Although Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) is remembered chiefly as a prolific American historian who taught at New York University, Columbia, and Amherst College, he also lived a notable public life outside the gates of scholarship. His academic credentials included more than forty books that he wrote and edited, visiting positions at Cambridge and Oxford, and the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters—none of which saved his scholarly position from some erosion by criticism from a later generation of historians.
What remains important in Commager’s influence is found as much in his journalistic essays and reviews as in his scholarly books. From the beginning of his career, he was one of those figures who was able to bring together the two worlds of scholarship and public discourse. By the late 1920s, then only 26 years old, Commager already had teamed with Samuel Eliot Morison to write The Growth of the American Republic, the most respected American history survey of its time. At the same moment, Commager also dove into the world of cultural journalism, which is how he met his best friend Allan Nevins, who later brought him to Columbia. In 1928 Commager began reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune, and the editors found his first attempt so good that he was given 24 more books to review that year and compiled 234 more reviews for the newspaper within a decade.
This combination of an active intellectual life interwoven with his academic duties was the pattern of his life. Commager nearly single-handedly provided the lead essays for the New York Times Magazine from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Clearly, Commager was what we now call a public intellectual.
—By Neil Jumonville, Florida State University
Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present
by Neil Jumonville