If Lionel Trilling had lived to write the autobiographical memoir he had for a long time wanted to write—it was scarcely begun at his death in 1975—an important section of it would no doubt have been devoted to his early career at Columbia and to the difficulties of establishing himself in the English-teaching profession. In part this would inevitably have been a story of the Depression of the 30’s, since the decade in which he was chiefly trying to get his start in the university was also the decade in which his family, always firm in the middle class so far as its social expectations were concerned but never financially secure, finally lost its economic foothold and dropped the burden of its support, together with the responsibility for decision in family affairs, upon his young shoulders. But it would also have been the story of what it meant to be a Jew in the American academy before we actually let ourselves recognize what was happening in Germany and what the casual anti-Semitism of our own country could portend.
Lionel’s situation as a Jew who wished to teach in a college was at once typical and untypical. Typical was the uncertainty whether the choice was a possible one—quite apart, that is, from academic qualification. This was not the uncertainty of graduate students today as they face academic recession and a steadily diminishing job market. In Lionel’s time there was no problem of the continuing strength of the universities. The question was, could a Jew realistically plan on a university career? The consensus was that especially in certain fields he could not. Several of Lionel’s friends had already given up. Elliot Cohen had been a brilliant student of English at Yale but with university teaching closed to him, or so he was convinced—correctly, I think—he had become editor of the Menorah Journal, a magazine of Jewish thought for which Lionel and other of his Columbia contemporaries had begun to write as undergraduates. Another Jewish friend from Columbia days, unable to foresee a job in a college history department, had deserted graduate study to become a taxi driver, until one day his father discovered how his son was occupying himself and persuaded him to become a lawyer.
Of course, there were the usual hindrances to generalization: one knew of exceptions to the ruling proscription of Jews from college teaching. Sidney Hook was at New York University; the physicist I. I. Rabi and several philosophers, including Irwin Edman, whose mother was a friend of Lionel’s mother, were at Columbia; Morris R. Cohen was at City College. Even art history, then the most socially fastidious of disciplines, had been forced to make place for a Columbia scholar of Meyer Schapiro’s spectacular abilities. But English gave no such promise of breakthrough: university English departments were still under the vigilant protection of something called the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
Untypical were Lionel’s tenacity and courage—he was among the most unostentatiously enduring of people—and the curious assumptions of his upbringing. The belief that was commonly inculcated in the sons of East European Jewish immigrants, particularly those whose fathers had been deflected from the scholarly lives toward which their own early training had been bent, was that Jews came into a hostile world armed with notably superior intellectual powers. To achieve success, which also meant advancing in Americanization or (much the same thing) moving upward on the class ladder, they had only to deploy their native capacities to advantage.
The message of Lionel’s upbringing was of a different order. It seemed not to have occurred to his parents that money was necessary to social mobility; as naturally as they breathed they thought of themselves, and always had, as middle-class people—were they not honest, respectable, committed to the solidity and progress of their adopted country? They were not people who went much into the world. They seldom ate in restaurants or attended the theater, although they occasionally went to an opera or concert. They belonged to no clubs and limited their social life to relatives and a modest group of neighbor-friends. But they never felt excluded from life on the ground of having little money or being Jews. English was always the language of the home, well spoken, and Lionel’s mother in particular moved among Gentiles without self-consciousness—when Lionel was not accepted as a freshman in good standing because he had done badly in math, his mother had no hesitation in approaching the Columbia officer who had these matters in charge so that the decision was altered.
Unlike others of his intellectual generation, that is, Lionel had no need to make for himself the strategic leap into the American middle class, with what this so often involves in defensiveness. Also, unlike many first-generation Jewish intellectuals, he had not been taught to think of himself as “smart.” It was not his sense that life was a contest of minds or that intellect was a weapon; it was more an instrument of conscience. But his parents had made him feel unusually valuable, or certainly much valued by them. While he had no belief that he possessed outstanding skills—on the contrary, throughout his life he thought that virtually everyone with whom he associated had read more than he had, had a better memory, and was better trained in the use of the basic tools of the intellectual trade—he had grown up with an undefined feeling of personal worth, some secret quality of being to which he could give no name but on which he could ultimately rely. As a child, or perhaps even at birth, he had been proved, as if born with a caul. Just as Jewish intellectual arrogance has its mythic dimension, this curious intuition of whatever it was that Lionel’s parents cherished in him also had a magical character. For example, without truly distancing himself from the incident, not finally, Lionel told me of the day in his childhood when he was the object of an ugly street assault by a group of boys who pelted him with snowballs, possibly with rocks in them. He had not run. He had continued on his way, though frightened, telling himself that, like Baldur, he could not be hurt—and he was not hit.
Casual acquaintances of Lionel’s father—these would of course be contemporaries—referred to him as “a perfect gentleman.” With more daring, he might once have been a fop. Failed as he perhaps knew himself to be and all too manifestly inferior to his wife in attractiveness and energy, he still didn’t entirely conform to the now-established image of the failed father of Jewish-American fiction. His wife said that as a young man he had been a prodigious dancer. And even Lionel described him as having been an excellent swimmer. I found all this hard to imagine—I would have thought him afraid of cold water—but then it was also easy for me to bypass the fact that early in his marriage he had cared for his mother, sisters, and brothers much as he now assumed Lionel would care for him.
A gentleman he was in his manner of speech and in his public stance but his family temper was violent. He was also an overbearing hypochondriac. And he had a most faulty sense of money, quite regularly confusing it with something distinctly less tangible, such as personal due or honor. In the worst years of the Depression, when we had all of us, Lionel’s parents, Lionel, I, to apportion our infinitesimal funds among many creditors, he would solicit Lionel for money with which to meet, not the rent or food bills—these were not his concern—but his debt (as he interpreted it) to a porter whom he accused himself of once having unfairly laid off; his tone in these approaches was that of a man the plain plausibility of whose mission must be self-evident. Innocent of guilt or, so far as one could see, pain for shifting his responsibilities to a son who was not yet started in his own career, he lived in great fear of punishment for the neglect of fancied obligations outside the family.
The weak hold that his father had on reality was maddening to Lionel, especially because of the blandness with which his father met opposition to his conduct or contradiction of his views. While still living with his family as a student, Lionel had returned home one day to find his father rifling his desk and reading his mail. To Lionel’s angry protest his father replied, “I’m not reading your mail, son. I’m just interested in your life.” He spoke in hurt because his son so misunderstood his motives.
At Lionel’s birth his father had been a decently successful custom-tailor but he had given this up to become a wholesale furrier—years later, struggling to maintain two families, Lionel would tell his friends in weary irony the reason that had been given him for the change: his father wanted Lionel to be able to say that he was the son of a manufacturer, not a tailor! I doubt he was meant for any business, but wholesale-fur dealing offered him irresistible temptations to calamity. Probably the most notable, the last, was his decision in the late 20’s to make the most beautifully-matched raccoon coats that had ever been put on the market—they were for chauffeurs. Closed cars had by now come in but he was convinced they were not here to stay; the passengers in open cars could cover themselves with rugs but chauffeurs had no such warmth. When Lionel inquired why, instead of trying to outfit chauffeurs in such expensive coats, he didn’t look to the colleges for his customers, his father smiled in pity and explained that obviously it was only rudimentary good sense to know that students couldn’t afford such costly garments.
And was it also rudimentary good sense to know that a young man with a salary of $2,400 a year—but this would be considerably later, when Lionel got his first job at Columbia—and with two families to support couldn’t afford custom clothes? In 1932 Lionel had just been made an instructor and to meet the occasion he had bought himself a suit at Macy’s—the price, as I recall, was $29.99. Lionel’s mother liked to have us to dinner on Friday nights—although her husband, eating outside the house in better days, ate ham and even shellfish, she kept a kosher home and lit Sabbath candles. Waiting vainly, irritably, for his father to notice his new suit, Lionel at last asked his opinion. His father sighed: “Get up, son.” Lionel tried to restrain his annoyance while his father slowly twirled him about, yanking up the collar of the jacket and hauling at its skirt. Finally he gave his judgment: “Don’t you think a young man in your position owes it to himself to have a tailor-made suit?” What position, what position, Lionel wanted to shout—but could he attack a pride as perilously rooted as his father’s? Around the house there was of course no talk of the determining experience of his father’s childhood, but long before 1932 Lionel had learned the story: slated for an intellectual life, probably the rabbinate, in his native city of Bialystok, his father’s course had all in a single day been abruptly terminated. He had broken down during his Bar Mitzvah: I suppose he forgot his lines. In consequence, a thirteen-year-old had been shipped off to America, put out of sight. For the rest of his life a cloud of disgrace and of the potential for still-uncharted disaster hovered about him.
Lionel’s mother was determined that her husband’s tendency to panic, overlaid as it was with disquieting fantasies of conquest, should not be communicated to Lionel—Lionel remembered his initial appearance in a school play, and his confused awareness that his mother didn’t want his father in the room when she heard him go through his part. It must have given her singular pleasure (but she kept it to herself) that she lived to see Lionel such a relaxed lecturer. But this is not to say that hers was only a negative capability. Lionel’s mother was a vigorous presence for anyone who knew her. Few people I have met have been so educable so long: her character and outlook on life changed radically in her middle and old age, the small-spirited values she could once share with her wealthy, self-imposing brothers and sisters steadily giving place to impulses that weren’t validated by the conventions of their segment of the world.
Her parents, too, had been East European but she had been born and schooled in London’s East End—without ever saying it, she could somehow suggest that Israel Zangwill had been a neighborhood intimate. But then, in celebration of female sturdiness, she could also speak of her “little English mother” in a way to suggest the natural family resemblance to Queen Victoria! Literary to her fingertips and wistfully envious of younger sisters who had been sent to Hunter College when the family had moved to New York, she was among the best-read people I have known, with critical perceptions that were the more impressive for always being voiced, and only to Lionel or me, with unaffected tentativeness: “Li dear, I never went to college and maybe I’m all wrong-but did Stendhal . . . did Thackeray . . . did Tolstoy . . .?” or “Di dear, you know these things better than I do. Did Henry James . . . did Mann . . . did Lawrence . . .?” Lionel’s father had been a reader too, but not like this. She read incessantly until her eyes gave out in her late eighties.
Lionel’s mother had early decided that Lionel was to have an Oxford PhD; he said he couldn’t have been more than four or five when she first announced this to him. That it didn’t work out as she had planned and that his closest approach to the fulfillment of that particular dream was to become Eastman Professor at Oxford in 1964, a few months before her death, was—I think—troubling to him.
It was to his mother’s confident expectations for him that Lionel, following Freud, ascribed his own ambitions and such faith as he had in his intellectual capacities. But in his later years he began to feel that this might not be a just assessment of the situation and that perhaps, if only genetically, he drew more from his father than he might once have liked to admit—this was when he heard of Trillings scattered in many parts of the world, an unusual number of whom were of high professional repute; they all of them traced their lineage to a common ancestor in Bialystok, a rabbi renowned for his learning. (How could one not think of a small boy in Bialystok, fluffing his Bar Mitzvah speech!) To be sure, the Cohens, too, and not Lionel’s mother alone but others in her family, had their own demonstrable claim to gift, but among the Cohens as Lionel had known them in his formative years—even his own mother not altogether apart—the line between intellectual seriousness and intellectual chic had not been un-blurred. Among the Trillings there seemed to be no such push for status on the basis of “culture.”
I had met Lionel in 1927 and we married in June 1929. In October came the stock-market crash. I was not a particularly welcome addition to his family until slowly, very slowly, over the next strenuous years, as she was forced to confront not only the financial callousness but also the emotional isolateness of her Park Avenue brothers and sisters, four of them unmarried and living together in an apartment sealed to life, consecrated only to a remarkable art collection, Lionel’s mother transferred much of her loyalty from them to me. My father was wiped out in the crash; anguished by “robbing his children,” as he put it, he lived by borrowing on his life insurance. Lionel’s father soon lost his fur business; we couldn’t carry his insurance, it had been taken out too late in life. I became gravely ill with hyperthyroidism; far from being able to contribute to the family income I was an expense—in the next ten years, until I regained my strength, I asked much of Lionel, more than is easily told, in emotional support. The bills mounted. My mother was no longer alive: my sister did my father’s laundry and housework; the money this saved they gave us to help Lionel’s family. We borrowed from everyone we knew, $50 here, $100 there—the people to whom we were sufficiently close to be able to borrow seldom had more than small sums to lend. When my father died at the end of 1932 and I inherited my third of an insurance trust, all that remained of a once-substantial estate, we owed the capital distributions before they could be made.
Because he looked as he did, so quietly self-possessed; spoke as he did; was as he was, unscarred by grievance, Lionel has been pictured since his death as socially privileged above most intellectuals, someone to whom everything had always been given, nothing exacted: a child of gracious fortune. Surely his students couldn’t have known the difficulties of his early career, although a sharp observer might perhaps have read a reminiscence of them in his eyes and in his never-completed smile. “Tell your husband to move over and give us a chance,” raged a Columbia revolutionary of 1968 who had been busted and was now phoning to vent his fury at the “authority,” not any authority but the one who must have been nearest to his own ideal. Lionel was not at home to take the call; the message was to be passed on by me.
Seven years had elapsed between Lionel’s graduation from Columbia in 1925, shortly before his twentieth birthday, and his appointment as an English instructor in 1932—there was of course no tenure in an instructorship, but the appointment was an accolade; both families felt very proud. But no one was under the illusion, unless perhaps Lionel’s father, that Lionel’s professional problems were now permanently solved. My own father was ill, terminally, and I remember a conversation with him that fail in which I tried to divert him with an account of a debate Lionel and I had recently attended between Earl Browder for the Communist party and McAlister Coleman for the Socialists at the Morningside branch of the Socialist party, near the University. My father was upset; “Don’t you know that President Butler has his spies at meetings like that?” I pointed out that Lionel was in no danger, I had even seen Corliss Lamont at the meeting. “A Communist like Corliss Lamont Lionel should be!” To the son of a Morgan partner—my father was saying—life offered safer harbors than to an anonymous Jew. But he was reflecting as well the then-prevalent idea of the university, contradictory though it was of his own deep-rooted respect for all institutions of learning, as a bulwark of entrenched political and social values, and in itself a power entity. To all Jews and maybe to most non-Jews, too, certainly in New York, the university had an authority not unlike that of the state: remote, virtually absolute. And this view was fortified at Columbia by the public image of Nicholas Murray Butler who was known to associate with the great financiers and political leaders of the day and to want the Presidency of the United States. We forget that our picture of the college as a liberal citadel is of recent vintage, post-Roosevelt.
It had not been a calm road Lionel had traveled in the seven years since his graduation in 1925. He had remained at Columbia in 1925-26 to take his MA, after which he had spent a year as what would now be called a teaching assistant in Alexander Meiklejohn’s experimental college at the University of Wisconsin. My knowledge of 1927-29 is not precise: while I know he taught at Hunter under Blanche Colton Williams, I am unsure whether it was in the day or evening session; he regarded the experience as only a degrading one and afterward didn’t wish to speak of it. In this area, too, we have to keep in mind the changes that have taken place since that period: the city system was then well-locked into the system of Tammany patronage; merit was scarcely the sole ground on which one got a Hunter appointment.
We married in 1929 and during the next year Lionel worked as an assistant editor of the Menorah Journal for Elliot Cohen, apparently giving satisfaction neither to Cohen nor himself—it was another experience he preferred not to discuss. Between 1930 and 1932 he taught in the evening session of Hunter; in the second of those two years he also had an $1,800 fellowship from Columbia—he had to appeal for special permission to augment this by his part-time teaching. Evening teaching at Hunter was piece work: one was paid a bit more than $3 an hour for an undergraduate class, something over $5 an hour for graduate teaching. Lionel had one undergraduate and one graduate class. When there was insufficient graduate registration, several of my friends signed up, the investment of the $15 registration fees being justified by our need for the income. But a bout of flu could spell financial catastrophe: on an evening when Lionel was too ill to leave his bed, we could think of no salvation but for me to take his classes for him. As a direct result of that undertaking—I tried to teach his graduate students a book I had never read—I have not again ventured into a classroom.
Accesses of inexplicable power can suddenly come to one—as Lionel would learn a few years later—and sudden beneficences too: the offer to Lionel of an instructorship at Columbia is not readily accounted for. By and large, except for Raymond Weaver, who was outspokenly hostile until a long time afterward when his enmity changed into affection as precipitously as it had appeared, his teachers liked Lionel well enough, but he was far from esteemed above all others—it is even possible that a piece by Mark Van Doren in the Menorah Journal in 1927, in which he describes some of his former Jewish students, reflects more than just his own estimate that Lionel’s was one of the less commanding talents of his college generation. (What strikes one, reading the piece today, is surely not any prescience it can boast but its subject. In 1927 only an editor of Elliot Cohen’s ironic imaginativeness could have thought to invite a college teacher of English, even in New York, to write about the Jews he had taught!) The person directing Lionel’s dissertation was Emery Neff, a scholar of Carlyle and Mill. Neff was personally not unfriendly but Lionel had given him little to go on in judgment of his capacities other than vague gropings toward a book about Matthew Arnold. When the appointment as instructor came, it was from an entirely unexpected source. There was no reason to suspect that Ashley Thorndike, then head of the department, took notice of Lionel, yet it was Thorndike who offered him the job. Did Thorndike, in proposing Lionel for the English department, have a programmatic purpose? Had he caught something about Lionel that others missed? Lionel never learned. Obviously, if it was Thorndike’s intention to test a Jew, Lionel made a good gamble both in appearance and name. Had his name been that of his maternal grandfather, Israel Cohen, it is highly questionable whether the offer would have been made. (This was the grandfather whose uncanny resemblance to Freud would in later years capture Lionel’s imagination.)
It was a period in which one earned one’s keep: for $2,400 an instructor taught four full courses while commonly working for his PhD. If, like Lionel, he had ambitions to write elsewhere than only in scholarly periodicals, he also wrote book reviews when he could get them. If he was desperate as Lionel was for money, he added to this schedule such literary odd jobs as came his way—for $10 fees Lionel talked to womens’ clubs in Staten Island or Westchester; he pasted up anthologies to be given away as bonuses with newspaper subscriptions; at one stage, he tutored a rich young man in novel-writing and, at another, he taught a class at a Junior League. I don’t know if the quality of his teaching suffered under the pressure but undoubtedly his thesis did. It would nevertheless be inaccurate to blame the difficulties he was having with his book wholly on the strains of such urgent money-earning, severe as these were. He was depressed, he had a considerable writing block though fortunately not a total one, he didn’t know what kind of book he had undertaken to write: how did you write an intellectual biography of Matthew Arnold without writing the history of the 19th century? From the start his department had no great enthusiasm for his dissertation subject; it was too big, too amorphous, and who cared about Arnold anyway? Yet with no clear notion of what he was about, which might have persuaded them to take a more cheerful view of his project, Lionel never yielded his determination to stay with his topic. No one could have worked harder, nor less fruitfully—he went out no more than one evening a week, he read, he brooded, he drafted chapter after chapter. My own recollection of his early efforts on the Arnold was of a dissertation that, week in and week out, found yet another way of saying that England had had an Industrial Revolution and that the roads were bad! Although Lionel knew better than to show all these versions to Neff, an occasional presentation was unavoidable, and each time Neff read a chapter he sent Lionel back for a fresh try. Later, when life improved, Lionel confessed to me that he didn’t always go to the library when he told me that that was his destination: things were too bad. In fact, even earlier in our marriage, assailed by depression, he would go to the movies, sitting through interminable double features like someone homeless.
It went this way for four years. In 1936 the Columbia department dropped him. The way it was done was not harsh. The departmental spokesman said he would not be reappointed for a next year because “as a Freudian, a Marxist, and a Jew” he was not happy there. Lionel said he was happy in the department. They said he would be “more comfortable” elsewhere.
Obviously in the midst of the devastation produced by his dismissal—what would he do now?—Lionel couldn’t grasp the complex truth of what was involved in this termination of his appointment. But though not yet formulated with the conviction that would later come to him, at least one thing was immediately clear: his dismissal was not any simple act of anti-Semitism, any more than it was a simple act of anti-Freudianism or anti-Marxism—while he had been known to be a Communist fellow-traveler at the time he got his job in 1932, in the years since then he had moved steadily away from his earlier Marxist commitment, although never ceding his interest in and respect for Marx’s thought; as for his Freudian preference, it could be known only through conversation because in 1936 it had not yet appeared in his writing. Although over the years the story of Lionel’s dismissal came to be talked about among people we knew as a gross instance of collegiate anti-Semitism, this was a bargain-basement version of the actual scenario. What was in fact going on doesn’t make the ready matter of religious polemics, it makes the more textured matter of fiction. Lionel was a harried, frightened young man. He proclaimed no confidence in himself—this was true outside the University as well as within it—and he therefore inspired little confidence in others. In 1936 his dissertation was not yet visible to the naked eye. His moral and intellectual force, like his tenaciousness and wit, was visible chiefly to me and a few other intimates. When his department said he wasn’t happy with them and would be more comfortable elsewhere, what they meant was that they weren’t happy with him and would be more comfortable if he went somewhere else. The documentation they produced in evidence of his—their—unease was the aspect of the situation that had significant social implications, for what it revealed was that Jews were people who made the Columbia faculty uncomfortable, Freudians were people who made the Columbia faculty uncomfortable, Marxists were people who made the Columbia faculty uncomfortable. It is in this sense, circumscribed but charged enough, that in dismissing Lionel, Columbia can be accused of anti-Semitism together with other biases and cautions.
It was a few days before Lionel responded at Columbia to his dismissal: the action he took was the single most decisive move of his life, undoubtedly its source his mother’s insistence that her hope for her son, her certainty of his firm future, must triumph over his father’s long tragic concourse with defeat. One after the other Lionel confronted those members of his department whom he knew best: Van Doren, Weaver, Neff. He didn’t reason with them, he didn’t argue with them. He told them that they were getting rid of a person who would one day bring great distinction to their department; they would not easily find another as good. It was his habit to speak quietly but now he spoke so loud that Neff was distressed, closed the transom. It wasn’t a ploy, it wasn’t planned—for the rest of his life Lionel would recur to this deeply uncharacteristic moment. With me or with friends, he would speculate on what had generated conduct this alien to his usual temper and also what lessons about our human workings were to be learned from its outcome. All at once he had presented himself to these people as the opposite of what he had previously been, someone who tempted their aggression, and, as he analyzed it, it was this that had accomplished its miracle: with such high opinion of himself, was it not possible that he deserved their high opinion? At any rate, so it worked out: it was agreed that he was to stay on for another year; the year multiplied because he was now a changed person. He began his book anew, his confusions about the direction it must take seemed overnight to vanish. By 1939 it was published to his department’s satisfaction and President Butler’s pride. In those days a dissertation had to be published and a hundred copies deposited in the library in order to earn one’s degree; it was a last unhappy note to the history of Lionel’s Matthew Arnold that W. W. Norton required a subsidy to publish it. Somehow—more borrowing!—we found the money.
The role of President Butler in the next stage of Lionel’s academic career importantly modifies the image of Butler that has come down to us. Few good words have been written about him; in general he has been made to appear, especially in the recollection of students who were engaged in Communist activities on the campus in the 30’s, a fiercely repressive administrator, indeed a tyrant. I don’t know the justice or injustice of these reports. His relation to Lionel, however, was exemplary in an administrative tradition that no longer exists.
One day in early 1939—his book had just been published in England as well as here—Lionel met his old friend and teacher, Irwin Edman, in the neighborhood. As they chatted, Irwin asked Lionel whether he had thought to send Butler a copy of the Matthew Arnold. No, Lionel had not; it had not occurred to him. But Butler liked to be sent copies of books written by members of his faculty, Irwin explained; in fact, he considered it a breach of etiquette if this courtesy was denied him. No one was more knowledgeable in such matters than Irwin. He was the only person of our acquaintance who also had acquaintance with the President; his urging of this duty upon Lionel was not to be written off. To Lionel, Butler was a distant, formidable figure, known for his almost comically exalted style of life: how did one even address him? Irwin must be bothered once more. In reply to Lionel’s embarrassed phone call, Irwin explained the procedure: addressing him “Dear Mr. President,” Lionel must write a letter asking the privilege of sending him his recent book; the book, inscribed “To President Butler, Respectfully. . . .” was to be mailed the next day. Insisting that he could not do it, would not do it, could not be prevailed upon to do it, Lionel followed Irwin’s instructions.
That night I had a waking dream in which President Butler got Lionel’s book, read it, and rushed into the next office to Frank Fackenthal, Columbia’s Provost. “Frank, do you mean to say we have an instructor in this university who can write a book like this? He must be promoted!” I later learned that as nearly as a fantasy can be reenacted in reality, this one had been.
If President Butler wanted a young man promoted, he had his procedures. Every spring the Association for University Teas gave a reception at the Faculty Club for the President and his wife. Several weeks before the event this spring an engraved invitation arrived at our house: Lionel and I were asked to dinner at the President’s the evening of the reception. No one we knew had ever been at the Butlers’ for dinner, perhaps not even Irwin Edman—I remember I had to go afield for advice about dress, but that could have been because Irwin had no wife I could consult. I felt I was taking my life in my hands in even calling the Secretary of the University, a white-haired gentleman who suggested a plumper smoother Cordell Hull, to inquire whether it was white or black tie that was indicated for our occasion. “White tie, I should think,” said Mr. Hayden in a voice that froze the heart. It was decided: Lionel would hire tails and I would buy a ball gown. A terrible thought came to me: need I wear long white gloves? Who was there to tell me? I called the fashion department of Vogue magazine which assured me that there was no occasion or place that any longer required long white gloves, unless it was the Court of St. James’s. This convinced me: long white gloves would be worn at President Butler’s. I called the fashion adviser of Bonwit Teller and got the same reply but this time I was more specific: “What about dinner at the home of President Butler of Columbia University?” “Well, yes,” came the reply. “That might be a good idea.”
Public figures and University people were obviously not to be mixed; on the evening of our dinner the guests were entirely from the faculty, I think there were twenty people present. For dinner at eight, Lionel and I carefully arrived at 8:02. We were the last to arrive and were rather urgently propelled toward the closed drawing-room doors by a footman. The doors were flung open, we were announced by a butler. The receiving line consisted of the President and his wife. “Let me congratulate you, sir, on your splendid English reviews,” was the President’s greeting to Lionel. “There’s only been one,” said Lionel. “There have been two, sir,” the President corrected him. In the meantime I was being welcomed, if that’s the word, by his wife. “Do you know everyone here, my dear?” I made a lightning survey of the room. “I’m afraid I don’t know anyone.” “That, my dear, is because you never come to any of the teas or receptions.” In the dining room it was possible to study the company. All the women but one wore long white kid gloves, the hands now rolled back. Lionel was the obvious purpose of the evening. Dean Hawkes of the College was a guest and so was Ernest Hunter Wright, now head of the University English department. For his communication to be unmistakable, Butler would have had to do no more than invite Lionel, an instructor, in this company. But he had yet another arrow to fire.
Through dinner the President ate nothing; he drank a great deal of Scotch. The food was delicious: his wife was a Frenchwoman of mature years built with the kind of one-piece sloping bosom that made a properly solid armature for a lavender cut-velvet Worth gown, very expensive, elegant, and unbeautiful, that was then in favor among higher-echelon ladies of two continents, and I knew about her table from the grocer we shared. One day when I had been offered a bargain in loose carrots from a corner basket and I had rejected them as “horse carrots,” he had confided to me that these were the ones Mrs. Butler bought for the servants’ kitchen; nothing was too good for her own table. There were several footmen to serve so that the meal went swiftly. At its end the women repaired to Mrs. Butler’s sitting-room upstairs while the men had cigars and brandy in the President’s library. The President sat on a bench with his back to the fireplace, Lionel told me, and did all the talking. He was growing old; under any circumstances it would have been easier to talk than listen. In a circle in front of him the men attended what he had to say.
What the prefatory monologue consisted in was of no import, it was where it inescapably led that mattered: Butler recounted the correspondence he had had with the Chancellor of the University of Berlin when the two universities, Berlin and Columbia, had decided on an exchange of philosophy professors. Columbia proposed to send Felix Adler and the Chancellor had written to protest a Jewish visitor. Lionel recreated the scene. Having got this far in his narrative, Butler had put down his brandy glass and firmly planted his hands on his knees, fixing his eyes on Professor Wright as he boomed: “And I, gentlemen, I wrote back: ‘At Columbia, sir, we recognize merit, not race.’ ” Silence. The party rose to join the ladies and move on to the Faculty Club reception. In the summer, “under his summer powers,” President Butler appointed Lionel an Assistant Professor of English, the first Jew of that department to become a member of the faculty.
How much, then, had anti-Semitism actually been a factor in Lionel’s dismissal in 1936? Who can say? Certainly it was by Butler’s intervention, by fiat of the top authority of the University, that a Jew was first given a post teaching English at Columbia, which in those days implied permanence.
Everyone was easy with him; Lionel felt no hidden tensions. Indeed, the generosity that he met from this point forward in his Columbia career has, for me, a legendary quality—his departmental colleagues could not have taken more pleasure in his academic or critical successes if they had been their own.
One day, however, very soon after his promotion, Lionel had a call from Emery Neff: he wished to come to the house and he hoped that I would be at home too. Although we were mildly on visiting terms with Neff and his wife, a call of this kind was unprecedented.
What Emery Neff came to say was that now that Lionel was a member of the department, he hoped that he would not use it as a wedge to open the English department to more Jews. He made his statement economically and straightforwardly, ungarnished; it must have taken some courage. And he seemed to be speaking for himself alone; he cited no other departmental opinion. Lionel and I just sat and stared. Neither of us spoke. Emery turned to other subjects and soon left.
World War II had started. In the next years the situation of Jews in American universities changed radically. Not only at Columbia, but everywhere, even Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and not only in English departments but in all fields of study and in administration, Jews made their comfortable way. I remember Lionel’s grin the day he came home to report: “We hired a new English instructor today. His name is Hyman Kleinman.” I also remember, in fact together we remembered, one of his father’s wilder—no, wildest—flights of fancy back in the early 30’s when it seemed to us that if we had to endure yet another of his unrealities we might ourselves lose our hold. We had been talking about Jews in college teaching, the failure they almost surely faced. His father, as always unperturbed in his reading of this world we presumably inhabited with him, had fixed his most unbearably pitying look on Lionel. “Why, son, this is America. A Jew could be President of Columbia University.”