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Monday, August 2, 2010


While I was going on cruises and safaris, buying an apartment in Paris, practicing the viola, running the Afro-American Studies doctoral program, and attending Patrick's wedding, I was also working on yet another book. I had not really planned it, but as time went by, I felt the old urge to put pen to paper -- or ones and zeroes in a word processing program's memory, as writing has now become. For the first time in my life, I consulted a literary agent, John "Ike" Williams, a pretty high end operator with offices in Boston. I pitched several ideas to him, and he seized on my suggestion that I write a book growing out of my experience in an Afro-American Studies Department. Thus was conceived Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, yet another title taken from a well-known work. [Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, for those who do not recognize the allusion.]

I began the book with a long narrative account of my transition from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies and the ways in which the experience changed my life. Much of that first chapter has been incorporated into this Memoir. Then I undertook to tell the real story of America, as I had learned it from my colleagues, and to contrast it with the false story embalmed in generations in college American History textbooks. I traced the ways in which those textbooks, edition by edition, slowly altered their narratives to accommodate the pressures generated by the Civil Rights Movement, after which I began again, and told the true story of America as a land of Slavery and Freedom, Bondage and Citizenship.

Ike was very upbeat about the prospects of placing my little book with a commercial publisher, and did his level best to find a home for it, but thirty or more houses turned it down. Hugh van Dusen was still running Harper Torchbooks, and allowed as how my earlier book for him, In Defense of Anarchism, had sold 200,000 copies, but even that was not a good enough reason, apparently, for him to publish this new manuscript. Eventually, Ike sent me a letter formally terminating our contractual agreement. I figured when even your agent gives up on you, it is time to move on, so I put the book on the shelf and went back to having fun.

Several years later, Jennifer Jensen-Wallach urged me to try to find a publisher. I got the addresses of thirty or so academic houses from the library and sent out a host of letters. In that crowd of editors was a philosopher, Tim Madigan, who was teaching at St. John Fisher College in Rochester and serving as the Philosophy Editor of the University of Rochester Press. Tim knew In Defense of Anarchism and decided to take a chance on my Afro-Am book. In due course, it appeared, with a 2005 publication date. Alas, yet another offspring stillborn. Autobiography did only marginally better than Moneybags, though it did finally sell enough copies to justify a paperback edition. It is by no means one of my favorites among the books I have written, but it has some good things in it, besides the stories of my departmental adventures. Still and all, if you are going to read only one work of revisionist American history, I would certainly send you to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States rather than to my little effort.

On November 8, 2003, I returned from one of my regular South African trips. It was six weeks before my seventieth birthday, an event that I had decided to memorialize by throwing myself a dinner at Del Raye, an upscale Northampton restaurant that Susie and I particularly liked. My sister, Barbara, would be there, as well as Tobias, Patrick, and Diana.

Something about the prospect of turning seventy triggered in me a feverish, irresistible need to write my memoirs, and without any hesitation, I sat down at my computer and began to type. It was immediately clear to me that my life fell naturally into three major stages: the twenty-seven years of my childhood, youth, and education, ending when I completed my Instructorship at Harvard and moved to the University of Chicago; the twenty-four years that encompassed my marriage to Cindy; and the final years during which I rediscovered my childhood sweetheart, Susie Shaeffer, and persuaded her to marry me.

I was so seized by the desire to get my story onto the page that I even suspended my viola lessons and practicing while I wrote. Although I had no reason to suppose that anyone, even members of my own family, would have much interest in reading the memoir, it seemed desperately important to me that I complete the first part of it before my birthday party. The only person to whom I showed what I was writing was Jennifer Jensen Wallach, who at that very moment was hard at work, under my direction, on a dissertation dealing with literary memoirs of Jim Crow. Jennifer offered some invaluable advice about the writings of memoirs that I incorporated into my manuscript as I churned out the pages. After four weeks of the most intense effort, I had reached the moment in my life when I set out from Cambridge for Chicago, bringing to a close the first part of my story. The manuscript was almost three hundred pages long. Virtually unaltered, it is the text that I eventually posted on this blog.

To this day, I have no idea what impelled me to pour my earliest memories onto the page. After I was finished, I made a few half-hearted efforts to find a publisher, but I was neither surprised nor really disheartened when I was told, repeatedly, that there was no market for the memoirs of someone neither famous nor infamous. So it joined my other unpublished books on my shelf -- the early deterrence and military strategy book, the two books about my family. As has been the case on five or six other occasions, the writing was itself exhilarating and satisfying. I do not even think I mentioned it at the dinner.

And so the years passed, easily and happily. Our periodic trips to Paris became the high points of each year. Somehow it was decided that when we were in Paris, I would do the cooking, so each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I would take a large shopping bag to the open air market in Place Maubert and buy several quail or half a rabbit or some thon or espadon. Then I would wander from stall to stall, gathering up courgettes, eschallottes, and champignon, perhaps some real butter [which, miraculously, in Paris does not have either calories or cholesterol], and always two or three kinds of fromage. The kitchen of our apartment, although small, is fully equipped, and I have cooked hazelnut encrusted rabbit, quail, dorade royale, and even a full scale absolutely authentic bouef bourguignonne. Susie and I love to eat out, returning often to little bistros and restaurants within walking distance of our apartment, but I especially enjoy the dinners I have cooked myself. We sit in our Philippe Stark chairs at the tiny two-tiered plexiglas table that serves as our dining table, turn the lights low, put some baroque music on the Bose CD player, and sip wine -- red for me, white for Susie.

All my life, there has been a voice in my head telling me that I am not working hard enough, that I am not doing enough. Each time I finish a book, the voice is momentarily silent, but inexorably it reappears. For reasons that are completely mysterious to me, when I am in Paris that voice is stilled. As I arrive in the fifth arrondissement, a great weight falls from me, and I am able simply to enjoy the streets, the shops, and the buildings of Paris. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is our neighborhood church, a block and a half away; the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages is up the street; and the Jardin du Luxembourg is close enough for the two of us to have a picnic on the grass and watch children sail their boats in the circular pond.

On December 22, 2005, Diana gave birth to Samuel Emerson Wolff, my first grandchild. He was followed, two and a half years later, by his sister, Athena Emily. By this time, Patrick and Diana had moved back to San Francisco, so I am able to see my grandchildren no more than two or three times a year, but when I do visit, I can see that Patrick has grown to be a loving and devoted father, delighted by his son and daughter as I was, so many years ago, by him and his brother.

As I was taking my daily walk this morning, turning over in my mind what I would say in this portion of my memoir, a thought occurred to me that, although banal and commonplace, is nonetheless deeply resonant with meaning for me. Chapter Six of this volume makes it evident that I am intensely aware of my relationship with my father's father, Barnet Wolff. I now find myself standing in the same relationship to Samuel and Athena that Barnet stood to me. We span five generations, with me as the pivot between the late nineteenth century world of immigrant socialists in Lower East Side New York, and the twenty-first century world of San Francisco. My fondest wish is that Samuel and Athena will eventually find in my life something of the inspiration that I found in Barnet's. Perhaps the day will come when they will turn the pages of this Memoir, as I turned the pages of my grandfather's letters to my grandmother, looking for a usable past.

In time, the big house and the harsh New England winters grew too difficult for Susie to handle. Her MS progressed slowly, to be sure. There were long periods when her condition was stable, and yet, inexorably, she suffered some loss of mobility. At the same time, I was beginning to think seriously about retirement. With my characteristic braggadocio, I had told my colleagues and students that I would remain in the department, running the graduate program and the personnel committee and the Scholars program until I was eighty. But the truth is that all of these tasks, at first so challenging, had become routine. Susie and I puzzled for a bit over where we ought to move. Florida held no charms for either of us, and both of us felt uprooted when we were on the West Coast, even though Jon and Tamara, Susie's son and daughter-in-law and their children live in Seattle, and Patrick and Diana and my grandchildren live in San Francisco.

Susie had spent many years in Chapel Hill -- it was there that I found her after my marriage to Cindy ended -- and Susie's older son, Lawrence, was now living in Cary with his new wife, not far from Chapel Hill and close to his two sons from his first marriage. We decided that we would relocate to the upper South. Since I had dragged Susie to New England for the first twenty-one years of our marriage, it seemed only fair that we should choose for the next chapter of our life together someplace that was her turf.

2007-2008 was a terrible time to sell a house, of course. The economy was collapsing, prices were plummeting, and houses in Amherst were lingering on the market for 350 days and more before selling. We placed our house in the hands of a hotshot agent at the leading firm in town and turned our home into a showcase, ready to be walked through by potential buyers, if indeed there were any. At that point I had a brilliant idea -- I say this without any false modesty. "Put the word out," I said to our agent, Jackie Zuzgo, "that the real estate agent who succeeds in bringing in the buyer will get a free week in our Paris apartment, with money for plane fare as well." That did the trick. Anyone in a three state area who showed the slightest interest in housing of any sort was wheeled through our house by agents eager for a trip to Paris. Within a month, we had sold our house -- at a loss, to be sure, but we sold it -- and we were free to leave.

That still left unanswered the question that was preying on my mind. Ever since 1936, when my parents placed me in the Sunnyside Progressive School as a two year old, I had been in school. Each Fall, for seventy-two years, the world had started anew for me as the next school year commenced. What on earth was I going to do with myself? Barbara, long retired from the World Bank, told me not to try too hard to make plans, because whatever I decided would be changed within six months after I retired. I thought about starting a career as an educational consultant. I saw myself flying Business Class to campuses across America to advise them on how to recruit and keep minority undergraduates, or perhaps how to restructure the Humanities to fit the Information Age. A little time with Google revealed to me that in the real world, "educational consultant" means "someone who can tell you how to get your son or daughter into an Ivy League college."

Since I had long since been forgotten by the world of academic Philosophy, it seemed unlikely that any universities would be calling with invitations to spend a few comfortable years as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. [The original Wikipedia entry on me began "Robert Paul Wolff was ..." That did not bode well.]

What to do with myself? I was talking with Patrick about this conundrum one day, when he said: Why don't you start a blog?" And so I did. I launched The Philosopher's Stone on April 28, 2007, more than a year before I finally retired, but after nineteen posts, I lost interest and suspended it. Then, on June 1, 2008, I returned to the world wide web, posting a steady stream of ruminations, comments on the passing scene, and even the first five chapters of the Memoir I had written four years earlier. In early April 2009, I decided to post the last chapter of my memoir, a segment at a time. Then something remarkable happened.

It came about because Tobias forwarded to me an essay he had read and admired by a University of Chicago Professor of Law and philosopher, Brian Leiter. Leiter, it seemed, runs two blogs, one on law and the other on philosophy, and although I did not know this then, he had become the clearing house for news and information about academic philosophy around the world. I looked him up on the U of C website, found his email address, and sent him a message telling him how much I had enjoyed his essay. [I do this quite often. It has always seemed a pity to me that people reserve their nicest remarks about someone for the funeral.] Leiter responded in very friendly fashion.

My old student Rita Reynolds had figured out how to put a hit counter on my blog, and I had been keeping tabs of the number of people who visited each day. I was averaging about 150, maybe a few more on a really busy day. Suddenly, in a single day, eleven thousand people visited my blog. Leiter had posted a small note about my blog, and I had gone viral. When things quieted down, I was left with two thousand or so folks visiting my blog regularly and reading my stories about the Harvard Philosophy Department back in the late fifties.

I was thrilled. By the sheerest chance, I had re-entered the public conversation. I decided to continue writing my memoirs, posting a segment each day. Thus began the most extraordinary three and a half months of my writing career. I found myself writing morning, noon, and night, pouring words onto the screen and posting them as fast as I could compose them. As I soldiered on, through the Chicago years, the Columbia years, and into the UMass years, I began hearing from people around the world who were reading my memoirs as I was writing them. This was an experience completely different from any I had ever had as a writer. Always before, I would write quietly and anonymously in my study until a book was finished. Then I would publish it and wait to find out whether it had found a readership. But now, people were making comments on each episode, or contacting me by email, the very day that I had written the words.

I heard from old students, former colleagues, and people I had never known who took the time to send me a message. Charles Parsons, my old classmate, graduate student apartment mate, and Columbia colleague, wrote several long, fascinating messages in which he corrected all manner of errors in my memory and typos in my writing. It seems that in addition to knowing everything and being super smart, Charlie is also the world's best copy editor. Andrew Levine, the distinguished political philosopher whose dissertation I directed at Columbia, sent several long, fascinating emails about his own experiences in the Academy and his ideas about what I might turn my efforts to once the memoir was finished. Todd Gitlin, whom I still think of as my student, although he is now an important senior voice on the left, checked in with suggestions for getting the memoirs published [no luck there, I am afraid].

These months have been a grand international conversation. The quality of the comments has been extraordinarily high, and the generosity of those who have commented means more to me than I shall ever be able to say. In all, well over one hundred people from every part of the world have joined the conversation sparked by my memoires and stories. Here they all are, in the order in which they appeared [and my apologies if I missed anyone]:

Corey McCall, NotHobbes, Ahmed, PhiloDemos, Kenosser, Bob, Ajrosa, Jacob T. Levy, David, mew123, Andrew, Ann Davis, Graeme Wood, Steven, Todd Gitlin, Bryan, Mohan Matthen, Aaron Garrett, Tombo, David Pilavin, Emily, John S. Wilkins, Matt, Benjamin, Brenda, Andrew N. Carpenter, Warren Goldfarb, Jeff Englehardt, Aliyah, Michael Zhou, David Berry, Velicia MacKay, Pranay, Ryan Dischinger, M, Aaron Preston, wj, flying scotsman - Graeme Forbes, Jeff House, David Berry, Roberto Loja, sbrown 07 - Ken Brown Cal Poly, Brian Leiter, Blanca Macelroy 1230, Margaret, The Rooster, Kristina, Buck, John M., raistlin7000, Jim, Brenda, Tobias Wolff, Charles Parsons, Enzo, Meat Sounds, Michael, Adam, a student, Patrick, Interlocuter, Philosophy, Allen Hazen, hilde, Konigsberg Walker [a favorite of mine, that one], Noumena [another favorite], Laurence B. McCullough, Jonathan, rvincent63, Ian J. Seda Irizarry, Ter@LV - Thomas Ryckman, Bob Unwin, Ionnis, Simon Halliday, Enzo Rossi, Eric Schliesser, Steve_Strasnick, analyticphilosopher, gwern, Anna, marinus, KWH, Al Cyone, aman, wj, andy, tom, Mr. Lonely, JP (Smits), Pat (Greenspan), Dorothee (Benz), Robert Viennau, Charles, Aleph, Carissa, Steven, Angus, Chad, C, Wade, Awesome, Chris, Oboe 316, andrEw, J. Vlasits, Liviu, Kristina, CW, and Philip Kovacs,

In addition, forty five of you took the time to send me email messages. Here you all are: Charles Parsons, Ann Davis, Patricia Greenspan, Todd Gitlin, Andrew Levine, Warren Goldfarb, William Polk, Boram Lee, David Pilavin, Ernest Sosa, Tobias Wolff, Kenneth Wray, David Kane, Douglas Quine, Kevin Hall, Andrew Flynn, Mack Sullivan, Amato Stuart Nocera, Dick Schmitt, Jerome Doolittle, Alex Rose, Srivatsa Monthi, James Klagge, Andrew Lugg, Kenneth Winkler, Pranay Sanklecha, Roman Bonzon, Rita Moss, Allan Silver, Eddie Goldman, Michael Ruse, JP Smits, Andy Jones, Arthur Danto, Rosa Cao, Chris Byson, Gail Rodney, Rita Reynolds, Andrew Rosa, Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Deborah Haar, Lloren Foster, Barbara Searle, and Kim Leighton.

What is it like to write one's memoirs? I am reminded once again [see Volume One, Chapter Four] of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that aired on June 1, 1992 -- "Planet Kataan" -- the twenty-fifth episode of the fifth season. The Enterprise, you will recall, encounters a beacon in deep space that emits a signal which knocks Captain Picard unconscious. While lying on the floor of the flight deck of the Enterprise, he imagines himself marooned on planet Kataan, which is going to be destroyed by the explosion of its sun. Picard lives an entire life on Kataan, marrying, having children, growing old, having grandchildren, absorbing the culture and history of Kataan. When Dr. Crusher manages to bring him back to consciousness, he finds that he has been out for only half an hour, but there remain in his mind a lifetime of memories. In these past four months, since early April, I have been in a fugue state, reliving at a frenzied pace the entire seventy-six years of my life. It would not be accurate to say that my life has flashed before my eyes, as is often said to happen when one faces death, for that is a passive experience, something that happens to you. Rather, I have, with a remarkable urgency and intensity, recreated my life in my words.

There is a certain inexorability about writing one's memoirs. As one goes on, one gets closer and closer to the present day until, abruptly, not exactly unexpectedly but certainly with a considerable measure of regret, one runs out of life to write about. At this point, it seems I have only two options: to die, or to get another life. Since I am not yet ready to die, I am afraid I shall have to get a life, for the life I had is now a book.


Unknown said...

It has been wonderful following you. Thank you so much.

NotHobbes said...

We have all been so privileged to have enjoyed this journey with you
For me, it has been comparable to something like reading the journals of Antonio Gramsci whilst the ink was not yet dry
I`m completely lost for words other than to say an enormous THANK YOU

Marinus said...

I should tell you that Meat Sounds and I are one and the same commentator. I took the screen-name from that lovely short story of Terry Bisson's, They're Made Out of Meat, but quickly noticed that possibly it didn't really fit the tone of the places I comment at usually.

I hope you can accept the following comment as recompense for diminishing your international profile just a little bit.

I have found reading your memoirs these past months to have been an unadulterated joy, and I thank you with the most heartfelt sincerity for having made these available. I was first drawn here by the fascinating anecdotes from that Ivy League philosophy scene I've had no experience of and which has possibly (or possibly not) passed away into history. But what has delighted me the most have been your the moments where you have given deeply personal and honest glimpses into your own life. For instance, I found the extracts from your letters from your European Wanderjahr to be deeply touching: I can only marvel at how at peace with your past you must be to bare your younger self so much to your audience. Thank you for the willingness to share. Thank you for the stories, the anecdotes, and the comments on the passing scene. Thank you for writing this.

Marinus said...

I should also add that when I have recommended this blog, and the formal methods one, to my fellow graduate students, they've responded 'oh, Robert Paul Wolff, the anarchism guy?'. I thought you might appreciate that, in this corner of the world at least, you still have a voice in the conversation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am deeply moved and very grateful for your comments. Marinus, I do not think anyone has ever said anything about my writing that has meant as much to me as your comment. NotHobbes [Kevin], I feel that we have become friends, even though we shall probably never meet.

We come to know ourselves not through introspection, a la Descartes, but by seeing ourselves reflected in others. So your responses to my Memoir are enormously valuable to me in coming to a truer self-knowledge.

Now that my Memoir is completed, I shall return to commenting on the passing scene. I have a great many things bottled up inside me that I want to say. I hope you will stay with me on this journey.

NotHobbes said...

I am honoured that you consider me a friend, thank you.

imcdpe said...

Bob, for the past few months the first link I would hit in the morning was the one for your blog, not quite remembering on which days you did post, but anxious to hear the restof the story. Thank you.

ADG said...

Professor Wolff,

Thank you so much for sharing your memoirs with us. Now what do I do every morning while drinking my coffee? :-) By the by, the "formal methods" blog was really helpful to me. I hope to use it (with your permission) in my methods seminar Spring 2011. Thanks again,


Mack said...

It's been a privilege to read these. Thank you, sir.

Unknown said...

It was very interesting to see how an old acquaintance's life turned out. I'm glad you'll keep writing.

The Rooster said...

Thank you very keeping me enthralled these past few months. I keep my blog identity private but I emailed you soon after Leiter originally linked to your blog, to share with you my experiences as a Harvard graduate student. And I have met your son Tobias!

Best wishes in the future.

Angus said...

Though the "rather heated" nonsense I posted a while back doesn't indicate as much, I have looked forward to your next installment every day for the past six months. Your insights have shaped how I view the world. (Two that stand out right now are your measure of intelligence (backwards Es aren't relevant) and your characterization of what a lawyer is up to ("assimilating arguments to a preexisting proof structure" is, I think, the phrase you used.) And the attitude that, it emerges from your memoirs, you have towards your own life - about what to take seriously, and what is just good fun - has helped me make sense of my own. (Not to mention that I loved the stories!)

Thank you so much, Professor Wolff, it has been a joy.

Carissa said...

I've very much enjoyed your memoirs--thanks for sharing!

Benjamin said...

Thank you so much for sharing your fascinating life story with us. I have enjoyed it greatly, and been inspired and touched many times. Thank you.

Unknown said...

It has been a pleasure to read, thank you.

When you are at UWC, if you fancy a wine tour or something 20 minutes away in Stellenbosch, do let me know.

David Pilavin said...

It's a great ending of a great memoir!

The last paragraph, for some reason, reminded me of the "Afterthought" scene of Peter Pan....

I wish you the best of health and happiness and energy and success in the future!

PS Thanks for mentioning me :-)

Adam said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your memoirs, and I am honored to be mentioned in the last installment (although my comments on car driving in NYC and the like are pretty minor stuff). I look forward to following your comments on the (pretty depressing) current state of the world. Thank you.

Jacob T. Levy said...

These have been a delight to read. The tales of university life have been some of the most entertainingly, insightful I've read. (The new life you acquire could be as a writer of David Lodge-style university satires.) "Parallel play" has started to be a shared reference among people I know.

For what it's worth, I've recently been party to conversations unrelated to the blog in which the enduring importance of _Anarchism_ has come up. I'm not sure that you were ever so forgotten as you seem to think.

Anonymous said...

I, too, would like to send my heartfelt thanks for sharing your life with us. It was a great pleasure to read your memoirs - in a way, I feel as though you were keeping me company as I was soldiering through my thesis. And guess what: just as your memoirs come to an end, I have completed my draft!

And, strangely enough, your comment that "We come to know ourselves not through introspection, a la Descartes, but by seeing ourselves reflected in others." just about sums up my conclusion. I take this to be something like a good omen (my atheism notwithstanding).

Again: thank you for everything, and all the best wishes from someone who, like you, is about to start a new life.

Unknown said...

In Oxford, we still talk about Wolff's anarchism! It's on both the undergraduate and graduate core political theory reading lists!

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Unknown said...

It must have been a great journey! I would want to take this opportunity to thank you for your inspiring posts. You had been a great influence to my writing style and inspiration to self-growth. Like you, I travel often to find words to inscribe. I am currently working on my first book which I started during vacation. Apartments (New York City) have been my haven on the first chapter. I often move from one flat to another to find variations on my window pane that drives me to write. I also enjoy the perks on availing short term apartment rental. New York City played a big part on my book's first page; I hope Paris would do the same on the next fly. I heard poets and Parisian writers used to scribble their pieces in short term apartment rentals. NYC was such an inspiration and I guess Paris would be the twist of my own journey to self-growth.