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Alan Heimert: The 'Idea' at Eliot House

By Charles F. Sabel

ALAN HEIMERT is everything he is incidentally, in his spare time and a bit against his better judgment. At thirty-nine he can't quite decide what to make of himself. He dresses like a careless football coach and lives in a palace of oiled woods and lush fabrics; his mostly Hungarian sheep dog refuses to ride in the 1961 Studebaker he drives and Heimert refuses to trade the car in for anything but a Mercedes 300SL. He is Professor Heimert, Master of Eliot House Heimert, the Undergraduates' Advocate Heimert -- a creature of the university, but not wholly or solely professor, administrator or student.

Preposterous as it now sounds, this arch-enemy of jargon and cant almost became an attorney. Perhaps he thought the law would satisfy those obscurantist tendencies which later found their gratification in an extensive collection of the least-known 18th century American writings. Until the spring of his senior year. 1949, he was set to be a lawyer; then he changed his mind, turned down a place at the Law School, and went off to study history at Columbia. Back at Harvard a year later, still desulting about, he fell under the spell of Perry Miller. For a decade that greatest of Americanists and roistering misfit in this town of shut-ins goaded, cajoled, cursed Heimert up the academic ladder, until, just as he reached the top--with Miller, now dead, no longer there to guide him--the same confusions which propelled the middle-class, occasionally Jewish boy to Columbia made him lose his balance and think about climbing down. "When the department voted me tenure," he says, "I went into a four week down trip. I thought, my god, they've tole me what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life."

Even then he must have sensed how much of the school was in him, and he stayed. But as if in revolt against his immediate past he turned back to the present, to the worlds he had neglected during his years in the Widener stacks. Two years before he had been married, to a newspaperwoman; not one of those who drinks her coffee black and eats the paper cup to prove she's no pansey, but a vibrant and gracious women whose style is as ample as his own. In love, his apprenticeship now over, he must have begun to appraise Miller's legacy. He might have seen Miller's desire to record all of the American spirit as an impossible gesture, leading always, as it did for Miller, to great and bitter loneliness. Again, it might have been that he recognized new and still unnamed callings within himself. His scholarly work continued--two years ago he edited a massive anthology of the 18th century religious literature he professes--but he spent more and more time with the undergraduates. Talking, arguing, he acquired an almost reflexive sympathy for the aspirations if not the solutions of the dropped-out and nearly dropped-out youth of the sixties. A pilgrimage to Berkeley two summers ago to give a course convinced him that the present is one of those yeasty moments in the national life which "historians writs about but never quite believe in." This year he ratified his commitment to this moment, and became Master of Eliot House.

Heimert claims that his detachment from himself is characteristic of the downcast 50's, his age, the time when everyone walked with his head bowed to the ground and the only way to know heroes was "to sit in the room and read about them." The real men of the fifties are out in Belmont now, driving VW's, taking in a foreign movie now and again, speaking a bleached language and leading bleached lives. A dry-fuck life, Heimert would call it, if he weren't a shade too decorous to make a comment like that from any podium more public than a dinner table. His own style is so much more intense, robust, youthful, maybe in the way Falstaff's was and may be in a more indestructible way that the fifties can only be a metaphor for his condition, not the cause of it.

Whatever the reason, he has no particular personality to insist upon, "no voice or stance, as we say in the English Department." He seems most comfortable when he can play someone else's part. He has a talent for doing voices and a heavy, mobile face that suggests the prosperous Dutchman who sat for Haals. In the language of the old screen comedians, his imitations produce the boffo--the laugh that kills. He usually delivers the lines sitting down, leaning forward over the table or desk. He moves corner of his lip up toward his ear, smooths the thinning grayish hair from the high forehead and takes the student's part:

"I have just discovered that the historical establishment has suppressed a fact." The eyebrows arch, the mouth snaps into the inane puppet grin familiar from the back of cereal boxes. He is the professor.

"Yeah." And the student:

"In the thirties you guys used to intervene a lot in Latin America. What does the historical establishment have to say to that?" The professor, eager now. This is education:

"Very true."

"Just what I expected to hear from a type-head like yourself."

It is not prudent to name the many men he can parody. He knows all the drug-age neologisms and uses them with a purposeful heavyhandedness. A "mind blow" that comes off his tongue awkardly and belligerently, with quotation marks around it, reminds him that he is not, after all, native to the generation which minted the phrase. It also hints to his undergraduate audience, or the part of it which uses the words scarcely more gracefully than he, that neither are they. The play is brilliant, ceaseless, and for those too shy, too polite or too slow to answer back, intimidating. More dismaying still are his long silences and gestures of over-anxious assent. These are the times when he is learning a new part, not conversing but understudying, snatching your soul away before you have time to sell it. The knowledge gained in this way is astonishing. From his father, a railway man, he learned the names and locations of all the American cities with populations of more than five thousand.

In this poisonously introspective era, when everyone talks of the unconscious and a few people believe in it. Heimert's verbal rough-housing may seem a flight from even the possibility of self-recognition. His own view of the constant alteration of point-of-view is that it is the most direct form of personal education. "What else can you mean by consciousness expanding," he asks, "than the attempt to comprehend all the life styles in an age?" This is his short-hand way of expressing the old desire for transcendance. A man who is noting, after all, is potentially everything. "Studying the Puritans or watching you try to figure me out, Sable," he once said, " are just ways of playing god." Sometimes he imputes his powers of negative capability to everyone around him, so that nothing is for real and everyone is on stage. "A lot of radical activity is street theater," he insists. "Its people acting out."

Under Miller's tutelage this idealism grew naturally into the view that the most worthy object of historical study is human consciousness. His concern is not for the great systembuilders and the source of their thought, but for the vitality and diffusion of ideas themselves. His archives are the libraries of second-rate thinkers. For example, he ransacked the effects of the Puritan ministers and aldermen for evidence for his major work, Religion and the American Mind. The Idea has for Heimert a life of its own, conditioned by the physical furniture of reality but also conditioning it. He has little patience with historians who insist that "objective reality" exist, that it alone determines human action, and that if only we can count all railroad ties and piglets in a country we shall know what it is. "Numerology" is what he calls the most zealous, usually American, attempts to demonstrate wie es eigentlich gewesen war. Not surprisingly there are those who consider his views of the past fruitless or even anarchic.

Much of what Heimert thinks he owes to Miller. Though he attempted to say how much in a long article published in the 1964 issue of the Harvard Review which commemmorated the latter's death, the article and his conversations make it clear that he does not consider himself qualified to judge. "It's too close," he says. "I still consider it Perry's business as well as mine, and for that reason I dislike speaking about it." The pair will probably never be untangled, intellectually or emotionally. They were, it seems, two great friends who also happened to be a father and son. One imagines them wandering into the Square after a mug or two at the Wursthaus, kicking at snow drifts, and frightening couples with high-spirited shouts, pausing to t test each other's memory of obscure verses. It is only speculation, but perhaps in the end they were held together by their refusal to become the mute weighers of evidence that a proprietous respect for their profession demanded they be. They never pretend that the subject matter can speak for itself. "A work of history," Heimert says, "takes its coherence from the artistic skills of the author." When they write about the past, longing to become an age, they are creating themselves and history at the same time.

Heimert's view of the university can be deduced from this concern for his own integrity. Like so many of the men who lived through McCarthy's murderous anti-intellectualism, he has come to believe that the first task of any academy is to uphold man's right to isolate himself. "A university can promote many things beside the intellectual enterprise," he says, "But I worry the moment it starts to abandon that enterprise for any reason." Barricading the Dow recruiter last year seemed to him a threatening disruption of the rules of liberal fair play. He is willing, however, to be a critical of the Right as of the Left. He has no truck for those parlour libertarians who finds SDS rhetoric "ominously ambiguous" and General Hershey's announcements merely "impolitic" or "stupid." His confidence in words and the possibility of making sense may appear out of place in these McLuhanesque times, but for a man who insists that reality begins and ends with the Word, there may be no other choice. "Most of the anti-verbal, anti-logical activity I see is stimulation, not communication," he says. Whatever value it has to individuals, it is not conceivably the basis on which a culture can be sustained."

Master Heimert is constrained by intellectualization of Professor Heimert. On the one hand, he learned at Berkeley that "a great big, impersonal university just doesn't make it;" on the other hand, people just can't be thrown together in the Houses, placed under charge of administrators and told to interact--that would be "cheap social engineering." The solution is to recruit Masters who are committed to the intellectual goals of the university and to the social goals of the Houses. Heimert no doubt sees himself as this kind of compound figure. But his whole disposition make him skittish about organizing other people's lives. "I don't plan to be a cruise director around here," he says.

So he executes his revolution from above more or less indirectly, carrying suggestions from one group to another, completing or urging the completion of half-formed plans. He assembles dinners and meetings in the hope that those convoked will somehow adhere and persist. His aim is the old one of making something out of the curious mixture of professors, tutors and undergraduates who sit down to lunch everyday beneath the glum stare of the 14-point moose who surveys the House dining room.

It is altogether too early to tell whether he will succeed. To most of the people in the House he is still that beligerent stranger. There is also the question of his stamina, or at least of his continuing interest. For as was to be expected he is not completely at home in this office, as he is not in any other. "I still have trouble introducing myself in the dinning room," he says. "Sometimes people don't know when I'm being ironic." Well, then, presenting Alan Heimert, All-American, Un-American Anti-Absolutist.

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