One of the inspirations for this blog and the larger effort to organize intellectual historians who study the U.S. is the somewhat attenuated nature of this particular intellectual community. There are no conferences that bring together this group of intellectual workers, as, say, the Southern Historical Association brings together southern historians. There is, however, a community all the same, and I was reminded of this in a upon the sad occasion of the passing of Bob Cummings this past December 30.
Bob was an excellent intellectual historian who taught at Truman State University in Missouri. He trained at Stanford University in the 1970s and had a generally interesting and intellectually serious life (which entailed a brief phase as a Jesuit novice). He was a warm and gracious person by all accounts. I know this not only from personal knowledge (I got to know Bob when I substituted for him one year in the 1990s, my first regular academic job out of graduate school, and we maintained sporadic contact after that) but also from a series of memorial reflections that Bob’s family circulated in his honor. These accounts reminded me of why I was so saddened at his death, for he really was a good and honorable man.
For me, he was a model of keeping alive one’s research life while working at a teaching-intensive institution. Bob was an indefatigable researcher and an intellectual historian’s historian (if that clunky phrase makes sense). His doctoral dissertation concerned the early life of Dwight Macdonald. Bob had the idea of imaginatively exploring the crucial years of Macdonald’s maturation, emotionally and intellectually. Macdonald was a remarkable twentieth-century public intellectual–a critic, political thinker, and notable gadfly. He left a cache of excellent sources, consisting of copious prep school and college writings and journals, as I recall, which Bob exploited. Bob supplemented these with his own enormous and inventive research contextualizing Macdonald’s education. He seemed unwilling to leave any stone unturned in re-imagining Macdonald’s intellectual youth. It was clear Bob had a wonderful empathy for young people in all of their fitful, anxiety-ridden, and sometimes insufferable glory in order to do the study he did. The dissertation was wonderful and ought to be published. Aside from this work, Bob expended much of his energy in teaching and serving his university, although he also published an exhaustive bibliography of Christopher Lasch’s work, a favorite of his.
I write about Bob not only to honor him but also to highlight the community in which he did participate. Although his dissertation remained unpublished, Bob was generous in his assistance to others working on Macdonald, including Michael Wreszin, who wrote a biography of Macdonald, and Greg Sumner, who published a study of Macdonald’s 1940s journal “politics,” which was a remarkable example of sane and humanistic criticism of the modern power state. Both have attested to his significant contributions to their own work. And, when he died, his death was noted among the circle of his fellow practitioners. There is, indeed, a community of intellectual historians of the United States with its own sense of proprieties. I was interested to note that Michael Wreszin, although now 80 years of age, made a point to attend Bob’s wake, representing, in his family’s view, the extended, attenuated, yet very real intellectual community of which Bob was a such a valued member.