More from the Memory Man

Maurice Halbwachs, author of two great books about social and collective memory (1925 and 1950), was briefly a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1930, as faithful readers of Old Printculture will remember. Continuing his adventures: a visit to Robert Hutchins, the boy wonder who reshaped the curriculum of the University of Chicago during his presidency, 1929-1951.

On Friday morning Ogburn took me to see the president of the University, Mr. Hitchins [sic]. 33 or 34 years old, very young in appearance, Hutchins has never been (or only vaguely been) a professor. His main job is to bring to the University donations from millionaires…. He has already come up as a possible candidate for President of the US, on the Democratic ticket. He’s a ‘big man.’ (Letter to Yvonne Halbwachs, 25 October 1930.)

“Big man,” quoted in English, must refer to the anthropological type of the tribal leader (described in Melanesia) who gains power by concentrating command over foodstuffs and redistributing them to allies.

Well worth observing: very distinguished, full of life and activity, with something magnetic about him. I pass on the regards of Richard McKeon, whom I’d seen in New York. This caused Hutchins to wax eloquent in praise of Etienne Gilson, and he seemed provoked to learn that Gilson is at Toronto.

McKeon was at Columbia, but would return to Chicago in 1932 and rule the humanities, as people have told me, with an iron hand, or rather with two iron hands, one named Aristotle and one named Aquinas. McKeon’s teacher in Paris had been Etienne Gilson, who now, Hutchins learns, has accepted a visiting position at Toronto and not let any of his Chicago friends know! Will Toronto, a well-known den of medievalists, corner the market and leave Chicago in the cold? What’s a gang leader to do? Here, a beautiful transition or non-transition, directly after the last sentence:

Then we talked about gangsters. That very morning the papers were announcing the death of Aiello, a big gangster boss, who had been tricked into an ambush by associates of Al Capone. Just when he was about to get into a taxi a machine gun started to shoot at him from the second story. He ran into a neighboring alley and there, from a third-floor window, another machine gun pumped more than a pound of lead into him. The police stood by watching. The gangsters are in charge of the illegal distribution of alcohol and carry out their attacks freely. This Aiello had killed a dozen or so guys in his time. … Quite a country. The papers are full of such stories, which make for terrific headlines. I’m reading a novel of the Wild West by Edna Ferber now… The cowboys and robbers of those times aren’t a bit more colorful than what you see in Chicago today. Seems that Americans, or Middle Westerners anyway, have this violence in their blood. It’s less prosaic than Babbitt, anyway.

Well observed, Mr. Sociologist!