or else in some serious professional setting such as an obituary or an academic memorial service. Indeed, we hope to achieve all of those things, but I cannot resist using this space for at least for a few quick notes.

Dad was best as a husband and father. Those were the roles he cared about most and performed with the most commitment and distinction, especially for a man of his generation. He took advantage of the flexibility of an academic career to spend immense amounts of time with his family. I think he almost always preferred to be with all of us, or–if his children were unavailable–at least to be alone with Mom, his partner of 52 years. We gamely accompanied him to chamber music concerts, used bookstores, and auctions, and he came along with us to playgrounds and shopping malls. He also walked us to school when we didn’t want to go (a feeling he remembered from his own childhood) and sat up with us when we couldn’t sleep. He was a peaceful, gentle man and he shed peace on his family and friends.

As Joseph M. Levine, Dad was Distinguished Professor of History at Syracuse University, where he taught from 1966 until a few weeks ago. He was “distinguished” in more than title, having built an international reputation as a historian of ideas and a cultural historian. Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton and vir eruditissimus, has called him “one of the most distinguished intellectual historians in the English-speaking world.” Indeed, he was the world’s leading authority on how the British understood and practiced history from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. I need hardly say that this is an important topic because a culture’s understanding of history is fundamental to its development.

Dad published six books and many articles. In Doctor Woodward’s Shield (1977; second edition, 1991), he recovered the spirit of English intellectual life around 1700 by telling the story of a controversy that involved many of the leading wits, scholars, and scientists of the era. (The controversy concerned a shield that was thought to have belonged to Achilles himself, but ultimately turned out to be a forgery). The London Review of Books called Dr. Woodward’s Shield “one of the most imaginative contributions to the history of ideas written in the last fifty years.” In The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (1991) and in Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England (1999), Dad described the dispute about whether ancient culture was always superior to modern culture: an argument that profoundly influenced writers, scholars, scientists, and artists for several centuries. In The Autonomy of History: Truth and Method from Erasmus to Gibbon (1999), and in other writing throughout his career, Dad described the development of historical thinking and methodology. He was a passionate defender and teacher of the modern methods and craft of history, even though he was most widely read in departments of English and art history.

It is a paradox about Dad that he relished arguments and disputes, which provided the material for all his writing and which always piqued his interest, yet everyone who knew him would describe him as gentle. He argued against ideas, not against people. He was especially good, in fact, at seeing why people might adopt ideas with which he disagreed. That is a great asset for a cultural or intellectual historian.

Throughout his career, Dad was concerned with such questions as: How did history separate itself from fiction? Why was the imitation of classical models so popular and successful for several centuries of European history, and then what reduced the impulse to imitate Rome and Greece? How and why did modern methods of historical research develop? When and why did Europeans begin to understand ancient culture as profoundly different from their own? He always approached such questions by identifying particular people who had thought and written about historical issues (usually in disputes with others). He sought to recover their original motives and reasons through meticulous research, based on primary sources. This was the historical method whose development he traced back to the Renaissance.

Although he was an historian of ideas, Dad was profoundly an empiricist. He believed that ideas arose more or less the same way that other events occurred: because of the choices people made for particular purposes in local circumstances. His empiricism was a high principle that he defended, for instance, in a significant critique of the political theorist Quentin Skinner. But I think Dad was an empiricist in a much more fundamental and instinctive sense. He simply loved to poke around, to explore, to uncover unexpected facts even if they disrupted his own theories. The same man who haunted bookstores, snapped photos of sculptures in obscure European cities, drove around Upstate New York looking for antiques, and tried one minor Baroque composer after another was also a man who made his scholarly career by browsing. He browsed through the tangled narratives of forgotten disputes because he loved to be lost in facts.

Dad was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1933 and grew up near Ebbetts Field. He was very much a Brooklyn Jew: unobservant (indeed, unbelieving), but proud of his heritage and very much a product of it. He was perhaps a little unusual for a Brooklynite in that he became quite an Anglophile. Our family always took its bearings from early-modern English culture, and more broadly, from the Christian civilizations of the Atlantic nations of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe, from which Dad’s family had come, were in his distant periphery; Israel mostly exasperated him. He knew French and Italian but basically no German or Hebrew. Nevertheless, I think Dad took a dose of Germanic culture from the emigr&eacute scholars who had transformed American universities during and after the War. They believed that one could gain spiritual or moral freedom by appreciating very fine works of culture; and that one could best appreciate a cultural object by understanding its social context, which required scholarship. The classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf, who epitomized the German academy around 1900, wrote, “aesthetic evaluation is possible only from the perspective of the time in which the artwork was situated, out of the spirit of the people which brought it forth.” Add to that doctrine the Kantian idea that aesthetic evaluation develops character and freedom, and you can see why a person might study and collect books, prints, and records and write and teach about subjects like humanism and classicism. You can also see why Dad treated scholars like Arnaldo Momigliano, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach with such profound respect.

But to mention such influences is to overlook Dad’s passionate connection to the United States. He chose to spend years in England and elsewhere in Western Europe, but there was no question that he was an American. In fact, he was interested in English intellectual history up to the 18th century as the main precursor of American thought. Dad rooted for the Jets, the Mets, and the Democrats through thick and thin. He appreciated the dynamism of the United States and some (but by no means all) of its latest trends. I connect him especially to the everyday culture of New York City from the thirties to the sixties: the mix of people on the streets, the accents, the Subway, the bookstores on Fourth Avenue, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the bars in Morningside Heights, racks of used classical LPs, hot dogs from stands, the ideals and public institutions of La Guardia and FDR.

Dad graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and then from Cornell University. He received a PhD in history from Columbia in 1965 after quite a long period as a part-time professor and active New Yorker. (He and Mom even worked on turning Ellis Island into a college; they were always, in my jargon, “civically engaged.”) After some short stints at other institutions, Dad moved to Syracuse University and soon rented–later owned–the house where I grew up and where he died.

Although they were based in Syracuse, my parents spent more than 35 summers and several full years in England, where Dad used the historical archives and acquired most of his 30,000 books, especially the old ones. One year, he shipped home an actual ton of books. At first, my parents rented a different home in England on almost every annual visit. Recently, they have owned a tiny house in Camden Town from which they could walk together to the British Library. Although they cherish some English friends, their main social circle over there consists of American academics (mainly, Jewish New York academics) who use the British archives.

Disease made the last years hard for Dad, but they were definitely not without compensations. He especially enjoyed his grandchildren and had some time for teaching and travel even after he was diagnosed with cancer. Near the end, the disease struck hard at his mind and dignity. However, I recall one moment from recent weeks that was still very characteristic of him. We were visiting a cancer-care facility that offered a high-tech treatment. It was a very commercial place; we ultimately found we couldn’t afford the technology they pushed. The first person who spoke to us was the “patient advocate”–a corporate euphemism for the official who tried to sign us up as clients. She said that she had studied some history but had dropped it when it turned out there were no teaching jobs in her local school district. Dad could have been put off by the whole experience. Instead, he remarked, “What a great country, that it throws up so many confident young women like that. Not long ago, all those jobs were filled by men.” I thought that remark perfectly captured Dad’s humane and liberal generosity. The same spirit also determined his views on race, class, education, and civil liberties.

One dark recent night as Dad (delirious) and I (despairing) sat together in his study, which is lined with books about historians, I found and silently read the following text. The great historian Marc Bloch joined the French Resistance and was tortured and killed by the Gestapo. He left this testament (translated by Gerard Hopkins):

When death comes to me, whether in France or abroad, I leave it to my dear wife or, failing her, to my children, to arrange for such burial as may seem best to them. I wish the burial to be a civil one only. The members of my family know that I could accept no other kind. But when the moment comes I should like some friend to take upon himself the task of reading the following words …:

I have not asked to have read above my body those Jewish prayers to the cadence of which so many of my ancestors, including my father, were laid to rest. All my life I have striven to achieve complete sincerity in word and thought. I hold that any compromise with untruth, no matter what the pretext, is the mark of a human soul’s ultimate corruption. Following in this a much greater man than I could ever hope to be [I think the reference is to Ernest Renan], I wish for no better epitaph than these simple words:–DILEXIT VERITATEM [he loved the truth]. That is why I find it impossible, at this moment of my last farewell, when, if ever, a man should be true to himself, to authorize any use of those formulae of an orthodoxy to the beliefs of which I have ever refused to subscribe.

But I should hate to think that anyone might read into this statement of personal integrity even the remotest approximation to a coward’s denial. I am prepared therefore, if necessary, to affirm here, in the face of death, that I was born a Jew: that I have never denied it, nor ever been tempted to do so. In a world assailed by the most appalling barbarism, is not that generous tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, which Christianity at its highest and noblest took over and expanded, one of the best justifications we can have for living, believing, and fighting? A stranger to all credal dogmas, as to all pretended community of life and spirit based on race, I have, through life, felt that I was above all, and quite simply, a Frenchman. A family tradition, already of long date, has bound me firmly to my country. I have found nourishment in her spiritual heritage and in her history. I can, indeed, think of no other land in which I could have breathed with such air and freedom. I have loved her greatly and served her with all my strength. I have never found that the fact of being a Jew has at all hindered these sentiments. Though I have fought in two wars, it has not fallen to my lot to die for France. But I can, at least, in all sincerity, declare that I die now, as I have lived, a good Frenchman.

If we substitute “America” for “France,” add gentleness and tact to Bloch’s cardinal virtue of sincerity, and delete the sentence about serving in two wars, these words would beautifully and precisely describe my father.

German memories

Last winter, we took a quick family vacation to a small town in Bavaria. This was my first serious stay in Germany, although I’d been to Austria before. Specifically, we chose to visit a town in Franconia, a province famous for walled cities, vineyards on rolling hills, carved altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider, and the Nazi Gauleiter Julius Streicher.

Our hotel was built into the medieval walls. Its cultural atmosphere was, I suppose, a mix of the pre-modern and the contemporary. The food, the appliances, and the free computer terminals were all up-to-date, but the structure belonged to the old free Imperial city of traders and guilds. That city, incidentally, incorporated a large Jewish community with a famous scholarly tradition, until the Jews were expelled in 1520.

The family that owned the hotel could not possibly have been friendlier, warmer, or kinder to us. Near the end of our stay, we had to move–as previously arranged–to a suite in their private house. This turned out to be a spacious and comfortable home with all the modern conveniences, reminiscent (to me) of suburban houses in Surrey. It was, in fact, a newer building than any in which I have lived in the United States. A stone plaque over the main door identified the date of construction. I believe it said “1937.”

I do not pretend to know the details of life in a small Franconian town in 1937, but I suspect that no one built handsome houses right outside the city walls without being friendly to the totalitarian Nazi regime, which was deeply rooted in the region. Our host had grown up in the house and seemed old enough to remember its construction. You flipped on a light switch and thought to yourself that that very same switch had still been new on Kristallnacht in 1938. Evil felt close and recent.

And yet, the family’s private library included serious, scholarly books on the holocaust, anti-Nazi classics by Mann and Grass, and pacifist volumes by the likes of Tolstoy. How do I know that there was a medieval Jewish community in town? Because of the fine and prominent municipal monument to the expelled, which is inscribed with Hebrew poetry translated into German. I know from an equally excellent Holocaust memorial that the 17 Jews who resided in town in 1938 were driven away and lost to history.

It wasn’t our host’s fault that he was born in Franconia around 1930. Nor do I deserve one ounce of moral credit for having been born of Jewish heritage in America decades later. I don’t see what anyone in his position could do, beyond reading the books that he owns and contributing to the decent contemporary state that is the Federal Republic of Germany. There are countless citizens of guilty countries who have never stopped to think about such matters.

Our host’s wife was in the hospital. On the day we had to leave, he insisted on driving his little car all the way to the Autobahn so that we could follow him and get safely on our way to Frankfurt. I picture him waving goodbye to us and then driving back to his 1937 house to wait for news from the hospital. I only hope that the news was good.

digital nativism

(Wisconsin) I am not a “digital native,” someone who grew up with computers from infancy. Instead, I am an immigrant to the land of the digital–but I arrived here early. In mid-elementary school, my Mom took me and a friend to the Syracuse University computer lab, where we played around with a mainframe machine that used punch cards. Around the same period, one of my aunts had a friend who owned a store in New York City that sold robots and home computers. I visited the store and probably had some contact with a desktop computer.

By seventh grade, some of my friends knew a bit about how to use our middle-school’s work stations, which were networked with the downtown machine by way of old-fashioned modems. (You put the phone receiver in a velvet-lined box, closed the latch, and then dialed.) That year, I remember a friend telling me about computer viruses. By ninth grade, I owned a Commodore 64 for playing video games and programming a little in BASIC.

I arrived at college with a portable, manual (non-electric typewriter) which served me through freshman year. By the time I graduated, I was composing all my papers on one of the college’s shared Apple Macs.

As an immigrant to the land of the digital, I can still remember the Old Country and probably speak computerese with a slight offline accent. But I function well. I would be highly uncomfortable in a pre-digital world, and I have more experience with computers than the young digital natives whom I meet in high schools and colleges.

You can tell those who immigrated much later in life and who still long for the old country–the digital exiles. They may, for example, work from a single Word file, which they erase and rewrite every time they need a new document. That way, they don’t have to save and quit, which they have never quite learned to do. Another telltale sign: keeping all of one’s email in the inbox (forever) and only writing to people by replying to old emails. Using the email subject line “From [your name]” is also a mark of the digital exile.