The Colgate Scene
March 2005

A boy's and a writer's life

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Editor's note: Steven Englund recently published Napoleon: A Political Life (Scribners), called by many the finest biography of the first emperor of France to have appeared since World War II and winner of the J. Russell Major prize (best book in French history, 2004) of the American Historical Association and the Grand Prix of the Fondation Napoléon in Paris. The French edition became the first time that the French have translated an American biography of their renowned leader.

As Colgate's first Marshall Scholar, Englund did graduate study at Cambridge University; he then earned a PhD at Princeton. He worked as behavior reporter for Time before turning freelance. He has written seven books, among them The Inquisition in Hollywood, 193060 (with Larry S. Ceplair); Man Slaughter: A True Story of Love, Death, and Justice in America; Grace of Monaco; and The President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties for President Jimmy Carter. He has also written for publications as varied as The New York Review of Books and Sports Illustrated.

Englund, who taught as a visitor at UCLA and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, is a guest professor at the Institute of French Studies at New York University -- but he is eager to return to Paris, where he lives, and to start working on a biography of Charles de Gaulle (for HarperCollins).

The Scene asked Englund to reflect upon how Colgate contributed to his unusual path as historian-writer, rather than the more familiar one of historian-professor.

Of the several regrets I have accumulated, one is that Douglas K. Reading and Raymond O. Rockwood did not live to see the publication of my book on Napoleon. Not for their own sakes -- the work wouldn't have taught them much -- but for mine. With all the kind (sometimes over-kind) praise the volume has received, I am sad not to be able to include the personal reactions of my two great Colgate history teachers.

More particularly, I shall not feel their satisfaction in the French translation; for Doug and Ray, more than anyone else (except Jim Nicholls, my French professor and good friend), would have known what it meant to me that my work had caught the French eye.

And they would have known this because they were the only people outside of my family to whom I showed the "first draft" of my life of Napoleon -- four legal-sized pages of my breathless English sentences, translated into my execrable French, written some six years before I entered Colgate. This "treasure" I brought with me when I came to the Chenango Valley in 1963 and shared with the unsuspecting and well-intentioned men who were fated to become my first mentors as a historian.

Drs. Rockwood and Reading actually took the time to read my pages, and to correct and encourage me. Indeed, they invested themselves so deeply into my education that they must shoulder the responsibility for a further humble addition to the ranks of European history scholars.

Ray taught me, more particularly, what it meant to be a historian of France -- to claim membership in a specific American tradition of scholarship that includes Louis Gottschalk, Ray's teacher at the University of Chicago, and the great scholar of the French enlightenment Carl Becker, who was Gottschalk's professor at Cornell. I joined the Society of French Historical Studies, which had been recently founded by (among others) Professor Edward W. Fox of Cornell. Thanks to Ray's connections, and his humility in readily granting that there were many things he didn't know, I would drive over to Ithaca, to be taught by Fox. (Ray was an 18th-century and French Revolution man; Fox was professionally interested in the late 19th century, a period that I had started to work on.)

. . . I stuck to my writing, and through it I discovered and realized myself . . . In short, I have never ceased being terribly proud of my scholarly filiation as the "great-grandson" of Carl Becker, the "grandson" of Louis Gottschalk, and the "son" of Raymond Oxley Rockwood.

Ray was also the first to teach me the inseparability of scholars and the history they produce. He taught me to look closely at the social, intellectual, and psychological backgrounds and profiles of the men and women I was reading -- and, by implication, at my own. Thanks to him, I early on came to see how apparently objective and impersonal history is written (no, constructed, confected, contrived) by human beings with viewpoints, grudges, and emotions, however unapparent.

Ray expected, as did my other beloved Colgate teachers, Bill Askew and Tee Blackton -- and indeed, as did I, for a time -- that I would become an academic, like them. This presumptuous little supposition went uninspected because it seemed so natural to us all.

Well, no, not to all.

I come to Douglas Kugler Reading. A man who knew himself well (and I don't think most of us do), Doug often had a shrewd take on others, including his students, although he rarely shared it with them. And in certain ways he knew me better than I knew myself. He kept firmly in mind aspects of me and my past that I was eager to forget or minimize, in my eagerness to pluck for myself the mantle of a world that was, in truth, foreign to me: the academy, a profession about which I had cultivated certain, well, illusions (for example, that all professors were intellectuals, that they were all good people, and that they co-existed within the sacred ivied walls, in amor intellectualis and solidarity).

Doug had a keen and critical take on the reality of academe as it existed outside of my lofty dreams, just as he was well aware of my own past as the son of a Hollywood screenwriter. My family was not Bohemian exactly, but even less were we good bourgeois. We lived with a huge Great Dane (Sir Bascombe Olaf St. Oaks Englund, and he was loved, believe me) in a large Spanish-style house that had a beautiful view of Los Angeles on one side, and of the Hollywood hills on the other, but little furniture because we ran out of money shortly after we bought it.

From time to time, our local grocer, Mr. Wannatik, would appear, pounding on the front door and waving a clutch of unpaid bills while shouting up at my dad in his study. Yet somehow, our cash-flow crisis did not stop us from retaining a Japanese gardener, Take, and a lovely cleaning lady, Cami, both of whom came, along with our African-American mailman (John) and garbage collector (Smitty), to our extravagant Christmas dinners. Sometimes Ray Bradbury came if he was in town, as did my sister-in-law, the actress Cloris Leachman.

You get the picture.

Well, Doug certainly did, and he would not let me forget it. He became adept at soft demurral when, as happened often in our many conversations, I would wax on lustily about the future "Herr Professor Doktor Englund."

"But Steve," I can still hear him say -- Doug would speak forcefully, about three inches away from your face -- "What about your taste for travel and new experiences, for new topics, for meeting really interesting people, and writing about all of it? You aren't going to do that as an assistant professor at a state university teaching History 101."

He was too kind to add that, if the overwrought prose in my Napoleon pages (or my occasional papers for him) were any indication, I wouldn't find a welcome home in the academy, either.

In short, Doug did for me on a personal level what Ray did on the professional level. He reminded me of the person of the author lurking inside my history book, implicitly asking me to draw my own conclusions. I did, even if it sometimes took longer than I would have liked. Ultimately, in part thanks to Doug's connoisseur's eye and his bracing affection, I stuck to my writing, and through it I discovered and realized myself, even as a historian.

What might have delighted Doug about Napoleon: A Political Life is not its scholarly apparatus nor any supposed intellectual qualities, but rather the childhood enthusiasm that produced and (I hope) suffuses it. Doug would have smiled at how hard I have tried to keep hold of the boy who wrote those first pages he had read so many years before.

And, at the start of the close of my day (I turned 60 on February 2, Talleyrand's birthday), I believe -- I certainly hope -- that he would have been a little proud that that boy did not lose himself along the way, or let his fire go out.

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