I was sitting down to write an email to Nathan Glazer when the news came in that he had passed away. Nat was 95 and one of the country’s last true public intellectuals. Others around here can write far more effectively about the significance, and sometimes controversy, of his work, but to me, he was an acquaintance who turned into a kind of quiet mentor. I first met Nat while a young professor at Yale, close to 15 years ago. I ran into him on the street, and geek that I was, recognized him from the wonderful documentary Arguing the World. He and his wife, Sulochana, were kind enough to accept my spontaneous offer of tea at Yale’s Elizabethan Club, and from then on we kept in touch, sometimes irregularly. He was interested in my work on Japan, though only on the domestic side of things, about which I wrote sparingly. For a self-professed New York Intellectuals fan, my thrill at his providing a blurb for my second book was barely dampened by his gentle chastisement for what he thought was missing from it. I never forgot how that criticism was heavy with disappointment, not in a judgmental way, but rather that he seemed truly to regret that I had missed the opportunity to dig more deeply into the inner workings of Japanese society.
Interested as I was in foreign affairs, I didn’t read even the majority of what Nat had written, though his 1965 Commentary piece on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement I thought one of the greatest essays I had ever read. Rather, to the historian I was, he was a piece of living history, someone who had in many ways encapsulated the Jewish American experience in the 20th century, as well as the professionalization of the intelligentsia. It seemed to me that he came from a time when the thrashing out of competing ideas for their intellectual value truly mattered, before the coarsening of public debate and politicization of everything. I often imagined what it must have been like to be at one of those hallowed salons in Manhattan or Brooklyn, with a young Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, and Nat, almost the youngest of the bunch. But of course, as he reminded me once, intellectual debates and politics were blood sports in the 1940s and 1950s, as well. And after the 1960s, everything changed.
Nat took a lot of heat for supposedly changing his opinions, especially on affirmative action, and undoubtedly his legacy will be argued about for years — appropriate for a man who spent his life debating. But he was no austere, impersonal, intimidating figure. Rather, he was a true gentleman and a kind soul. In him, the urge to know and understand was paramount, and the arguments were earnest. Scoring points, dropping names, climbing the greasy pole seemed utterly alien to his character.
The last time I saw him, a couple of years ago, we sat in his kitchen in Cambridge. He lamented how hard it was now for him to read, and his pain at being slowly separated from the thrust and parry of intellectual debate was palpable. Yet he peppered our conversation with references to Le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs. I guess we must have been talking about cities, maybe Tokyo, which of course sent me running afterwards to look up both of them. In one of our last exchanges, I sent him a long essay I wrote on Japan’s historical experience over the last 25 years, and he responded at once with encouragement, as always.
There are a few like Nat still around, even some young ones. Unlike Nat’s, though, their ideas will be harder to hear in the crashing din, and perhaps won’t be listened to outside their own circle. He was fortunate to live at a time when ideas did truly seem to matter to many, but one thing Nat taught this historian was to rein in my unwarranted nostalgia for the past. His intellect and his humanity will be missed. RIP