John Morton Blum: The Death of a Legendary Historian

The history behind current events.
Oct. 21 2011 12:05 PM

John Morton Blum

The death of a legendary historian.

Yale historian John Morton Blum
John Morton Blum, noted Yale historian, died Monday at 90

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1980s, no professor enjoyed greater campus celebrity than John Morton Blum, who died on Monday at the age of 90. One of the finest American historians of his era, he was the last actively teaching member of Yale’s fabled troika—with C. Vann Woodward (The Strange Career of Jim Crow) and Edmund Morgan (American Slavery, American Freedom) having just retired—that had distinguished the history department in its heyday. His undergraduate course “American Politics and Public Policy, 1945-1974,” whose students filled the Yale Law School auditorium, was called by one word: “Blum.” When I arrived on campus, the genial professor was still basking in his fame from a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Zelig, appearing alongside Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag.

To academic historians, I later learned, Blum’s reputation did not quite match that of Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the giants of their generation. But his prolific output (a half-dozen books on various presidential administrations; edited volumes of the papers of Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, Henry Wallace, and Henry Morgenthau) was staggering, and his best works—including The Republican Roosevelt (1954) and Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (1956)—were not just masterpieces of taut prose but also bold arguments that other scholars had to reckon with. And if Blum never developed the long roster of superstar protégés that some historians could claim, the undergraduates he influenced must number in the tens of thousands.

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To those students he exemplified the best of the Yale professoriate. Wearing tweed jackets and bowties, uttering beautifully formed sentences seemingly without forethought, Blum struck his disciples in the 1980s as a classic Ivy League type. With strong opinions and a cutting wit, he was exacting as a teacher; he required his seminar students to write a short paper without using any adjectives, adverbs, or the verb to be. (I still take pride in having won exemption from a rewrite.) But Blum never wielded unreasonable expectations. “Eighty percent of the students do eighty percent of the reading,” he would tell his lecture class, thus conceding that only a fraction of us were wonky enough to peruse every assigned page, but signaling also that only a fraction could get by with doing less. For no apparent benefit but his own enjoyment, Blum would invite the entire class to join him each week in the dining hall for what he insisted on calling “luncheon”—never “lunch,” a term of slang that he found anathema.

Some years later, after becoming a historian myself, I read A Life with History (2004), Blum’s autobiography. It was a revelation. For one thing, I learned that Blum was Jewish—a fact that, given his name, should have been perfectly obvious yet was somehow obscured by his tweedy aura. (Blum had also thrown everyone off the scent by describing himself over luncheon as a “pantheistic transcendentalist” in religion, which I took to be some kind of watered-down atheism.) To be sure, Blum’s parents had rejected Jewish observance, his mother turning to the Ethical Culture Society, a secular organization whose teachings were vaguely Jewish. But his heritage remained part of his identity. When in 1957 Yale lured him from MIT with a tenured position (after Hofstadter and Princeton’s R.R. Palmer declined it) he marveled, “I, only thirty-six years old, by no means a Hofstadter or a Palmer, and a Jew withal … must have seemed pretty small potatoes.” Love that withal.

A Life with History also revealed how much Blum’s schooling—first at Andover, then at Harvard—transformed him, imbuing him with the Ivy style that by the 1980s seemed intrinsic to his identity. He had actually come to Andover on scholarship, the son of a small-time inventor and salesman who survived the Depression “partly by borrowing money and partly by running up debts, which he did not repay.” The outsider learned to fit in. In Blum’s fourth year at prep school, a teacher, Arthur W. Leonard, pulled him aside after an oratory competition. “You don’t know how to speak, do you?” Leonard rudely asked the student, who was dumbstruck. Henry Higgins-style tutoring cured Blum of his New York accent, inserting a breathy “h” in his “which” and a long “u” in his “you” in place of the truck driver’s flat “a.”

Blum’s autobiography made clear, too, why he felt such loyalty toward and identification with the stodgy institutions whose hidebound practices his liberalism might otherwise have led him to challenge more forcefully. Blum and his peers were among the first students (and later faculty) whose encounters with those bastions of WASP privilege changed them into something closer to meritocracies. Appropriately, he called himself a “Tory Democrat,” emulating the Tory Radicals of Britain like Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, reformers deeply committed to institutions and traditions. This tendency was evident when, as history department chairman, he helped Yale’s president Kingman Brewster steer the university through the culture clashes 1960s, incurring enmity from New Left students and reactionary faculty but helping the university avoid the damage that afflicted many other schools. (Brewster’s story is told in The Guardians, by Geoff Kabaservice, the last dissertation Blum directed.)

Blum’s Tory liberalism also informed his scholarship. The Republican Roosevelt, rooted in an eight-volume collection of Theodore Roosevelt’s letters that Blum co-edited, was perhaps his most important work. It lastingly reinterpreted T.R. as neither a showboating jingo nor a “failed liberal,” but a progressive conservative who, as Blum put it, “fought for change in order to preserve the nation’s historic institutions, including the structure of American capitalism.” Blum's other books, conversely, showed the unwisdom of a liberalism that strayed too far into utopian aspirations. Blum’s portrait of Wilson astutely highlighted the pitfalls of his crusading moralism. And his rich study of the World War II homefront, V Was for Victory (1976)—which took Blum, relatively late in his career, from politics to culture—debunked accounts of the war that celebrated a supposed spontaneous outpouring of American selflessness. Instead, Blum detected a widespread popular desire for little beyond battlefield victory and economic security. The notion that enduring reform was best forged within established channels was reflected in the title of Blum’s last book of essays, Liberty, Justice, Order (1993).

In Zelig, Irving Howe, appearing on camera a few minutes after Blum, serves up a persuasively sincere reading of the movie’s fictional protagonist, who famously takes on the appearance of whomever he is with. “It seems to me that his story reflected a lot of the Jewish experience in America,” Howe deadpans, “the great urge to push in and to find one’s place, and then to assimilate into the culture. I mean, he wanted to assimilate like crazy.” John Morton Blum—who always used the very Jewish-sounding “Morton” in his professional byline—was no chameleon and didn’t assimilate like crazy. But he did adapt artfully to the often severe institutions of higher education of his day, and in so doing came to understand—and in his scholarship managed to convey—the precious nature and fitful course of progressive reform in 20th-century America.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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