The Corner

Culture

‘If Columbus Had Not Crossed the Ocean …’

Professor Jeffrey Hart

Jeffrey Hart, our longtime senior editor, and an eminent professor of English, died last month at 88. I have a piece about him on our homepage. Here on the Corner, I would like to take note of a couple of things.

Over the years, I have enjoyed asking people — especially professors and the like — about their favorite professors, or most influential ones. You get some interesting answers. Some of the favorites, or most influential, are famous. Some are unknown. Some were famous during their careers and no more.

Jeff spent his freshman and sophomore years at Dartmouth and his junior and senior years at Columbia. (He took a year off between the two colleges, working in publishing.) At Columbia, he had the famous triumvirate of Trilling, Barzun, and Van Doren. At Dartmouth, there had been only one professor who “meant anything” to him, as he put it.

That was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. His Wikipedia entry is interesting. He was born in Berlin in 1888. Converted to Christianity in his teens. Married a woman named Margrit Hüssy. They combined their names, which seems very modern, doesn’t it? Eugen was a brilliant scholar. He was an officer in World War I. When Hitler came to power, he and Margrit high-tailed it to America.

Jeff said that Rosenstock (as he was commonly known) had “his Existenz experience” at Verdun: “cut off alone in a shell crater during a French barrage.” Rosenstock became a “Christian-Existentialist,” as Jeff termed him. He believed in “creative will,” and his heroes were Nietzsche and William James.

In class, he would say things like, “Gentlemen, if Eleazar Wheelock had not come north to this lonely place, we would not be here today.” (This was a Congregationalist minister who founded Dartmouth in 1769.) “Gentlemen, if Columbus had not crossed the ocean …”

Jeff had arrived at Dartmouth “a confident naturalist,” he once wrote to me — and his classes with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy “wrecked” this forever.

About 15 years later, he was hired as a professor at Dartmouth by John Sloan Dickey, the president of the college. Dickey had been, said Jeff, “a Rockefeller protégé at the State Department.” Here is his Wikipedia entry. I loved reading this: “Regularly welcoming freshmen at Convocation with the phrase ‘your business here is learning,’ Dickey was committed …” When I have a chance to talk with college students, I often say, “Learn as much as you can. Spend your years in college soaking up all the education you possibly can. Just learn and learn. There will be time for politics and all that later.” Dickey also called the liberal arts “the liberating arts.” I love that, too.

Anyway, my piece on Jeff is, again, here. I tell some of the story of his life, as he told it to me, and provide some glimpses into his mind. “Independence of mind,” he once said, “is necessary to any good writer.” No one can call Jeff Hart dependent.

P.S. He was an excellent tennis player in his youth, a denizen of the fabled West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens (site of the U.S. Open). He had many interesting things to say about sports, and I duly quote him in my piece. (“How good is Federer?” I once asked him.)

In fact, I have been quoting him lately on the question of Jordan vs. LeBron — not that Jeff ever addressed it directly, to my knowledge. But he would say, “You can’t compare across eras. You can’t compare Tilden to Sampras, Louis to Ali, Cobb to Brett, Jones to Nicklaus. All an athlete can do is dominate his own era. That’s it. He can’t do anything about the people before him or the people after him.”

LeBron James is the best athlete I have ever seen. But I think Jeff’s point is solid, and I rely on it frequently.

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