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.

8 thoughts on “Joseph M. Levine

  1. Russell Arben Fox

    Peter, this was a marvellous tribute to your father; thank you for sharing it with us. I offer my condolences on your loss, and my prayers and hopes that his passing will not be a cause of (too much) grief for your family, but rather an occasion to honor a celebrate a loving man, who lived by all accounts a good and noble life. RIP.

  2. Peter Levine

    I have received more than two dozen emails about my father, most of which comment wonderfully on my blog post. Since these authors have chosen to email me privately instead of posting online (and I would probably do the same), I will not cite them here by name. But I’d like to mention two kinds of response. First, several of my friends from teenage years and early adulthood have described Dad as a mentor. I think that’s an unusual achievement. He was a nice guy, which helped; he was very involved as a parent, which gave him time with my friends; but he also had quiet principles that young people seemed to have found impressive and seriously wished to emulate.

    Second, a good friend of mine who hardly knew Dad wrote what I consider a very moving prayer or blessing: “I hope you will forgive me, in reference to Bloch, if I offer a very few words. Bloch said he ‘did not ask’ for the traditional words, but neither did he eschew them altogether. So, to you, your mother, and Caroline [my sister], I can only say Olav HaShalom, may he rest in peace, and may his memory be a blessing to all who knew him.”

  3. mooredp


    Thank you for sharing your wonderful tribute. You honor your Dad’s memory everyday with your intellect and your embrace of ideas. My prayers and thoughts are with you and your family.

    David Moore

  4. Peter Levine

    At least another dozen lovely emails have arrived, many from his former students. I didn’t write about Dad’s teaching, but evidently it was important in some people’s careers and personal development.

    One message came with explicit permission to post. This is from Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, president of AmericaSpeaks:

    Dear Peter,

    What a beautiful and moving tribute you have written about your father. Peter, many of the things I respect and highly value about you are a clear legacy from and to your father. Your commitment to the truth, your gentleness and ability to hear people on many levels, knowing how to balance serious scholarship and living a life – and so much more.

    Your writing enabled many of us who never knew your father to “know” him a little and be touched by him in his passing. That is a gift in itself.

    Thank you and my heart is with you.

  5. EmpressJess

    Peter, your father was the sole and precious relative who slipped in and out of my youth full of warmth and kindness, as if no discernible time had passed in between visits. My uncle Joe always seemed to be interested in what was currently on my mind, discussed briefly on rare visits and remembered long after I had grown up just a little bit more. As an adult I know him best through his books, several of which contain passages I hear read in his voice. He remains a beloved figure in the landscape of my memory, smile wide and arms open to a chatty little niece. I cannot feel the depth of your sorrow, but in my mind’s eye, remembrance of serious consideration given to my wildest fancy mitigate mine. Much love, Jessamyn

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