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Thursday, May 13, 2010


As should be obvious from these memoirs, I was professionally extremely ambitious from the time I was an undergraduate. I published a great deal, went to meetings, accepted speaking engagements whenever they were offered, and in all the usual ways tried to advance myself in the profession. But in one way, my behavior was actually professionally unusual. From the start, I chose the objects of my philosophical investigations for reasons rooted deeply within my psyche, and not at all dictated by considerations of what was popular at the moment. I rather fiercely demanded that the world accept my work as it was, regardless of fashion. Readers of this memoir may find it difficult to imagine, all these years later, but my decision to turn my back on mathematical logic and instead write my first book on the Critique of Pure Reason would have been viewed back in the early sixties as a very poor career choice. Indeed, I have been told that I would have been tapped for the Society of Fellows had I stuck with logic. There were several important books on the First Critique by English scholars [Kemp Smith, Weldon, Paton, Ewing], but my book was the first full scale treatment of the First Critique by an American in the twentieth century. The history of philosophy was not then the royal road to professional success. Those facts quite literally never crossed my mind.
Having chosen to launch myself as a Kant scholar, I immediately turned to political philosophy, and rather provocative political philosophy at that. In the seven years after Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, leaving aside all the books I edited, I published A Critique of Pure Tolerance, The Poverty of Liberalism, The Ideal of the University, and In Defense of Anarchism. It was not until 1973 that I returned to Kant scholarship with The Autonomy of Reason.
As a consequence of my political writings, I rapidly acquired a reputation as a brash voice on the left, and since I was living in New York, this led to opportunities to become a typical New York leftwing public intellectual. I appeared on the David Suskind Show, wrote reviews for the New York TIMES Sunday Book Review Section, lectured both in the city and around the country, and might even, had I stuck with it, earned myself a standing invitation to The Theater for Ideas. Although this is getting ahead of my story, the year after I published In Defense of Anarchism, I received over a hundred invitations to speak on campuses around the country. And the truth is, I did not enjoy it. When it paid, I did it for the money, to pay the analyst bills, but even then, I did not find the role of a public bloviator attractive.
I did not like being away from my family. If I did accept a speaking engagement, I arranged it so that I was away for one night at most. I recall that at some point or other, Jacob Javits and several other progressive senators arranged a trip to Cuba to explore the possibility of a rapprochement with Castro. The newspapers were full of the story, speculating on its chances for success. When I read about the junket, my first reaction was, "Well, that is another three days they will not be home for dinner."
I was becoming disenchanted with my role as a Columbia professor. In certain circles in New York, then and probably now as well, it was a big deal to be on the Columbia faculty. There was a perceptible frisson of respect whenever one was introduced as a Columbia professor. I found myself thinking, "Now, people say, Oh, Bob Wolff must be pretty good, if he is a professor at Columbia. Maybe it would be better to be someplace where people say, Oh, that must be a pretty good place if Bob Wolff is there!" This is an expression of genuine arrogance, of course. It is not for nothing that I chose the Emily Dickinson poem that graces the title page of Volume One of these memoirs.
In addition, I was growing more and more uneasy about the privilege and social isolation of the elite sector of American higher education. The events of the Spring of '68 only heightened this feeling, and the assassination of King, combined with the intensification of the Viet Nam War, made me uncomfortable about the feather bed I had landed in.
These disparate feelings -- the desire to find a proper community in which to raise my children, my disillusionment with the role of Public Intellectual, my dismay at the privileges of the Ivy League -- came together in a most unexpected way on a warm August Saturday in 1969. Cindy and I had gone back to our new summer home in Worthington with little Patrick at the beginning of July for a two month stay. Once again, Cindy was morning sick, so we resumed our daily treks to Northampton for Big Macs and fries. This time, however, we had Patrick with us. At eighteen months, Patrick had a tendency to get fussy, and it turned out that quite the most soothing thing we could do was to strap him in his car seat and take him for a ride. One Sunday, in fact, I set out from Morningside Heights with Patrick and drove completely around Manhattan Island. Patrick did not let out a peep until we pulled up in front of our apartment building, at which point he began to bawl.
Cindy and I enjoyed looking at streets and imagining what it would be like to live on them, so we frequently combined our MacDonalds run with some casual cruising up and down Northampton's residential streets, Patrick along for the ride. Our favorite streets were in Ward Two, the Smith College area of town -- rows of colonial homes, unpretentious, graceful, inviting. One day, we stumbled on a dead end street with a bend in it called Barrett Place. There were no more than eight homes on the little street, and it was lovely. "This is where I would like to live," Cindy said. "No doubt," I replied a trifle sardonically, "but we work in New York, and the commute is wicked."
We drove back to the Berkshire Hills and continued our lazy summer vacation, watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon, chatting with Julie and Connie Sharon next door, who had seven girls and were still hoping for a boy. Then, one Saturday, I got up early to give Patrick his breakfast, and opened up the weekend edition of the Northampton Gazette. Idly paging through it, I came on a picture of a beautiful three story brick Federal home on Barrett Place. The real estate agent was Al Lumley, and the house was due to go on the market Monday.
As soon as I showed the ad to Cindy, she said, "Let's look at it!" I pointed out that it wasn't due to go on the market until Monday, and besides we still didn't have jobs in Western Massachusetts, but she was adamant, so I called the number listed for Lumley. It turned out that he was in Amherst, seven miles or so from Northampton, and didn't really want to drive over, but I pleaded, and he finally agreed to meet us. As soon as we entered the house, we fell in love with it. It was the home of Mrs. Ethel Webb Faulkner and her late husband Harold U. Faulkner, who had been an economic historian of some note and a professor for many years at Smith,. They had had the house built in 1933, in the depths of the depression, when it was in fact the only house built in Northampton that year. Now, Mrs. Faulkner was getting on and felt that it was time to sell. The house had a large living room, formal dining room, den, and large kitchen on the first floor, four good sized bedrooms on the second floor, and a spare bedroom and gorgeous pine paneled study on the third floor. There were three bathrooms, a garage, and a double lot with a large side yard, including the remains of a grove of quince trees in which, it was said, Jonathan Edwards had played as a boy. It was perfect.
We grew enraptured by the idea of living on Barrett Place with our growing family. Moving there from Morningside Heights would be like jumping from Modern Times into Andy Hardy Grows Up. We were already beginning to think about the renovations we would undertake. I had made a contact in the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, through Gerald and Annette Barnes, a couple teaching philosophy at Amherst College whom I had met at a party in New York. UMass was in an expansion phase, so there was at least a hope that I could bag a job there.
On the way back to Worthington, we talked, and as we talked, each of us reinforced the other's desire. By the time we had turned off route 9 onto route 112, we had convinced ourselves that we were meant to live in that beautiful house at 26 Barrett Place. The asking price was $47,500. I made a low offer that was summarily rejected by Lumley, and I came right back with a full price offer, which was accepted. The next day, Sunday, I called a local Worthington real estate agent to put our summer home on the market, asking just enough to cover the original cost of $25,000 plus what we had spent renovating it. On Monday, our summer home sold, and I arranged with Al Lumley to meet with Mrs. Faulkner to execute a written agreement.
It turned out that Mrs. Faulkner really was not eager to move out of her home, even though she knew in her heart that it was time. As we sat in the offices of Alvertus J. Morse [later Judge Morse], the lawyer we had found to handle the closing, it became clear that Mrs. Faulkner really would prefer to settle the matter of the sale of her house but not to move out just yet. Since we didn't have jobs within a hundred and fifty miles of Barrett Place, I was in no hurry to start paying the mortgage. I asked, "How would it be if we sign a buy sell agreement now, put down a nice binder, and agree to conclude the sale a year from now -- say June 30, 1970?" Well, Mrs. Faulkner thought that was just fine, and hard as it may be now to believe, Nonotuck Savings Bank was prepared to make a loan commitment for a fixed rate 6% twenty-five year 80% mortgage ten months in advance of closing. So it was settled. Now all we needed to do was find a pair of jobs.
The next academic year was full of excitement and activity. The big news, of course, was the arrival of our second child on February 18, 1970, just three days more than two years after the birth of Patrick. Once again we were prepared with Emily Ann if it was a girl, but it was a boy, and we settled on Tobias Barrington Wolff. The "Barrington" was for Barrington Moore, who had agreed to be the child's godfather. In due course, Toby, as we immediately began calling the little baby, received a battered silver teething cup that had been in Barry's family for generations. Our family was now complete: Bob and Cindy, Patrick and Toby. The nuns were totally supportive of Cindy's pregnancy, and assured her that her job would be waiting for her when she was ready to return, but we secretly hoped that by the time she was prepared to resume teaching, we would be living on Barrett Place.
The Harper Guide to Philosophy had still not appeared, even though the ten essays had long since been written and submitted. Indeed, the entire Harper Guide project had fallen into disfavor. Fred Wieck had handed it off to Al Prettyman at Harper, and Prettyman in turn had turned it over to Hugh van Dusen, who headed up the Harper Torchbook division. I was getting rather eager to have my contribution appear. In 1969, I published an article "On Violence" in The Journal of Philosophy that drew heavily on the arguments of my Harper Guide essay, even referring to that essay in the footnotes as "forthcoming." But of course there was no sign that it was coming forth. Finally, in early 1970, I decided to call van Dusen. Sitting in my office, which overlooked the walkway between the campus and the Columbia Law School, I placed the call. Could I at least use sections of the essay in other things I wanted to write? Van Dusen was very apologetic about the long delay, and said of course I could do so. Then I had a brainstorm. "Why don't you publish the essay as a short book?" Van Dusen was very taken with that idea -- the Harper Guide project was an albatross, and no one at Harper really wanted to go through with it. He got rather excited. "We could publish a whole series of short books." Then he said, "But 'Political Philosophy' -- that is a really dull title. Can you come up with something better?"
When I was a boy, in the attic of the little row house in which we lived on 76th avenue in Kew Gardens Hills, I had found a complete set of the writings of Mark Twain. My favorite volume was "Literary Essays," which included such perennial favorites as "James Fennimore Cooper's Literary Errors" and "The Awful German Language." One of the lesser noted essays was an attack on Shelley and his buddies called "In Defense of Harriet Shelley." When Hugh van Dusen asked me for a better title, that essay popped into my mind, and without thinking, I said, "How about In Defense of Anarchism?" "Great," van Dusen said, and several months later the 82 page book appeared. Had it been published in the Harper Guide, no one would ever have noticed it. Had it appeared in 1965, when it was written, it might have garnered a few snarky notices. But in 1970, the world was exploding, and my little book caught fire. In three years, it sold 40,000 copies, and started appearing in foreign language translations. Thanks to a University of California re-issue, it is still in print. When last I looked, it had appeared in Swedish, Italian, German, French, Italian yet again, Korean, Croatian, and Indonesian. At one point, it was required reading for the Cambridge University Moral Philosophy Tripos, and even provoked a wonderful book-length response by Jeffrey Reiman, In Defense of Political Philosophy.
By and large, everyone who has commented on that book has claimed that its central argument is wrong, although in fact it was then, and still is, exactly correct. But the advice I like to give to budding philosophers proved right. If you want to be famous, write a short book. While all of this was going on, I continued to edit books -- two in '69, one in '70, another in '71.
At roughly the time that I was talking to Hugh van Dusen about my essay, I also made an appearance at a symposium organized to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. At issue was the question whether citizens have an obligation to obey the law in a democracy, regardless of their individual judgment of the morality of that law. This may seem a trifle abstract now, but in 1970, with men being ordered daily to report for induction into the Armed Forces to fight a war in South East Asia that was widely considered unjust and immoral, this was a question of the very greatest immediacy. Drawing on the arguments in In Defense of Anarchism, I argued the negative. Defending the positive, and using exactly the line of argument that I had demonstrated to be fallacious in my as yet unpublished book, was Eugene Rostow. Rostow was a former Dean of Yale Law School, and had served in the State Department under Johnson. He was the brother of Walt Rostow, Johnson's National Security Advisor. Rostow regularly went by the name Eugene V. Rostow, but his full name, give to him by socialist parents on the Lower East Side of New York, was Eugene Victor Debs Rostow. His parents and my grandfather might have been comrades in the Socialist Party.
Meanwhile, of course, I was desperately trying to conjure up a job offer from the University of Massachusetts. It was not totally insane to think that I might succeed. UMass was in the midst of an extraordinary growth spurt. Located among the farms of Western Massachusetts north of the center of Amherst, the university had started life as an agricultural college in 1863. In 1931 Mass Aggie became Mass State College, and in 1947, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Spurred by the growing demand for college admissions in the '60s, the university had launched an expansion campaign designed to take it from 10,000 students to 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students by the mid '70s. In '69, when Cindy and I were looking for jobs, the university was adding one hundred new faculty and fifteen hundred new students each year.
As the expansion took off, strains developed in nearly every department between the oldtimers, who in some cases had been at UMass for decades, and the flood of new, young academics, many of whom were academically more able and more ambitious than their senior colleagues. Because of its agriculture college past, UMass's science departments, especially in the biological sciences, were the strongest academically. The Chancellor, Oswald Tippo, himself a biologist, had gathered a kitchen cabinet of senior science professors who passed around the administrative positions among themselves.
One problem faced by Tippo was the opposition from the old line faculty to the wave of new hires. To undermine their opposition, Tippo created the position of Department Head, distinguished from Department Chair. A Head was appointed by the Dean and had the power to recruit without the approval of a majority of the senior members of the department. Things were being shaken up dramatically at UMass.
Prior to the expansion phase, the Philosophy Department had been a tiny operation with four or five members. Leonard Ehrlich, a Jaspers scholar who had studied at Yale, was the oldest. Among the others were Ann Ferguson, a young, ebullient Swarthmore graduate who had done her work at Brown, and John Brentlinger, a tall, politically radical man whose specialty was Greek philosophy. John and Ann were married. Bruce Aune had been recruited by Tippo as Head to build the department, rapidly bringing in a number of young men, some of whom were students or disciples of Rod Chisholm. At the time when I went looking for a job at UMass, the new wave in the department included Gareth Matthews, Ed Gettier, Herb Heidelberger, Bob Sleigh, John Robison, Bob Ackermann, and a young Assistant Professor, Fred Feldman.
I had met Gerry and Annette Barnes, who were teaching Philosophy at Amherst College, and Gerry arranged for me to have lunch with Herb Heidelberger. I told him quite openly that I was interested in moving to UMass, and he said he would see what he could do. Sure enough, an interview was arranged, and I drove up to Amherst to give a talk and meet the department.
Much of the remainder of this volume of these memoirs will be devoted to my experiences in the UMass Philosophy Department. It is a sad tale, at least in its early chapters, full of anger, bitterness, and eventually all out war. Because those events made so deep an impression on me, I must force myself to set aside my current feelings so that I can recapture my frame of mind when I entered the department. On the day that I came to the campus of the University of Massachusetts for my meeting with the members of the department, I was a full professor at Columbia University. I had published nine books, and was widely recognized in the profession both as a serious Kant scholar and as a provocative political philosopher. Quite unthinkingly, I assumed that the department would be delighted to recruit me as their colleague. The interview took place early in the winter. I stood at a window of the faculty restaurant on the eleventh floor of the Campus Center, looking north across a charming lake to the newly constructed rather dramatically designed Fine Arts Center. Fresh snow covered the ground and decorated the trees. Accustomed to the grungy urban cityscapes of Morningside Heights, I was charmed.
The talk and interview seemed to go well, although I picked up vibrations of a somewhat disturbing sort from several members of the department, most notably young Fred Feldman. Nevertheless, it seemed self-evident to me that I was a great catch, so I hoped for the best. As part of my visit, I was wheeled in to see the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Seymour Shapiro, one of the Tippo circle of scientists. I explained to him that in order for me to be able to join the faculty, a position would have to be found for my wife as well. He assured me that something could be arranged. In due course, the offer came through, and Cindy and I began planning the renovations to our dream house.
When Toby joined our family, Cindy and I still expected to be able to move into our new house during the summer months of 1970. I spoke to Bruce Aune about one problem that had me a little worried. Columbia, like many private colleges and universities, began its year for salary purposes on July 1, which meant that my June pay check would be my last. But UMass, in common with Rutgers and other state institutions, paid its faculty beginning on September first. There were going to be two payless summer months, which with our tight finances was going to be hard to handle. "That is not a problem," Bruce said. "When you retire you will receive two additional months of salary." "But Bruce," I objected, "that is going to be some time around the millennium. What do I do now?" "Well," Bruce allowed, "you can always teach summer school the summer before you start." So it appeared I would once again be moonlighting.
There were much bigger problems. After a bit, the UMass English Department offered Cindy several sections of Freshman Comp. That was a complete non-starter. Cindy had taught Freshman Comp as a graduate student. She was now an Assistant Professor, on a track leading to tenure. She was not about to go backwards. We were committed to buying the house in less than six months, but there was no compromising. I called Seymour Shapiro to tell him the deal was off. I could not accept their offer. He was astonished. Apparently, throwing a few sections to the wife was their standard procedure. I patiently explained that Cindy was an accomplished academic with a good tenure track teaching job already. She would accept nothing less.
Shapiro said it was too late in the year to consider Cindy for a regular English Department teaching job for the Fall, so I suggested we postpone the entire matter a year to allow them time to see what they could do. He agreed.
All of this sounds rather insouciant on our part, a jeu d'esprit by a couple of young academics taking a risky chance on pulling off a complicated parlay involving two jobs and a house, but it is worth recalling that Cindy was in the very last stages of pregnancy, and we were about to welcome a new baby into our home. In retrospect, our behavior was sheer madness. We were in love with the house on Barrett Place, and with the life we imagined our family would lead there, but we were taking an enormous gamble.
Not surprisingly, when I was contacted by a Prentice Hall editor about writing a different kind of philosophy textbook keyed to the tenor of those times, I jumped at the chance to make some more money. We would be carrying a big mortgage starting July 1, 1970, and we were going to need all the money I could earn. Lest anyone reading this be misled by the seemingly modest price of the house we were committed to buying, I will simply note that the $47,500 purchase price, adjusted for inflation, was the equivalent of $266,500 today.
I went to work on the text, which presented some interesting challenges. We agreed that it would be a collection of readings from the great philosophers, with introductions and commentary by me. Each of the eight chapters would begin with a contemporary controversy in which was nestled a classic philosophical debate. For example, the old arguments about appearance and reality were introduced by a debate between Timothy Leary and Jerry Lettvin about LSD. The insanity defense in murder trials led naturally to selections on the free will versus determinism debate. And so forth. I called the book Philosophy: A Modern Encounter. I finished the book while I was still in New York, but it did not appear until 1972, with a 1973 publication date. [Publishers of textbooks always fudge the pub date that way, to make the text appear current for a slightly longer time.] The only difficulty with Prentice Hall's manufacture of the book was the cover. When it came time to design the book, the editor at Prentice Hall's offices in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey gathered together some young editors and staff people and put them in front of a tree in the garden area out back, with an in-house lawyer leaning against a tree, all intended to look like a college class. For years, I kept running into people who thought the picture was of me and wanted to know why I had shaved off my mustache.
Since we were going to have to postpone for a year moving into our new house, Cindy and I decided to double down on our gamble and launch extensive renovations. There was plenty of time to complete them, Lord knows, and with my publishing and teaching, we had the money to pay for them, but would a buyer for the house like them, should it come to that? My recollection is that we never even gave that a thought. Like some New Age couple fresh from an Ashram, we were simply convinced that the planets were aligned and the spirits were with us.
A second benefit of the postponement was that it meant I was going to be at Columbia long enough actually to qualify for a sabbatical semester. The Fall of 1970, I had no classes at all, one of only three sabbaticals during my fifty years of teaching. Since I also never applied for a foundation grant to take time off from teaching, those three semesters were my only break from full time academic work. I did not do anything special during the semester. I worked on the Prentice Hall text, edited a few books, and gave talks here and there. One of those talks is worth mentioning, not because of what I said but because it was the longest distance I ever traveled to speak. I received an invitation from the University of Lethbridge to speak to the Philosophy Department and also to give a less technical talk to a general university audience. If you will take a look at a Google map, you will discover that Lethbridge is about a hundred miles west of Medicine Hat and three hundred and fifty miles west of Moose Jaw. Somewhat more to the point, it is maybe 150 miles south and a bit east of Calgary. All of this in Canada, of course.
I opened the letter of invitation while I was standing in the Philosophy Department office. After the secretary and I looked at a map, I said that I really did not want to go that far just to give a couple of lectures, but I also didn't want to seem ungrateful for the invitation. She suggested that I ask so much money they would have to withdraw the invitation. That seemed like a pretty good solution, so I asked for an exorbitant fee. [My recollection is that I asked for a thousand dollars, which in those days was a lot of dough]. Well, they said ok, and I was committed. I did not want to be away for days from Cindy and the boys, but it was going to be a bit of a trick to get there and back overnight. In the end, I flew out of LaGuardia to Toronto, then took Air Canada non-stop to Calgary, and flew the rest of the way in a tiny ten seater that did not even have a divider between the pilot and the passengers. I was crammed into a window seat next to an enormous American cattleman who had been to Calgary to sell some steers and was on his way home to Montana. He spent the entire flight fulminating against damned Eastern commie lovers while I cringed next to the window and hoped he would not throw me out of the plane. I flew in to Lethbridge, gave my two talks, flew out the next day, and was home in time to go kiss my sons goodnight and go to bed with Cindy.
At long last, our gamble paid off. UMass offered Cindy a tenure track Assistant Professorship and we accepted the pair of offers. The renovations on our new house were complete, my summer school teaching scheduled We packed up our apartment, and with very few regrets and no second thoughts, I prepared to start the next chapter of my life. On May 27, 1971, at 11:20 a.m., I had my last analytic session with Dr. Rodgers. The next morning, at 8 a.m., Gleason Movers came and loaded up our belongings for the trip to 26 Barrett Place, Northampton. It seemed I was not going to spend my entire career as a Columbia professor.


Unknown said...

As an avid reader of the typical New York "public intellectual" outlets (the New York Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books), I am saddened, even now, at your withdrawal from those circles, in spite of your characterization of this role as a "public bloviator."
The left is being criticized now as having lost the intellectual war with the right. Perhaps it could have been different?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I doubt that I would have made a difference, but I think it is worth presenting a fully rounded portrait of someone who chose to walk away from that life, since so few do. My son, Tobias, has become a major public voice, and I think he does it better than I would have, so at least the family is well represented.

Unknown said...

And of course I am duly "consoled" by the production of your two subsequent books on Marx! :-)

So much for re-writing history...

Allen Hazen said...

About that abortive "Harper Guide to Philosophy"...
Harper published a bunch of short books -- essays in different areas of philosophy, by leading philosophers -- about that time, and I have long BELIEVED, I am not sure on what initial grounds, that they were chapters of a projected collection that never got published. Do you recall whether some of the other essays meant for it were published in the same way yours was, and if so, what they were?

I remember a philosophy of science one by N.R. Hanson, and Hilary Putnam's "Philosophy of Logic," that I thought were probably chapters from the still-born collection.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Allen, I think all of them were published as little books. I only have mine, which appeared as IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM, but I am pretty sure that there were little books by Bernard Williams, Arthur Danto, Norwood Hanson,Richard Wollheim, at the very least.

Allen Hazen said...

Thanks for that confirmation! I think I recall the Bernard Williams book vaguely. Given my own philosophical interests (which include parts of metaphysics and epistemology but are very definitely at the logic end of the philosophical map) it's maybe not surprising I didn't know about the Danto and Wollheim essays. ... My recollection was that all of the essays were, in paperback, affordable on a student budget, so probably got more readers than they would have had they been available only in a larger volume most of whose contents wouldn't have appealed to a reader likely to buy two or three of the "pamphlet" size ones.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is quite right, Allen. The original idea for the Harper Guide was nutty, but the series of little books was a great success.

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