NEH Statement on the Death of Ronald S. Berman

(June 21, 2022)

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) mourns the passing of Ronald S. Berman, who died, following a long illness, on Tuesday, May 17, in San Diego, California. From December 1971 through January 1977, Berman served as chairman of NEH. He was appointed by President Richard Nixon.

Berman was a champion runner in his youth and the first in his family to attend college. After receiving his doctorate in English literature from Yale University, he taught at Columbia University and Kenyon College before settling at the University of California, San Diego, where he became a widely respected scholar whose writings covered subjects, the New York Times reported, “from Shakespeare to the sixties.”

When Berman arrived at NEH, the agency was not yet seven years old and facing several challenges, including a rather modest stream of funding. Under his savvy leadership, however, NEH’s appropriations grew significantly, as did the number of projects the agency supported. Berman’s timing was also fortuitous as the nation’s upcoming 200th anniversary in 1976 provided the new chair with an opportunity to raise NEH’s profile. Along with its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, NEH sponsored documentaries, exhibitions, and numerous other Bicentennial-related projects.

A more robust budget allowed NEH to create other new programs as well, including Summer Seminars for College Teachers, which made their first awards in 1973. The Challenge Grants program followed just a few years later. Perhaps most notably, the inaugural Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities was delivered in 1972 by literary critic Lionel Trilling. The lecture is “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Lecturers have since included historian David McCullough, novelist Toni Morrison, and director Martin Scorsese.

As an expert in Renaissance literature, Berman was wary of efforts to popularize the humanities. Nevertheless, he recognized the importance of raising the visibility of NEH’s work.

“You can’t be accused of elitism if you bring the best to the most,” he said.

Millions of Americans visited the traveling NEH-funded “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition and millions more watched PBS’s miniseries The Adams Chronicles when it aired in 1976 (and eventually went on to receive four Emmy Awards). Honors such as the Pulitzer Prize, given to Dumas Malone for Jefferson and His Time and to R. W. B. Lewis for Edith Wharton: A Biography, which also won a Bancroft Prize, helped to garner additional recognition for NEH-supported scholarship.

The creation of the state humanities councils, which began in 1971, continued through Berman’s time at NEH, although disagreements about how the state councils and NEH should award grants ultimately led to his resignation in early 1977. He returned to California, where he resumed teaching, wrote a memoir, Culture and Politics, about his time at NEH, and published several books on the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, including The Great Gatsby and Modern Times and Fitzgerald’s Mentors: Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, and Gerald Murphy.

In a speech he delivered as chair, Berman summed up what he saw as NEH’s vital mission by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and many in ignorance.” The closer that America could come to realizing that ideal, Berman said, “the more we shall renew and invigorate the best in our traditions, which are themselves the legacy and trust of a civilization of humanistic achievement.”

In a statement, NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) said, “Chairman Berman led the agency during a time of great change. His strong belief in the ability of the humanities to deepen our understanding of the world and our role as citizens helped enrich the lives of many Americans.”