By David Bailey
One lovely late summer afternoon, I sat happily drinking a scotch on Henry May’s back deck in Kensington, just north of Berkeley. Nearby was the house where J. Robert Oppenheimer had attended parties hosted by Haaken Chevalier, and where Oppenheimer may or may not have listened to discussions of communism. Next door was the house where Timothy Leary had lived in the 50s and where the sausage king of the East Bay now called home. Deer regularly wandered by, to the delight of my young daughters. The house stood perched on the side of a steep hill, and because the trees had been carefully trimmed, I could leave the conversation from time to time to stare out at the three-bridge view—San Rafael to the north, the Golden Gate straight ahead, the Bay Bridge to the south. And probably there was fog just beginning to creep across the bay.
I had just begun to do a bit of work on Alfred North Whitehead, and I discovered that Henry had been at Harvard when Whitehead taught there. “Henry,” I asked, “did you ever see Whitehead at Harvard?” “Oh, yes,” he said, “I briefly went out with his daughter.” Now, I was by this point accustomed to his casual references to Perry (Miller) and Matty (F. O. Matthiessen), to Mr. Schlesinger and Mr. Merk. But something bugged me about the casual way he talked about Whitehead, and I muttered, somewhat snappishly, “I suppose you’ll tell me that you knew his collaborator as well.” He smiled, his eyes twinkled, and he simply nodded.
Now, here’s the thing—Henry was quick, and he expected others to be quick. He hardly needed me to explain my admittedly indirect way of asking him about Lord Russell. “I used to sit up on the long train rides from Oakland to Boston,” he said. “I was an awful insomniac in those days. So I went to the club car, and there was Russell. My friend and I sat up all night talking to him about everything. He asked us to come see him in Cambridge, but we never did.”
This was but one of thousands of conversations where I was reminded that, in this relationship, I was destined to be Boswell, to accept the status of the second-smartest, second-best-informed, second-quickest person in the relationship. This is not, of course, something academics enjoy, but for the just under forty years of our friendship, it was a status I came to accept. The reward, definitely a profound reward, was that I could say with some confidence that we were awfully good and close friends across a fair distance in age and, for much of our relationship, across much of the continent as well. He was, after all, Henry F. May, the author of some great books, a thinker, writer and scholar of unequalled talents, and it was a hell of a thing to be his friend.
In the early days of our relationship, when I was trying to figure out what the project of intellectual history was all about, and when I still called him Professor May, I tried to become quick on the uptake. The first meeting of his seminar, in my first year of graduate school, he told us that we should read a book and think about how it could shape our understanding of the transition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, which was the overarching theme of the seminar. The one problem is that he never actually told us the name of the book. The author, as best I could understand, was Olivay. After twenty-four hours of anxiety, I finally went to his office and confessed I was too slow. Could he please tell me who Olivay might be? I thought of this today as I moved the copy of England in 1815 that I had found at Moe’s books after Henry scribbled out “Elie Halevy” on one of the 3 by 5 cards that covered his desk.
After the first session in Dwinelle Hall, the seminar met in his living room in that house on Coventry, where I came to see how much he depended upon his remarkable wife, Jean. She dealt with the scruffy, ill-mannered, nervous graduate students with extraordinary grace. Ever generous (and even affectionate) with his young and uncertain students, she struck me as revelatory of a status and category I had never thought of before—the Berkeley faculty wife. I came to understand that much of Berkeley depended on the interests of these women. Esther Gulick (the wife of my girlfriend’s mentor) and Kay Kerr (the wife of that dominant figure in Berkeley, Clark Kerr) had founded the Save the Bay Association. Beverly Bouwsma (whose husband Bill became important in my education and in my life) was a key figure in the various projects to deal with the health of the army of street people in Berkeley. Jean was involved with the Creative Living Center, a project trying to deal with the many mentally ill folks who wandered the south side of campus. I had begun to audit lecture classes, hoping to fill in the enormous gaps in my historical knowledge, and I discovered that Jean was also a sometime auditor. We sat together and became friendly, although she was aware that there always had to be some barrier between the students and the faculty.
Henry invited his students to meet with visiting scholars, which would have been more intimidating had I known how nervous I should have felt. Instead, I tried to read at least one book by each visitor before I had to meet him (yes, all were men). Alan Heimert and Sidney Mead sat in that living room and held court. Henry expected us to ask intelligent questions, and there were some graduate students who came perhaps a bit too well-prepared, wanting to go through details of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” with Heimert. Henry had little use for such showing-off, and he always steered the conversation toward something surprising. He had a habit of listening to some not terribly well-formed argument and saying, casually, “Isn’t it rather the opposite”? I listened and tried to learn. The only time I saw him defer to the guest was when he had a party for his colleague from Harvard and from Berkeley, Henry Nash Smith, who was working on his last book, Democracy and the Novel. By this point, I knew enough to be quite nervous. I didn’t quite get why Henry May seemed to let Henry Smith direct the conversation. It was only later I came to understand that Smith was, beyond Miller, beyond Matthiessen, beyond Schlesinger, the person Henry considered his true mentor.
I passed my orals, a two-and-half hour ordeal where the faculty members often forgot what you had read and asked you anything that popped into their heads. Ken Stampp asked me a series of detailed questions about immigration, because he was, that week, revising his section of The National Experience. For my answers, I had to depend on my good high school history classes, because at that moment the issue of immigration was in eclipse. Tom Barnes asked me why the Church of England in the eighteenth century was “the whore with a heart of gold.” I’m sure Henry asked me something difficult, but I was by this point so rattled that I was answering from some inner resources that did not include my conscious mind. Next week he asked me to lunch, at Kip’s, his favorite joint near campus, and casually said to me, on the walk over, that he thought it would be better if I began to call him by his first name.
Although he continued to take my work terrifyingly seriously (writing sometimes indecipherable comments all over my dissertation chapters), our relationship had begun, in a number of subtle ways, to change. He and Jean had just taken up bridge, and my wife and I began to play cards with them once a week. Henry enjoyed our now regular lunches, and the conversation was almost never predictable. I was reading through Henry James for the first time, and he loved nothing better than to talk about The Portrait of a Lady or, his favorite at the time, The Golden Bowl. We talked politics, and his politics were seldom conventional. We discussed religion, and he found my rather simple faith fascinating, because, although he was now regularly attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Bancroft, he couldn’t make his way through the creed without reservations and stipulations. Like many intellectuals of his era, he considered Niebuhr an essential part of his religious thinking. His Niebuhr was largely a combination of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness and The Irony of American History. My Niebuhr was the younger, more radical man of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic and Moral Man and Immoral Society, chunks of which I had almost committed to heart. Of course, Henry always knew more than I did. He had thought much more deeply about most of the topics we talked about, he could leap from idea to idea with casual facility. I think I largely held my own, but I wondered if I would ever feel in control of the conversation. One of his habits, when he was concentrating on an idea, was to rub his very high forehead, as if to massage out some clever point. It was hard not to feel just a bit stupid, sometimes. And, more, it was impossible not to feel that I was dealing with the smartest man I had ever met. It came as a relief to discover that Bill Bouwsma, the brilliant early-modernist, and Bob Brentano, the glorious medievalist, felt much the same.
By some miracle, I was hired by Michigan State, during the grim era when none of Henry’s students managed to land a solid post. (Even Charlie Capper had to cobble together short-term gigs until North Carolina recognized his remarkable talents.) For the first few years Henry tried to get me to write letters, but as my wife’s health deteriorated and my daughters required much of my time, dedicating a few hours to a carefully crafted letter seemed less efficient than calling him. For over three decades, we talked once a week, for an hour or so, about his work, about mine, about family and, always, about politics and the state of the world. We spent most summers in Berkeley, and my daughters grew up loving Jean and Henry, although he always engaged them in serious conversations, which they found at first scary and eventually important in shaping the way they viewed the world of ideas. When my wife Mary died, he said, “I was proud to have known her,” which made it impossible for me to speak for a few moments. When Jean died, I told him she was one of the kindest human beings I had ever known, and he had some trouble speaking after that. Soon after Jean died, he moved into Piedmont Gardens, a high-rise senior apartment complex, where he met Louise Brown, courted her in almost Jamesian fashion, and their late-in-life marriage gave him great happiness.
Throughout all of the changes in our lives, we almost never missed one of our weekly conversations. I confess that I hoped, at some point, the tables might turn. I have read an enormous amount, won a few awards, taught well, written some decent stuff. In the last couple of decades of his very long life, he was less and less engaged in academics. Surely at some point his powerful intellect would begin to fade. This is what is known as false hope. Only a few months before he died at 97, he finished reading the Gaddis biography of Kennan, a book he admired enormously. “I don’t think Kennan ever trusted democracy,” Henry said. Oh my, I thought. What a wonderful insight. How typical of Henry.