When I finished taping up the last box, it was similar to closing the cover on the last book of a multivolume series and saying farewell to the saga’s hero.
For nearly two decades, I had served as custodian of someone else’s words. Now it was time to give those words on all those pages a permanent home.
Shortly after Max Lerner died in 1992 at age 89, box after box of the scholar-journalist’s files began to arrive. Earlier that year, while I was visiting the critically ill writer in New York, he had asked if I’d be willing to help serve as his literary executor.
For someone who’d grown up reading Lerner’s work and subsequently taught with him at Notre Dame, declining wasn’t an option. Admiration and friendship dictated this foray into the unknown.
Sorting through countless files and notebooks, I discovered what words meant to Lerner. In a 1988 diary entry, he’d sketched out ideas for his memorial service: “Perhaps someone will read from stuff I have written, saying I lived for words. I shall die with some pleasure at leaving words behind, along with children and their children to recall them.”
Living for words developed into a voracious appetite. A blank sheet of paper wasn’t safe from his pen, and his interests encompassed politics, law, philosophy, economics, history, literature, science and the arts.
What’s stunning to someone much narrower and less driven to compose is all the starting and stopping one finds throughout Lerner’s papers. He’d begin an essay or even a book, filling several engrossing pages, but then think of another subject deserving immediate attention and tackle it.
But the abandoned efforts — some of which I salvaged and published for him — were a small fraction of his literary fecundity. He produced 15 books in his lifetime — with five additional ones appearing since 1992 — approximately 7,000 syndicated newspaper columns and scores of magazine or journal essays. Many of his quotes still live on: “When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil” or “The so-called lessons of history are for the most part the rationalizations of the victors. History is written by the survivors.”
One of the founders of American studies as an interdisciplinary, academic movement in the 1930s, Lerner contributed his classic, America as a Civilization, to the field in 1957. A 30th anniversary edition came in at a weighty 1,102 pages.
Some of the most fascinating files, which are now part of Lerner’s entire collection of papers at Yale University (his alma mater), chart book projects he intended to complete. A three-page prospectus from the mid-1970s outlined 11 new titles he hoped to finish during the next decade. As it turned out, two of those volumes were published but, alas, posthumously.
More remarkably, in the late 1980s and approaching age 90, he drew up two pages of definite titles as “A Possible Sequence” of planned books. This time he listed 35 — yes, 35 — projects, including a volume of fiction and another of poetry. Like Dylan Thomas, Max would not “go gentle into that good night.” Indeed, one envisioned book was a memoir: No Life Is Long Enough.
A couple years before Lerner arrived at Notre Dame in 1982 as the inaugural W. Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies, he wrote a “My Turn” for Newsweek, describing his perspective as a longtime watcher of America. He confessed impatience when students or lecture audiences asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist about his country’s future.
“Do they think this is Wall Street, where you are bullish or bearish about stocks you can’t control?” he wondered. “Our destiny as a people rests not in our stars but in ourselves. I am neither optimist nor pessimist. I am a possibilist.”
Such perceptions, now at home in one place, deserve permanence, especially for new generations to discover.
Bob Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.