Jeffrey Hart, who died in February, was a literary scholar whose genius was to bring you into the storyline. He was a character who could demonstrate your own role in the life of the mind. “The knowledge of the great narrative and other possible narratives . . . that kind of knowledge is the goal of liberal education,” he wrote in his 2001 book Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe. “I am grateful to the generations of students both at Columbia and at Dartmouth who entered the conversation to my great benefit.” For the generations who came to know him as a teacher, writer, editor, and mentor, the conversation was learned, sly, and bracingly novel.
Hart, like Whitman, contained multitudes. An Ivy League professor of English as well as a Senior Editor at National Review, a speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, and the founding advisor of The Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper, he embraced contradiction. He was a conservative who turned away from ideology—and away from the Republican Party, in the end—to look to the lessons of literature and history to glean the realities of human experience.
The realities of Hart’s own experience could make their own fiction. In When the Going Was Good!, his paean to the 1950s and his most personal and ebullient book, published in 1982, Hart wrote frequently of his own upbringing. The thirties wrecked the family fortunes. Hart’s father, a graduate of Dartmouth College, was an out-of-work architect who taught in the public schools. His mother, who danced and sang in the great musicals of the twenties and once “rode on a swing in one of the Ziegfeld Follies,” settled the family “in a thirty-five-dollar-a-month apartment in Queens.”
Hart was a child of the Great Depression, but he lived life like someone out to restore the Roaring Twenties. America is a “willingness of the heart,” he liked to quote from Fitzgerald. On the grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Hart found his proving ground. Tennis became “an activity to which I totally committed myself during my most impressionable years,” he wrote. On the subway, seeing his racket, kids mocked his athletic choice as effete. Yet “beneath the off-white, monogrammed polo shirts and cable-stitch sweaters, there beat the fierce heart of a Cromwellian.”
Tennis took Hart from Stuyvesant, the city’s great specialized high school, to Dartmouth, where he aced the varsity team and quickly burned out the coaching staff. Since the age of five, Hart had attended every Dartmouth–Princeton football game. He liked to say he was enrolled in the New Hampshire college since birth, but as a student he found the postwar campus both violent and boring. So he dropped out to write fiction and landed a job with a publisher back in New York. Through the city’s literary scene, he then connected with professors at Columbia and enrolled there, this time not in pre-med but as an English major.
After four years in Navy intelligence during the Korean War, Hart returned to Columbia to earn his doctorate, specializing in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature. His first book, Political Writers of Eighteenth-Century England, was published by Knopf in 1964. Hart found himself on Columbia’s fast track, but his tenure chances were derailed when he started writing book reviews for National Review. His mentor Lionel Trilling tried to convince him to quit the publication. Instead, he returned to his father’s alma mater, joining the English Department at Dartmouth in 1963 after John Sloan Dickey, the college’s president out to improve its academics, put him in line for tenure. When Hart joined National Review as a Senior Editor in 1969, he began flying to New York twice a month for editorial meetings and dinners with William F. Buckley Jr., working around his teaching schedule. Buckley took note of the “universality of his knowledge,” his “eclectic enthusiasm,” and his “high-spiritedness” as Hart became National Review’s in-house scholar. For his regular visits, Hart stayed in the smallest room at the Yale Club and kept his typewriter in a gym locker.
Back at Dartmouth, Hart ran college administrators and fellow faculty around the court of public opinion to great undergraduate delight. He wrote a twice-weekly column for King Features Syndicate that went out to five-hundred newspapers. He was given Buckley’s old stretch limousine and parked it in front of Dartmouth’s Sanborn Library, taking up multiple spaces. He brought a mechanical wooden hand to faculty meetings that tapped its fingers with the turn of a crank. When his son Benjamin was a Dartmouth undergraduate, he and other disaffected writers from the college daily founded their own independent newspaper. When Dinesh D’Souza became its student editor, he lived for a time at the Hart home. “More or less, The Dartmouth Review was launched in the living room of my house,” Hart wrote. He served as its advisor for the rest of his life. “One definition of good journalism is printing things that someone does not want printed,” he said of the outspoken publication. “Independence is an indispensable quality for anyone who would be a writer, that is, indispensable for finding one’s own voice.”
Through thirty years of teaching and well into his retirement, animated with ribald humor and the belief that old books were filled with youthful spirit, Hart cast a larger-than-life presence over the New England campus. “To be Jeffrey Hart’s student was to be initiated into the culture of the West by an unashamed partisan,” writes Scott Johnson, who arrived at Dartmouth in 1969.
I owe my career as an editor and writer to Professor Hart. It is a noteworthy datum that a majority of the editors now at this publication can trace their arrival here in some way to his effect. Hart was a mentor in the Homeric sense: a wise deity disguised as an old friend who saves young Telemachus from the suitors of the age. Lit by an inner illumination, which regularly showed through the glimmer of his blue eyes, he checked his politics at the door and let the lyricism of “books, arts, and manners” lead the way for students. “In all of his courses Hart stressed two skills, reading and writing,” says Peter Robinson, a Hart student who went on to craft Reagan’s exhortation to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” “Do your reading. Experience the characters the author presents. Enter his world.”
We were always in Hart’s world, even those of us who passed through campus after his retirement. I arrived a year after his final 1993 lecture to six hundred undergraduates on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Eliot. At Columbia, in 1957, Hart had attended a reading of The Waste Land by Eliot himself that was “witchdoctor stuff, mysterious, reaching way back to primitive emotion through sound, powerful in its mysteriousness. All the resurrected gods of myth and the resurrected God of history seemed present in McMillin Theater. Eliot was the West that night.”
Hart was similarly mysterious, even incantatory, the West incarnate. For the student editors of The Dartmouth Review like me, his lessons came out of Friday lunches in “Hart’s Corner” at Murphy’s tavern on Hanover’s Main Street, drinks at the tiny home he shared with his wife Nancy in Lyme, New Hampshire, and whirling dispatches by facsimile machine. Through these meetings, which he usually held while wearing a green fleece jacket he claimed to be made out of “recycled ping pong balls,” he developed uncanny insights into our young interests, even if we did not know those interests ourselves.
When I was a freshman, he introduced me to The New Criterion. When I became editor of The Dartmouth Review in my sophomore year, he suggested I call up Roger Kimball and interview him about postmodern architecture. In my junior year, he showed a film review of mine to Bill Buckley and brought me to National Review as an intern. Upon graduation, I joined Hart as an editor there. Sensing my own predilections, he suggested I focus on cultural criticism and, in particular, art criticism. Such guidance was the norm for all even as it was unique to each of us. He was also laugh-out-loud funny. Within an aging frame, Hart maintained a youthful exuberance that kept him smiling, as he put it, through the cultural catastrophe.
Hart’s stationery carried a telling quote by the literary critic John Crowe Ransom: “In manners, aristocratic; in religion, ritualistic; in art, traditional.” We saw it often. Hart was a tireless faxer. Over the years I collected several reams of fax paper with the quote but only recently discovered that Ransom was describing Eliot. Hart’s electronic missives always came with a handwritten note of encouragement along with a copy of some academic correspondence or manuscript. “Egad,” he might write, “Zounds!” We were part of the conversation.
Like Russell Kirk, Hart’s conservative mind was concerned not with winning elections but with understanding a canon from Burke to Eliot, and more broadly from “Athens and Jerusalem” on through “Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” Hart often structured his lectures and essays around such juxtapositions. He believed in old orders and in the power of culture to reveal order, but he also understood the breadth of cultural contradiction. “Argument meeting with counterargument has been a refining fire,” he wrote approvingly in The Making of the American Conservative Mind, his 2005 history of National Review.
That book proved to be Hart’s last grand statement. It also announced his most unexpected change of game. Timed to the fiftieth anniversary of National Review, his history remains a fascinating appreciation of the fusionism of the magazine with profiles of its disparate founders—from the managerial James Burnham to the majoritarian Willmoore Kendall, the individualist Frank Meyer to the Burkean Russell Kirk. The book was also meant to be a promotional vehicle for the publication at the height of the Iraq War and neoconservative ascendancy. Yet Hart concluded it with an attack on President Bush, whom he called the “bottom among American Presidents.” While the denunciation now appears only in the paperback edition, the statement signaled a break with conservative colleagues, whom Hart considered to be in lockstep with a Republican Party that had gone from Burkean to Wilsonian. “I suppose I have always been a conservative of some sort,” Hart wrote in When the Going Was Good! Yet in his final years, he campaigned for Obama and stem-cell research in a way that perplexed many, including me.
In retrospect, this Hart-break was an early indicator of the breakup of conservative consensus. What began in fusion ended in fission. Hart’s young protégé Joseph Rago, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist who graduated from Dartmouth in 2005 and died just twelve years later, called Hart’s dissent “the most rigorous, utterly principled, and intellectually stimulating ever set down.” In both style and substance, starting with its title, Hart’s book on National Review referenced Kirk’s 1953 The Conservative Mind. Hart’s eccentric political choices also tracked closely with Kirk’s own anti-interventionist aristocratic conservatism; in the 1976 presidential election, Kirk similarly voted for Eugene McCarthy.
With the 2016 election, Hart may not have seen eye-to-eye with the other famous kid from Queens, but his Republican disaffection, self-invention, and self-possession shared affinities with the political outsider now in the White House. Hart went one way, while many of the students he mentored at The Dartmouth Review, such as Laura Ingraham, have gone the other, becoming outspoken pundits and supporters of a president known for his pragmatism and candor.
Argument, Hart believed, restored culture from the forces of occlusion and egalitarianism. “The goal of intellect is always there: cognition, the self-cleansing act of trying to see the object of knowledge as clearly as possible.” Like Matthew Arnold, “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science,” Hart lived life to “see the object as in itself it really is” and to teach us how to see it for ourselves.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 78
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