An American Historian

My books still in print include A General History of Taxation; Taxation Without Representation: A History of America in Ten Taxes; Import Quotas, Export Subsidies: A Journey through Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade; Embargo: A History; Blood Money: The Taxation of Slavery, and George Sewall Boutwell: Abolitionist, Suffragist, and Father of the IRS.

Cover pages curling like scrolls around the name Ben-Zion Netanyahu

Cornell Library, Cornell University
Cornell Library, Cornell University

The following is an excerpt from Joshua Cohen’s new novel, The Netanyahus, out next week in the UK from Fitzcarraldo Editions, and on June 22 in the US from New York Review Books. “The Netanyahus,” writes Colm Tóibín, “is constructed with a brilliant comic grace that moves from the sly to the exuberant. Some scenes are funny beyond belief. But even when moments in the book are sharp or melancholy, they keep an undertone of witty and ironic observation. The vision in this book is deeply original, making clear what a superb writer Joshua Cohen is.”

My name is Ruben Blum and I’m an, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical. By which I mean I’ll die and become history myself, in a rare type of transformation traditionally reserved for the purer scholars. Lawyers die and don’t become the law, doctors die and don’t turn into medicine, but biology and chemistry professors pass away and decompose into biology and chemistry, they mineralize into geology, they disperse into their science, just as surely as mathematicians become statistics. The same process holds true for us historians—in my experience, we’re the only ones in the humanities for whom this holds true—the only ones who become what we study; we age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time. Or maybe that’s just the Jew in me talking . . . Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word, a more natural, rational incarnation . . .

By way of further introduction, I will now quote a remark made to me by the who-shall-remain-nameless then-president of the American Historical Association, when I met him at a symposium back in my student days just after the Second World War: “Ah,” he said, limply pressing my hand, “Blum, did you say? A Jewish historian?”

Though the man surely intended this remark to wound me, it merely succeeded in bringing delight, and even now I find I can smile at the description. I appreciate its accidental imprecision, and the way the double entendre can function as a type of psychological test: “‘A Jewish historian’—when you hear that, what do you think? What image springs to mind?” The point is, the epithet as applied is both correct and incorrect. I am a Jewish historian, but I am not an historian of the Jews—or I’ve never been one, professionally.

Instead, I’m an American historian—or I was. After half a century in the professorate, I was recently retired from my post as the Andrew William Mellon Memorial Professor of American Economic History at Corbin University in Corbindale, New York, in the occasionally rural, occasionally wild heart of Chautauqua County, just inland from Lake Erie among the apple orchards and apiaries and dairies—or, as dismissive, geographically illiterate New York City–folk insist on calling it, “Upstate.” (I myself was once one of these city-folk and though that old wisdom is false that teachers learn more from their students than vice versa, I did manage to pick this up, early on: never call Corbindale “Upstate.”) Though my initial focus was on the economics of the pre-American, British Colonial period, my reputation, such as it is, was made in the field of what’s now referred to as taxation studies, and, especially, from my research into the history of tax policy’s influence on politics and political revolutions. To be sure, I never much enjoyed the field, but it was open to me. Rather, the field didn’t exist until I discovered it, and, like a bumbling Columbus, I only discovered it because it was there. By the time I got into academia, America was already crowded, even American Economic History was already crowded, and I’ve always had a decent head for numbers. Taking on the history of taxes got me out of the ghetto of Colonial catallactics and eventually even out of America itself, into the European city-states, feudal tax-farming, Church tithes, Antiquity’s development of customs duties and trade-tariffs . . . all the way back to the Rosetta Stone and even the Bible, both of which—most people forget—are substantially just tax-documents . . .

What else is salient? I wish I knew. But do we ever know? I used to open certain of my classes by paraphrasing Twain, who himself was paraphrasing Franklin, who for his part was presumably plagiarizing Britons untold: “. . . nothing can be said to be certain in this world, except death and taxes and the due dates of your papers . . .”

I’d like to think my profession has made me more attuned than most to the selective use of facts and the way that each age and ideological movement manages to cobble together its own tailor-made chronicles to suit its aims and flatter its self-conceptions—from Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” after he took a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree to the pruriently cherry-picked film-and-TV accounts of the Kennedy assassination, which give the sense of the mafia, the CIA, the KGB, and Marilyn Monroe all meeting up for a planning powwow in some screened-off back-booth at The 21 Club. My own version of this choose-your-own history is my academic bio, which can be found online. Forgive an old man his overexplaining: go to Corbin.edu, click Faculty, click History Department, then click on my name, and you’ll find what’s basically a reproduction of my CV, rife with only the highlights: the nine Corbin Distinguished Teacher prizes (1968, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001), the American Historical Association Historian of the Year award (1993), the honorary degrees from LSE and the National University of Singapore, and a fairly up-to-date publication list and bibliography. My books still in print include A General History of Taxation; Taxation Without Representation: A History of America in Ten Taxes; Import Quotas, Export Subsidies: A Journey through Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade; Embargo: A History; Blood Money: The Taxation of Slavery, and George Sewall Boutwell: Abolitionist, Suffragist, and Father of the IRS.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of these achievements, or I was trained to say and even to think I was proud of them, mostly because each notch on my ever-expanding accomplishment-belt was supposed to bring me farther from my origins—as Ruvn Yudl Blum, b. 1922 in the Central Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Kiev, who raised me up to the middle class. They made sure I had a good education, by sending me to good schools, and by berating me in shameless Yiddish when I turned out to be an intellectual.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was married to my high school sweetheart and drafted into the US Army, which assigned me as a finance clerk, due to my half-completion of a bookkeeping course (attended at my family’s insistence), poor posture (mild scoliosis, 12-degree curve), and prodigious skills as a typist (76 WPM). I passed the war without leaving the country, spending most of my stint typing up precious elegant little thesicles on advanced pretentiousness by Eliot (“The smoky candle end of time / Declines. On the Rialto once”), and Pound (“Usura slayeth the child in the womb / It stayeth the young man’s courting”), posting them to precious elegant little poetry journals and getting rejected; processing paychecks and disbursing travel expenses between Fort Benning and Fort Sill.

Following the war, I enrolled in CUNY, where my incipient bent for the humanities, and for literature in particular, was straightened out by various pressures (parental, practical) in column-style, so as to better arrange a career in sums. The compromise was this: my preference for literature became history, everyone else’s preference for accounting became economics, and America stayed America. I stayed on at CUNY through my terminal degree and, after a despondent wallow in adjuncting sheol, I became the first Jew ever hired by Corbin College (in those days Corbin University was still a College), and I don’t mean the first tenure-track Jewish faculty member in the Corbin College History Department, I mean the first Jew in the whole entire school—faculty and, as far as I could tell, student body included.

The excellent now-forgotten critic Van Wyck Brooks coined the phrase “a usable past” to mean a past that every “modern,” dissociated, deracinated American intellectual must create for himself—herself—themselves, in order to find meaning in the present and direction for the future. I’d be reminded of that phrase every time I drove on the Van Wyck Expressway, crawling from a city airport to my parents’ and alternately frustrated and glad about being late; or, to put it another way, I hated the traffic, but was happy for the postponement. Ahead of me was just nagging, begged favors, and interminable reenactments of internecine neighborhood conflicts: can you believe what Mrs. Haber said? (no, the other Mrs. Haber!), can you believe what happened to Gartner? (no, the Gartner already with the dead wife, the heart condition, the polio child, and the carbuncle!); the under-counting, over-charging sins of the unregenerate butcher, baker, and grocer, the tenacious charity-collection of the rabbis—the full weight of what I thought of as “a useless past,” the Jewish past, which I’d escaped for pagan academe and the hills and dales of my peaceful sub-Niagaran woodland.

In sum, for almost all of my life—until fairly recently, actually, when a spate of foot-leg-and-hip injuries forced me to trade mobility for mortality—I found no strength in my origins and took every opportunity to ignore them, when I couldn’t deny them.

I came into the world with a skin that wasn’t quite white, but as I grew up, it thickened; in a Depression-era Jewish neighborhood that bordered the Irish and Italian, it had to. The streets off the Grand Concourse were filled with mindless abuse, but unlike some of my peers, I wasn’t a fighter. Instead, I was raised to react to provocations in the style of Jesus Christ, whom I was regularly accused of having crucified. Teased, taunted, I’d turn the other cheek, hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and understanding throughout that though life was beset by troubles, no relief or revenge and surely no dignity would ever be had by complaining. As the only Jewish family residing in our minor hamlet on the wrong side of the Catskills in the postwar milieu, the Blums (myself, Edith my wife, Judith my daughter) faced regular slights. To be sure, these slights weren’t city-violent, but were almost always more passive than aggressive and what helped us endure them wasn’t any internal fortitude so much as the thought that we weren’t Mrs. Johnson (our once-a-week cleaning lady) or any of the College’s cafeteria workers or maintenance workers or groundskeepers—we weren’t black or, as we said then, “Colored” or “Negro.” (Edith and I were of the age that said “Colored,” while Judy’s generation said “Negro.”) It was never lost on at least me and Edith that the stupid quips about cheapness by the Maytag repairman who fixed our appliances were uniquely soft and ineffective weapons in the annals of anti-Semitism—so much so that to regard them as harmful felt impertinent, disrespectful of the ancestors. After all, the Greeks strangled Jewish newborns with their own umbilical cords; the Romans flayed the flesh of sages using hot iron brushes and combs; the Inquisition used the strappado and rack; the Nazis used gas and fire. Compared to those historical harms, what damage could be caused by a joke like “How many Jews can you fit in a car?” or even an under-the-halitotic-breath “yid” or “kike”? What did it matter that when I’d brought our truculent Pontiac into the Corbindale Garage, the old rosaceated mechanic pulled a greasy hand out of his jumpsuit to take my cash up front and pet my head: “When’s the last time you got your horns checked?” More regularly, what Edith and I had to deal with as the first Jews in Corbindale was a constant sort of low-level condescension: the sense that we should feel lucky to be there at all; that we’d been admitted, we’d been given a pass. We were talked-down-to, deigned-to, patronized, studied. Our presence was a nuisance to some and a curiosity to all. The opposition came mostly in the earlier days, when the Corbindale Golf-and-Racquet Club would constantly claim to have lost our membership forms (and by the time they started soliciting our membership, we’d lost interest), the constant spring-break stream of fellow faculty members who, mistaking my scholarship for practical knowledge, would beg me to help them “do” their taxes, and the constant winter-break parties where Edith and I were treated like drooling deficients who didn’t know Rudolph from Blitzen or Donner or what to do with our lips under the mistletoe. It’s true that for the first Corbin History Department Christmas party we ever went to (the year before the events I’m about to recount), I was asked by my Department Chair, the now-departed Dr. George Lloyd Morse, to take over his customary role as Santa Claus by donning the costume and distributing gifts: “It was my wife’s brainwave, an inspirational bingo,” he explained, “because you have a real beard like her father had . . . they were common in his day but rarer and rarer now, which is a shame, because a real beard’s so much more dignified and effective than a fake one . . . I knew I was smart to hire a man with whiskers and if it pleaseth the wife . . . not to mention that with you doing the jolly old St. Nick honors, it’ll free up the people who actually celebrate the holiday to enjoy themselves.” I recall going around the room dragging my pillowcase-sack filled with tiny letter-openers, essentially tiny daggers engraved with the school seal (trussed crow bearing olive branch) and motto (Petite, et dabitur vobis), which kept slicing stigmata into me as I handed them out to the assemblage, and then coming home that night and, still in costume—the suit and hat that were due back with the Theater Arts coaches in the morning so the English Department could use them for its own party—washing my gashes and the talcum that whited my beard and shaving my face clean . . . (Before I continue I think it bears remarking that when I began teaching at Corbin, the school had only just gone co-ed and the sum total of students of color was zero. By the time I retired, however, the school had both an African Students’ Union and an African-American Students’ Union, a Hispanic Queer Alliance, and a Transsexual Safe Space Task Force. The pep rally cheers that had once travestied indigenous chants—“The Iroquois Whoop,” “The Allegany Banzai”—have been canceled; and the statue of the College’s founder—the Tammany-connected developer and one-time caudillo of the New York State Canal Board, Mather Corbin—which used to reign in the Quad without contextualizing qualms, now sports an interactive plaque at its base that calls the man’s slaving and profiteering from immigrant peonage “incompatible with the University’s values” and “problematic.” All of these changes are certainly remarkable, and yet the fact remains that the youth today is more sensitive than ever. I admit I don’t know how to understand this phenomenon and have sought to approach it “economically,” asking the question of whether an increase in sensitivity has brought about a decrease in discrimination, or whether a decrease in discrimination has brought about an increase in sensitivity to when, where, and how it occurs. Or, I should say, to when, where, and how it’s perceived to occur by a student body whose laudable penchant for acceptance has been nurtured into a culture of grievance that I find anathema. So many of my former students—especially those from my last stretch of teaching—were so tolerant of others’ psychosocial fragilities and resentments as to become intolerable themselves, junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with nearly every remark, finding bigotry and prejudice everywhere. I don’t want to rehash the campus wars, those bloody battles over equal rights that began, as so many of the most important American civil-libertarian battles began, with Jews on the front lines. And I certainly don’t want to be understood as saying that every single student nowadays has too light of a trigger, or takes things too personally, or takes good intentions in bad faith, or that misogyny and racism and homophobia and so on have all been totally eliminated from campus life. I’m merely asserting that for my generation, a Jew would be lucky to pass as white, the color hated most openly was Red, the plural pronoun was not a preference, and for every minority the fashion as well as the most reliable protection was to assimilate, not to differentiate.)

Of all the limp-swung slings and rubber gag-arrows that Edith and I suffered at Corbin, perhaps the only truly wounding one came—unexpectedly, unintentionally—from another request made of me by this Department Chair, Dr. Morse, when he summoned me to his office toward the start of the winter term 1959, the first term of my second year of full-time employment at Corbin. I was on my way to my American History seminar (a core curriculum requirement even now, which in those days still opened with the Pilgrims and these days opens with African chattelship and a raised palm in greeting to the native Seneca) and stopped by my faculty mailbox. In that era before email, and before I became a bit less neurotic about my status and future, I was in the habit of checking my mailbox multiple times daily, always looping back to that wall of wooden cubbyholes before and after every class and bathroom trip and errand, no matter how far-flung. What if someone wanted me? What if I missed something urgent (the messages that were stamped at top, Urgent)? Usually, of course, my box was empty, or at most was graced with slim slips of memoranda mundana: seeking faculty advisor for Mock United Nations, interested parties please contact . . .

But this time, there was a folded note, typewritten on Dr. Morse’s Department stationery: “Rube,” it read, in his characteristic mélange of the casual and turgid, “If you’d be so obliging as to slot me in today, I’d very much enjoy the favor of your audience. Might I suggest my office directly after your day’s last class?” Yes, you might. Yes, you have. Yes, sir. The tone was no suggestion, but a summons. Even now, I can close my eyes and hear Dr. Morse booming out the text to Ms. (Linda) Gringling, who at the time was his secretary, and later, his second and ultimate wife. Incidentally, you could always tell a Ms. Gringling production—one of the missives she typed from his dictation and signed with Dr. Morse’s name—because of the neatness and propriety of her M’s. George’s own M was a capacious manse that roofed the o and r and often the s and e as well. It was a signature that communicated, in effect, “you’re mine, you dwell at my pleasure, I contain you,” while Ms. Gringling’s forgeries tended to have more respect for boundaries.

I must’ve read that brief note a dozen times that day, trying to read into it, to read between its lines, like a Talmudist or Bible hermeneut or lovestruck adolescent: what’s in his heart? More like, what does he want? What have I done? What catastrophe awaits me? My Jewish anxieties are surely hackneyed by now—they might’ve been hackneyed even then—but that doesn’t discount their reality. They were real once. And at one time or another they were interesting. I don’t want to fall into the trap of dismissing these anxieties, these inherited neuroses, when what’s actually to blame for their present banality is how they’ve been represented in books, in film, in TV—in “media”; when what’s actually to blame is the lack of creativity on the part of those who’ve channeled them over the past half-century. As a city boy who also happened to be the newest faculty member of the History Department just beginning the second of two probationary years preliminary to a verdict on tenure, I was the bloated, hypertensive, and above all apprehensive and even dread-fueled embodiment of the under-coordinated, overintellectualizing, self-deprecating male Jewish stereotype that Woody Allen, for instance, and so many Jewish-American literary writers found outlandish financial and sexual success lampooning (Roth in the generation younger than mine, Bellow and Malamud in the generation older). In ways I still find occasionally painful to recall, I was of the cohort that taught America the words schlemiel, shlimazl, nebbish, and klutz; a potbellied kettle of black-humored guilts and cathexes, hirsute, sudorous, sebaceous, complicated by complexes, and constantly afraid of slipping up, constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing, or of wearing the wrong tie, or of wearing a tie-bar instead of a tie-clip, or of wearing cuff links when mere buttons would do, or of wearing madras when corduroy was once again in-season, or, above all, of confusing something basic: the order in which the states were admitted to the union . . . Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey . . . As I followed my seminar students out into the crush of school-color scarlet, I repeated the rosary, counting each like a soothing bead: Georgia, Massachusetts, Connecticut? Or Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts?

Ms. Gringling ushered me into Dr. Morse’s office and lingered in the doorway for a moment to take his drink order, his order for the both of us: “Gimlets, Linda. I think the mood is gimlets.” Again, let’s register the change: once upon a time, it was the job of nice, honest, competent-enough middle-aged women like Linda Gringling to take dictation and schedule meetings and fix mixed drinks for professional historians, though sometimes Dr. Morse wanted a sloe gin fizz or a gin and tonic and sometimes, in the gimlet mood, which functioned as something like his subjunctive, lemons had to be substituted for limes. Ms. Gringling squeezed the citrus herself, with the result that some of Dr. Morse’s correspondence—including the note I now placed on his desk—was faintly citrus-scented.

As if I was handing in some sort of permissions-slip back in my own student days, or back in the army, I slipped a corner of the note under the cannonball on his desk, that fierce pocked spheroid that resembled the shrunken cranial trophy of some leaden tribe of headhunters. Those were the only items atop his desk, this cannonball-paperweight and now my chit of paper. Dr. Morse sat tilted in his chair, tilted back into his lax immensity—“All day I was telling myself, no drinking till Rube shows up . . . no drinking till Rube shows up . . .”

“My apologies, Dr. Morse.”

“Rube, I almost didn’t make it.”

“I came directly from class, as quickly as I could.”

“But you’re still not sitting . . . and you’re still not calling me George . . .”

Though I was never much of a drinker, this cocktail hour reassured me. No one got fired at Corbin over cocktail hour.

With a flourish, Dr. Morse took the lid off his cannonball: stored inside the scooped-out brainpan of the thing was his smoking paraphernalia. The underside of the scalp, inverted, became an ashtray, and when the drinks came, we both lit up. I’d smoked cigarettes in my youth and cigars in the service, but Corbin had brought me to pipes. Though Dr. Morse tended to alternate between a calabash by day and a churchwarden by night, pretty much everyone else in the Department went with billiards, both straight and curved, while Dr. Hillard dangled a desiccated corncob. My pipe was a billiard, not as straight as some, not as curved as others. In retrospect, it was all just a vain experiment in blending: drinking the Ms. Gringling–served gin and smoking the sweet-spicy burley that burnt my throat and stung my eyes and clouded the head that joined them, while the body wore suits whose plaid was as wide as the mullions of the window in brilliant orange-yellows like the autumn outside.

Dr. Morse was a breezy, barely passable historian of the so-called imperial century of the British Empire (ca. 1815–1914) and, officially speaking, our relations were those of a capital to a colony: diplomatic and vigorously cordial. It definitely helped that I knew my place, I knew why I’d been hired. Dr. Morse was the monarchical boss and I his Loyalist-Semite liaison and spy among my fellow Americanists in Corbin History. With my Jewish initiative, my Jewish drive to impress, I was to be his eyes and ears in this incomprehensible hemisphere, helping to keep my New World colleagues in latitudinal line; demonstrating just enough industriousness to keep them productive and just enough scrupulosity to keep them honest. It’s notable that today, decades after Dr. Morse’s reign, Corbin still excels at American Studies of all hyphenate-stripes, but lags leagues behind when it comes to the study of what Dr. Morse, but not only him, used to call “The Continent.” Of course, students now take this as a sign of the Department’s liberality—its willingness to evolve—but the truth is far more damning. The truth is, Dr. Morse never developed a deep Europeanist bench because he couldn’t stand the competition. Europe was his (maps of it by Ptolemy and Rand McNally took up the entire wall of his office, opposite the window); the invaded, occupied, annexed, and partitioned outposts of every European empire belonged to him, and to a few approved crony-mediocrities who knew, just as well as he did, that they weren’t scholastically equipped to defend themselves from challenges. This was the aspect of Dr. Morse I found the most perplexing: the man knew his limitations but wasn’t ashamed of them. He didn’t care. He wore his averageness lightly, almost proudly, like a transparent scholar’s gown, underneath which he was nakedly an administrator. His WASP complacency was astounding, at least to a fusser like me, a child of the Garment District. Nowadays, they’d call his condition something like privilege, I guess. The complete calmness, the complete comfortability, the totally untroubled capacity to relax inside of one’s own blanched-dry dermal girdle that comes from being swaddled in money, bonds, and stock certificates from birth, a patrimony honed at Groton, Yale, and Harvard. I don’t want to come off like I’m putting him down, though, because Dr. Morse in all his ease, his simplicity and ease, taught me an important lesson. What he taught me was that all the gumption and smart-assery that had been an asset to me in my youth and certainly in my student days was actually a liability to me as a teacher. Now that I was quite literally at the head of the class, I could finally stop acting like a show-off kid. To be clear, I should continue to research, write, and publish like a greenhorn dervish on fire, but I shouldn’t ever sweat or display even a smidgen of ambition to anyone. I was a Corbin Man now, or I had to pretend to be one. I’d made it, or at least I had to learn how to fake having made it by breathing deeper. This, I thought, was what Dr. Morse was trying to communicate by plying me with drinks, but then: the guy also just liked his boozing. He drank his gimlet and puffed on his calabash and in his genial vastness was even closer to being a Santa Claus than I was, a jolly old St. Nick gone glabrous, his bald head resembling the pumpkin left outside Fredonia Hall to ripen past its season; some odd crooked warty pumpkin flushed with red broken veins and purple capillary-dapplings, frozen over in a white skin of rime.

I now come to the portion of this account where the real dialogue starts—the first real stretch of person-to-person dialogue that isn’t some negligible hi, snookums . . . or how goes it . . . or help yourself to a lousy chair . . . and before it starts, I’d like to announce a policy. Quotation marks, or “quotes,” or, as various students of mine have called them over the years, “rabbit ears,” “raised eyebrows,” or “the little tiny raindrops that tell you who’s talking,” are holy to historians. In academic writing, quotation is the guarantee, the two-spanged, or four-spanged, seal that certifies facticity and says, “These words have been written or spoken by someone before me, scout’s honor.” And because a sole scout’s honor is never enough, each quotation is traditionally accorded a citation that says, “For all of my doubters, here’s the author (last name first), the book title (in italics), and the page number because you’re lazy, now get thee to a library and check me up.” A lifetime of being guided by these dictates has made me wary to forsake them, even if no record exists to contradict me and I myself am the only source. In what’s to follow I’ll endeavor to express only what was expressed to me, as verbatim as my memory is able, and with the reminder that unlike most writers who violate the sanctity of quotation—that unlike the religious, who have the chutzpah to put words into the mouth of God—I’m only recalling events at which I was present, and the time elapsed between those events and the current moment has been considerably shorter than, say, the span between the Creation of the universe and the Exodus from Egypt, and shorter even than the span between the ministry of Christ and the composition of the canonical Gospels.

Our conversation opened with this: the College Library and high school drama. And if I had to produce my own verifying note, I’d put an asterisk next to both topics and write: “Cf. every conversation with Dr. Morse I’ve ever had, all of which opened with my wife and the College Library and my daughter and high school drama.” Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Someone in Dr. Morse’s childhood must’ve told him that the polite thing to do to get by in the world (in his world) was to memorize one fact and one fact only about each of your colleague’s family members, so that when you met that colleague, or met their family members, you could, by mentioning this fact, appear solicitous and engaged.

He asked, “And how is your Edith getting on in our great but disorganized collection?” and instead of answering him, “not-so-good,” or “they’re still just using her part-time,” or “they’re still just using her for shelving,” or “actually, she thinks she’s being punished by her supervisors, who’ve called her proposals to increase the library’s hours and extend borrowing privileges beyond the college to the general public, ‘controversial’ and ‘the height of arrogance’”—instead of answering anything like that, I said, “She’s OK.”

Dr. Morse then went on to Judy, who the previous year, as the mysterious new arrival at Corbindale High, had gained some local notice by landing the leads in productions of Gilbert & Sullivan and Shakespeare, so that he sometimes called her Juliet, as in, “And how’s fair Juliet faring these days? She was superb in The Mikado.”

“Thank you,” I said. “She’s fine.”

“What is she now, a junior?”

“A senior. Top of her class. With any luck, she’ll be graduated as valedictorian.”

“What a success! To matriculate in the middle of high school and garner top honors—everyone must loathe her!”

“She’s managed to make a few friends.”

“And of course she’ll be applying here? Now that we’re taking women, we might as well take the best.”

“Of course she’ll apply.” Dr. Morse grinned.

“You’re a terrible liar, Rube, you know that?”

As I was fretting about how to reply, he said, “I hope you know that’s why I like you.”

Next on the conversational checklist was class-talk. Again, this was the classical order, Loc. cit. Antiquity was Bronze Age followed by Iron Age, Dr. Morse had family-chat and school-chat, always in sequence, always in proportion. Though I thought it was ridiculous at the time, I can now appreciate my Department Head’s habit of never inquiring about the material I was teaching or the level of my students or really about anything except the physical rooms: he wanted to know what rooms my classes had been assigned to and how they were heated, whether there was a draft and if so from where, whether the lighting was adequate, whether the blackboard was regularly cleaned and the erasers clapped and the sill resupplied with chalk—whether my surroundings were “congenial.” That was his word, his criterion. “Because,” he explained, “it’s important that our surroundings be congenial.” A year in, I’d already learned to answer these questions with faint cavils or gripes of inconvenience, even if I had none. By telling him that the radiators were leaking and pipes were clanging in, say, Fredonia Hall, Room 203, I was enabling him to file a maintenance request, which made him feel effective. Rather, he’d jot down the room number and problem (“203: radiator, leaking; pipes, clanging . . . would you say Loud? or Very Loud?”) and, when Ms. Gringling would come in to refresh our drinks, she’d leave with our old glasses and the request, which she’d file in his name.

After the first sip of his second gin, Dr. Morse settled down to business: “Money . . . maybe it’s your favorite subject, but it’s certainly not mine . . . And every department in this school is clamoring for more . . . for more money, more hires, higher salaries, better supplies . . . English, Classics, German, French: this is the situation everywhere or everywhere but History and yet it’s in History’s nature to partake of every suffering. Philosophy suffers, so suffers History. Psychology, invariably. Russian suffers and History does too, a cosmic Russian suffering. But the worst of it’s in the sciences with their laboratory needs. The sciences aren’t just expensive, they’re greedy. They run their departments as if another war’s on. You’d think they weren’t just electrocuting pigs in there, but cooking up a bomb. Their time and effort would be better spent setting up a mint and developing novel methods of counterfeiting currency. Because money’s what’s required and the purse is empty and the pocket’s got a hole. The regents and deans have been beancounting and you can imagine how that’s gone. I don’t need to tell you that economies are best left to the economists. Instead of fundraising, instead of going after donors or endowments, they’re going through the departmental budgets one by one, line by item, in the hopes of finding unused funds that might be redirected.”

Dr. Morse’s ice cubes clinked, as if in applause, while mine shivered against the glass in my shaking hand. “So it’s not a matter of making cuts?”

He frowned. “Please don’t worry, Rube. You have no reason to worry . . . And anyway, haven’t you been cut already?”

The fright must’ve shown in my face, because he said, “Take it easy, please, take it easy. I was merely trying to lighten the occasion by making reference to circumcision.”

I coughed a laugh and he went on, graver: “You have my word, Rube, you won’t be trimmed or snipped again. It’s History, we’re being pillaged.”

“Why us?”

“Because History is the exception. It always is. History is rich. Our treasury is the envy of Mathematics, it makes even Geology and Physics jealous. This is because we don’t waste here. But the administration and the president had the temerity to disagree: they told me it’s because we don’t hire. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine becoming impatient with someone who practices thrift, to name just one of our myriad virtues?”

“No, I can’t,” was what I said, but what I was thinking was: I was his last hire, the only hire the Department had made since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Anyway,” he continued, a trifle absentmindedly, “that’s what they’ve done: they scolded me for failing to be profligate. They told me I had to make another hire or risk having our hoarded funds appropriated and reallocated elsewhere. To a department that could put it to use. To a department that, to be frank, would fritter it away. Between us, I hold this demand to be a species of extortion. It’s most certainly a threat, but so be it. This is how the academy now conducts its business, which it increasingly regards as just that, business.”

“That appears to be the trend.”

He puffed and swiveled wallward, to talk to his maps. “And though I do rather like the fraternal intimacy of our Department, the choice is clear: I would much prefer bringing on another scholar than conceding a defeat and passing our hardwon spoils onto Driggert in Agriculture or, God forbid, Pumpler in Physical Education.”

“So we’re hiring?”

“We are. We’re putting a sign on the door that says, Help Wanted—Inquire Within.”

“Any requirements in particular?” Even as I imagined the new sign already hanging from the doorknob—No Colored, Irish, or Europeanists Need Apply—my head was full of preferences, and what the Department lacked: Near East, Far East, Byzantium, anti-Whig, demography, historiography, a Hindiphile, a Hindi phone, a female.

“No requirements. Constraints. They’re constraining our autonomy. They’re telling me that because of our wealth, our Department has to hire someone who can also teach some classes in another Department—in Departments that failed to save as well as we have. And because they failed, they’re to be rewarded.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Because it isn’t. Fair is too clear and honest a principle for these people. The terminology they employ is cross-listing, cross-discipline. Streamlining, efficiencies. This is the future, I presume: poly-functional, attached to multiple commands. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years from now they’ll have you teaching a preparatory class for the CPA exam. They could certainly use all the help they can get; their audits have left a mess,” and he lowered his head as if to indicate the mess, but his desk was empty.

“So where do I come in?”

He snapped back to attention, to his drink. “Powerless as we are to oppose this encroachment, we’re going to have a few candidates up to campus over the course of the term, to sit for interviews, guest-teach some classes, and present some public lectures.” He leaned forward. “This is where you come in, Rube.”


“I’ve brought you here to beg a favor.”


Dr. Morse grimaced and swished his drink in amendment of his statement: “Actually, it’s not so much a favor as a jumping of the line. As you’re surely aware, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the Department to serve on a hiring committee, to which faculty members are assigned on a rotating basis. As our newest faculty member, your turn wouldn’t come up for a while, maybe two, maybe three hires down the road, but we think this is a special exception, and if you’ll agree, we’ll certainly make sure you won’t have to do double duty. You’d be taking your turn now as opposed to later. Doing your duty a bit earlier.”

“So we’re hiring another Americanist?”

“Since we’ve only just hired you, unfortunately not. It seems we’ll have to go scholar-shopping in the nooks and crannies of European History.”

“European History?”

“I’m trying to think of this requirement thrust upon us as something of a relief, a little respite for me and the others from Europe’s burden.”

“But then why put me on the hiring committee? Europe isn’t my field.”

He puffed a bit, as if mulling his next remark by first sending it up in smoke. “Committee membership is a requirement. All faculty members must serve a term. The specialty of the candidate under review is irrelevant. And everyone else already has their committee assignments for next term, with many of us shouldering full loads. For example, myself and Dr. Hillard won’t just be joining you on Hiring, we’ll also be serving together on Tenure . . . on your tenure committee . . .”

“I understand. Forgive me. I’m happy to be of service.”

Dr. Morse waved that away, dispersing the fug. “Apparently one of the candidates is particularly promising. A Europeanist whose specialty is the Medieval Era.”

“The Medieval Era?”

“As far as I can tell. Iberia, I think? Fifteenth century, was it? Anyway, we’d like to have your opinion.”


“Your opinion in particular.”

This was puzzling. He’d like to have my opinion of what? The Medieval Era? Which was the same as the Middle Ages? Which was the same as the Dark Ages? I wasn’t qualified. When it came to that era, I was less its expert than its citizen, its denizen, its illiterate peasant in the middling dark. I mean, I knew when the 15th century was, between the 14th and the 16th, but that was like saying I knew where the Sugar Pops were in the A&P, in the cereal aisle below the Cocoa Puffs and Cocoa Krispies. As for Iberia, I didn’t even know what that meant: Portugal and Spain, sure, but Castile and Aragon and what now? And what about the Muslims? Were all Moors Arabs? Were all Berbers Moors? Ferdinand and Isabella I was liable to confuse for George Burns and Gracie Allen. The closest I came to Iberia was stumbling a rhumba or faking the cha-cha-cha. And then what was that bit of juvenile doggerel, dancing in my head? Was it from some CUNY revue or Hebrew school before that?

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And the Inquisition expelled the Jews,
And all the Indians who didn’t have shoes
Said, “Nu—who you calling Indian?”

I certainly didn’t recite that to Dr. Morse. I merely said, “Medieval Iberia is out of my expertise. I confess the whole milieu remains rather an enigma.”

He sighed and tamped his pipe. “The man’s field, Rube, is Medieval Iberia and,” he hesitated, “the history of the Jews.”

Sitting in smoke, he gulped his drink to the bottom.

“So I’m asking,” he picked up again, after smacking his lips, “if I can rely on you to sort of welcome him here and chaperone him around, sort of make him feel comfortable, because it’s important to feel comfortable.”


“Indeed. And then please give us your opinion.”

“Of what?”

“We feel like you’re in a unique position to judge, given that you fit in so well at Corbin and this man is one of your own.”

“One of my own?”

“I’m glad you understand my reasoning.”

We sat in silence. I hadn’t planned on touching my refill drink, but now I sipped.

“I will be candid. This man, this candidate, is being pushed on us. By Huggles of all people. Huggles at the Seminary. He needs someone to teach some Bible classes. We’re always getting applications, even when there isn’t an opening, and Huggles went through them all and, apparently, only a Europeanist with a Hebraic background is suitable.” Dr. Morse banged the table with his pipe. “If Huggles wants a Bible teacher so badly, let him hire a nun. Let him pay your wife to do it. Does your wife know the Bible well enough?”

I shook my head, as Dr. Morse shooed tobacco from the pleats of his pants and reclined, his belly stretching the grass-green cardigan; patches of parboiled shirt showed through the gaps between the braided leather buttons. I stared at those buttons, those gaps, losing myself in the off-white patches to thoughts of tenure.

“Forgive me, Rube. It seems we’re the only liberal arts school in America that refuses to countenance the separation of church and state. Huggles had the temerity to put this candidate’s name in front of the administration, which in turn put it in front of me—he went over my head and left me no choice but to issue the man an invitation. I don’t fault the man in the least, mind you. He doesn’t know the machinations behind the scenes. He’s merely a scholar in search of employment. And a talented scholar at that. At least I’m told.”

My glass, though half-drained, felt heavy in my hand.

But Dr. Morse was smiling. “Rube, no one here is expected to be an expert in everything. Not even you. Your fellow members of the hiring committee will help evaluate the work. Drs. Galbraith, Kimmel, and Hillard are the members I’ve proposed. In addition, of course, to myself as Chair.”

“So I’m the only Americanist?”

“That would appear to be the case, Rube. A unique figure in many ways.” He craned toward the cannonball lid and tapped out his pipe. “If you have specific thoughts about this man’s scholarship, I’d be keen to have them, though I’m just as keen on having your thoughts about the man himself. His character. His fitness and aptitude.”


“I want to know whether he’d fit in here. Whether he’d integrate well into the Corbin community.”

“I’m flattered you’d think I’m qualified.” I finished my drink. “At least for that.”

Dr. Morse chuckled and let a last ember fall into the cannonball’s upended scalp, where it smoldered. “I’m sure you remember that feeling, Rube—coming up here for the very first time as an outsider, having to get up in front of everyone and present your material. It’s hell on a man’s nerves. If nothing else, I’m sure you’ll be a steadying influence.”

And that was it, pretty much. The rest of our conversation was logistics, followed by Dr. Morse attempting to pronounce the candidate’s name and me failing to understand him—I was getting Bento Nehru, Benzedrine Nakamoto, Benzene Natty Yahoo . . . I was imagining the Last of the Mohicans tarred and feathered and set ablaze . . .

Finally, Dr. Morse just ransacked his drawers and handed me some sloppily clipped sheafs of carbon copies faded and typescripts smeared, their cover pages curling like scrolls around the name: Ben-Zion Netanyahu . . .

Which meant nothing to me, or to anyone . . . not even the surname, which was still a generation from its infamy. At the time, and especially in America, it was unknown. Or beyond unknown: it was foreign, esoteric. An alien name, eons old but also from the future; a name equally from the Bible and the funny papers.

The heir of King Hoshea. The sidekick of Flash Gordon.

At my bris, I was called Ruvn ben Alter—Ruvn the son of Alter. If I’d had a son, he would’ve been ben Ruvn—the son of Ruvn. Ben-Zion was the son of Zion—my bar-mitzvah Hebrew was adequate to that, and that was the extent of it.

I was going to meet the son of Zion.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author