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John Clive


Most students thought that John Clive was a horrible lecturer. It is true, that his skill did not lie in mass communication with a horde of note-hungry, examination-bound types who take big Core classes (and expect them to be better than TV.). Mentally acute, Clive's diction was soft, often becoming a shambling murmur. Quietly watchful, he had the wisdom to regard undergraduates with a certain sarcasm, and the generosity of spirit to be genuinely helpful--if sought out.

In Fall of '88, in a small classroom in Sever, John Clive completely revitalized my love of history. The trouble with most history, in the college-formatted segment of history encased in Books, is that it is badly written. Badly written: boring, numbing, abstruse, statistical, dessicated, inhuman. Learning about the lives and actions of the human race through the bloodless method of sitting still with a sheaf of pages on your lap is difficult enough, but if the writing is also uninspiring...

John Clive taught us--there were about 20, in a class with open enrollment--that history is alive. We were reading Classics of Historical Writing, and he didn't want a paper unless you did; if you preferred to just read, he preferred not to deal with a forced reaction to books, and men, whom he loved. And they were great books he gave us to read.

Francis Parkman on LaSalle and his discovery of the Mississippi, "rolling like a destiny." Jacob Burckhardt on the civilization of the Rennaissance in Italy, which Clive, smiling, called "history for adults." Gibbon, and his cool-headed appraisal of the human excesses of Christianity. It was a fabulous semester, straightforward and absorbing.

On Tuesdays, Clive would deliver a character sketch of the historian in question, empathetic, but tempered with sly asides; shuffling his papers, quietly harrumphing, Clive would look off out the window, a laugh warming his voice as he hit the point of a anecdote. His sympathy for these people, who had devoted their lives to telling the human race where it has been, was strong. I remember most vividly his telling us about the shy, morose Henry Adams, who also taught history at Harvard. As the class wound to the end of the hour, and he related to us the end of Adams' life, Clive's voice became more fluid, and also more shaky. He finished with Adams hope that the world might become a place where sensitive souls might look out without horror. His voice now shaky to the point of collapse, Clive pulled his notes to his chest and, eyes shut, rushed out of the room. We, inside the room, were still.

On Thursdays, the textual stuff: approach, linguistical skill, emotive power, bias, mission. Is the historian willing to call judgement? If so, directly, or through irony (Gibbon), or through emphasis (Macauley). Method of research? Empiricism--footwork--or the pure remove of documents? Even Style: the visual mania of Carlyle; the reasoned compression of Ranke.

We were given a sense of how history is shaped: through a combination of human intention and ungovernable circumstance.

Parkman, the great historian of the Mississippi, ended his travelling and began his writing in earnest when he lost his vision; he had to be read to, and wrote only with the help of a frame. Henry Adams' gallows humour, and gloomy assessment of the American nation in 1800, was underscored by a series of personal tragedies.

You notice the slip made between history itself--the raw goods--and History, as in the relation of the past by a historian. But the past, because it is no longer in our hands, is a fluid thing; unfortunate as it is, the telling of our past by a historian, often, for all intents and purposes, becomes the past. We can only directly act on what we directly know. This is why history must be told well, told honestly, told vividly. John Clive did this. Now he is dead, and we have only his books.

This passage, from his childhood in Nazi Berlin, is originally from a lecture on "The Use of the Past" and is reprinted in his book of historical essays, Not By Fact Alone:

I grew up in Berlin, the son of middle-class German Jewish parents who were so "assimilated" that they couldn't believe that the Nazis would retain power for more than a few years, or were really serious about their anti-Semitic slogans; until shop windows were smashed, synagogues burned, and lawyers, doctors, and businessmen carted off by the thousands to concentration camps during and after the "Crystal Night" of November 1938.

Assimilated they may have believed themselves to be, yet at the same time no less proud of being Jewish. One image that sticks in my mind is that of my father, himself a lawyer, walking to Jewish High Holy Day services in formal attire, top hat and all, carrying his prayer book in his right hand, for all to see; the iron cross "first class," which he had won in the First World War, pinned to his frock coat. "They wouldn't dare lay a hand on me," he used to say. He turned out to be one of the lucky ones. He was arrested; then released, on condition that he and my mother and brother get out of Germany at once, leaving all their money and possessions behind.

By that time I had already been sent away to boarding school in England, a decision taken by my parents when the secondary school I attended in Berlin, the Franzosische Gymnasium (traditionally under French influence and supposedly immune from anti-Jewish manifestations), forbade all "non-Aryan" boys and girls to join the annual school outing, a boating party on the river Spree. That had been too much for my mother, whose great pride and joy was that I, then a twelve-year-old, had indubitably earned the coveted privilege of entertaining cruise passengers on my concertina, or, as it was (for this occasion aptly) called, my Schifferklavier.

I conjure up these two vignettes--my father en route to the synagogue, myself in tears as the school's Direktor made the announcement that barred me from the boating party--not in order to lay claim to extraordinary scars and sufferings that taught me the real meaning of tyranny and persecution, but merely to state that this early part of my past left me with an insight I have found useful, both as a historian and as a human being: there are evil people who won't be deterred from their nefarious doings by what might be considered by the self-deceived as special circumstances. His iron cross, first class and all, did not save my father from arrest. The fact that my school had close links with France did not prevent it from getting rid of its Jewish students.

I must, however, supplement that insight with another, which may appear to be in conflict with it, but which simply reinforces that portion of it which tells us to take nothing for granted, especially when it comes to the judgement of human character. One of the mathematics teachers at the Franzosische Gymnasium was a marvelously good-humored and civilized Jewish gentleman called Dr. L. I remember him singing the role of Doctor Bartolo in a resonant bass voice at a school performance of The Barber of Seville, and doing so with irresistible comic gusto. The general assumption among former students of his was that since he had been unable to emigrate, he must have perished in a concentration camp. To the surprise of all of us, he survived World War II and was able to live to a ripe old age. The seemingly incredible, but actually true, explanation was that for a number of years Dr. L. had been hidden, at incalculable risk to his benefactor's own life, in the house belonging to a fellow teacher who, often jack-booted and swaggering about in Brown Shirt uniform, had generally been considered by far the most brutal and relentless Nazi on the school staff.

I think I have said enough to indicate that one's own personal history can prove to be useful; and that by no means all the lessons the past has to teach us must derive from public events such as wars, international crises, or the lives and careers of the great and powerful.

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