The Legacy of Peter Viereck

Wednesday, November 8, 2006 - 10:47
Posted: November 8, 2006

The Mount Holyoke community gathered November 3 to pay tribute to one of its luminaries, professor emeritus of history Peter Viereck, who died in May. Viereck, an esteemed historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, joined the Mount Holyoke faculty in 1948 and taught his last class in 1997. The Legacy of Peter Viereck, organized by the history department, offered a series of panels honoring Viereck's poetry, his scholarship, and his life.

In his introduction, Joseph Ellis, Professor of History on the Ford Foundation, warned that in keeping with the spirit of Viereck, "the praise must not be platitudinous … it must be resolutely irreverent, periodically comic, abidingly ironic, and must forsake all dull pieties for sharp and often double-edged truths." Ellis described Viereck, the author of six books of prose and eight books of poetry, as "one of the most original and influential American thinkers of the mid-twentieth century," a sentiment that was echoed throughout the afternoon.

The three panels that followed examined both Viereck's national and local legacies. Viereck's voice frequently joined the discussions through quotations from his writings, recitations of his poetry, and retellings of conversations he'd had with students, colleagues, and family members.

"Peter and Prose," chaired by Jonathan Imber, professor of sociology at Wellesley College and editor of Society, featured commentary by Constantine Pleshakov, Five College Visiting Professor of International Relations; Michael Lind, a historian and Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation; and Claes Ryn, professor of politics at Catholic University of America and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. The three explored Viereck's scholarship, including the prophetic Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler, written in his early twenties, and the pioneering Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt, published in 1949. All the speakers touched on Viereck's unwavering belief that "the essential values of civilization … are transmitted through the humanities." As Ryn concluded: "Peter Viereck understood that the long-term direction of society is set by the mind and the imagination. Predominantly the imagination--that which captures our imagination makes us rethink what we want to be as individuals and as a society. So, if there were to be some kind of renewal of American and Western civilization, it would have to come through the imagination. The mind must follow the poets...."

"Peter and Poetry," chaired by Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor, included a memorable reading of Viereck's poetry--including "Small Perfect Manhattan" and "Again, Again!"--by Richard Wilbur, former poet laureate of the United States. Wilbur, whom Benfey described as "the greatest living American poet," also recounted traveling with Viereck as cultural emissaries to the Soviet Union in 1961.

Dana Gioia, poet and chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, discussed Viereck's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948 in the context of postwar poetry, marveling that it "still lives and breathes" despite "huge shifts in American artistic sensibility." He continued, "Some poetry ages beautifully because it has become part of the canon; we've been taught how to read and how to respond to it. But no one's trained us to respond to Viereck's poems. They're outside of discourse, outside of academia…. The strengths and the weakness of his poems come from an extraverted, satiric sensibility that is quite unlike the fastidiously introverted compositional style of most of his peers…. Viereck is focused on ideas rather than on language itself…."

During an intermission, Mount Holyoke alumnae in attendance could be heard paying tribute to their former teacher as they sipped coffee and looked at the displays of photos and reminiscences submitted by the Mount Holyoke community. "Peter Viereck was my absolute favorite professor. He was so vibrant and alive--so full of ideas and so excited by ideas," said Lily Klebanoff Blake '64, who came to campus from New York for the event. Pat Goss McLain '60 of Chicopee recalled "being in awe the whole time in Viereck's class. He didn't just teach the events and facts of history but was so all encompassing of social thought and philosophy. He made a huge impression on me. I think he loved teaching."

That passion and numerous others were addressed in the final panel, "Remembering Peter." It brought together Viereck's son, JohnAlexis Viereck; his daughter, Valerie Viereck Gibbs; and his granddaughter, Sophia Gibbs Kim. "This is a stunning, stunning afternoon for us," said JohnAlexis Viereck, the panel's moderator. The family members were joined by William S. McFeely, an acclaimed historian who taught with Viereck for 16 years at Mount Holyoke, and Lisa Szefel '88, a student of Viereck's who now teaches at Harvard University.

Viereck's family spoke of his love for Mount Holyoke College and how he turned down an offer from the University of Chicago because he was drawn to the beauty of MHC's campus. They spoke of his love of wonder and his desire to share his favorite experiences--such as walks around Upper Lake--with his children and grandchildren. "Who he was as a poet was who he was as a person," said his daughter. "My father always affirmed me as a human being. He didn't just write about the dignity of souls. He treated me as though the dignity of my soul mattered." Viereck's granddaughter noted "just being with him was comforting because he had such a strong sense of who he was" and described his example, even in his final illness, of treating every person with respect.

In her comments, Szefel, who took five classes with Viereck at Mount Holyoke, recalled how that respect affected her and encouraged her ambitions. "I'd worked in a chicken factory during high school," she said. "Listening to Professor Viereck was such a far cry from my life. That he, in turn, listened to my thoughts with respect was such a miracle to me." Before the panel ended, JohnAlexis Viereck acknowledged paradoxes and complications in his father's work and life then read "Nostalgia, "Twilight of the Outward Life," and an unpublished work titled "My Ninetieth Year." He finished with "Old Voyager," whose final lines are inscribed on the back of Viereck's tombstone: "now forward, still more forward, half speed ahead."

In closing, Ellis read a tribute from the renowned historian and social critic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. It cited the message to posterity in Viereck's Who's Who entry: "After 88 years of books, stars, and sugar plums, my rock bottom thought on life is … courage and sleep are the principle things."

The sun had set and leaves were blowing against the windows as Schlesinger spoke for all assembled: "Sleep well, my man."

Related Links:

Introductory Remarks by Joseph J. Ellis

Audio Clip (7MB, MP3, Time: 00:10:09) Introductory Remarks

Photo Gallery

MHC Mourns the Loss of Peter Viereck

Peter Viereck Profiled in New Yorker