Joseph J. Ellis
November 3, 2006
Listen to the Audio Clip (7MB, MP3, Time: 00:10:09)
On behalf of Mount Holyoke College, welcome to an afternoon of commentary and conversation on the life and work of Peter Viereck, who went to the hereafter last May in his eighty-ninth year. Many years before he died, Peter, always more intellectually organized than his disheveled appearance suggested, had asked me to assume responsibility for any memorial service after his passing. And so for about 20 years he sent me reprints of every poem, essay, or review he wrote, or any critical appraisal written about him. It reminded me of Thomas Jefferson's last request to James Madison: "Take care of me when I am dead."
I subsequently discovered that Peter, taking no chances, had made the same request to several other friends and colleagues. But somehow the honor has come to me, and this afternoon's program is the result. In lieu of the conventional memorial service in the College chapel, which necessarily imposes a religious and funereal mood, we have opted for a secular celebration of Peter's legacy, both intellectual and personal. If Peter were with us today, he would probably quip that we have come to praise Viereck, not to bury him.
True enough, but the praise must not be platitudinous, a posture he utterly loathed. In order to be true to his spirit, it must be resolutely irreverent, periodically comic, abidingly ironic, must forsake all dull pieties for sharp, double-edged truths. In order to establish the proper tone, let me tell you a Viereck story.
Back in the late 1970s--the precise year escapes me--an English major at the College decided to do her senior thesis on Peter's poetry. Peter agreed to several interviews and at one of them gave her a copy of an essay he was currently working on entitled "Would Jacob Wrestle with a Flabby Angel?" The point of the piece was that the primal pulse of all poetry was the heartbeat, which meant that free verse violated the rhythmic imperative literally at the heart of all poetry. Peter then suggested that the student come to the Mount Holyoke pool to watch him swim laps--which he did five days a week then--to witness a physical demonstration of Peter's own quest for rhythm as an integral part of his life.
Well, the student showed up one day and saw what can only be called the most awkward and unrhythmic swimming stroke on the planet. What's more, Peter found it impossible to stay in his lane--the metaphorical possibilities here defy accounting--but rather swam diagonally across all the other swimmers' lanes, creating havoc for all concerned, especially the lifeguards, who could not bring themselves to reprimand a local legend. When the student, somewhat bravely, confronted Peter with this rather untidy piece of evidence, Peter thought for a moment, then said: "Well, I guess your thesis should conclude that my poetry is more about paradox than rhythm."
What he might have said was that the abiding rhythms of his own mind were inherently paradoxical. Like John Adams, one of his political heroes, Peter always expected the most blood-drenched policies to proceed from the most utopian thinkers. The holocaust and the gulag were only possible when visionaries tried to create heaven on earth. Like Edmund Burke, another hero, Peter believed that evolutions were vastly preferable to revolutions in producing lasting social progress. In poetry, the most savage thoughts could only be properly conveyed in the most disciplined verse. Thus also the title of the work-in-progress when he died, which is "Strict Wildness."
Like Whitman, Peter contained multitudes, though in his case, the multitudes arranged themselves in juxtaposed pairs: a comic sense of human tragedy; an American mind bundled up in a European sensibility; a self-proclaimed conservative who embraced the New Deal and whose favorite presidential candidate was Adlai Stevenson; a man old beyond his years at 20, with a preternaturally mature sense of the abyss into which the world was headed, and yet a man who remained, in several senses, a child to the end, incapable of cooking for himself, famously wandering the College dining halls with plastic Baggies in his pockets, our local version of the man-child in the promised land.
As for his legacy, which we are gathered here to salute, let the facts speak for themselves. He was the author of six books of prose and eight books of poetry, though the numbers multiply if you count all the reprints and new editions. He was one of the most original and influential American thinkers of the mid-twentieth century, who predicted the Nazi horrors at a time when the Munich Treaty was being trumpeted as a triumph, who forecasted that Stalin's Russia would be just as bad or worse than Hitler's Germany before the Cold War began, and who condemned the scare tactics of Joseph McCarthy while McCarthy was being lionized by the American Right and tolerated by the mainstream press. In retrospect, he got all the big questions right, an achievement that very few American intellectuals of the era could claim.
If this is his national legacy, there is also a local legacy that, given our location, merits a separate salute. Peter joined the Mount Holyoke faculty in the fall of 1948 and taught his last class, which I attended, in the spring of 1997. That means he taught on this campus for 49 years, longer than any faculty member in recorded history. (The College archives for the nineteenth century are incomplete on this score, but my scan of the records suggests that no one else comes close.) In part because of his longevity, and in part because of the popularity of his Russian history survey, he also taught more students than any Mount Holyoke professor ever, though the incredible numbers of Vinnie Ferraro give him a shot at the title if he lasts for another decade. Six years ago, when a play based on his life was performed in the College theatre, I witnessed a current student, her mother, and her mother gather around his wheelchair to thank him for his teaching. As others also gathered around him, he said: "I can't remember all your names, but I remember all your faces." He was a very unlikely and highly eccentric version of Mr. Chips.
If these are the bare facts, perhaps our purpose this afternoon is to embellish them a bit, to recover somewhat more fully Peter's legacy as a historian and public intellectual, as a poet, and as a presence. We have gathered together some informed commentators, many distinguished in their own right, to offer their thoughts. They have been asked to express themselves eloquently and irreverently, as Peter would have wished. At the end of each session, we hope to enjoy the opportunity to permit questions or comments from the audience. If not quite strict wildness, we seek to create an atmosphere of festive solemnity, or perhaps serious joy. If a fresh phrase is uttered, if a new idea slithers into the conversation, if blather suddenly ascends to eloquence, if the gods choose to speak through any of us, then we can be sure that Peter's spirit is present in the room.