The Extraordinary Jeffrey Hart

Professor Jeffrey Hart
Scenes from a life, excerpts from a mind

Jeffrey Hart was one of the brightest, most learned people I have ever known. He had a prodigious memory and instant recall. I never saw him search his thought. What I mean is, I never saw him strain for a fact or a name or a word. Or a quotation. Whatever it was, it was on his lips immediately.

He never said “uh” or anything like that. He never played for time. He never rubbed his eyes or furrowed his brow or scratched his head. Whatever he needed was there, instantly.

I heard him talk about classical literature, history in various periods, sports of many kinds — a wide range of subjects. He was fluent in them all. He was a very rare bird.

Jeff Hart was long an editor and writer at National Review. He was also a scholar, an academic, a professor of English literature. He died last month at 88.

He was born on February 24, 1930, in New York City — Brooklyn, to be borough-specific. This was during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, about four months after the Crash.

Jeff went to Stuyvesant High School, which he described in a letter to me as “the jewel of the NYC system.” He further said this: “Stuyvesant, now mostly Asian, was then mostly Jewish, Trotskyite, and chess-playing, and so competitive it would have made George Steinbrenner look like a Zen Buddhist.”

Steinbrenner, you recall, was the owner of the New York Yankees for about 40 years, from 1973 onward.

Jeff said something else about Stuyvesant, which amuses me on several counts: “My Jewish friends there interested me in Wagner and Marx, but failed with chess.”

When it came time for college, Jeff went to Dartmouth, although “almost everyone I knew at Stuyvesant went to Harvard to become a doctor.” Jeff too was pre-med. By the way, his dad was a Dartmouth alum and, according to Jeff, had him wired for Dartmouth pretty much from birth.

“Entering in 1947,” Jeff said, “I found Dartmouth impossibly dull, collegiate in the worst sense, hazing and all that. The professors were not nearly as challenging as the teachers at Stuyvesant. The Dartmouth professors could easily have been taken for tweedy instructors at Andover or some such place.”

Now we will meet an exceptional professor, courtesy of Jeff:

The professor at Dartmouth who meant anything at all to me was a refugee Christian-Existentialist named Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Not surprisingly, Tillich and Auden thought well of him. I notice that George Morgan mentions him in his famous 1941 study of Nietzsche, probably the best in English on the subject.

Jeff painted a little picture of his professor:

Half-Jewish, looking like a Prussian officer, Rosenstock had fought at Verdun, where he had his Existenz experience, cut off alone in a shell crater during a French barrage. There he experienced total meaninglessness. His master phrase was “History must be told.” He wrecked my confident naturalism, showing that risk-taking acted on little or no evidence, and that without risk-taking there could be nothing: Back in the crater, one created.

Naturalism is not something you hear much about these days. It has definitions in literature, philosophy, and theology. Jeff knew them all, for sure. Here is a definition in the philosophical category: “the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.”

So, how did Rosenstock teach? How would his view of the world express itself? He would say things like, “Gentlemen, if Eleazar Wheelock had not come north to this lonely place, we would not be here today.” “Gentlemen, if Columbus had not …” (Wheelock was the Congregationalist minister who founded Dartmouth College in 1769.)

“Eugen’s heroes,” said Jeff, “were Nietzsche and William James: creative will.”

Jeff took all of Rosenstock’s courses. Then “I decided that I could get no more out of this prep-schoolish place, packed up, went back to NYC, and got a job with a publisher, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, as a very minor editor. I figured I would stay in publishing, write, maybe go to Time, whatever.”

Obviously, a medical career had gone by the boards. The young man was besotted with the humanities, especially literature. In due course, “I was persuaded by some Columbia junior professors to give Columbia a chance. So I did, having read Trilling and Van Doren, at least. The Liberal Imagination was just out, and I saw how important that was.”

The Liberal Imagination was a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling, published in 1950.

You may wonder why Jeff Hart was writing me all this. Had I asked him about his life? No — I had said that I had attended a concert at Columbia. And this reminded me of him. I must have said that I associated him more with Columbia than with Dartmouth (even though he had spent the bulk of his career at Dartmouth), because he began his letter to me,

You are even more correct than you could know in associating me with Columbia rather than Dartmouth. But that has been a “complex fate,” to use a Henry James phrase. And it leads me to some Proustian reflections on things past, at what will be somewhat Proustian length, unfortunately.

I did not mind one bit. It is a rich, marvelous letter. I felt privileged to receive it, and I still do.

Jeff indeed enrolled at Columbia, studying under Trilling, Mark van Doren, and Jacques Barzun. He earned his B.A. in ’52. Then he enlisted in the Navy, during this time of the Korean War. He worked for ONI, the Office of Naval Intelligence.

But I have not yet said anything about tennis. Jeff was a very good tennis player, a top junior and collegian. He played No. 1 on the Dartmouth team and No. 1 on the Columbia team. He had learned to play at the fabled West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, Queens. The club hosted the U.S. Open (as the tournament would come to be called) from 1915 to 1977, with a few years’ hiatus. Young Jeff hit balls with the pros, warming them up.

In 2012, I asked him about Roger Federer. Jeff wrote, “Federer is wonderful. He ranks among the all-time greats. The excellence of his form makes the racket do the job and saves his body.” That is a shrewd observation, applicable to other sports as well, and to musical activities, too: singing, for example.

Yes, Jeff ranked Federer among the greats. “But Tilden’s serve was 163 mph WITH A WOODEN RACKET. He won seven U.S. championships. I would say Tilden 1, Budge 2.” (We are talking about Bill Tilden and Don Budge.)

Jeff was willing to do some ranking there, obviously. But he also told me something else that has stayed with me, and that I have repeated many times. In a conversation one day, he said something like this: “You cannot really compare across eras: Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Ty Cobb and George Brett, Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. All an athlete can do is dominate his own era. That’s all he can do. He can’t do anything about the people who have come before him and the people who will come after him.”

Okay. You remember that Jeff was in naval intelligence.

In 1956, stationed in Boston with ONI and chasing security risks, but living in Cambridge, I got to know some of the Harvard English professors, especially Harry Levin, another interesting story, and even then had begun to publish. It was clear that I could have had a junior post at Harvard; but after much thought, wandering around the quadrangles and watching the crews work out on the Charles, I went back to Columbia.

On Jeff’s first day back, Lionel Trilling hired him as an assistant professor. “There was of course a nominal chairman,” Jeff recounted, “but Lionel did about what he wanted.”

He told me two stories about Jacques Barzun. I have always loved the first, and have shared it with many others. I would say that it has actually had an effect on me. Here goes, as told by Jeff in this “Proustian” letter:

One day, I had an appointment with Jacques to discuss my graduate-school ambitions. I was ten minutes late because students kept me in class arguing and asking questions. When I showed up, Barzun was sitting behind a large desk in an office the size of Mussolini’s. It seemed miles before I got to his desk. He said, “Professor Hart. Apparently you think your time more valuable than mine.” Since then I have never been late for an appointment.

Okay — here is the second story:

He asked me in for a discussion about my dissertation topic. All went smoothly until he said, “Professor Hart, remember, you must not take more than one year to write your dissertation.” And then, “Of course you know that it must be published.” I did not disappoint him.

As the great Harvard Shakespeare scholar George Lyman Kittredge said when he was accused of flunking too many Ph.D. candidates on their orals, “Standards must be kept up.”

Let me take a detour, for a quick second: I once interviewed Elliott Carter, the composer, on the eve of his hundredth birthday. This was in 2008. He had studied English at Harvard with, among others, Irving Babbitt and Kittredge. The latter was “a tyrant,” said Carter. “I mean, everybody went there — he always had a full classroom — and if anybody sneezed or coughed, he’d say, ‘You get out of here!’ So we all sat in terror.”

Now, back to Jeff:

In 1962 I got a perfect score on the 200-question pre-oral exam. This was the second perfect score since World War II. Then a First on the orals, which were public, and for me just a bright conversation in which they tried to stump me with tricky questions. I remember the tricks still.

Barzun seemed satisfied, has followed my activities, and we correspond.

Musing to me about Columbia, Jeff quoted Barzun: “Columbia has the soul of General Motors.” I will keep quoting — Jeff, that is:

Lionel Trilling put it a different way, saying, “Columbia is not alma mater. Columbia is dura mater.” Yet he turned down countless offers from Harvard.

In that way — its dura-mater-ism — Columbia more resembles the University of Chicago than it does Princeton.

Much as Jeff loved Columbia, he decided to go teach at Dartmouth. (He also had offers from Berkeley and Virginia.) Jeff said this, in his letter to me:

In 1963, John Sloan Dickey, a Rockefeller protégé from the State Department and then Dartmouth president, was trying to build a decent faculty; he offered enticements to some good people for a new Dartmouth English department; and Dartmouth offered me a choice deal. So I was back at Dartmouth. Small world.

Jeff went on to say that “poor Dickey was ruined by the faculty for having student protesters arrested for occupying his office. Think of that. A sensible citizen-like thing to do. This made him unable to run the place, and he retired early.”

Professor Hart taught at Dartmouth from 1963 until his own retirement in 1993. His main fields (I believe) were 18th-century England and the American moderns: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, et al. I once asked Jeff, “Is Hemingway overrated?” (I had the feeling he was — that people were enraptured by the persona.) Jeff said, “No, underrated.”

Jeff was very popular at Dartmouth, sometimes speaking to overflow crowds. He was knowledgeable, of course, and entertaining, and — this must have counted for a lot — utterly free of political correctness.

He once told me something amazing. For a period of years, everyone at Dartmouth was stoned. Drugged. (Of course, it was this way everywhere.) Jeff was facing a classroom of zombies. “We might as well have suspended teaching for that entire period, until they sobered up.”

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned anything about Jeff and politics. In 1968, Governor Reagan of California ran for president, sort of. Jeff did some speechwriting for him. He also wrote speeches for the eventual nominee, Nixon, and continued this service for the early part of the new administration.

Jeff was an excellent writer — search him out! — believing in simple, direct communication. He knew a lot — a helluva lot — and he probably knew as many words as anybody. But he believed in that simple, direct writing.

Before we leave the subject of Nixon, I want to share something with you. Years ago — in 2002 — I was writing an essay about an interesting subject: the honorific “Dr.” This is a very, very touchy subject in America. I got some information from Jeff, which I incorporated into my piece:

Feelings about “Dr.” are bound up in that bitch-goddess, Status. (Yes, I know: James said Success. But Status is a sister.) The best line in either Austin Powers movie belongs to Dr. Evil, who, when addressed as “Mr.,” says, “I didn’t spend six years in evil medical school to be called ‘Mr.,’ thank you very much!” Our senior editor Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth, remembers serving as a campaign adviser to Nixon (not that this is necessarily a segue from evil). To Jeff’s amusement, Nixon called him “Dr. Hart.” This accords with the Nixon we know: class-conscious, status-nervous, chip-on-the-shouldery, the boy from Whittier who received a tuition scholarship to Harvard but couldn’t go, because the family didn’t have the money to transport him to and from Massachusetts. Nixon, according to Jeff, would also say, “I’m no Ph.D., but …,” before launching into a disquisition on some arcane topic.

Back to Jeff and his academic career. Reminiscing, he said,

Over the years, while at Dartmouth, I received a lot of offers from my publication [i.e., on account of his published writings], but I never would leave the Ivy League. What proved this to me was that I twice turned down an endowed chair at Vanderbilt, despite the ghosts of Ransom and the Fugitives there.

Note, please, that Jeff had a statement affixed to the bottom of his stationery. It was a statement from John Crowe Ransom, to wit, “In manners, aristocratic; in religion, ritualistic; in art, traditional.” This is a distinct kind of conservatism.

Back to the letter I was quoting:

No other places outside the Ivy League seemed quite real to me, certainly not California, eucalyptus land. Starting when I was about five, my father took me to the Dartmouth-Princeton game in Palmer Stadium. … Dartmouth had beaten Princeton in, I think, 1916, in the first game ever at Palmer, Dartmouth winning with a “trick play,” the New York Times reported, and despite the exertions of Hobey Baker, who died as a flyer in France. In 1917, he flew his squadron over Palmer Stadium at halftime, the tiger logo on the fuselages. The only man in both the football and the hockey halls of fame.

That first game, according to the all-knowing Internet, was in 1914. A word about halls of fame, too: Baker is in the hockey hall and the college-football hall. He is indeed the only man in both.

I will get off the theme of colleges in a minute, but, before I do, I must quote Jeff on Harvard — this is darned interesting, I think:

The great thing about Harvard has always been that it has never cared what a professor’s after-work opinions are, as long as he is the best in his field. He could admire Pol Pot, for whatever reason, as long as he is number one in Egyptology or something. Arthur Darby Nock was the leading 20th-century St. Paul scholar and crazy as a bedbug. …

Conservatives today do not understand Harvard, because they see it from the outside. Harvard always rights its ship. It could not possibly let its law school go too far left; Harvard heard from the major law firms that they could not use its graduates; Harvard brought in a tough new dean with orders to clean up the playpen. Which he did.

Jeffrey Hart worked at National Review, in the coterie around Bill Buckley, for many years. You can imagine how useful someone of his skills — and spirit — was. WFB valued him highly. Eventually — in the 2000s — Jeff had a sharp departure from the conservative movement and the Republican party. I will recollect a few things.

He thought that the Religious Right weighed too heavily on the movement and the party. He was also uncomfortable with southernization, as he saw it. He had very little use for the Confederacy — and I’m putting it as mildly as possible. He was disgusted at Confederacy nostalgia. He was a “Party of Lincoln” kind of Republican. (This, despite his regard for Ransom and the Fugitives. Jeff’s mind allowed for many things, as good minds do.) He thought that the Right, in general, gave short shrift to science. He was also conscious of environmentalism, linking conservatism to conservation.

The biggest issue, however, was foreign policy. His opposition to the Iraq War was very hot, and he voted for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama thereafter, twice. He had extremely disparaging things to say about Sarah Palin. As for the 2016 election, the New York Times said he was “too ill to vote.”

By the way, the headline over the Times’s obit was very good, using the phrase “influential and iconoclastic conservative.” I would add the word “brilliant.”

After Jeff left NR, I would write him occasionally, and it usually worked like this: I would send him some short e-mail, on a subject or subjects apart from contemporary politics. And he would send back a long typewritten letter. He would write about anything and everything. His expertise seemed to know no bounds. When I mentioned the Low Library at Columbia, venue of a concert, he wrote paragraphs about architecture on college campuses. Like he was an architectural historian.

(His father was an architect. That must have helped.)

Somewhere along the line, I must have said something about Jefferson. (I don’t have my original e-mail.) I got pages and pages about Jefferson — erudite, offbeat, engrossing. Jeff begins, “Jefferson may be the most interesting, precisely because he is often so contradictory, among the in fact ‘greatest generation.’” You understand that phrase “the in fact ‘greatest generation’”: The World War II generation, in recent years, had been labeled “The Greatest Generation.” Jeff cared a lot about the Declaration of Independence and a lot about freedom — ordered liberty.

Let me quote some more from that letter on Jefferson. He uses a word I had never seen before and have not seen since: “dysphemize.” It comes from “dysphemism,” which means — here I will quote a dictionary — “the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.” Anyway, Jeff said,

The present-day attacks on Jefferson are part of the pathology of dysphemizing America’s heroes and its past on behalf of a variety of interests. All the more reprehensibly are such dysphemizers rewarded by the general culture. The claim that Lincoln was a homosexual gets more attention than his Second Inaugural, even though he did write the Second Inaugural and was not a homosexual.

Another time, he was discussing the age-old question “Who is a Jew?” If you convert to Christianity, are you a Jew still? This is a complicated, unending, and personal question. But Jeff hit the bull’s-eye with this remark: “If Goldwater had been German, I doubt he could have been saved by pleading Episcopalianism.”

He would sometimes write memos — long ones — on articles in National Review. Whole issues of the magazine. I’m looking at such a memorandum now. Sweeping, pointed, bracing stuff on democracy, same-sex marriage, Christianity, and more. What shall I quote? I’ve already quoted so much. How about this?

I loved Jada Pinkett Smith, the young woman who said, “You can have everything.” There is little that wealth, talent, beauty, and youth cannot believe. As William Hazlitt said in the first sentence of his essay “On the Feeling of Immortality in Early Youth,” “No young man believes he will ever die.” Hemingway used that as the final sentence about Nick Adams’ innocence in the very early story “Indian Camp.”

But as Nick Adams soon learns, it is precisely mortality that limits choice. If a person lived forever, everything might be possible. But finiteness imposes choice, all too often choice between things equally good, and that choice has a touch of tragedy about it. You cannot be a quantum physicist, a master violinist, and a Supreme Court Justice. Jada Pinkett Smith will find out, and pretty soon.

I’d like to give you one more thing — just a sentence, even a fragment of a sentence. In 2012, Jeff had a book come out: The Living Moment: Modernism in a Broken World. In a note to me, he said that the book had received “a favorable — though incompetent — review” in a certain publication. That was so Jeff — so, so Jeffrey Hart. Most authors would find a negative review incompetent and a favorable review competent, no matter what. But such was Jeff’s mind that he could say that a favorable review — and a helpful one — was nonetheless incompetent.

He was a rare bird, one of the rarest. I have enjoyed getting to know him again, so to speak, in putting together this article for you.

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