Jeffrey Hart: An appreciation

Steve Hayward writes this morning to convey the sad news that former Dartmouth English professor Jeffrey Hart has died. The news comes via Professor Hart’s National Review colleague Jay Nordlinger, who writes: “He was one of the brightest, most learned men I ever knew. Nationally, he was known for his political writing (and his tennis commentary!). But he is also a legendary professor of English. A rara avis.”

Professor Hart opened the minds of several generations of Dartmouth students. I was one such student. In September 1997, around the time that Professor Hart retired from Dartmouth, National Review published the tribute Jeffrey Hart: A Teacher Celebrated, with contributions by former students including Peter Robinson, William Sushon, Dinesh D’Souza, Oron Strauss, William Grace, John McGovern, Dan Coakley, Kevin Robbins, the Reverend Keenan Jones, and me.

Bill Buckley introduced the compilation of tributes to Professor Hart. He noted that Professor Hart had come to NR in 1962, as a book reviewer, and in 1969, as an editor. “He arrived in New York every other week no matter the difficulties (flying in and out of western New Hampshire is a defiant exercise), in time for Monday morning’s editorial meeting.” Professor Hart wrote two books about National Review, by the way, The American Dissent and The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.

Buckley continued: “One takes for granted the prophet in his own land. Some months ago it struck Management that if Jeffrey Hart were a phenomenon operating other than at National Review, we would long since have published a portrait of him.” Then Buckley asked: “Seeking to stress what?”

The answer, he said, became obvious. “Hart is many things — scholar, writer, historian, journalist. But foremost among them he is a teacher; mentor, friend, companion…[T]here was no avoiding acknowledgement of the regard in which he was held by his former students.”

NR thus turned to former students of Professor Hart for the portrait it offered. “The entire issue might have been filled with the testimonials from Hart’s former students. The portrait here is of the true professorial success: the great teacher. We proudly give you our colleague–Jeffrey Hart.” This is the original draft of what I wrote for NR.

* * * * *

I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 1969 as a literarily inclined graduate of a private high school, equally full of liberal certitudes and self-regard. They did not survive my four years as a student of Professor Hart.

By happenstance I enrolled in Professor Hart’s principal upper-level English course on the era of Dryden and Pope in January 1970. The introductory lecture consisted of an unforgettable overview of Western culture. Professor Hart sought to recreate the intellectual horizon within which the great eighteenth-century English writers did their work; his theme was that the antagonistic stance of modern intellectuals to their culture and their country was a relatively recent anomaly. Literature recalling society to its own norms — “this was the dominant conception of the role of the artist until nearly yesterday: until that is, the early nineteenth century,” as he put it in his brilliant contribution to NR’s 15th anniversary issue, “The Secession of the Intellectuals.”

He described the development since the nineteenth century of an adversary intellectual style into a broad cultural phenomenon that through mass education (he was too polite to mention us!) had become institutionalized and coarsened. Insofar as the mass adversary culture felt the need to translate attitude and style into action, it reached for the most readily available structure of critical political thought: to liberalism and radicalism. As the second hand crossed the 12 at the end of 50 minutes, he concluded that the intellectual’s adversary stance to his culture had culminated in “the celebration of treason, crime, and fornication.” We were off and running.

The irony here was that in an academic setting saturated with conventional liberalism, Professor Hart was himself a truly adversary figure. During the peak period of agitation against the Vietnam War, Professor Hart found occasion to note, for good or ill, the intimate relationship between empire and literature. He traced the rise of world interest in Russian literature to the Soviet Union. He observed that if there were a Yugoslavian Tolstoy, we would never know.

Under Professor Hart, literature was treated as the comprehensive art whose appreciation required that we bring to bear all the resources of history, philosophy, and the social sciences. We were incapable of submitting to the great literature of the past without raising ourselves to it. To be his student was to be initiated into the culture of the West under guidance of one who was its unashamed advocate.

Although he lectured in the formal style, smoking a pipe all the while, it was impossible to mistake him for an Oxford don. The lumberjack boots and Budweiser tie gave him away. His attire suggested an informality conducive to discussion outside class.

And outside class, what a generous teacher he was, indiscriminate in his kindness and courtesy. All it took to engage him was the least display of independent mind and genuine interest. As a sophomore, I approached him to ask about his work in the 1968 presidential election for Richard Nixon in connection with a book review I was writing for the Dartmouth student newspaper. He promptly handed over Comeback, the manuscript he had just completed about the election. (Publication of the manuscript, a narrative of Richard Nixon’s political revival, was overtaken by events.)

He communicated an acid disdain toward the contemporary academy. In teaching the Chaucer portion of the basic English survey course, he noted that in order to understand the role of the Church in Chaucer, one had to find the modern equivalent of a corrupt bureaucracy peopled with a multitude of laughable figures. He proposed the college campus, and events since 1970 have done nothing to dim the luster of that insight.

But as a teacher his natural mode was appreciation. In every course he taught he made both the act and the art of appreciation seem as natural as breathing. No course was complete without some tribute to friends, forebears, teachers, incidental figures. He concluded his course on the Age of Johnson in the spring of 1970 with a tribute to Willmoore Kendall, the political scientist whom he had befriended late in in Kendall’s life. In other courses he found occasion to pay tribute to his teacher, the great literary critic Lionel Trilling; to his former student, the novelist Keith Mano; and to the poet Robert Burns, in the form of an address he had given to some foreign chapter of the Robert Burns society. Paying tribute to our teacher allows us to emulate him in one of his most characteristic acts, the act of expressing appreciation.

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