Louis Hartz was the greatest teacher I ever had, and his death at the age of 66 in early 1986 has reminded me of the need to try to recapture his contribution and transmit it to others. He once was asked to write a short piece on teaching, and the essence of his brief argument was that a scholar performs his educational functions best as he offers himself to students as an example of how to proceed. On the lecture platform, and in small classes, he was a model of a dazzlingly brilliant political theorist at work. By his own standard he succeeded as a teacher, certainly with me, and yet in the end he seemed to fail spectacularly. Since he retired from Harvard in 1974, under unusual and tragic circumstances, by now he has disappeared from the imaginations of a whole new generation of intellectuals.
I remember with absolute clarity the first time I laid eyes on his great book, The Liberal Tradition in America; it not only went on to win the highest professional awards a political scientist could hope for, but its continued survival in the general culture ensures the standing and reputation he now has. During the spring of 1955, in my freshman year at Harvard, I spotted a stack of the new book on display in a corner of the front window of the Harvard Coop. That was a time when it had become fashionable to talk about the “new Conservatism,” a movement of thought advocated by a distinctly different set of writers from our own so-called neo-conservatives. Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy had come out that term and was the source of much talk about the limits on the public’s rationality; in rebuttal some writers challenged Lippmann’s pessimistic assessment of democracy with their own passionate defenses of the traditional values of American progressivism. Other controversial books were then appearing from the Right by such different writers as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Clinton Rossiter; so it was not surprising that my section-man in the introductory course in Government offered one essay, among other alternatives, on conservatism.
I recall buying Hartz’s book to help my term-paper writing. But to my surprise and mild irritation I found that I could not understand it. I do not think I can have tried to read more than a few pages, but it was clearly a hopeless endeavor for the practical purposes I had in mind. That summer I was at loose ends, and decided to audit a couple of lecture courses at Harvard Summer School: one was on the modern novel, which I went to for the sake of my general education; and the other was a course of Hartz’s entitled American and British Political Thought, which I attended because of curiosity and frustration over my inability to make sense of The Liberal Tradition in America.
Over the summer months I read a number of important long novels, but it was Hartz’s lectures that captured my imagination and influenced the future course of my work. I had never heard anyone like Hartz before; his small class was a whirl of ideas, all of which seemed to fit into a larger structure. Political theory had already been taught to me in terms of writers and their works; but Hartz seemed to me concerned with issues, and he was as challenging in terms of the demanding nature of the sequence of his thought as he was appealing in his willingness to offer resolutions to the dilemmas he posed.
I had already read a few of the books on the reading list, and I poked about in some of the assignments; but it was clear that the excitement in this series of classes had nothing to do with the texts that supposedly were required reading. If one took or audited all of Hartz’s classes, as I eventually did, one began to see a pattern in his having assigned a book in one course only to discuss it in another. It was not a matter of professorial absent-mindedness, but I suspected that he considered it an insult to our intelligence simply to go over something in class that we could read on our own.
As I look over my lecture notes from that first course of his, I attended I am struck by how little attention he did pay to American political thought; and he dealt only a bit with British political theorists either. In my notes I find that he remarked at the outset of the course that in America the significant political thinking had taken place in the pre-Civil War South. But after having made that striking point he immediately launched into a planned discussion of the French and American Revolutions and 18th-century ideals; he was to be more concerned with continental thought than with any American writers. Hartz went on to talk about 19th-century liberal thought, and he did touch on some British thinkers. But throughout the course he was more preoccupied with France, and also socialism, than with anything explicitly to do with the incomprehensible book that had brought me to his class in the first place.
I have no recollection at the time of even noticing that American subjects were being slighted. In hindsight, Hartz might have been trying to get away from the book of his that had just appeared. It turned out that he had been arguing its thesis for several preceding years, and his classes were the audience before whom he hammered together the approach in The Liberal Tradition in America. Hartz’s mind that summer seemed to send off so many fireworks that I did not notice, or care, whether he had been unfair to any one particular writer or period, or even if he had, in this course at any rate, ignored almost all American political thinkers.
His genuine achievement was to explore, in a thoroughly organized set of lectures, the social setting of political philosophers and to describe in a comparative way the kinds of characteristic differences between political theory in Europe and America. In his first lecture, for example, he maintained that the 18th-century background to the French and American Revolutions had been wholly different. In France there was an immensely complicated social system, torn by internal divisions provoked by the rising middle class challenging a decaying agrarian feudal system. Successive kings had been using their bureaucrats to encroach on the power of the nobles, and therefore as monarchs unwittingly been hostile to “the very system of society of which they themselves were the traditional apex.” Hartz loved to instruct by means of paradoxes.
England, he argued, had its own class antagonisms; like in France, independent craftsmen were being undermined by the spread of merchant capitalism. However the British aristocracy had a special capacity for absorbing the wealthy bourgeoisie, and therefore the French animosities toward a privileged but increasingly functionless nobility was lessened in England.
In contrast to both France and Britain, America had lacked a feudal heritage. No aristocratic class existed to confront the merchants, nor any guild organizations to object to the creation of permanent laborers. The American scene lacked the frustration and hostility that marked the French case, and to a lesser degree the English.
Revolution was, Hartz believed, not produced by misery but by the pressure of a new system on an old one. But in America no revolution comparable to the great European conflicts had taken place. The Americans had revolted against imperial restrictions; they had been engaged in colonial rather than social struggles. Social changes did take place in America after 1776; vestiges of feudalism like primogeniture were abolished, and Tory estates were broken up. But what was of marginal importance in America became central in France’s struggles against the ancien régime. And conflicts within the democratic forces who seized control in America at the end of the 18th century would be in no way similar to the European situation.
Hartz’s second lecture followed conceptually from the first. In France the impact of an emerging middle class against a weakened feudal structure produced the spark of the Enlightenment and revolution. Hartz pursued the role of the intellectual in France in helping to break down the accepted norms of the traditional social mythology. The philosophes exploited grievances that were implicit in the existing social tensions. The weak French censorship encouraged critical opinion and helped whet the appetite for challenge.
The ancien régime, Hartz believed, had not been unified in imposing its repressions. In attacking the old system, the social agitators could ally with the monarchy. Voltaire among others thought that salvation lay with enlightened despotism. At the same time the monarchy protected the philosophes, who attacked the power of the Church. The nobility, which sometimes looked with favor on the philosophes, did not see the danger of its being undermined by corrosive social speculation. The philosophes flourished because of the internal divisions in the ancien régime.
In America the opposition came not from the generalities of the philosophes but from the specific grievances of practical men. The colonial legislatures took the lead, and the politicians were only forced by circumstances to become theorists. The Americans could be more sober and responsible as they proposed new adjustments. In the absence of a feudal order people like Sam Adams or James Otis could act on behalf of an already established responsible government. In America the clergy, instead of being a source of corruption and intolerance, would lead the struggle for change, in a situation which was not socially revolutionary.
Those first two lectures Hartz gave serve now, as they did then, to introduce the nature of his work; he gave another stimulating 23 before the summer course was over. Individual insights that he advanced had been anticipated before by others. But no one had put them together as he had, with the same purposes in mind. He went on to make Jean Jacques Rousseau a leading figure in the course, but he also lectured on the physiocrats, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. One lecture was on why England did not have a revolution; another touched on the nature of human freedom; and he worked all this into the fate of nationalism in Italy and Germany.
If, as Hartz believed, philosophizing exists only where there is fundamental social conflict, it is no wonder that American political thought, compared to what happened in Europe, never succeeded in getting off the ground. My notes from that course do not indicate that he ever once returned to his point about the creativity that took place in the antebellum American South. According to Hartz the issues in American history had lacked the basic character of European conflicts. And he thought that the American experience became unique in the context of the political principles common to Western Europe.
By the end of that summer’s course I had no trouble being able to tackle The Liberal Tradition in America. Hartz’s work was so much the topic of professional conversation that I explicated his book in writing a paper the next year on “The Liberal Society Analysis” for my sophomore tutorial. I suppose it was because of a kind of missionary spirit that I had acquired that I did not then mention a blunder Hartz had made in the epigraph to his book. He had quoted Alexis de Tocqueville as having written in Democracy in America: “The great advantage of the American is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that he is born free without having to become so.” As it came out, de Tocqueville had said “born equal,” not born free, and an errata slip appeared in fresh copies of that first printing. Only the narrow-minded took Hartz’s mistake too seriously; his thesis was arresting enough to capture and hold attention.
Although I did not realize it at the time, the words “liberal” and “liberalism” had only recently appeared in the American political vocabulary. They entered the language of American politics in the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and afterwards they stood for the viewpoint of the New Deal. It was innovative of Hartz at the outset of the 1950’s, in his first journal articles on the subject, to try to make liberalism the key to American political thought. At the same time the tenor of Hartz’s approach had its echos in other writings of that time. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), and his essays collected in Individualism Reconsidered (1954), were written in a spirit akin to Hartz’s; Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950) was also a like-minded work with implications for social and political thought.
Essentially Hartz was proposing a new, full-scale theory about the course of American history. Part I of the book, which was also the first chapter, had the title “Feudalism and the American Experience,” and Hartz relentlessly explored the implications of his thesis. If America had essentially been a liberal society from the outset, and had had no need for a revolution on a European scale, then that explained why America had also lacked a Reaction, and the tradition of genuine conservatism that was so characteristically a part of European political thought. The issue of the nature of conservatism may have been the occasion which brought me to Hartz’s book, but his theory went far beyond that one matter.
Hartz used America’s relative lack of class conflict to explain socialism’s weakness as well. While Marx had seen his doctrines as a by-product of industrialization, Hartz thought that socialism was “largely an ideological phenomenon, arising out of the principles of class and the revolutionary liberal revolt against them which the old European order inspired,” Hartz was, like at the time Perry Miller in literature and Talcott Parsons in sociology, emphasizing the powerful historical role of the life of the mind. Ideas had consequences, and were not just reflexive of social circumstances. Hartz’s liberal society thesis meant that it was understandable why Americans could have been satisfied with a system of checks and balances, federalism, and separation of powers, which could only have worked in the context of a basically unified society. For in America the state had never been charged with the same purposes of reform which European leftists like Bentham and Voltaire had intended for it.
Although The Liberal Tradition in America might appear to reflect the supposed complacency of the 1950’s, in fact his whole book represented a challenge to American thinking. He was trying to expose a fixed, dogmatic liberalism in American life. It was, he held, only because of the nature of the American liberal consensus that so much attention could be paid to technique rather than first principles. The unique position of the Supreme Court in America, and “the cult of constitution worship,” meant that issues which in other countries might be morally debated were in America consigned to lawyers and adjudication. Law “flourished on the corpse of philosophy in America, for the settlement of the ultimate moral question is the end of speculation upon it.” The moral unanimity of liberal American society meant that too much in America had gone irrationally unchallenged.
Hartz used the name of John Locke to symbolize the kind of liberalism characteristic of America: consent was the ultimate basis for political obligation; political communities arose out of the rational agreement of its individual members; and individual liberties, including importantly property rights, were the ultimate purposes for which the legitimate community existed. Hartz was not citing Locke for purposes of technical philosophical analysis; nor was Hartz making a historical argument about how frequently the colonists read Locke, or cited him. Hartz had little interest in the study of political ideas as a scholastic exercise but rather wanted to use Locke as a symbol for a brand of political thought which could illuminate political reality.
Although Hartz’s interpretation came to be associated with a so-called consensus school of American history, his starting point was political theory, and he did not have in mind a naïve celebration of the American way of life. He was alarmed by the “deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion” contained in the unanimity of American liberalism. Hartz thought that in the nature of the case Lockianism contained within itself an individualistic spirit which transcended conformism; and he appealed for encouragement to the examples of Holmes, Hand, Brandéis, Roosevelt, and Stevenson. But he hoped that the perspective which would enable America to overcome its provincialism might arise from the new significance for the country of world politics. He wondered whether American liberalism could “acquire through external experience that sense of relativity, that spark of philosophy which European liberalism acquired through an internal experience of social diversity and social conflict.”
Hartz was not trying, as it has been so often alleged of him, to emphasize solidarity in order to minimize the significance of conflict in American history or to downgrade the importance of the struggles that had taken place. He was instead trying to describe the ideological circumference in which conflicts in America had occurred. The American Right had its parallels in the European tradition of large propertied liberalism; and the American Left could best be understood in connection with the European “petit-bourgeois” tradition. Jefferson had once maintained that “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans”; by putting American history in the context of a comparative historical analysis Hartz thought that one could begin to see the nature of specifically American problems.
Hartz conceded that what he was proposing was a single factor analysis: “the absence of feudalism and the presence of the liberal idea.” In the teeth of the fashionability of multi-causality in social science Hartz wanted to isolate what he regarded as a single historical variable and to study it by consistently comparing historical experiences in America with those in Europe.
In contrast to other theories of American history, such as Frederick Jackson Turner’s emphasis on the significance of the frontier, Hartz could point out that many countries had had their frontiers without the result being anything like liberal democracy. But in general Hartz’s approach did not arise to challenge Turner’s historiography or that of the other Progressive historians. Hartz did think that Charles Beard’s view of class conflict, like Arthur Bentley’s group analysis, took for granted the context in which social struggles took place. American studies had been, Hartz thought, promoted by nationalist forces that were blind to a comparative perspective. While progressive historians saw pendulum-like swings recurring throughout the American past, he thought his own outlook was less complacently confident that political virtue would eventually triumph.
Hartz picked four main periods in American history to illustrate the power of his liberal society analysis: the American Revolution, Jacksonianism, the South before the Civil War, and the epoch symbolized by the writings of Horatio Alger. And Hartz ended with a discussion of the significance of the New Deal and America’s world involvement. Hartz’s book was over-cooked and not easy to read, since he took for granted that his readers were well versed in European and American history. He littered his text with the names of thinkers who might be familiar to students of intellectual history, but were bound to sound unusual in an interpretive work about American political thought.
It has commonly been thought that the most momentous part of Hartz’s book was the material about the revolutionary period. There is little doubt that his categories have permanently affected the way historians treat that phase. The books that were written by the Founding Fathers, and the arguments that they advanced both against the British as well as in behalf of the new Constitution, represent a permanent addition to Western thought. Hartz’s interpretive approach was the more powerful when it was addressed to works in intellectual history.
I think that the most novel chapter in the book was the one called “The Reactionary Enlightenment,” where he resurrected George Fitzhugh as a political theorist. A few years later, when C. Vann Woodward wrote an introduction to a reprinted edition of one of Fitzhugh’s books, Woodward immediately acknowledged his indebtedness to Hartz’s previous work. But while Woodward was balanced and thorough, placing Fitzhugh in his historical setting, it had been Hartz’s striking chapter which had changed people’s minds.
Fitzhugh was a neglected writer from a forgotten school of thought until Hartz called attention to him. Hartz was fascinated by Fitzhugh’s challenge to the American liberal unity. Fitzhugh had not only defended slavery but had done so within terms outside a liberal framework. Fitzhugh saw the merits of hierarchy, restraint, and order and at the same time assailed the North for embodying a worse form of tyranny than anything the South practiced. The doctrine of laissez faire was to Fitzhugh a version of unmitigated selfishness, and led to “wage slavery.” Fitzhugh was, for Hartz, a critic of Northern capitalist values, and not just a defender of the old South. Like European conservative thinkers, Fitzhugh saw the hypocrisy behind the Northern commitment to freedom. Genuine liberty requires a social basis for support, while to Fitzhugh the freedom of the Northern workingman was a fiction. As this argument was re-created by Hartz, Fitzhugh appeared as a lonely seer able to break through the conventional thinking of American culture.
At the same time there was something half-cracked about Fitzhugh, and Hartz thought that Fitzhugh’s perverse social task meant that one could hardly blame him for ultimately having broken down. For what kind of conservative could Fitzhugh be, in a section of the country which honored Thomas Jefferson so centrally among its forefathers? While Fitzhugh could assail the encroachments of the North, he did not seem able to acknowledge the degree to which the South was part of a tradition of liberalism. William Lloyd Garrison once refused to answer Fitzhugh’s attack, saying: “argument is demanded—to prove what?” It seemed self-evident to Garrison that Fitzhugh’s charges were historically beside the point, and that was for Hartz a sure sign that Garrison, and not Fitzhugh, was a representative man. Fitzhugh was fascinating precisely because the problem of slavery drove him beyond the insights typical of liberalism., but at the time his iconoclasm appeared irrelevant to the nation’s experience.
Hartz’s own book did not suffer the immediate fate of Fitzhugh’s writings. The Liberal Tradition in America was widely recognized as a landmark in the understanding of American political thinking. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was one of the earliest who restated Hartz’s argument in a more accessible form, even though Schlesinger suspected that Hartz’s approach minimized an important diversity in American thinking. Another article in the Partisan Review presented Hartz’s thesis for its special audience; and one symposium drew journal articles by intellectual historians reconsidering The Liberal Tradition in America. Richard Hofstadter had immediately admired Hartz’s contribution; in 1968 he wrote some pages about Hartz’s work in relation to Progressive historiography: “the influence of Hartz’s book reflects the importance, indeed the classic centrality, of his ideas.” Garry Wills, in his Nixon Agonistes (1970), paused to spell out the direction of Hartz’s thought. As early as the late 1950’s, when it was first apparent that a “consensus” school of thought was threatening to homogenize the American past, the historian John Higham singled out Hartz’s book as “perhaps the most outstanding of the new interpretive books.” Yet while Higham worried about the dangers of a “cult” of consensus, he recognized that Hartz’s “own sympathies lay with dissent and diversity.”
Curiously enough the most savage onslaught on Hartz had come from Daniel J. Boorstin, the former librarian of Congress but then a professor at the University of Chicago. Boorstin’s own The Genius of American Politics (1953) had generously acknowledged the power of Hartz’s insights. “Parts of this volume,” Boorstin wrote in a review for Commentary, “have already appeared as brief essays in learned journals, and in that form seemed brilliant. But,” Boorstin went on, “this is not the work we had hoped for from Mr. Hartz.” Boorstin’s own thesis about the absence of political theory in America has often been compared to Hartz’s, and in later years Boorstin amplified his interest in social history by means of his three-volume The Americans. But Boorstin, an ex-Marxist, then saw Hartz as a prisoner of European comparisons. “He seems unable to describe what is characteristically American except by enumerating the several peculiarly European phenomenona which have happened to be absent from American history.” Boorstin’s own simple and direct writing—which later helped lead to best-sellerdom— was affronted by Hartz’s style: “Mr. Hartz’s obviously lively mind expresses itself not in new insights but in the translation of cliché into paradox.” Boorstin objected to Hartz’s stylistic obscurities, and also to Hartz’s “prodigious bookishness”; Boortsin alleged that Hartz had “a weakness for mistaking books for life,” and to him therefore The Liberal Tradition in America was “a monument of hyper-intellectualism.”
Marvin Meyers, also of the University of Chicago, objected to Boorstin’s attack: “I think he mistook the abundant signs of Professor Hartz’s learning for his thesis and method. To me the remarkable feature of this book on political thought is the regular substitution of nonintellectual categories for ideas. It is basically, I think, a study of the unconscious mind of America, conditioned by a peculiar historical and social experience.” Despite Boorstin’s attack from a conservative direction, Hartz’s name and that of Boorstin were to remain permanently linked as part of a distinctive approach to American history. Yet Boorstin’s judgment of Hartz’s book shows how at odds with the new conservatism Hartz really was.
Hartz’s book was indeed complicated, and I have reread it more times than any other single contemporary text I can recall. Each time I have gone through The Liberal Tradition in America I have found individual insights that are new to me as his argument freshly illuminated writers with whom I was now more familiar.
At the time I first read it successfully through, however, it simply made me take more courses by Hartz. And in my junior year at Harvard I enrolled in a graduate course on Nineteenth-Century Political Thought. It was primarily on European thinkers, and it remains the greatest series of lectures I have ever heard delivered. My huge stack of notes makes me remember how exhilarated rather than exhausted I was by note-taking at the time. Hartz’s passionate lecturing highlighted what he saw as the key issues in modern political theory: what is the good society, and how can the state help realize it? Hartz’s own interests were to shift so radically in the direction of comparative history that he never published a line from that greatest of his courses.
He did, however, once publish an article drawn from a popular undergraduate course called Democratic Theory and Its Critics, which I audited before I graduated. Hartz had been part of the post-World War II proponents of General Education at Harvard, and while that generation of scholars who believed in the creation of the program have now all passed from the teaching scene, and the General Education courses replaced by a different curriculum, a version of the same course is still being taught at Harvard. In the 1950’s the identical course was being given by students of Hartz’s all across the country. It was typical of Hartz’s approach that although political theory was the most traditional field in political science, his own courses were unique and identifiably his own.
In Democratic Theory and Its Critics he outlined the classical defense of liberalism, as articulated by Locke, Bentham, and Rousseau, and then showed how it fared in the face of 20th-century challenges. Hartz was proposing to try to preserve the ideals of democracy in the face of fresh insights on the part of modern thinkers.
He presented the ideas of the English guild socialists and the American pluralists; he taught Freud and elitist theorists; and he articulated the challenge of socialist ideology. His objective was to reconstruct liberalism in the light of these 20th-century schools of thought. Students came away with an understanding of what some of the key problems associated with democratic theory might be.
By the time I knew him Hartz’s mind was moving away from a concern with the mainstream of political thought, and turning to an attempt to understand comparative history as a whole. He had a Toynbeean tendency, and evidently aspired to understand all of world history. My own inclinations were more prosaic, and although I once wrote a graduate paper for him comparing the reception of Freud’s ideas in America and Britain, a synthetic approach to world history was not my cup of tea.
I did audit a graduate course of Hartz’s on American historiography, and certainly made note of the 1964 appearance of his The Founding of New Societies. With the help of four distinguished collaborators Hartz had extended his insight into American history to help understand the central strands in the histories of Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia. For each of these histories there would now be a “Hartzian” interpretation.
My own work was then on the mundane issues of Ph. D. thesis writing. I chose Hartz as my supervisor, which in that department at Harvard meant that if he approved of your work that was essentially all the secure backing that one needed. I remember proposing to write on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, but hesitated to Hartz on the grounds that I might not yet be ready to take on such an immense figure like Hobbes. “If not now,” he said to me, “when?” Hartz has always remained in my mind a model of intellectual daring and integrity.
When it came to my actual thesis on “Freud and Political Theory,” Hartz remained personally distant and yet in some basic way thoroughly supportive. In those days I was his head course-assistant in his Democratic Theory and Its Critics, and we chatted on informal occasions. He once said to me in a quiet way that he regretted the neglected role of race in his The Liberal Tradition in America. I remember, when a draft of my thesis was finished, that we had lunch once to discuss it; and he challenged me so about what my work had added up to that the luncheon essentially forced out of me the writing of a new conclusion to the dissertation.
After getting my Ph. D. in 1965 I was able to stay on to teach in the Government Department. I can never forget the despair I felt about myself, when I first began lecturing, after I once again heard him perform in class. My only consolation was that there was no necessary reason that I had to proceed like him, although in my heart I knew my own work could be more structured. Before giving his own lectures I had seen him sitting alone in an isolated coffee shop totally concentrated on his lecture notes.
By the late 1960’s Hartz was already more than a little out-of-it in terms of departmental politics. I recall one of my other teachers remarking that unfortunately, when it came to Hartz’s students, he thought that every goose he had was a swan. But I believe that at that time Hartz still had some exceptionally promising pupils. They did not go to Hartz, as some students went to others, for the sake of future patronage; he never had his eye on possible job openings. He actively discouraged me from continuing as his head course-assistant, since at that stage of my career Hartz thought it would be demeaning for both of us; he was behaving at odds with how university potentates were known to proceed in exploiting young faculty members. At that time if one thought he was the best in the field, there would have been plenty of others who would have agreed.
Before I left Harvard in 1971 there were events, personal as well as political, that overshadowed the earlier Hartz I had known. I now had my own books to think about writing, and the world of Southeast Asia gradually had overwhelmed former allegiances in the university community. I knew that Hartz was no longer speaking to some of his old friends in the Government Department. He was more remote than ever from daily events, although during at least one departmental meeting, in a university crisis, he could be as frighteningly articulate and persuasive as ever.
Hartz took me to an elegant dinner in the fall of 1971, and then it so happened that I never saw him again. At the time he spoke with enthusiasm about how hard he had been working, and yet it was obvious to me that realistically nothing special was coming out. He had already separated from his wife, whom I had known a bit socially. Then two years later, while I was securely settled in Canada, I heard secondhand awful stories about the end of his career at Harvard. He evidently had had some sort of paranoid breakdown; he had heard meaningful noises if not voices, would not take a sick leave, and finally retired on a measly sum. His name disappeared from the departmental roster. Fortunately I had not had to witness what happened in detail.
Hartz dropped everyone that I know of with whom he had once been friendly. Through a friend in the Government Department I heard that Hartz had been in India for a time, then in London, and later back in New York City. He was reported to be as well-dressed as ever. He even produced a manuscript for a book, which when I saw it seemed unpublishable but that Hartz got privately printed abroad. I wrote Hartz a letter once, by means of a circuitous route that had been recommended to me, about my desire to publish his lectures on Nineteenth Century Political Thought; I was not surprised never to have received any answer.
The year before Hartz died, John P. Diggins published his The Lost Soul of American Politics, a book in which Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America plays a central role. Diggins was never a pupil of Hartz’s, but Hartz’s work was so still in currency that Diggins could absorb the ideas from Hartz’s writing for the sake of criticizing more recent interpreters of America, When Diggins’s book was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times, Hartz was described as “the great Harvard theorist.” The reviewer, although I had not realized it at the time, had also been a student of Hartz’s.
Teaching involves both illusion and reality, and therefore when it comes to being self-critical about the impact that Hartz had one is bound to be a little unsure. There is no doubt that he went completely off-the-rails. Was Hartz’s fate worse, or just as bad, as Perry Miller’s drinking himself to death, openly sipping from a flask before going inside a building to deliver a lecture? If one analyzed the odd position Hartz staked out for himself within a political science moving in an entirely different direction from his own, toward policy studies or behavioralism but not intellectual history, a breakdown—as with Fitzhugh—might seem almost rational.
And yet it strikes me as humanly memorable how, when I take up again those lectures notes I wrote down as an undergraduate, the striking figure Hartz was then comes rushing back. Thirty years later I can testify to the genuinely unforgettable brilliance of his teaching. The New York Times is in some sense the Vatican of our intellectual life; I do not know how their obituary staff got on to the significance of Hartz’s death (in Istanbul), but their writer, David Margolick, did an unusually fine job. “In more than three decades at Harvard, Mr. Hartz lectured to thousands of undergraduates.” Lots of others have done as much; but then Margolick’s obituary included a sentence that sums up what I have tried to say, too: “A small, energetic man who moved perpetually, and spoke in rapid-fire fashion, he infused his students with his passion for ideas.” Louis Hartz has been gone for a long time now, which means to me that it is high time that the memory of his teaching was commemorated.