MHC Mourns the Loss of Peter R. Viereck

Posted: May 16, 2006

Updated: October 3, 2006 Viereck Memorial Symposium November 3

The Mount Holyoke community is mourning the loss of one of its most distinguished members. Peter R. Viereck, professor emeritus of history, passed away Saturday, May 13, after a long illness. He was 89.

Born in New York City in 1916, Viereck is likely the only American scholar who has received Guggenheim Fellowships in both poetry and history. A member of the Mount Holyoke College faculty since 1948, Viereck retired in 1987 but continued through 1997 to teach his survey of Russian history. The recipient of many major awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for his first book of poems, Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948, Viereck is the author of numerous articles, essays, and books of history, cultural and political analysis, and poetry. Among his books are Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler; Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt, 1815-1949; and Strict Wildness: Discoveries in Poetry and History.

"Professor Viereck excelled in many fields. He was an excellent poet, a superb historian, and an extraordinary teacher who touched the lives of generations of Mount Holyoke students," said Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton. "He was a profound thinker who helped influence the course of American culture and political life. His contributions will not be forgotten--they have become part of the fabric of this institution. The Mount Holyoke community joins together in mourning his loss."

Viereck was educated at the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York City, graduated summa cum laude with an S.B. from Harvard University in 1937, performed graduate work at Christ Church, Oxford, as a Henry Fellow, and received both his M.A. (1939) and Ph.D. in history (1942) from Harvard. At Harvard he was one of few students in history to receive both the Garrison Prize for the best undergraduate verse and the Bowdoin Medal for the best prose.

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II in Africa and Italy in the Psychological Warfare Intelligence Branch, earning two battle stars, Viereck taught German and tutored history and literature at Harvard University. From 1946 to 1947, he was a member of the Smith College faculty.

At Mount Holyoke College, Viereck was an associate professor from 1948 to 1955 and professor of history from 1955 to 1965. He held the Alumnae Foundation Chair of Interpretive Studies from 1965 to 1979, and from 1979 to 1987 was William R. Kenan, Jr., Chair of History. Upon his retirement from Mount Holyoke in 1987, he was lauded for his imagination, grace, discipline, and spirit and for teaching "generations of Mount Holyoke students all that is humane about the humanities." Around campus, Viereck was known during his many years here for his lengthy debates about politics and poetry in academic halls and his daily swim at the College's Kendall Sports and Dance Complex.

Viereck's interest in Soviet rebel writers made him instrumental in bringing Nobel prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky to Mount Holyoke. In 1995 Viereck's work Tide and Continuities opened with a rhymed foreword by Brodsky.

Recently, Viereck was the subject of a lengthy profile titled "The First Conservative: How Peter Viereck Inspired--and Lost--a Movement" in the October 24, 2005 New Yorker magazine. The piece was written by noted author and journalist Tom Reiss.

According to Reiss's article, Viereck was a seminal figure in the birth of American conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, but he soon moved apart from mainstream conservatism. For example, he was a vocal critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his excesses. Reiss wrote:

"Viereck became a historian, specializing in modern Russia, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. But, in a series of books published during the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties (which have recently been reissued by Transaction), he continued to develop his political philosophy. He gave the conservative movement its name and, as the historian George Nash, the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, says, he 'helped make conservatism a respectable word.' Moreover, Viereck's belief that the United States could be a moderating influence, confronting the forces that threaten freedom and democracy without succumbing to liberal optimism, became a central tenet of conservative thought and, with the arrival of neoconservatives in positions of power in Washington, beginning in the nineteen-eighties, of American foreign policy.

"Yet Viereck never became a rallying figure. Conservatism remained largely an intellectual movement during its first several decades, from the late nineteen-forties to the late nineteen-seventies--a loose affiliation of scholars and writers who had little more in common than a hatred of liberalism and Communism, which they increasingly saw as indistinguishable. Even in this context, Viereck was an anomaly, insisting on a moral distinction between the moderate and the totalitarian left, and, as conservatives began to attain political influence, denouncing what he perceived as the movement's demagogic tendencies."

A service is not planned. The date of an on-campus memorial service will be announced.

Related Link:

New York Times Obituary, May 19, 2006

Boston Globe Obituary, May 19, 2006

Peter Viereck Profiled in New Yorker, October 2005