National Review

Jeffrey Hart: A Teacher Celebrated

Professor Jeffrey Hart
National Review remembers former senior editor Jeffrey Hart, who died last week, in this symposium republished to commemorate his passing.

Editor’s Note: The following symposium, from an old issue of National Review, is being republished on the occasion of the passing of Jeffrey Hart.

By William F. Buckley Jr.

Jeffrey Hart, who took early retirement from teaching at Dartmouth in order to have more time to write, is (apart from Priscilla Buckley) the seniormost Senior Editor of National Review. He came to us in 1962 as a book reviewer, in 1969 as a, so to speak, resident (three days per fortnight) editor and writer. He arrives in New York every other week no matter the difficulties (flying in and out of western New Hampshire is a defiant exercise), in time for Monday morning’s editorial meeting.

One takes for granted the prophet in his own land. Some months ago it struck Management that if Jeffrey Hart were a phenomenon operating other than at National Review, we would long since have published a portrait of him. Seeking to stress what?

The answer becomes obvious. Hart is many things—scholar, writer, historian, journalist. But foremost among them, he is a teacher; teacher, mentor, friend, companion. More than once he was listed in college publications as one of the most respected professors at Dartmouth. Now being the Most Anything, Anywhere, tends to cause the hackles of competitors to rise. No one who has ever been near the academy mistakes it for a community of self-abnegators who disdain all earthly distractions. The American academy tends to be an intensely ideological and ambitious social unit. To accomplish all that Jeff Hart does and also to aid & abet The Dartmouth Review and its editors is to reach too far. It must have been embarrassing to Dartmouth’s president to find himself obliged to confer the Presidential Medal for Achievement and Leadership on JH (as we shall henceforward, mostly, designate him) at a public ceremony at Lincoln Center. But there was no avoiding this acknowledgment of the regard in which he was held by his former students.

His students! It is this battery, young and not-so-young, to whom we turned to do the mosaic that follows. We confined our mini-celebration to five National Review pages, in deference to such ambient events as presidential elections, world wars, and freshly named White House counsels. The entire issue might have been filled with the testimonials from JH’s sometime students. The portrait here is of the true professorial success: the great teacher. We proudly give you our colleague—Jeffrey Hart.

The Complete Hart
By Peter Robinson

At Dartmouth College during the 1970s, Jeffrey Hart was one of the three or four professors every student learned about as a freshman. He was renowned for flouting the strictures of campus liberalism. At a time when the president of the college, John Kemeny, was giving speeches about the need to conserve fossil fuels, Hart took to driving around Hanover, New Hampshire, in a second-hand Cadillac limousine. Every morning, Hart would maneuver the gigantic vehicle among faculty Volvos, some still bearing McGovern bumper-stickers, and take two parking spaces outside Sanborn Library, the home of the English Department. By the time I arrived in Hanover the limousine was gone, but someone pointed him out to me at a football game. He was dressed in an ankle-length raccoon coat. After a touchdown, he celebrated by reaching deep into one of the coat’s enormous, shaggy pockets to withdraw a silver hip flask and take a swig. The austerity of the Carter years? Small is beautiful? He preferred the Jazz Age.

I took my first Hart course, a poetry survey, during the spring of my freshman year. By contrast with the flamboyance of his campus persona, Hart as teacher struck me at first as oddly stern. He would enter the classroom, place a book on the lectern, open, and begin to talk about the text. No politics. No jokes. Just the text. After two or three classes, this approach had its effect. It became clear that Hart took poetry seriously, and students started to emulate him by devoting concentrated attention to the act of reading. His very sobriety began to seem exhilarating.

Before graduating, I took every course Hart offered. These courses were notable for their variety—more precisely, their bi-polarity. At one pole lay the courses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Augustan Age concerned itself with Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Addison, and Pope. Then came The Age of Johnson, which examined Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, and their circle. The works examined in these courses were pre-eminently concerned with refinement, order, and decorum. (Dr. Johnson said of Dryden’s effect on English poetry, “He found it brick, and he left it marble,” which sums up the era’s concern with formal elegance.)

At the other pole lay Hart’s courses in the twentieth century. Here the works concerned not order but disorder. Yet Hart was as much in command of Addison’s Ciceronian periods as of Hemingway’s staccato rhythms, as much at ease discussing Pope’s heroic couplets as Eliot’s complex and irregular verse.

In all of his courses Hart stressed two skills, reading and writing. These sound commonplace. As he approached them, they were not. He asserted that a great poem or novel can sharpen its readers’ perceptions and enlarge their understanding—but only if they submit to it and read it. Hart was never rude in the classroom, but whenever a student started talking about how a poem made him feel, Hart would shift the discussion to the poem’s historical context, its rhythm and rhyme scheme, or its diction. He was not interested in a 19-year-old’s ability to emote; he was very interested in the text. In The Age of Johnson, JH gave an exam that consisted only of a list of names drawn from Boswell’s Life. The students were charged to identify each character, in no more than a sentence apiece. I missed half of them, including (this has stayed with me) Topham Beauclerk, Dr. Johnson’s close and much younger friend. Like many students, I found the exam infuriating. We should have been asked about big ideas! To this grumbling, JH responded calmly: Do your reading. Experience the characters the author presents. Enter his world. If you don’t know who Topham Beauclerk was, you have done a deficient job of reading Boswell’s text.

In writing, Hart valued the simple, the original, the direct. The models he held up were journalistic, not academic. He stressed that Dr. Johnson was a working journalist, not an Oxford don, and he noted that journalism had shaped his own writing. “My newspaper column has taught me a great deal about directness,” he once explained. “Now, when I look at my first book, on Viscount Bolingbroke, which was my doctoral dissertation, I see the examining board on every page.” When a classmate of mine, who worked for the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, asked Hart how to improve his writing, Hart told him to write for the sports page. “Sports are objective and concrete,” Hart said. “It’s something you can write about.”

Hart himself found writing easy, but understood that many of his students found it difficult. He offered them two aids, encouragement and practice. He assigned them a large number of essays, always finding passages to praise, even in wretched work. In a couple of courses, Hart required stu- dents to keep daily journals, recording their responses to the works they were reading. A number of students—I was one—found the assignment nerve-wracking, always afraid that our extemporaneous work would prove unsophisticated or stupid. Yet when we got it back, we found that he had offered no criticism at all, hunting instead through each journal for interesting passages, adding his own thoughts, and often suggesting further reading.

It felt like a kind of miracle. In the course on Johnson, Hart discovered that most of us considered Boswell a buffoon, a dutiful drudge who turned himself into a one-man steno pool, taking virtual dictation from Johnson and others. “For one week,” Hart instructed us, “I would like you to record your daily lives just as Boswell recorded his. Attempt to make your journals as vivid and readable as his. Then compare what you have written with any passage of the Life of Johnson.” It worked: it taught us to respect Boswell as he deserves.

Large numbers of students appreciated Hart—his course on Hemingway and Fitzgerald was so popular it had to be held in a pre-med lecture hall. Much of the Dartmouth faculty, however, found him intensely annoying. I assumed then that they were put off by his politics. I think now that his sheer effortlessness may have been harder to bear. Composing two newspaper columns every week, flying to New York twice a month for National Review, publishing criticism in leading journals several times a year, and writing books at regular intervals, he never betrayed the slightest sign of exertion. To the contrary, he always seemed to have time on his hands. He kept generous office hours and he often popped up at the tennis courts, smoking a pipe while he watched the tennis team practice. During summer terms, he would appear at mid-morning on the Connecticut River in his powerboat, roaring in to town to pick up his New York Times; on the way back, he would cruise over to the students sunbathing on the Dartmouth dock, toss out a pair of skis and a line, and spend an hour giving a tow to anyone who wanted to water-ski. From time to time one of his faculty enemies would deride him, notwithstanding his academic publications, as a mere journalist or campus character. Such derogations never stuck. Hart was too good at the essential business of Dartmouth College. He was the comprehensive teacher.

Serious Jokes
By Dinesh D’Souza

I first encountered Jeffrey Hart through an unusual column he wrote in the campus daily, The Dartmouth, in 1979. That year, my freshman year, as you walked across the Dartmouth campus, you would see a wide variety of protestors on the Green, day after day. Professor Hart began this particular column by asking, “What could possibly motivate a group of people to be out here every day, all day, seemingly all year?”

He had performed a kind of sociological study to try to discover what common thread linked this disparate group of people. And he noticed—one could not help noticing—that they were an extremely disheveled bunch of people. On his way to his office in Sanborn Library he took in the chandeliers and tall handsome ceilings, and reflected that the protestors were not in fact protesting South Africa, let’s say, they were protesting their own disarray.

When this column appeared, it created a bit of a furor on campus. The next day three hundred protestors dressed themselves up in suits and ties, seeking to refute the point of JH’s column, but in fact confirming it by the contrast.

As I came to know him, I became accustomed to his col- lection of paraphernalia—the motorized wooden hand used to drum on the table when faculty meetings went on too long; the wooden pincer device, intended for pinching women you wouldn’t touch. And his wide, indeed unrivaled, collection of buttons (my favorite: “Soak the Poor”).

I emphasize the facetious, but it was the combination of that with his serious, learned, and deeply inspirational side that magnetically drew a wide range of young people to him. He was in one sense a classicist, a member of the old order. And yet there was something very modern, very young about his mind and humor. I’m still waiting for him to publish his long-awaited collection—Dr. Hart’s Politically Incorrect Joke Book. No ethnic group is safe.

In a world that is both confused and monotonous, Jeffrey Hart kept us sane and smiling. For that alone we should be thankful.

Man of the West
By William Grace

On a spring evening at Lincoln Center in 1992, amongst the black ties and designer gowns of Dartmouth College’s blue-chip contributors, Jeffrey Hart received Dartmouth’s award for outstanding teaching.

It was a defining moment. Here stood a teacher whose campus agenda official Dartmouth loathed: informing students about their own civilization, hiring teachers based on their ability to teach, ending the distribution of AIDS-proofing equipment to freshmen. And there, bestowing the Olympic-style medal, stood Hart’s ideological rival—Dartmouth President James O. Freedman, a man so illiterately PC he once accused Dartmouth conservatives of launching “ad hominem and ad feminam” attacks. Poor President Freed-person. Despite his administration’s attempts at consigning Hart to the fever swamps, Dartmouth’s most prominent black alumnus, Reggie Williams—once a perennial NFL all-pro and now a top Disney executive—had nominated him for the award.

In the fall of 1972, Williams had sat down in Hart’s office as a freshman worried about writing his first college essay. He had graduated from a tough Detroit high school and now had to compete academically with WASPs from St. Paul’s and Exeter. Williams could crumple preppies on the gridiron (1973, 1974, and 1975 All Ivy League Team) but wanted to defeat them in class, too. His first assignment: to write a short essay on why he supported Nixon or McGovern in the ’72 presidential race. “I’m not voting for either of them,” Williams told Hart. As he presciently explained, “Both Nixon and McGovern are losers. And I’m a winner.” Hart began working with Williams, who surprised himself by developing into a good writer.

As sophomores in 1987, a small group of us gradually adopted Professor Hart as our mentor. What attracted us was his compelling vision of how studying great literature and art might change us. He did not, like the other faculty, banally plead agnostic as to what we should learn. Instead he showed us how to make contact with our civilization’s high models of intelligent action.

Other faculty taught Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau. But these professors focused narrowly, rather than approaching Western civilization in its powerful unity. They were deaf to the West’s heroic trumpet notes, whereas Hart amplified them as signals of how we might begin to answer the two fundamental questions of higher education: What is man? and, What is the good?

He launched an annual campus lecture, “What Is a Liberal Arts Education? And How to Get One.” His lecture begins with the unforgettable story of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German emigrant who taught philosophy at Dartmouth; he had fought in World War I as a soldier in the Kaiser’s army. Trapped in No Man’s Land by a bombardment during the Battle of Verdun, Rosenstock-Huessy felt like a “naked worm,” removed from human history. This terrifying experience led him to an important conclusion: For civilization to endure there must be men who have the deep knowledge and moral courage to rebuild it.

One of Rosenstock-Huessy’s best students at Dartmouth, Jeffrey Hart, has become such a man.

Intelligent Life
By Dan Coakley

“See you at 6:30 on the second floor.” Professor Hart hung up the phone.

Arriving at the Yale Club at 6:29, I spotted Professor Hart in his usual corner, next to a window overlooking Grand Central Station, pipe in mouth, a pile of papers on the table. I got a drink and joined him. Tonight he was sitting with Roger Kimball of The New Criterion and Professor James Tuttleton of New York University. They were talking about Dante.

JH sensed my reticence and drew me into the conversation. He led me this way and that until, before long, I was saying things that weren’t totally absurd.

But the real treat was listening. Just by being there I was learning so much, so much beyond Dante (if that is possible). I was learning about excellence, about the depth of people who truly aspire to understand.

The next morning at about ten, JH appeared at my desk. “How about lunch with David Black.”

He handed me an essay about a quarter of an inch thick. “Finished this up last night. Thought you might like to read it.” It was an essay on Burke, which has since been published in Modern Age. A week before, he had mailed me a similarly substantial piece on Auden (since published in The New Criterion). And then of course there is his syndicated column and his current book. He writes faster than I read—actually, this is a little irritating. Anyhow, back to David Black.

We met him at a midtown club designed by Stanford White. Hart explained to me the metaphorical significance of the exterior’s design as we walked up to the door. David Black, I had learned on the walk over, is a brilliant former lefty, a National Magazine Award-winning journalist turned big-time Hollywood writer. He is also, by JH’s account, a serious novelist. Conversation at lunch focused on his most recent novel. As the previous evening, the character and tone of the conversation struck me more than the content. Here was Jeffrey Hart, hired gun to Nixon and Reagan, and David Black, Sixties radical, having a discussion that was civil, spirited, and enjoyable. Refreshing stuff, this—true liberalism.

Two weeks later, when JH was back in town again to help put out another issue of National Review, we had drinks with Sidney Zion, the charismatic Daily News columnist, former U.S. Attorney, and author of several books on the mob. The conversation turned to the New York Giants and to football more generally. The mood now was gritty. Zion lit up a massive cigar, and obscenities began to creep into the exchange. Hart cited names of Giant players past and present with remarkable ease. But more impressive was his technical expertise in analyzing plays and tactics. Zion was able to stay with him, but I got a bit lost and tried to bring things back to personalities and generalities. Hobey Baker, Bill Parcells, astroturf vs. natural grass. No luck. Hart liked the technical analysis. He felt that you have to understand the nuts and bolts of something to fully appreciate it. Point taken. Back to the old wishbone offense.

Many people know a lot about one or two things; Professor Hart knows about many. Tennis. Shakespeare. Commodore Vanderbilt and the railroads. Stanford White. J. P. Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. The Yankees. Columbia. T. S. Eliot. Athens and Jerusalem. Joyce and Yeats. Buckley, Nixon, and Reagan. Auden. The Civil War. The Navy. The Titanic. And on and on.

Professor Hart once wrote, “Serious and secure people always have time.” But how? How does Hart have time to do all that he does, to know all that he knows, and to learn all that he continues to learn?

Part of the answer is that he’s never agonized about trying to achieve recognition—though he has seen his share. The objective for him has always been to learn and to understand, to apply his mind consistently to all areas of his life, and then to teach. In other words, the objective has always been to lead “the intelligent life.”

The Professor
Scott W. Johnson

I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 1969, a graduate of an elite private high school, full of liberal certitudes and self-regard and inclined to literature. My certitudes did not survive my four years as a student of Professor Hart.

I enrolled in his principal upper-level English course on the era of Dryden and Pope. The introductory lecture gave us an unforgettable overview of the intellectual horizon within which the great eighteenth-century English writers did their work. JH’s theme was that the antagonistic stance of modern intellectuals toward their own culture and their country was a relatively recent historical anomaly. In the Augustan Age we saw literature recalling society to its own norms. “This was the dominant conception of the role of the artist and the intellectual until nearly yesterday: until, that is, the early nineteenth century,” as he put it in his brilliant contribution to NR’s 15th anniversary issue, “The Secession of the Intellectuals.”

He described the development, since the nineteenth century, of an adversary intellectual style that through mass education (he was too polite to mention us!) had become institutionalized and coarsened. The irony was that in an academic setting saturated with conventional liberalism, JH was himself a truly adversary figure.

He treats literature as a comprehensive art whose appreciation requires that we bring to bear all the resources of history, philosophy, and sociology. We are incapable of submitting to the great literature of the past except by lifting ourselves to it. To be Jeffrey Hart’s student was to be initiated into the culture of the West by an unashamed partisan. Although he lectured in the formal style of the Oxford don, pipe in hand, it was impossible to mistake him for one. It was the Budweiser tie that gave him away.

And outside class, what an unbelievably generous teacher. All it took to engage him was the least display of genuine curiosity. He wanted to motivate his students to see with their own eyes. I think he succeeded.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE
NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

Most Popular

Film & TV

It’s the Deep Breath before the Plunge

Warning. SPOILERS are ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about episode two of the final season of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Now. One of my favorite moments in Peter Jackson's outstanding adaptation of Lord of the Rings happened in the final movie, The Return of the King. On the eve of Mordor's ... Read More