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Daniel Aaron

By Helen Hennessy Vendler

Daniel Aaron, one of the founders of American Studies, and a memorable friend and colleague at both Smith and Harvard, died in April 2016 at 103, a year after publishing, at 102, a lighthearted selection from his journals called Commonplace Book. Until his last two years, he was to be found daily in his Harvard office, where friends and acquaintances from all over the world called in to meet him and converse with him, such was his gift for friendship. His international career began early at the postwar Salzburg Seminar, and extended through lecturing for the USIA and teaching in Europe, South America, Japan, and China. There was no more intelligent, more genial, and more magnetic scholar bringing the nascent field of American Studies to a wide audience; he was unfailingly interested in others, old and young, and once the young met him, they sought him out again.

Born in Chicago, Daniel Baruch Aaron and his four siblings were orphaned early, and were sent to live with relatives—in Dan’s case, to his paternal uncle in Chicago, his father’s law partner. From the University of Michigan, Dan entered the Ph.D. program at Harvard, planning—as a born writer—to study English. However, he changed to the new program then known as the History of American Civilization, part of the ferment of establishing American literature not only as worthy of study in itself but also as an indispensable part of American culture. He was awarded, in 1937, the first Ph.D. degree in American Civilization. When Dan took an appointment at Smith College, he and his wife Janet moved to Northampton, raising three sons.

During his thirty-three years of teaching at Smith, from 1939 through 1972, when he returned to Harvard, Dan became a scholar of encyclopedic learning in American literature and history. In 1951 he published Men of Good Hope, treating eight representatives of American Progressive thought from Emerson to Theodore Roosevelt, outlining the political hopes of many notable Americans and reflecting his own. But the Depression, the Marxist writing that had followed in its wake, and the congressional reaction to Senator McCarthy’s pursuit of American left-wing writers and scholars prompted Dan’s energetic turn to the contemporary in his 1961 book Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism, his most influential contribution to American Studies. In that book, from his own understanding of Utopian thought and his own commitment to biographical writing, Dan sketched, sympathetically and critically, the lives of writers tempted by Communist hopes and often disillusioned by them. Later, in 1973, looking backward in time, he published The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War, an ambitious and comprehensive analysis of the extent to which significant novelists and essayists from the North and South, from James to Twain, failed to understand, comment on, or critique the war that split the Union, while their contemporaries Whitman and Melville, poets, became the literary recorders of the catastrophe.

Dan took the dissemination of American literature to a new level with his success in founding the non-profit Library of America. On the example of the Pléiade editions of major French authors, Dan established moderately priced and beautifully printed volumes of American writing, ranging from major creative works of fiction and poetry through critical essays, journalism, slave narratives, humorous writings, and political and cultural publications. The grandly representative and expertly chosen selections for the Library of America were perhaps the chief ground on which Dan received, in 2011, a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

Dan’s influence at Harvard went far beyond the usual sphere of teachers and students through his long association with the Harvard Society of Fellows, where Dan, who attended every Monday dinner, befriended the Junior Fellows with sustained interest and lively encouragement. While Dan’s continued writing of books, reviews, essays, and introductions made him known throughout the academic world, it was his delightful conversation and his extraordinary memory that distinguished him in daily life. When Robert Lowell came to dinner at the Society of Fellows, he listened entranced to Dan’s history of American poets he had known from Edwin Arlington Robinson through Frost and Eliot.

In his last years, Dan came every day to his office, reading new books and revising his journals while continuing to welcome American and foreign visitors alike. Though he was elected as a writer to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and as a scholar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was President of the American Studies Association from 1971 to 1973, what most characterized him, besides his learning, were his personal modesty, his irony, and his humor.

Daniel Aaron died on April 30, 2016, at the age of 103, survived by his three sons, Jonathan, James, and Paul, and his granddaughter, Katherine.

*Note from author Helen Hennessy Vendler: “In composing this tributes, I have drawn on the Harvard Memorial Minute written by my colleague Philip Fisher.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2017.

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