National Humanities Medal
Daniel Aaron, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus at Harvard, has experienced and examined much of America in his ninety-eight years. From a childhood spent among the stars and impresarios of early Hollywood to a career unhindered by academic and political boundaries, Aaron is an Americanist of both mind and heart.
Aaron was born in Chicago in 1912 to successful Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father’s business interests brought his family to Los Angeles in 1917, but he returned to Chicago in 1924, shortly after both his parents died. He matriculated at the University of Michigan in a premedical program in 1929, but the literature he was exposed to there set him on a new academic course. Soon after Aaron graduated in 1933, he was accepted to an English program at Harvard.
“Harvard University had not been my first choice for graduate English studies, and I wouldn’t have gone there had the University of London admitted me without time-consuming conditions,” wrote Aaron in a recently published memoir. But, ironically for someone who’d intended to study in England, Aaron ended up immersing himself in his native country, becoming the first graduate of Harvard’s program in the History of American Civilization.
His shift from English to what’s now called American studies was motivated in part by the upheavals of the 1930s. “Until enrolled in the new degree, I had kept my studies and my politics in separate compartments. Now the twain converged.” Political concerns weighed heavily in Aaron’s first major work, Men of Good Hope (1951), a study of a diverse set of writers united, as Aaron says, by their “faith in the possibilities of democracy”—a faith that Aaron shared. More than just an academic study, he wrote in the book’s introduction, Men of Good Hope was “an attempt to rehabilitate the progressive tradition, currently under attack by both liberals and anti-liberals, and to show that progressivism was not always the shabby thing it is now made out to be.”
Aaron’s political commitments found more prosaic expression during the Second World War, when he worked on a farm to help overcome labor shortages and served as a volunteer policeman in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he taught at Smith College for thirty years. After the war, he found a higher political vocation as a U.S. cultural ambassador, a role for which his academic studies had unwittingly prepared him. Under the auspices of both private foundations and the United States Information Agency, Aaron taught American culture and history for decades at universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. “The State Department never told us what to teach,” he says. “I went to these places not to ‘sell’ the U.S.A. but to ‘explain’ it, not to palliate its blemishes but to contextualize them. All the same, I pondered the ambiguities of my position as a cultural explicator of my country.”
Aaron’s masterpiece of literary criticism, Writers on the Left (1961), a study of American literary communism commissioned by the Ford Foundation at the height of the red scare, navigated those ambiguities with both erudition and warmth. The book, a “surprise success” to Aaron, garnered an admiring lead review in the Sunday New York Times. The reviewer, Irving Howe, claimed that although Aaron had never shared the communist beliefs of those he had written about, he “never merely dismisses them, for he knows that often they were deeply concerned with human suffering.” In his introduction to a thirtieth anniversary edition of Writers on the Left, Alan M. Wald called it “the pivotal text establishing U.S. ‘literary radicalism’ as a distinctive field in academic as well as popular scholarship.”
Aaron later penned another influential volume, The Unwritten War (1973), about how writers during the Civil War failed to come to terms with racial hatred. In 1979, Aaron and a group of other scholars founded the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher devoted to keeping the works of America’s finest writers permanently in print. Since selecting Herman Melville's novels Typee, Omoo, and Mardi for its first book, the Library has published hundreds of authoritative volumes. Aaron was president of the Library from its founding until 1985 and a member of its board of directors.
“In Aaron’s last published work, a memoir entitled The Americanist (2007), he describes himself as a “native son neither estranged from the collective American family nor unreservedly clasped to its bosom.” For the gifts he has bestowed to his native land, Aaron’s fellow citizens may unreservedly clasp him to theirs.
By Nick Serpe