Crystal and Mahogany
In a moment of historic inspiration, David Owen once organized a society called "The Sons of the Whiskey Rebellion" to invigorate a staid, scholarly convention. Though accomplishing it purpose, the society was short-lived; it lasted only three days and three nights. But, as most of his students will testify, Owen's capacity for enlivening history has survived. A descendant of two Baptist ministers and one teacher, Owen lectures in a style reminiscent of both the preacher and the scholar. He adds, characteristically, a strong dose of humor, often sardonic, to keep the state of British history in lively repair.
His reputation for humor is at once Owen's greatest asset and a liability which he is most likely to deplore. Like the Hogarth engravings on his office walls, Owen's lectures are liberally sprinkled with bits of historical paraphernalia, each so interesting in itself that it is likely to detract from the whole. The "Crystal Palace" lecture, featuring lantern slides of a once famous Victorian exhibition, along with Owen's barbed asides, is an example. "I'm sorry it has developed into a kind of stunt or parlor trick. It really has a value in depicting the Victorian era," he remarked in justification.
Though now a specialist in English history, Owen started late in his field. As an undergraduate at Denison University, Granville, Ohio, he had "delusions of being a scientist," took geology under Kirtley Mather, and changed his mind abruptly after a near-disastrous chemistry course. Graduating in 1920, Owen had earned a Ph.B., which he describes as a "bastard degree for philosophers who lack a knowledge of Greek." From Denison he went to Yale, received a doctorate and became an instructor, but it was ten years before he began to teach English History. "I sort of backed into it," he says.
Actually, his interest in England dates from the summer of 1921, when he spent several months at Toynbee Hall in the cast end of London, and met some of England's future Labor Party leaders. But aside from any personal experiences, Owen likes history "because it combines so many different elements." He has a taste for the historically unusual and bizarre, and his interests are considerably more lively than the antiquarian's. Owen's lecture, "On Behalf of Scrooge," delivered two years ago at the Signet Society, and recently published in the Alumni Bulletin, is an illustration not only of his good-humored sarcasm, but also of the strange uses to which he occasionally puts history. Castigating the commercialism of Christmas, and defending Scrooge to the last, he wrote; "'Humbug' was a less than adequate comment on the Christmas saturnalia.... What, one may ask, but a sense of social responsibility could have inspired Scrooge to question the cult of Christmas when there were such goodies for manufacturer and tradesman and banker in Santa's pack."
Owen's sarcasm is usually received in the good spirit with which it is intended. Last year, however, the strain proved too much for one lonely Anglophile who had strayed into History 142. As Owen was busily ripping into the British aristocracy, the student rose from his set, and pointing his finger dramatically, accused the professor of being unfair to the upper classes. Such incidents are indeed rare, and his lectures receive almost legendary accolades. Owen finds Harvard men "not a particularly docile lot, but reasonable when backed into a corner."
Appointed a full professor in 1946, Owen has been at Harvard since 1937, first as a Visiting lecturer, then as Associate Professor. Since 1946 he has been burdened with administrative duties. At present he is Chairman of the History Department, and is regarded by his colleagues as "one of the very best."
When free from both teaching and administration, Owen likes to listen to music, not always of the relaxing variety. His friends say he is a jazz addict, and can often be found at Mahogany Hall with his wife, both enjoying the blare tremendously. "Like everyone else," he says, "I've gone fairly batty about music. Got a machine several year sago, and that's like putting your head in the lion's den."
Though Owen's wit and showmanship are not entirely reserved for the lecture platform, his talents are displayed there to best advantage. The figure of a slim, slightly graying man, with an engaging smile, nervous gesture, and rapid-fire delivery is becoming increasingly well-known. In his office, however, Owen is far removed from the elevated atmosphere of the auditorium. Besieged with phone calls, his desk piled high with papers, the Chairman of the History Department "is just trying to hang on through the winter."