OCTOBER 26, 2014
The following is a feature article from the new LARB Quarterly Journal: Fall 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level.
All photographs courtesy of Carol K. Kammen. All rights reserved.
MY MENTOR AND FRIEND Michael Kammen died last November. A widely published and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, his passing was duly noted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. The newsletters of various historical organizations also printed warm and admiring obituaries.
Individually some of these death notices contained factual errors or interpretive eccentricities that Michael would have found amusing, although he was too meticulous a scholar to have committed such mistakes himself. Collectively, however, they described a scholar and university professor who was literally prodigious.
He was a dedicated citizen of his country and his profession, serving on a dozen nonprofit boards from the New York State Historical Association to the Smithsonian. He was elected to the Council of the American Historical Association and as President of the Organization of American Historians. His CV, including all his publications, runs 35 closely spaced pages. Listed on paper, his achievements seem so vast that they could easily have made for three or four distinguished careers rather than one.
Michael’s final book, Digging Up the Dead, was published three years earlier: a darkly humorous work on the morbid 19th-century American habit of disinterring famous Americans and reburying them. It was, in some ways, the sort of book a scholar might write in mid-career, having proven himself or herself capable of deep and serious research but seeking to track a new course of scholarship. In Michael’s case, as we shall see, it was no such thing since he had been publishing surprising books on unpredictable subjects since his 30s. It was a coda, not a transition.
After Digging Up the Dead was published, Michael was progressively overtaken by a series of health problems (mainly debilitating pain in his back and neck). It became impossible for him to continue to do what he had done his whole life: devote every available hour not just to digging up the dead, but to communing with them, spending his days immersed in his sources, writing and teaching about what he discovered.
It was then, when he was no longer physically capable of the sustained concentration that a new book would demand, that he turned to the Los Angeles Review of Books as a venue for shorter pieces. But a short essay by Michael Kammen was, even when he was so ill, the sort of thing that any writer would have been proud to produce. First, there was the lustrous prose. Then there were the subjects, which ranged from essays about Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, and Jack Kerouac to one about Leonardo and Michelangelo, to meditations on various aspects of American art — the passion that had absorbed so much of his attention in the previous 20 years or so. There were nine of these essays published in LARB in 2012 and 2013; the last, a contemplation of the origins of the movie industry, appeared only three weeks before his death. It contained, as did almost everything Michael wrote, a statement of irony, contradiction, and paradox to characterize his subject, which he said expressed both “rampant capitalist greed and the transformation of visual experience.”
These essays for LARB, on an amazingly diverse set of subjects, were deeply satisfying to a man who needed to write the way the rest of us need to breathe, but he also wished he had the stamina to return to book-writing. He wrote to tell me about his essay in LARB on political cartoons, “Poking Serious Fun by Making Frivolous Art,” in July of 2013: “This seems to be what I do these days — my day job, as it were.” Indeed, a scan of the titles of both his books and these final articles leaves the same impression: how could one person contain within his intellectual life so broad a range of interests and concerns and write so brilliantly about all of them? Michael Kammen wrote or edited 32 books. He authored more than 165 essays in scholarly and professional journals and hundreds of book reviews. He also spoke widely around the country and the world, delivering 240 invited lectures over the course of a 45-year career spent exclusively at Cornell University. He won 10 major fellowships and an equal number of major national prizes and awards. He taught thousands of Cornell undergraduates and was a demanding but always popular teacher. He also supervised a couple dozen doctoral dissertations, chaired his department, and served his university in several administrative posts.
Because he closed his career with these fascinating essays in the Los Angeles Review of Books, this seems an appropriate venue for a reminiscence of his work and his life as the first anniversary of his death approaches.
Michael began his career as a standard-issue scholar-teacher, with a Harvard PhD under the supervision of the great historian of early American history, Bernard Bailyn. When he appeared in Cambridge for the first time in the autumn of 1958 he had already written a book, entitled Operational History of the Flying Boat. While it was a book Michael silently dropped from his CV in later years, it lived on as an enduring amusement to his graduate students.
Kammen’s work under Bailyn coincided with the presence in Bailyn’s seminars of a truly unusual cohort of fellow graduate students, many of whom went on to become noted historians themselves. In addition to Michael, there were, in a brief span of years, Stanley Katz, Gordon Wood, James Henretta, Richard Bushman, Richard Buel, Pauline Maier, and Philip Greven, along with many others. Bailyn was then interested in the politics of the British Empire, and Kammen, Katz, and Henretta each wrote doctoral dissertations that became books on various aspects of the subject.
Truth be told, while important, the politics of the British Empire did not exactly make for thrilling prose, and none of the three built scholarly careers by pursuing the subject. After making their bones on imperial politics, they all moved on to other things just as Bailyn himself would do. One reviewer of Michael’s contribution, A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution, described the book as being “in the best tradition of post-Namierite indigestibility [for Lewis Namier, the renowned British historian of the subject].” That description was only partially deserved, but it was the last time Michael’s prose would be criticized so harshly in print.
Michael had moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York by then; it was a place he loved from the beginning, despite many tempting opportunities to move to other universities. Except for a few visiting posts at other institutions, it was the place where he remained for the rest of his life. In this age of superstar professors who become the academic equivalent of free agents in professional sports, it may seem a bit incongruous that a scholar as renowned as Michael Kammen not only chose to reject the offers of other institutions but also did not use them as bargaining chips for more money and less teaching at his home institution, a common strategy at the higher levels of academe.
Michael fell in love with Cornell undergraduates and, unsurprisingly, the history of Cornell as well. He enjoyed the company of his predecessor in early American History, Curtis P. Nettels, whose obituary he would write in 1981, and he was soon in the thrall of Carl L. Becker, the eminent historian who had epitomized the Cornell tradition in an earlier generation. Becker, who died in 1945, wrote a book about the early history of the university, the central theme of which was the dyad and frequent paradox of freedom and responsibility. Becker was wide-ranging in precisely the way Michael would be: he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the American Revolution that shaped scholarly debate for most of the 20th century, and authored several books of sublime essays on problems of historical writing and thinking, as well as on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Michael was taken with Becker as a historical thinker, referred to him often throughout his career, and would soon edit Becker’s letters — which can still be read for their wisdom on everything from the travails of graduate education to the relationship between history and politics. I served as Michael’s research assistant on the Becker volume entitled What Is the Good of History?, echoing a question Becker had posed in a letter. (When the book was complete and I was about to leave Cornell for my own first academic job, Michael gave me a copy with the following inscription: “For Doug, Who after four years in Ithaca, may still be asking the question that gives this book its name.”) When Michael died, his wife Carol buried him in an Ithaca cemetery next to Carl Becker so the two could be together in death, as they were in life.
Early on in his career, Michael taught according to the style of his own training: as a “colonial historian,” a characterization that soon would become a vexed and deservedly criticized way to describe scholarship in a field whose chief concerns were still mainly about white men in Virginia and Massachusetts. His view was more nuanced, but he was already headed in another direction. He wrote four more books in early American history and edited three others. Then he wrote the book that both culminated his career in early American scholarship and launched him on the next phase of his journey: People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.
Published when he was only 36, People (as his graduate students called it) was an audacious book for a young man to write in a field replete with authoritative senior figures (including his mentor, Bailyn). It proposed not only to reinterpret the whole of American history to 1789, but also suggested that patterns set in those years determined the shape of the subsequent history of the United States. In addition, the prose was not conventionally academic: not only was it readable, it was lush and rhythmic and beautiful. People was also a book on the subject of historical “syzygies” that had a “Prolegomenon” and an “Epilogism.” The book was innovative in substance and in composition. And it was pathbreaking in other ways too, peppered with images, most not well known, illustrating Michael’s argument that the American past was a mélange of contradiction on matters ranging from politics and economics to social structure and race, and that these paradoxes were the explanatory apparatus for everything else that American culture encompassed.
Michael intended People as a cultural history (a field that had not quite been invented yet) that would reach not only into high culture for evidence but also into popular culture. The genuinely paradoxical relationship between the two in the 17th and 18th centuries was sufficiently compelling that Michael would later write a book about their interconnection in the 20th century. By the time People was published and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, he had written or edited close to a dozen books in early American history and was regarded as one of the young leaders of the field, which he promptly abandoned — permanently, as it turned out — to explore other aspects of American history.
People of Paradox made Michael Kammen about as famous as any academic historian could be. Winning the Pulitzer created many opportunities for him to travel and lecture in this country and overseas, which he did frequently and happily for the rest of his life. As late as a year ago, he went to Argentina to give lectures, despite being in dire and constant pain. Travel was, for Michael, another opportunity to learn. He was insatiably curious; his trips were invariably followed by fascinating travelogues filled with telling descriptions of those he had met and what he had seen.
He also collected postcards and little slips of hotel stationery wherever he went. These would then become the media for communicating with friends and students after he returned. A postcard with an Ithaca postmark would appear in my mailbox, but the postcard itself would show me a temple in Kyoto or a sculpture in Delhi or a restaurant in Paris. Soon a thick envelope would arrive from Ithaca with photos, newspaper clippings, and bibliographic suggestions, but the cover note, written in Michael’s precise hand, appeared on stationery from a hotel in London or Geneva or Tehran.
These postcards and envelopes, which all his friends and students received regularly, were the core of Michael’s character. He was interested in everything, and he was not only consumed by his own omnivorous curiosity — he carried the curiosities of others along with him on his travels. He had a prescient capacity to find facts, books, articles, pictures, artifacts, and people who would answer or, better, raise questions in which others would be interested. When email came along, we all continued to hear from our friend regularly, but we missed the postcards and exotic hotel stationery.
A scholar of such formidable achievements might have been intimidating to students and colleagues, but Michael Kammen was anything but. His curiosity and enthusiasm were almost childlike. When he asked you a question, he asked because he was unpretentiously interested in the answer, not because he was quizzing you or trying to show you up. As an insecure first-year grad student, I once nervously laughed when Michael mentioned that the author of a book we had read had died of a brain tumor. Mine was an infantile reaction driven by anxiety. Almost anyone else would have thought that he had a pretty awful person sitting at his seminar table, but Michael merely asked me with complete sincerity why I was laughing. He simply assumed that I must have had a good reason to laugh, a reason he didn’t understand, and he wanted to know what it was. That’s the way he was about everything: he assumed that if you said or did something there was a good reason, however inappropriate or ignorant it might have appeared to anyone else. In fact, years later I reminded him of my outburst in his seminar, saying I had felt terribly about it. With complete and uncomplicated good will, he said: “I remember that, but I never quite understood what you were laughing at. I’ve never been able to figure it out.”
He was also, sometimes inexplicably, uncompetitive with his peers. Certain scholars spend more time watching what others are doing and disparaging it than doing their own work. Professional envy among scholars is, the joke goes, so intense because the stakes are so low. But Michael did not feel diminished by other people’s accomplishments, and he was truly befuddled when he observed their schadenfreude. When others succeeded, Michael was always supportive and happy for them. In all our years of friendship, I hardly ever heard him utter a negative word about another person. His professional judgments embodied high standards, but they sought the best in others. On the two or three occasions when he told me that something he said or did prompted hostility from others, he expressed regret that he had not handled the situation more adroitly. He was kind by nature. “A simply lovely man,” was how Carol described him after he died.
His curiosity and his generosity of spirit were not only his characteristic way of being in the world. They also explain both the quality and quantity of his writing. His curiosity drove him always to keep reading, researching, and writing; his generosity prevented him from being distracted by professional rivalry and one-upmanship. He loved the story of the Duke of Gloucester who, upon receiving a volume of Edward Gibbon’s still incomplete The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?” That was, of course, Michael too: he was always scribbling and, like Gibbon, to great good effect.
In the middle of his career, Michael completed a trilogy that was arguably his most enduring contribution to modern historical scholarship. He shifted from writing about history itself to what a more theoretically minded scholar would have called meta-history: the history of how people recall their own past. Prompted to this inquiry by Becker’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, “Everyman His Own Historian,” Michael began with the American Revolution in A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. Then he turned to the Constitution in A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. Finally, he wrote what is arguably his true magnum opus: Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. In the same period of about a dozen years, he published three books of essays and edited two other volumes. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Eh, Mr. Kammen?
Michael’s memory project was a mammoth undertaking because it required him to do two very difficult things: acquire intellectual control of the historiography of the underlying subject and also master the place of that subject in the history of American culture. When he described what he was trying to do in conversation, it sounded simple — but it wasn’t. The research effort for this project was truly massive, just as the analysis it inspired required a more subtle mind than most historians possess. Each book was longer than the one before — Mystic Chords ran to almost 900 pages, prompting me to tease him that I thought he must never have met a note card (now an archaic technology) he didn’t like. These books also exemplify other traits of Michael’s that were apparent throughout his life: his eye for the revealing but unremembered image and his ear for the telling but usually overlooked quotation.
The memory trilogy expanded Michael’s audience to include scholars in other fields of history and in other disciplines as well, because the really big problem with which he was trying to grapple, the relationship between history and memory, was one that had real traction in other fields of knowledge and profound meaning in other cultures. As had happened with early American history, however, just as Michael’s work was beginning to receive broad recognition for its unique contribution, he moved on to other things.
It would be a mistake to see Michael Kammen only as a relentlessly driven scholar, although he was surely that. He found time for many other pleasures: Carol and his sons and eventual daughters-in-law and grandchildren were at the top of that list. His notes and emails to me were filled with news of his family and the happiness they brought him. He also appreciated fine wine and food, an offshoot of his many travels. No professional meeting was complete without a restaurant and a fine wine he’d selected himself. He was a man of sophisticated and cosmopolitan tastes, but he was also paradoxically protean in his interests. He was an avid fan of college and professional sports — and not in an especially academic way. Michael once good-naturedly described an obsequious graduate student with an encyclopedic knowledge of professional football, as a “jock sniffer.” He watched the NFL and the NBA religiously, but his great love was college basketball. Once, years ago when I was teaching at Princeton, he came to deliver a lecture, which was followed by a cocktail party in our home for the assembled Princeton worthies, many of them historians Michael admired. But it was the Monday night of the end of March Madness and, as game time approached, Michael pulled me aside to suggest we ask everyone to leave since we simply had to see The Game from opening tip to final basket. With great conspiratorial amusement, we ushered some of the best historians in the country out the door.
Sports were one of the things about which Michael and I disagreed. There were some other less important subjects (like books and music and art) where our opinions occasionally diverged, but our disagreement about basketball and baseball was fundamental. First, Michael was one of only a very few historians I know who did not think baseball in every way a pastime superior to all others. He was a basketball guy. Second, and almost unforgivably, he hated the Yankees and had a suspiciously atavistic affection for the Red Sox. Since love of baseball and the Yankees were about as close as I could come to religious beliefs, I played along with him about college basketball and he humored me about baseball.
We did share an affection for using baseball metaphors to describe professional experiences, however. When the superb American historian John Higham visited Cornell to give a series of lectures named for Carl Becker, Michael wrote me that he had introduced Higham by saying that if American historians were a baseball team, Higham would be the center fielder. We made a game of deciding in which positions we would play other historians on our metaphorical team. On another occasion, I chaired a session at a meeting of historians in which Michael, his mentor Bud Bailyn, and our mutual hero, John Hope Franklin, gave papers. Michael knew I wasn’t joking when I introduced the session by saying I felt like a utility infielder from the minor leagues playing catch with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson.
No message from Michael was complete without a reference to what he was reading, and it became a sort of ritual with us to exchange reading recommendations but rarely about narrowly professional books. We tended to focus on contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction. Once or twice we found ourselves reading the same book at the same time. Books of all kinds — writing them and reading them — were everything to Michael. It was always a privilege to have him as a sounding board on what I was reading and to know that he wanted to share the pleasures of his own reading with me. When Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America came out, Michael (who had sometimes teased me about my New Jersey roots) wrote: “Do you recommend the new Roth? I realize that you are from the neighborhood, but is it in the same league with HUMAN STAIN and AMERICAN PASTORAL, both of which I thought were excellent, esp. the former.” I did recommend it, although I allowed that I didn’t think it quite up to the standard of the other two Roth volumes.
And Michael kept scribbling. After finishing the memory trilogy, he made a turn that I am told surprised some people, but which his friends expected. He began to write about American art, as well as about American culture. He was a collector, even a connoisseur, of American art. In the late ’80s, I was Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies in New York. (Michael’s grad-school friend Stanley Katz was the President.) Michael occasionally asked me to pick up something he had purchased from a New York dealer and hold on to it until he could make the trip from Ithaca to get it. I especially remember his retrieving an item that seemed to have special importance to him and regaling my colleagues with a vivid description of what I had looked like when I was 20 pounds lighter and my hair 10 inches longer.
But the new work in art history could have been foretold even from Michael’s earliest scholarship. He always had an eye for images, and all his books included them, even the “indigestible” Rope of Sand. The use of images is a more common practice among historians now than it was then. At the time, neither the historians nor the art historians knew what to make of Michael. For him, artistic expression and history were inextricably connected to one another; anything a culture produced represented a pathway to understanding its history and its understanding of itself. As a result, he continued to write about culture generally even as he turned to art.
In 1999, he published two books: American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century and Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer. The former ranged widely across the 20th century and echoed, both in method and in substance, the insights he had first developed in People of Paradox about high, low, and, he now added, middlebrow culture. The latter was, he later told me, his favorite of all his books: a biography of the social realist painter, Robert Gwathmey, it is a simply beautiful book — to hold, to look at, and to read. Michael loved that project so much that he said he was sorry to finish it. And he also took enormous pleasure in the Gwathmey pieces he was able to add to his collection and in his friendship with Gwathmey’s architect son, Charles.
Michael Kammen loved a good joke, and not a few bad ones. His laugh was not a giggle but a guffaw. The internet, when it arrived, offered him the opportunity to indulge his affection for the comic arts, as well as to tell the same terrible joke to 20 friends simultaneously. Michael’s emailed jokes actually got to be a joke themselves among his friends, because it was so “un-Michael” to see a silly and sometimes vulgar internet joke appear under his name when all of us thought him a person of fine and penetrating sensibilities. I once mentioned this to him, and he said: “It’s a paradox.”
His students joked that we were members of the Kammenwealth — but all we had in common was our love for Michael, our professor of paradox. We had not come to Cornell to study a subject; we had come to work with him. And those were personal, not only academic, aspirations.
A close reading of his work really does reveal that paradox, contradiction, and irony were the leitmotif of everything he wrote. No historian of his generation published as much high-quality scholarship as Michael, yet he was strangely without influence on the larger field of American history because his interests were so unique that no one knew quite where to place him in American historiography. There was no school of interpretation or method associated with Michael. His books evoked admiring but frequently bemused reviews because no one else knew enough about his subjects to be very critical.
Over many years, really going back to his earliest writings in the 1960s and 1970s, Michael was fascinated by the lives of historians and the relationship between personal experience and scholarly work. His was not a simplistic rendering of these relationships either; he approached them with great subtlety and sensitivity, aiming to understand and locate historical thinking in both culture and lived experience. The number of historians — mostly but not only Americanists — whose work he considered in print is extremely large. He was trying to read their work and correspondence in the context of the long history of the entire discipline, and he attempted to understand what drove them to do the kind of work they did. This part of Michael’s corpus is too little read and appreciated. It was not a once-over-lightly project either, but the product of more of his uniquely original research.
When Michael visited libraries and archives, as he so often did when working on his major book projects, he always set aside some time to examine the papers of any historian who might have left correspondence in the depository he was visiting. Over the years, the list of scholars whose private papers Michael had read grew quite long. For the most part, he was dissatisfied with historians’ published and usually guarded autobiographies because he sought a deeper, more intimate understanding of what drove historical scholarship. The result of all this research and thought was a string of essays, some about individual historians and some on more general questions of historiography.
The best of these, I thought, was “Personal Identity and the Historian’s Vocation,” the lead essay in Michael’s collection In the Past Lane (1997). It began: “Perhaps I personify a curious paradox.” This one was the historian’s goal of detachment (which was eloquently described by Michael’s hero, Carl Becker) versus the undoubted fact that historians, like others, are driven by internal forces arising from personal background and values. The essay is a wonderful introduction to Michael’s thinking, characterized by remarkably deep research in the papers of many historians.
“Personal Identity and the Historian’s Vocation” also revealed implicitly how influenced Michael had been by the social forces that swirled around his own professional life. The essay contained long sections on historians whose work had been self-consciously shaped by aspects of personal identity: race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. As was his custom, he couldn’t simply write a few platitudinous lines to show that he was politically correct. Instead, he dug deeply into the work and personal lives of such scholars as the peerless John Hope Franklin, David Montgomery, Fawn Brodie, and John D’Emilio. All of this was in service of understanding the paradox of the historical profession’s commitment to detachment, which, in the end, Michael concluded was not only impossible, but undesirable.
Interested as he was in the papers of other historians, he left surprisingly little himself when he died. He had once commented that “I do not for a minute deny that some historians have been exceedingly private — seemingly programmed — like Charles and Mary Beard, to destroy their papers so that subsequent snoops like myself would not be able to make such connections [between the personal and the professional].” He was, in other words, utterly fascinated by the papers of others and exploited them brilliantly as a historiographer, but he was fairly ruthless in doing what the Beards had done, destroying his own papers in characteristically systematic fashion.
When I discovered how little he had retained of his own correspondence after his death, I was surprised and disappointed. He was the most meticulous and well-organized person I have ever known, and I knew that he had corresponded with all his contemporaries as part of his historiographic project. I also knew he had what Stan Katz calls a “Google-like filing system before Google.” His interest in other historians was insatiable, as his many essays, obituaries, and thematic essays on other scholars demonstrated. Candidly, I had hoped to get a peek at some of his own files because I am precisely the same kind of “snoop” he was. But he was also, as I had known, a very private person who did not talk very much about his own background or psychology. We knew each other for decades, but I don’t think we ever had more than a cursory conversation about the intensely Jewish background we shared or about the many differences and similarities between us that we both recognized and appreciated. Michael preserved the past of other historians but discarded most of the unpublished record of his own career.
Although he was interested in the lives of others, Michael was in life a reserved and self-contained man, and he remained so in death. He lived many of his hours and days in the past, visiting the dead, and he reported voluminously on what he learned from them, but he spent little time or energy on his own past, even his professional past. He was relentless about focusing on his next project. When he died, his library study at Cornell did not have any of his own books in it and no notes from previous research. It was filled instead with all sorts of books from every part of the library, which Carol described to me:
On the shelf there were books about the Bennington Monuments, the New Jersey Tercentenary, the Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin, whom we both revere, and Goldwin Smith’s Reminiscences. There was John Franklin Jameson’s book on humanistic scholarship and a book on the transitional turn in American Studies, something that bothered him. There was a book called the States of Memory, and another on the Collective Memory of Political Events. There was a book he had brought home and read, then returned to the study entitled The Newspaper in Art, and there was Richard Shiff’s Doubt.
There were also notes he had taken on various books and sources to which he would want to return or about which he wanted to write. He saved relatively few letters, either from him or to him (he culled them regularly over the years along with his library), although he was paradoxically a faithful and insightful correspondent.
For a younger generation of historians, I fear Kammen’s work may seem old-fashioned, uninformed as it is by theory and, with the exception of the Gwathmey book, not narrowly focused upon race, class, and gender. Paradoxically, however, a close reading of Michael’s entire body of work — not only his meditations on historiography — will reveal that he was too conscious of his nation’s record of contradiction and hypocrisy not to have been alive to the significance of race, class, and gender in its history. His big project of elucidating American culture rarely left race, class, and gender out of the equation. And he had thought about, researched, and seriously considered writing about gay men in American culture. He never published anything on the subject because he didn’t feel confident that he understood the complexity of the history well enough to do a good job. More paradoxes.
Late in the spring of 2006, in the course of a long email about something else, Michael wrote:
Did I tell you that an MRI showed that I have osteo-arthritis, mainly in the cervical (neck) part of my vertebrae. The disks & cartilage separating the v’s have worn thin, and I have a pinched nerve. Tingling in my right neck and shoulder side. I go 3x per week for physical therapy and do 5 exercises at home. Traction to pull the v’s apart. Plus a special heat pad on my neck 3 or 4x per day. Now I need to write for a buckwheat pillow! Known to help. I can still go to the YMCA for exercise and ride my bike. Like Roth’s new novel, all about aging!
At the time, I worried a bit about how painful this must have been, but Michael was nearing 70, and I chalked it up to his both sitting at his desk all day and being a six-times-per-week gym rat and runner. He was as meticulous about his health as he was about other things. I admired and failed to emulate his discipline about exercise.
Unfortunately, this was the beginning of a long decline in his health, which I think he found torturous, not only because it was painful, but also because it got in the way of his work. Still, the emails kept coming; a few weeks later he wrote to report how thrilled he was that Cornell had finally named a dorm for Carl Becker. But the pain was persistent. In an email mainly about a documentary film on which he wanted my opinion, his new grandson, and the new junior history faculty at Cornell, he wrote: “I’m not sure that the phys. therapy is making much of a difference. Still dealing with a pain in the neck, though it moves back and forth between my shoulder and my neck. Tomorrow I get a home traction kit. Fun!”
The slowness of his rehabilitation was now a presence in all his mails. Yet he kept working, writing a long essay on the history of American photography and writing new lectures for his course on the history of American culture (which he had been teaching brilliantly for 30 years or so). Yet another new book also appeared that summer, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, and he wrote of it, as he frequently did of his books, as though it were one of his children: “The project really was a labor of love, and I miss it now that it is totally out of my hands and house.”
About a year later, he mentioned for the first time that he was planning to retire at the end of 2008. Characteristically, he also offhandedly mentioned that he was going to give a Jefferson Lecture at Berkeley, where his son, Daniel, was (and is) one of the leading energy scientists in the United States. The note was more about Daniel’s accomplishments than Michael’s. But a conference I had helped organize honoring his old friend, Stan Katz, had set him to thinking in a more introspective way. He worried that a great fuss would be made about his retirement and said he really hoped I wouldn’t take part in organizing such a thing for him because it would make him uncomfortable. In fact, I had begun to think about what might be done to celebrate his career at Cornell and in the world beyond, but I took him at his word: we organized something small in Ithaca, which, in the end, I could not attend because of the weather there in midwinter.
But he was thinking hard about these things:
I also don’t have a major project in the works — 1st time in 45 years. So one has a sense of transition, not so much a life complete as a career nearing completion. “Retirement” is a very strange thing to contemplate. It’s a concept that always applied to others, not yourself. Even though I sort of keep busy (writing a lot of book reviews, eg), I still have unaccustomed time on my hands. Life simply slows down, and one spends more time dealing with aches, pains, and illnesses of all sorts, and doctors and pharmacies. One does not feel the end is nigh. It might be, but actuarial tables say I could well have another 15 years. The question is, what to do with them beside read, go to the movies, read magazines, and plan travel (perhaps the Fjords this summer). If you have led a very busy life, it’s a bit disconcerting trying to get used to being not so busy, and especially not busy with the vocation that you chose and always loved so much. It doesn’t quite seem to matter very much any more.
These words were disturbing to me at the time, but I don’t think I connected them directly to his neck and back pain. Still some distance from retirement myself, I figured this was the sort of stage-of-life thing that all retirees face. Perhaps it was.
But mortality and death, subjects we had never discussed, soon became a theme in our correspondence. A few days after that last message, he sent me one of his internet jokes, but it had a serious meaning for him:
I want to live my next life backwards:
You start out dead and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in an old age home feeling better every day.
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy.
You enjoy your retirement and collect your pension.
Then when you start work, you get a gold watch on your first day.
You work 40 years until you’re too young to work.
You get ready for High School: drink alcohol, party, and you’re generally promiscuous.
Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities.
Then you become a baby, and then…..
You spend your last 9 months floating peacefully in luxury, in spa-like conditions: central heating, room service on tap, and then,
You finish off as an orgasm.
Michael and I kept in close touch during these years, but we didn’t see each other often. I was living in Los Angeles, and he was in Ithaca. When he came to the West Coast, he usually went to Berkeley to see Daniel and his family, and I had work that kept me traveling a great deal so I stopped attending the professional meetings that had long been our opportunity for a dinner and long talk. Fortunately, he received an invitation to give a seminar at the Getty in the fall of 2007, and Michael and my wife, Margee, and I had a wonderful, though hurried, breakfast with him overlooking the Sepulveda Pass. We did comment to each other that he seemed to have slowed down a bit, but since he had been in motion as long as we had known him, reducing his speed from 100 miles an hour to 75 didn’t seem a bad thing.
Then his retirement was suddenly upon me. I wrote him at length about it, saying among other things that I thought studying with him when I was a young man, apart from marrying Margee, was either the luckiest or the smartest thing I had ever done. He wrote a beautiful note in return, in which he described the “low-key” departure celebration that his colleagues had organized, and he expressed relief that it wasn’t anything more than that. Then — and this did not surprise me — he mentioned that he was about to begin work on another book after all, but wasn’t certain what the topic would be, saying he had to make a choice between two subjects, one of which was the “American habit of digging up and reburying famous people.” That became Digging Up the Dead. I later discovered that he also wrote the other book, but never published it.
Whatever malaise he had been expressing before his retirement seemed to lift a bit, and soon another email arrived telling me that his other son, Douglas (whose email from Michael I sometimes received by mistake), had taken a job as a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, and that Michael and Carol were soon to see Douglas and his family with a stop in Berkeley for time with Daniel and his wife and daughters. In addition, he was now sending me drafts of new essays for comment, something that had tailed off when he first told me about the pain he was suffering. There was a new energy, although he was writing in a more reflective way about his personal experiences as a historian, as a mentor of graduate students for example. He and Carol came to LA that spring, and the four of us had a great evening at Joe’s in Venice before we dropped them at LAX to take a red-eye back to the East Coast. “If they can still take the red-eye,” Margee said, “Michael must be feeling better.” And he was traveling quite a lot as he had throughout his career: lectures in Turkey, Germany, Romania all coming in quick succession. All good news. Hardly a paradox in sight.
But Michael’s health was in a steady decline; he surprised us with news that he had a quintuple bypass operation in August of 2008, and was frustrated that he had to cancel lectures in Utah and Paris. He recovered more slowly than the doctors promised, and that too frustrated him. We had moved to New Jersey by then, and he was well enough for a reunion dinner in New York the following winter where he also received the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction. But he was in continuous physical therapy for his pain, and it wasn’t helping very much. He wrote: “Actually, what I have is called spinal stenosis and neurogenic . . . . something I can’t even spell. Lots of pills. MRI last Thursday. Reading images tomorrow.” By early 2011, he was feeling well enough to fly to Hawaii for a family vacation with Daniel and Douglas and their families, but wrote me:
Our trip to Maui was hard on my back, but worth it. The whole family hadn’t been together for 4 years… Surgery has been postponed while they try a new drug for pain and medical patches on the bad areas. The herniated disk is on hold. So we’ll see. But typing is just too hard on my back, so I’m doing almost none now. Reading a lot of books that I never got to…I’m not going to the OAH. Flying is just too tough.
Not being able to type was torture for Michael, but he could not resist making a joke of it at his own expense, noting the paradox of being a writer who couldn’t use a keyboard. He was just as aggrieved by not being able to travel, something he loved to do — he was thrilled each time he received an invitation to lecture in a place he had never seen or one to which he was glad to return.
The battery of treatments did little to relieve Michael’s ailments. The pace of our correspondence did not decline, however; if anything, it increased. And he began the wonderful series of pieces that he wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books in this period. But he was in constant unendurable pain.
Finally, after every alternative had been exhausted, he underwent an extremely complicated and ultimately unsuccessful surgery in March of 2012. This left him on a ventilator for an unbearably long period of time, during which he could not speak, including three months on a feeding tube when he could not eat; he recovered from the ordeal, only to find the operation did little to alleviate his terrible pain. The emails about sports and books never paused, but they were foreshortened by his inability to sit before his computer for very long. I sent him the text of a commencement address I had been asked to give, filled with references to popular culture, recent and not so recent. He wrote me a nice note about it, which concluded:
I’ve heard the name Jay-Z. No idea who Jackson Brown is. Fitzgerald didn’t even need a first name, and Dylan is Dylan. Ever since I read POSITIVELY 4th STREET, I don’t like him. Nice moral imperatives at the end, and agree that success doesn’t guarantee happiness.
We finally found we could agree about baseball in one way: we both found the first half or so of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding to be utterly gorgeous and brilliant. We disagreed about the rest of the book.
Margee and I had not been to Ithaca in many years so we planned a trip at the end of October. We were anxious to see Michael and Carol, although it was clear from his emails that he was struggling still with the consequences of the surgery. We made the trip on the weekend before Hurricane Sandy hit, and the four of us had a wonderful time. Although hobbled and using a cane, Michael seemed himself in many ways, and even planned for us to go to a Cornell football game, an invitation we declined. It was just as well because it was obvious that he was in pain and the weather was forbidding (although Sandy left Ithaca pretty much unscathed). Nonetheless, there was something both thrilling and reassuring about the four of us being together again in Ithaca after a 45-year odyssey during which Margee and I had moved many times all over the country. Ithaca, and the company of Michael and Carol Kammen, felt like a safe harbor again.
Michael seemed to bounce back after that. The next spring he managed a trip to San Francisco for a meeting of the Organization of American Historians, which I could not attend. He organized his usual dinner for a group of former graduate students, but I was told later that he looked uncomfortable and stood for part of the meal. Michael never went anywhere without seeing whatever there was to see, so he took another of his former students out to Alcatraz and they spent an afternoon there, although it left him exhausted and in pain. When summer came, he and Carol went to Norway and then Michael went off to Buenos Aires to lecture for two weeks. Before he left he wrote me that he was going to fill a sudden vacancy at Cornell in the fall and teach an undergraduate seminar. He said he was as nervous about it as he had been when he arrived in 1965. I was also returning to teaching that fall after many years away, and we had an exchange about how old farts like us would deal with students whose attention span was limited to 140 characters at a time. But he was nervous about the trip to Argentina too. “I hope my back and neck are up to this. I’ve been taking life easy of late, and this will be fairly demanding.” It was, and he returned exhausted, so much so that although he began to teach the scheduled course, he had to step away from it in late October.
There were a few more email exchanges about our experiences as “rookies” in the classroom and about the baseball playoffs, which were more important to me than the Jewish holidays and to him mostly an interruption of college football season. Margee and Carol stayed in touch too, but we knew that his health was precarious. He sent me a note on November 20 to say that a sentimental gift would soon arrive because “we now have more ‘stuff’ than we have space.” A beautiful plate purchased in Japan on one of their trips there soon arrived, and we were touched.
On Friday evening, last November 29, Carol left us a voicemail telling us to call her as soon as we could. We were out very late that evening. I called the next morning. Carol told me that Michael had died the previous day, the day after Thanksgiving.
Losing Michael Kammen was as difficult as losing my parents. Stan Katz and I quickly wrote an obituary for the American Historical Association, and I chaired a session at the Organization of American Historians meeting last spring that was a collective tribute to Michael by his friends and students. I also accepted the invitation to write this tribute essay, although I could not bring myself to do it for some time.
Michael was an unusual and special man whose human and professional commitments seemed to be of a piece with one another. He was isolated up there in Ithaca. He liked to say, quoting Frances Perkins, that it was “the most centrally isolated spot on the Eastern Seaboard.” I think he liked it that way, but he was also a wonderfully sociable person who went out of his way to befriend other scholars, especially those older and younger than he was. The professor of paradox was a sociable isolate. His friendship with John Higham, for example, connected him not only to Higham himself but also to Higham’s mentor, Wisconsin’s Merle Curti. His affection for Louis Masur, my Rutgers colleague and dear friend, connected him not only to me (years ago Lou’s teacher) but also to Lou’s student and Michael’s young Cornell colleague, Aaron Sachs. Michael, even when he was sitting alone with his research and writing in his study in 710 Olin Library at Cornell in the middle of frozen Ithaca winter, was nonetheless also swimming in a warm and timeless sea of social connection that not only gave him great personal pleasure, but in which he was deeply interested as an academic matter. He was not only a sociable isolate, he was also cerebral hedonist.
A distinguished scholar like Michael did not have to teach as much as he did, but he didn’t approve of the impulse among many academics to regard teaching and scholarship as contradictory. When a very well-known historian, one of his Cornell colleagues, retired, he wrote me with rare sarcasm: “End of an era. ******** and his partner move to ****** in a week. He must be about 72. Has had life very cushy here for decades. Stopped teaching undergrads long ago.” Michael, in contrast, relished teaching undergraduates. He thought Cornell students were wonderful, and he used his undergraduate courses to try out ideas that would eventually appear in his books and essays. New courses came along frequently, and different generations of Cornellians remember Michael as an expert on several dozen different aspects of American history as a result. Which, of course, he was. He was a specialized generalist and a generalizing specialist, but the paradox of having both to teach and produce scholarship was one that Michael didn’t understand. And that was a paradox too.
I don’t know for certain, but I think people who didn’t know Michael might have thought him obsessively careerist to have published so much for so long. He wasn’t that at all, however; he was obsessed with his work but not by conventional standards of academic accomplishment. His obsession was curiosity. Our mutual friend the brilliant historian Joyce Appleby, who has written about the history of curiosity, used to remind her students that everything they knew was the answer to a question someone else had asked. Michael had more curiosities and more questions than anyone I have ever known. His voluminous writing was his attempt to ask and to answer his questions with the rest of us watching and reading him as he went. Private curiosities pursued publicly.
And, miraculously, even when he could barely sit in front of his computer in his last years and when he told me he was through with writing books, the questions and curiosities and the need to pursue them in print continued. He had almost completed another book of essays, many previously unpublished. He planned yet another entitled “The Academic Life,” and he wrote that series of charming pieces for LARB. His writing in those essays had a lightness and humor that was wonderful to behold. His lucid prose had always been unusually good for an academic; he was the most readable of serious historians and hated history that was “solid” but “dry” (his words). The LARB pieces were nothing but fun for him, and they were surprisingly playful as a result. My favorite was a review essay about Jack Kerouac, whom Michael described as a “Franco-American writer.” I can see him smiling as he wrote that phrase.
“Jack Kerouac’s Restless Odyssey and His New Life On the Road” was an appreciation of Kerouac through a review of a biography and a volume of Kerouac’s letters. The highlight of the essay, however, was a personal story about Michael, who had invited Kerouac to visit Harvard when Michael was a senior tutor at Lowell House in 1964. Michael was anything but a hipster, and he must have been even less so in 1964. The visit went well in most ways, but Kerouac got very drunk and at two a.m. appeared in the courtyard of Lowell House and screamed (loud enough to wake Michael and Carol): “Fuck you, Mike Kammen.” Paradoxically, that was surely the first and last time that anyone ever said “Fuck you” to him. It was also probably the only time anyone called him “Mike.” He was neither a “Mike” nor a “fuck you” sort of guy.
I often reread my friend’s books and essays. His authorial voice was so distinctive that they bring him back, as though he were sitting across the room or writing me a long email. They also stimulate my own interests and curiosities all over again, just as they did from the moment I met him in the fall of 1969. The personal and the professional, so often at odds in my own reading life, merge perfectly when I am reading Kammen. And that was another remarkable thing about him. As he said many times, he utterly loved being a historian, but he understood his profound professional identity as a sort of personal eccentricity that he never expected others to share. When my own career took some circuitous turns away from the life of the professor, Michael was never anything but the enthusiastic cheerleader. Even more, and especially in later years, he would tell me that my own work made a difference that the cloistered life of scholarship and teaching never could. I disagreed with that, of course, but I was always so grateful that, unlike so many graduate mentors, Michael did not expect me or any of his graduate students to live our lives in his image. He took pleasure in how much I had strayed from emulating him; he thought that it meant he had succeeded as my teacher. In this way too he echoed the career of the ever-present Carl Becker and another of his scholarly idols, the Stanford historian David Potter. Perhaps that is yet another paradox or two.
Leonard Baskin’s “Of the making of many books there is no end”
Years ago, when I went to retrieve that piece of art for him in New York, Michael told me that it was a watercolor by an artist he particularly liked, Leonard Baskin (born in my present home town of New Brunswick, New Jersey). At the time, I paid little attention. I appreciated his love of American art, but didn’t quite share it. This past summer, Margee and I visited Carol, and saw the Baskin hanging on a wall in her house. I remembered it and its title: “Of the making of many books there is no end.” It’s a lovely watercolor of a scattered multicolor pile of books with the words of the painting’s title in Hebrew below (a quote from Ecclesiastes). Carol and Daniel and Douglas thought I would like to have it and that Michael would want me to. It is now in my home, and I find myself staring at it daily, remembering my mentor, and friend.
“Of the making of many books there is no end.” What better way to summarize Michael Kammen and his lifelong passion for books, for beauty, and for paradox. His making of many books did indeed have no end. He left two nearly complete manuscripts when he died and notes for others. Even in death, he is still making many books, both his own and those he inspires. But there’s a paradox here too, one that gnaws at me.
The full quotation from Ecclesiastes is the following: “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Michael was too careful a scholar not to have known the full quotation and its provenance before he purchased the painting. He would have been in his mid-50s when he bought it and asked me to pick it up for him. What was he thinking about the painting’s meaning and significance in his life? He was interested in the interaction of the personal and the professional in the lives of others. Was this his way of expressing the tension between them for himself? Was he trying to confront his certain knowledge that there could be no end but death to his making of many books? Or was the paradox that, whatever Ecclesiastes said, the making of many books was not a weariness of the flesh at all for Michael Kammen, but just the reverse? Or did he simply know, as we all must, that weariness of the flesh puts an end not only to the making of many books, but to all human endeavor.
In some way, I feel sure, the Baskin painting was the self-portrait and the autobiography Michael would have wanted to make for himself — an elegant rendering of both his public identity, and his most private understanding of his life’s work. Although made by another, the painting combines Michael’s personal, scholarly, and aesthetic passions. It speaks with his now silent voice.
Douglas Greenberg is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and former Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences there. Previously, he was a Professor of History and Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, President of the Chicago Historical Society, and Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies. He has also taught history at Rutgers, USC, Princeton, and Lawrence (Appleton, WI).