Growing Up in the Land of Promise

He didn’t have time to read Horatio Alger—he was too busy being a Jewish version of an Alger hero. In the Hebrew school he learned about the God of the Jews; in the public school he was aroused to the call of history; and in the streets he learned the American “hustle.” Then, at Harvard, the aggressive, ambitious young man, from the Jewish ghetto of Boston, studying under a newsboys’ scholarship, got his compass boxed and set out “in search of history.” As they say, “Only in America.”

THE Atlantic


by Theodore H. White

I was born in the ghetto of Boston on May 6, 1915. No one ever told me it was a ghetto, because the Jews who settled there, like my father and my grandfather, had left the idea of a ghetto behind in the old country.

America was the open land. Though they carried with them the baggage of a past they could not shed, a past that bound together all the exploring millions of Jewish immigrants, they hoped America would be different, and yearned that it prove so.

We were of the Boston Jews.

Each of the Jewish communities then a-borning in America was to be different, as I came to realize later when I traveled the country as a political reporter. Each Jewish community was to take on the color and quality of its host city. Chicago Jews, whether in politics or in business, were tougher, harder, more muscular than, say, Cincinnati Jews. Baltimore Jews were entirely different from Detroit Jews. Hollywood Jews were different from the Jews of university towns. Only New York had a community of Jews large enough to create a culture of its own, in which Yiddish newspapers could thrive, and Yiddish artists, poets, playwrights, actors, could develop an audience of their own. New York’s Jewry, before it dissolved into the suburbs and across the country, was unique in history—an implosion of hitherto suppressed and scattered energies and talents. The ferment of these New York Jews, as they came together from all over Europe in one city in a strange country, generated an uncontainable dynamic of its own which helped to reshape both New York’s and the nation’s culture. But all the other Jewish communities in America were reordered and reshaped by their host cities—and nowhere was this more true than in Boston.

In such a community 1 was born and by such Jewish parents I was brought up. How wc must have appeared to old Boston on the Hill, or how Henry Adams might have seen us, I do not know. But about the time I was born, the scholars of Harvard and MIT collaborated on a series of studies examining the ways of the ncwcomers who were changing the interior of old Boston. After discussing the characteristics of the French-Canadians (then an important immigrant group), the Boston Irish (then the established menace), the newly arriving Italians (about to become the Italian community of Sacco and Vanzetti), they allotted a few pages to the Jews— who were characterized as a group with “an abnormal hunger to acquire real estate.”

Among the Jews with that abnormal hunger for real estate was my grandfather Samuel Winkeller, a glazier by apprenticeship, a storekeeper out of need, but in his own eyes a musician, a part-time cantor with a coppertoned tenor voice. However much he may have seemed an acquisitive specimen to the antiseptic scholarship of sociology, he was a real man—a dandy when he could afford the clothes; slim, slight of build, proud of his Vandyke beard; possessor of a teasing sense of humor, yet ferociously Orthodox. He was also, all his life, stone-poor; and his pride was the wooden-frame house on Erie Street, Dorchester, that he had bought in 1912 for $2000. It was probably the first home, the first piece of land, owned by any one of his family, for in their centuries of East European life, most Jews were either forbidden to buy land or too frightened to do so. He loved that house. It had two floors and eight rooms. He, his wife, and my unmarried uncle, Naman, lived on the top floor. On the ground floor lived his daughter, her husband, and their children.

There, in my mother’s bedroom, in that house, I was born—home-delivered for a fee of twenty-five dollars by Dr. Knowlton, a tart, twinkling, no-nonsense Yankee who made visits to the houses of the poor in the ghetto.

That house rests at the beginning of memory.

The house on Erie Street is now a shanty deep in the troubled black ghetto of Boston. But it was, in my childhood, and in retrospect, beautiful: it still stood then as the fleeing Yankees had left it.

There is in every big American city an ethnic ballet, slow yet certain, which underlies its politics. In the larger cosmopolitan cities of the Eastern Seaboard, old-stock Protestants gave way to the Irish, who gave way in turn to Italians or Jews, who gave way in turn to blacks. Chicago’s lower six wards also passed from Irish to Jewish to black, the old Jewish synagogues, still engraved with the commandments in Hebrew, converted to black churches. So, too, did Harlem pass from Irish to Jewish to black. Even in Los Angeles, Boyle Heights became Jewish, then black. In the Midwest and along the Great Lakes, the ethnic ballet involves other groups—Poles, Slavs, Germans, Scandinavians. But in Boston, specifically, the Jews leapfrogged the Irish, moving from the West End of the core city to Dorchester, which the old-stock Protestants were leaving for the southern suburbs.

The house on Erie Street thus connected me, unknowingly, directly to the New England past. It might have been gardened by John Greenleaf Whittier, and its yard was the most beautiful on the block. All the New England flowers about which I read in school, in the poems of Longfellow and Whittier and Emerson, and in the stories of Thornton Burgess, grew in my own back yard. Under the lilac bushes grew lily of the valley; we continued to replant the tiger lilies and tulips until we became too poor even to buy tulip bulbs. Out of the parlor window we could see the peonies that Amy Lowell wrote about, and across a little green space, the flowering almond my mother loved so much. Honeysuckle and daisies, petunias, phlox, and pansy beds alternated; marigolds and hollyhocks grew in summer, dahlias in fall. To the two original fruit trees—a pear and a cherry—my grandmother added a peach tree and a grapevine.

The grapevine had a special significance. Prohibition had been written into the law—but that was their law. My grandmother and grandfather needed wine for the Sabbath ceremonies and the Jewish holidays. So they made their own, with their own grapes and cherries— huge jugs of wine, stored in the cellar. And as a boy, I would sneak with my friends into the cellar and sample the fermenting wine before it was decanted for real drinking the next fall. Every family on the street had its cache of wine, homemade or smuggled in, for the law of the land was secondary to the command of custom. My grandparents were very patriotic immigrants—but Prohibition or its observance was not included in patriotism.

The house had one other connection to the old New England, beyond the flowers of its garden. Upstairs, in the attic, the original family had abandoned a treasure trove of brass bedsteads, stained-glass lamps, Scribner’s magazines and National Geographies, and stocks of discarded books. Of these books, my favorite, which I preferred to the serious books in my father’s library, was an old copy of Blue Jackets of ‘63. It was an account of the U.S. Navy’s war against the Rebels in 1863, obviously part of a series, of which the other volumes were missing, but certainly published for the veteran audience shortly after the Civil War. I became a staunch Union man long before I was taught the Civil War in the sixth grade. “We” had freed the slaves. Upstairs, I met Admiral Farragut and General Grant. Downstairs, on the street, I was Jewish.

In that house and on that street, modern times came to us. When I was a child, milk was delivered in winter by horse-drawn sleigh, and you could hear the horses’ bells in the morning before you woke. Erie Street was lit by gas, and a real lamplighter passed before our house each dusk just exactly as did Leerie the Lamplighter in the Robert Louis Stevenson poem my mother read to us. Life changed as I watched it, miracle following miracle. We began with one coal stove in the cellar, which I had to learn to stoke for house heating; there were also two kitchen stoves, on which my mother and my grandmother cooked over wood and nut coal and then fuel oil arrived. The house was lit by gas, and I can remember both the delicate touch required to replace a fragile gas mantle in the ceiling light—and the year that electricity was strung into our house! With electricity, we were wired into a new world, for electricity brought the radio. One of our richer cousins gave us a radio—a crystal set—because he was buying one of those new radios with tubes. With enough ingenuity, one could tickle the crystal with a cat’s whisker and pick up anything. In that year, 1927, I could listen to the Yankees win the World Series, hear the Sharkey-Dempsey fight from New York and even the prayer for Lindbergh’s flight to Paris. As the telephone became general, the phone company sent instructors to the schools to teach children of immigrant parents how to use the dial, so that the children could, in turn, leach their parents. With radio and telephone and electric lights, the world changed and ideas began to creep into boyhood.

The ideas descended in streams. They flowed first from the family, but even within the family they clashed.

My father, David White, called himself a Socialist. He was proud that in 1911 he had been one of the handful of men who marched on the Boston Common at the head of a parade of suffragettes demanding the vote for women. He kept us up in vigil all the summer night in 1927 when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed so that my sister and I, the two older children, would never forget what capitalism did to workingmen. He would walk with us on weekends and explain the world. recall one particular Sunday afternoon when I was twelve—I had been leafing through an old Literary Digest, where I had seen a cartoon of a squint-eyed giant bound to the ground by ropes, slowly heaving himself erect, the ropes snapping, it looked like a picture of Gulliver snapping the strings of the Lilliputians in our children’s copy of Gulliver’s Travels. I asked my father to explain and he told me about China: there was a revolution going on there and when it succeeded, as he said it must, all of us would have to pay attention to it. The only Chinese I had ever seen was the Chinese laundryman on Erie Street, whom we taunted, as all children did, with the call of “Chinkee, Chinkee Chinaman.” But my father said we should not do that; we must respect Chinese: they were fighting imperialism.

However vigorous a radical my father may have been in his youth, when I came to know him he was as melancholy a man as I have ever met. Short, stout, bald, with beautiful brown eyes and a deep, resonant bass singing voice, he must once have been a man of enormous physical vigor; he could bend nails with his fingers, had the chest and forearms of a steelworker, but thought of himself as a scholar; yet his spirit was already burned out when I was growing up. He had been born to a family of rabbis in a chain that claimed descent from the Baal Shem-Tov, founder of the Chasidim; his own father, Reb Todros, left Russia and ended his days in devotions, praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. We were told he had been heartbroken that his American son, David, having snapped the long chain of rabbis in our family, had gone on to become a godless Socialist.

But long before Reb Todros made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, my own father had left for his Promised Land—at sixteen a runaway from home, arriving in Boston from Pinsk in January 1891, one among the wave of Russian-Jewish migrants set in motion nine years earlier by the brutal anti-Semitic decrees of Czar Alexander III. Whether he was missed at home was questionable. Reb Todros had twelve daughters and five sons, my father being the youngest. His mother died in childbirth.

Whatever iridescence the American dream may have held for David White before he arrived soon faded. In Boston he had neither family nor home, peddling from a pushcart in summer, sleeping underneath it in the street, in winter finding what work he could and sleeping where he worked. Yet somehow he had the energy to learn English; to begin free law courses at night at the YMCA; then to save enough money to go to night law school at Northeastern University. In 1904 he passed the bar; eight years later he married, and before long he had a family of four children to support. He cared little about money, except to buy books. His clients were poor, and he charged them no more than they could pay; in the end, in the Depression, they could pay nothing. So there was literally no money for food, no money to pay the rent to our grandparents upstairs, no money for clothes. My father had always been a kind and gentle man, but now he was tattered and forlorn, with only his pride as a scholar left. In 1931, suddenly, his heart failed and he was dead.

My mother, Mary Winkelier White, was at once strong and fearful. She had been born in Boston in 1890; had been moved as a child to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her family had lived in a cellar apartment close to Harvard until the rocks thrown through the windows by the local Irish had driven the family back to storekeeping in the safe Jewish West End. Of Sam Winkelier, my maternal grandfather, I have spoken. But the dominant member of my mother’s family and the dominant member of our household was our maternal grandmother—a hard, shrill, vigorous woman of violent piety who, until she died, fifty years after coming to this country, spoke no English. She spoke Yiddish—always in a rage, in a temper.

My grandmother despised my father, and this was the curse of my mother’s life. My mother had met David White at the Workmen’s Circle in Boston, a Socialist clubhouse in the West End; she was nineteen years old, a volunteer waitress. Finally, after several years, she introduced him to her parents and they, so proud that their daughter had met a “learned” man, a lawyer at that, agreed to the marriage; and then all of them, after the purchase of the house, moved to Dorchester on what they thought was the way up.

There the conflict began.

Upstairs was Yiddish-speaking. Downstairs, we spoke English. Upstairs, Friday night, the eve of Shabbas was celebrated with candles, wine, and challah, the twisted white bread. Downstairs, my father, the unbeliever, sat adamant and would have no part in religious ceremonies. I was a pawn between the two families, moved by my grandmother’s tyrannical will and my mother’s desire to please her mother and her husband at the same time. I rather enjoyed it all; my grandmother, after shaping her own white twistbread for the evening, would bake a special small challah, the size of a bun, for me. Then I would be called upstairs for the prayers of the Kiddush. I would make the traditional blessing in Hebrew, and would be given a goblet of red wine. When I did especially well, or lingered to eat dinner upstairs—usually chicken and chicken soup— my grandfather, a merry man, would be delighted, and would pour me a thimbleful of raw yellow Polish vodka. At which my grandmother would shriek that he was trying to make me a drunk, and after much shrieking and occasionally singing, I would go downstairs to my own family.

I did not realize for many, many years how very hungry my mother was for genteel respectability—and what she thought to be American. American holidays were to be celebrated as much as Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving with a feast and the Fourth of July with penny firecrackers.

What dreams may have passed through her mind, I cannot guess. She told me once that the only thing she ever dreamed of having when she was a little girl was a doll—but no one ever bought her a doll. What she wanted of life was security, and she dreamed for her children, dreaming always of a “good job,” a “government job,” perhaps even a schoolteacher’s job, which was the furthest limit of her ambition. She wanted no factory jobs for them, nor did she want them in “business,” for the small Jewish merchants of the neighborhood were even more insecure than their customers, the workers. Her children, she insisted, would be learned people, like their father, only “safe,” because they would have jobs. Thus we were thrust out to learn, and there were several systems of learning—the Hebrew school, the street school, the public school.

The which decision I trudged to send off at me the to age Hebrew of eight, school, was the to common decision of my grandmother, grandfather, and mother—with my father silently resisting, and myself hopelessly protesting. My father resisted perhaps because he once had revolted at the narrowness of the rabbinical home in which he had grown up in Pinsk, and because of the memories of the Talmudic school which his own father had taught there. My revolt was purely animal—after getting up at eight in the morning and going to public school until threethirty, I wanted to play in the streets. I did not want to race off to another school, where I must study for two more hours in a strange language, with intense, bitter teachers who slapped when you made a mistake, lacking the easygoing qualities of the Irish teachers in the public school.

But the Beth-El Hebrew School captured me. Most of our teachers were then newly arrived young immigrant scholars, who had come from post-World War I Europe to seek a secular education in Boston’s universities; they taught Hebrew in the evenings to earn their living. They were rigorous in their teaching of the young, and violent of temper when the tired children failed to respond. They despised Yiddish, a language I knew from home, for to despise Yiddish was their form of snobbery; and as a matter of principle they would speak no English in class, for their cardinal political principle was Zionism. They were about to revive the Hebrew language and make it a living tongue; after a little pampering with English in the first and second years, as we learned the ancient alphabet and pronunciation, we were into the Bible in Hebrew—it was explained to us in Hebrew, pounded into us in Hebrew, and we were forced to explain it to one another in Hebrew.

It was a nightmare education, but I came to love it. And when I went on to evening courses at the Hebrew College of Boston, I learned the Bible, thought in it, until the ancient Hebrew became a second language. Its balanced cadences, its hard declarative sentences, and its lacelike images structured the sentences we wrote in public school classes.

The Bible drenched me in cadence and phrase, in imagery and folklore. But it did not occur to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I was being given my first intensive seminar in history. All religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—are, essentially, accounts of history. Religion is an effort to explain man’s intrusion in time, how he got there, who put him there, for what purpose, and how that purpose worked out. All religions are embellished with stories of martyrs, teachers, sacrifices for the sacred cause. But they remain essentially stories, which explain to ordinary people their place in the now and the hereafter.

Jewish history, as I learned it in Hebrew school from the Bible and the tradition, was a very stark and perplexing history, with very unsatisfactory lessons to be learned. God had chosen the Jews; he had freed them from Egypt; when they grew stiff-necked and arrogant, again and again God would punish them. When they repented, they were saved. When they whored after false gods, they were destroyed. But it was all ancient history—fossil history. The last time God had done anything to help the Jews was two thousand years ago! And ever since then had come disaster after disaster, with the greatest of the disasters, the Holocaust, yet to come. Why? How long, O Lord? Our stern young Zionist schoolmasters shared the same questions. For them, history lay in the future, when would come the redemption of the Jews by their own efforts, in their own land, without the help of God. Even more than they despised Yiddishists, our teachers despised rabbis. Their purpose was single-minded: to get an education in America and serve the cause of Zion.

Of what they taught of Zionism I remember very little—except for one phrase, again a phrase in Hebrew, which came from Theodor Herzl. Im tirtsu, ayn zeh hagadah ”—“If you will it to be so, this is no legend.” It is a phrase I have heard in many languages since, and I have seen men and women, students and guerrillas, in hills and streets, lashed by the thought that if you wish, you can make the dream come true. I did not share the belief that the dream of Zion would make it a reality; but among my most cherished memories is one of a summer night in Boston. We had gone picnicking in Franklin Park, which was then safe at night; the park was moonlit and the hills soft of shape. We had read in the papers that one of the great German Zeppelins would be coursing over Boston en route to its landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. We hated the Zeppelin because it was Hitler’s and Hitler was bad for the Jews. So we talked, and strolled, and sat, and boys and girls cuddled, until, exactly on time, the Zeppelin appeared overhead, its belly light sweeping the terrain below. When we saw it coming, we gathered in a circle and danced the hora in defiance, dancing and singing until it passed from view overhead. The dream of Zion and of Israel was then so ephemeral, so unreal, that the dance was a dance of hopeless, wishful intoxication. Yet thirty years later, the idea of Zion was an army, with an armored corps, with an air force, with guns; and as an American correspondent during the 1967 Six-Day War, I flew over the desert of Sinai and stopped off now and again on the morrow of the great victory, and saw the flag of Zion flying over the Suez Canal and at Sharm alSheikh—the flag with the white field and the blue Star of David snapping in the wind. The idea that had reached in to touch me as a youngster in Boston had also reached out to become an army, a power, a strike force that could defend and kill.

The recognition of the force of ideas was as far away from me, growing up in Boston’s streets, as the thought of man reaching into outer space—but never was there a better demonstration of the force of ideas than in the streets of Boston’s ghetto. There, the American idea was steadily, remorselessly, irresistibly eroding the walls of custom and tradition that had protected the ideas of the Jews of Europe for centuries.

Boston’s Jews have no place at all in the grand history of Western thought. But their community was a good specimen for thinkers to examine. History had delivered to them two equally compelling but hopelessly irreconcilable ideas. The community in Eastern Europe from which my grandparents had come believed that only God could save. As they suffered in the ghettos, waiting for redemption and the Messiah, all they could do was pray to God LO hasten the day of deliverance. God had his own grand design for all. But as news of America spread, the unsettling idea took hold that a man could save himself by his own efforts. The confusion that resulted was overwhelming; and you could see the confusion in the street school of Boston, where I learned so much. In Hebrew school, I learned about the God of the Jews; in the street school, other Jews were learning the American “hustle”; and I was part of both.

Erie Street was my street school. It was then a bustling market street, aciliary to the main shopping artery of Dor hester—Blue Hill Avenue. Storekeepers had transformed Erie Street from the quiet residential neighborhood my grandparents had sought as Jewish pioneers u the district into a semipermanent bazaar. Whatever you wanted you could buy on Erie Street. Or else smeone could get it for you. Herrings were stacked in barrels outside the fish stores, and flies buzzed over the herrings. Freshcaught fish lay on slabs, and little boys were allowed to keep the fishhooks for the trouble of extracting them. All butcher shops were kosher, sawdust on the floor, chopping blocks scrubbed clean every day, unplucked chickens piled in flop heaps in the store window, where housewives squeezed and prodded, then picked and chose. There were four grocery stores, several drygoods stores, fruit and vegetable specialists, hardware stores, mama-papa variety stores, penny candy stores.

But it was the peddlers who gave the street its sound and motion. The banana man was Italian, but all other peddlers were Jewish. Early in the morning, the peddlers would go to their stables, hitch up their horses, and proceed to Faneuil Hall or the Fish Pier to bring back the day’s glut in the city market. Then, leading their horse-and-wagons through Erie Street, they would yodel and chant their wares. For each peddler another chant: the fish man would sing in a special voice, “Lebediker fisch, weiber, lebediker fisch”; the secondhand-clothes merchant would chant otherwise; the Italian banana man would chorus only “Bananas, bananas, bananas,” hawking a fruit previously unknown to Eastern Europeans.

Friday was normally payday for the garment and shoe workers of the district, and Saturday was Shabbas. Thus Saturday night, when Sabbath was over, became shopping night—wives dragging their husbands after them, children skipping about the crowded corners, the women greeting each other, sharing gossip, the fathers stolidly enjoying themselves, the peddlers yelling their wares. Summer was best: the peddlers would bring in strange delights they had found in the Faneuil Hall produce market, and Jews could see for perhaps the first time wagons of watermelons (twenty-five cents each), pineapple wagons, grape wagons, as well as wagons full of rejected or factory-surplus socks, shirts, undergarments.

I tried my hand at the peddling business. One summer I sold ice cream. For several winters, with my across-the-street friend Butsy Schneiderman, I peddled tin horns on New Year’s Eve. Another entire summer Butsy and I sold stuffed dates from door to door in Quincy and Wollaston, of which venture I remember two things: the Quincy police drove us out, for they did not want adolescent Jewish peddlers in the neighborhood; and the best quick ice cream and hot dogs in the neighborhood came from a small counter stand run by a Swede named Howard Johnson.

Within the boundaries of our community we were entirely safe and sheltered. But the boundaries were real. We were an enclave surrounded by Irish. To the south of us, across the railway tracks, lived very tough Irish—working-class Irish. The local library lay in such an Irish district, and my first fights happened en route to get books, but after one last bloody-nose battle, I was given safe passage by the Irish boys whenever I went to the library. Across Franklin Park to the west in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale lived the lacecurtain Irish; they were, if not friendly, at least not pugnacious. South of Mattapan Square were the original settlers, Protestants—and if you did not bother them, they would not molest you. From my uncle, who worked in the produce market at Faneuil Square, I learned that “Taleners” (Italians) were easy to get along with too, and would not bother you if you made friends with them. There was a tiny pocket of black people in the South End, but they were curiosities and one had to be kind to them. Beyond lay terra incognita— “Hic Sunt Leones” (“Here Dwell Lions”)—but I did not care.

Long before ethnicity became a fashionable political concept, we knew about each group living in its own community. But we were also all Americans, and even where the friction between the groups was greatest— in my neighborhood, along its borders with the tough Irish—it was not intolerable. Our house sat on that border; our yard backed against the yards of Irish families on the next street, a line of fence dividing them. In the house across the fence from ours lived a boy my age, Johnny Powers, whom I had always considered my enemy.

But the day my father died I climbed over the fence to call Johnny to come out—and he came out, bristling. I explained that my father had died that morning, and asked him if he could keep the kids in his street quiet for the rest of the day. Not to worry, Johnny said; he’d make sure there wouldn’t be a sound from his block. He’d take care of his gang. And he did.

Politically, we were an ethnic enclave in the Irish principalities of Boston politics. Our local district leader, a Mr. Goretsky, was a man who claimed to know Martin Lomasney, and everyone knew that Martin Lomasney was close to Mayor Curley. We voted, even my father the Socialist, as did the Irish—a straight Democratic ticket. Only my mother the Republican voted otherwise, and she told no one. And the Jews of Ward Fourteen all voted! I read, much later, that Ward Fourteen’s solid Jewish vote had gone 71 percent for FDR in 1932—but when they felt they knew him, by 1936, their vote ran up 85.2 percent for Roosevelt, the highest mark in the Democratic city! Roosevelt’s ideas were changing America.

For us in the ward, however, though Roosevelt was President, the Irish were Government. Of all the immigrant groups, only the Irish spoke English at home, and more than that, understood the Anglo-American courts, law, and officialdom—sheriff, alderman, bailiff, surrogate. They shared the anguish of other immigrants, but they were neither so voiceless nor so helpless. They knew how to deal with the boy in trouble, the peddler caught without a license, the street fights that brought in the police, the hunger for jobs; and with that understanding they acted as intermediaries between government and the bewildered immigrants. They could drop a word in a judge’s ear, intercede with the school board to get, say, a girl into the city’s teachers’ college. Their fee was gratefully and willingly paid, and might be as high as a dozen sure votes. Piling up votes, the Irish ran local government pretty much as they chose—in Boston under Big Jim Curley reaching a high, florid corruption that became a national farce. Farce, perhaps—but Big Jim Curley liked roses, and in our ward we knew that the rose garden in Franklin Park was there because Curley had put it there, and mothers could park their baby carriages in the rose garden and sun themselves and their children in fragrance because Curley liked roses.

n the descent of ideas, therefore, family came first, street next—and then public school. Each neighborhood had an elementary school within a child’s walking distance—kindergarten through third grade. At the William E. Endicott School, where I began, the Irish had replaced the Yankee schoolmarms and my teachers were Miss Phelan, Miss Brennan, Miss Murray, Miss Kelly. They were supposed to teach us to read, write (by the Palmer method), and add. They also made us memorize poetry, and the poetry was all New England—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier. But memory was essential, as it was in Hebrew school, where one memorized the Bible.

Each neighborhood also had an intermediate school—in my case, the Christopher Gibson School. There segregation began, boys separated from girls for special periods. In the fourth grade, boys had special periods to learn carpentry, girls to learn sewing. In the fifth grade, it was electricity and wiring for boys, cooking for girls. Vocational and book learning were taught in the same building. I can still tell a ripsaw from a crosscut saw by what was taught me (by a lady carpentry teacher, Miss Sprague) in the fourth grade. I can still wire lamps in series or in parallel, insulate or install cutoff switches by what was taught me in the fifth grade. But—most important—I first became aware of the word “history” in the sixth grade at the Christopher Gibson School—and my teacher was Miss Fuller. She was the kind of teacher who could set fire to the imaginations of the ordinary children who sat in lumps before her, and to do so was probably the chief reward she sought.

Her course in American history began, naturally, at a much later date than the history we were taught at Hebrew school. In Boston, history began in 1630— when the Puritans came. It then worked back and forth, but every date had to be impeccably remembered: Columbus was 1492, Cabot was 1497; Cortes was 1519, as was Magellan; and so on, moving through Jamestown, 1607; New York, 1614; Plymouth Colony, 1620; then other dates that led up to the settlement of Boston—1630! 1630! 1630!

Miss Fuller did not stop with names and dates. First you had to get them right, but then they became pegs on which connections between events were to be hung. In this she was far ahead of most of the teachers of her day. For example: Thanksgiving. How did it come about? What would you have thought that first winter in Plymouth, if you had come from England, and survived? How would you invite the Indians to your feast? She decided we would have a play the day before Thanksgiving, a free-form play in the classroom, in which we would all together explore the meeting of Puritans and Indians, and the meaning of Thanksgiving. She divided the class, entirely Jewish, into those children who were American-born and spoke true English, and those who were recent arrivals and spoke only broken English or Yiddish. I was Elder William Bradford, because I spoke English well. “Itchie” Rachlin, whose father was an unemployed trumpet player recently arrived from Russia, and who spoke vivid Yiddish, was Squanto, our Indian friend. Miss Fuller hoped that those who could not speak English would squawk strange Indian sounds while I, translating their sounds to the rest of the Puritans, all of us in black cardboard cone hats, would offer good will and brotherhood. Itchie and the other recently arrived immigrant children played the game of being “Indian” for a few minutes, then fell into Yiddish, pretending it was Indian talk. Miss Fuller could not, of course, understand them, but I tried nevertheless to clean up their Yiddish vulgarities in my translation to the other little Puritans, who could not help but giggle. (“Vos is dos vor traef?” said Itchie, meaning: “You want us to eat pig food?” and I would translate in English: “What kind of strange food is this before us?”) Miss Fuller became furious as we laughed our way through the play, and when I tried to explain, she was hurt and upset. Thanksgiving was sacred to her.

But she was a marvelous teacher. Once we had learned the names and dates from 1630 to the Civil War, she let us talk and speculate, driving home the point that history connected to “now,” to “us.” America for her was all about freedom, and all the famous phrases from “Give me liberty or give me death” to the Gettysburg Address had to be memorized by her classes—and understood.

She was also a very earnest, upward-striving teacher. I realize now that she must have been working for an advanced degree, for she went to night school at Boston University to take education courses. This, too, reached from outside to me. One day she told my mother about a project her night-school seminar was conducting in how much independent research a youngster of ten or eleven could do—one of those projects now so commonplace in progressive schools. Would my mother mind, she asked, if I was given such an assignment, and then reported on it to her seminar? My mother said yes after Miss Fuller promised to bring me home herself afterward.

My assignment was to study immigration, and then to speak to the seminar about whether immigrants were good or bad for America. Her seminar mates would question me to find out how well I had mastered the subject. The Immigration Act of 1924—the “Closing of the Gates”—had just been passed; there was much to read in both papers and magazines about the controversy, but my guide was my father. He put it both ways: the country had been built by immigrants, so immigrants were not bad. He had been an immigrant himself. On the other hand, as a strong labor man, he followed the A.F. of L. line of those days. The National Association of Manufacturers (the capitalists) wanted to continue unrestricted immigration so they could sweat cheap labor. But the American Federation of Labor wanted immigration restricted to keep the wages of American workingmen from being undercut by foreigners. This was a dilemma for my father: he was against the capitalists and for the A.F. of L., but he was an immigrant himself, as were all our friends and neighbors. He helped me get all the facts, and I made a speech on the platform of a classroom at Boston University School of Education at nine one night, explaining both sides of the story and taking no position. I enjoyed it all, especially when the teachers began asking me questions; I had all the dates and facts, and an attentive audience, but no answers then just as I have none now. I must have done well, for Miss Fuller kissed me and bought me candy to eat on the streetcar. It became clear to me, as we talked on the way home, that immigrants were history too. History was happening now, all about us, and the gossip of Erie Street and the problem of whether someone’s cousin could get a visa back in the old country and come here were really connected to the past, and to Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, and the elder William Bradford.

I went on to the Boston Public Latin School, I think, because Miss Fuller persuaded my mother that there was something more than a lump in the boy, and pointed me in the direction of the Latin School.

The Boston school system offered then what seems to me still a reasonable set of choices after intermediate school. You could go to a local high school— Charlestown High School, Roxbury Memorial High School, South Boston High School. Or, if your parents chose, you could go to a “downtown” high school. Today these central schools would be called “magnet schools,” “enrichment schools,” “elite schools.”They served the entire Boston community—a Commerce High School to learn bookkeeping and trade, a Mechanic Arts High School to learn blueprints, welding, machining, and, at the summit, the Boston Public Latin School, the oldest public school in America, founded in 1635. It was free choice: you could walk to your local community high school, or you could go downtown to the central, quality schools. There were no school buses then, so if you did want to take the half-hour trolley ride to a downtown school, you bought student tickets, beige-brown tabs at five cents each, half the price of the dime fare for a regular rider on the Boston transit system. Ten cents a day, five days a week, for carfare was a considerable sum. You had to want to go.

My mother, my father, myself all agreeing, I chose the Latin School.

The Boston Public Latin School reeked of history. Harvard had been founded only in 1636, a year after the Latin School, because, so the school boasted, there had to be a college to take its first graduates. The school had sat originally on Beacon Hill before being moved ultimately to the Fenway, where it was when I attended. The original school on the hill had given its name to the street which is still there: School Street in Boston. We learned that the legendary boys who had outfaced the British on the hill, and thrown snowballs at the Redcoats who put cinders on the icy streets where they sleighed, were Latin School boys. They were the first recorded student demonstrators in American history. In our Latin School assembly hall, the frieze bore proudly the names of boys who had graduated to mark American history. From Franklin, Adams, and Hancock, on through Emerson, Motley, Eliot, Payne, Quincy, Sumner, Warren, Winthrop—the trailblazers pointed the way. The frieze might later have listed a Kennedy, a Bernstein, a Wharton. But all this history translated quite precisely to the immigrant parents of Boston. The Latin School was the gateway to Harvard—as much so in 1928, when I entered, as it had been for hundreds of years before. No longer is it so.

In my day, the Latin School was a cruel school—but it may have been the best public school in the country. The old Boston version of “open admissions” held that absolutely anyone was free to enter. And the school was free to fail and expel absolutely anyone who did not meet its standards. It accepted students without discrimination, and it flunked them—Irish, Italian, Jewish, Protestant, black—with equal lack of discrimination. Passing grade was fifty, and to average eighty or better was phenomenal. Our monthly tests were excerpts from the College Board examinations of previous years—and we learned “testmanship” early, beginning at age fourteen. The entire Latin School was an obstacle course in “testmanship,” a skill which, we learned, meant that one must grasp the question quickly, answer hard, with minimum verbiage, and do it all against a speeding clock. If you scored well in Latin School classroom tests in arithmetic, the College Boards held no peril—you would do better in those exams, and at Harvard, almost certainly, you would qualify for the advanced section of Mathematics A.

The Latin School taught the mechanics of learning with little pretense of culture, enrichment, or enlargement of horizons. Mr. Russo, who taught English in the first year, had the face of a prizefighter—a bald head which gleamed, a pug nose, a jut jaw, hard and sinister eyes which smiled only when a pupil scored an absolute triumph in grammar. He was less interested in the rhymes of The Idylls of the King or “Evangeline,” or the story in Quentin Durward, than in drubbing into us the structure of paragraph and sentence. The paragraph began with the “topic sentence”—that was the cornerstone of all teaching in composition. And sentences came with “subjects,” “predicates,” “metaphors,” “similes,” “analogies.” He taught the English language as if he were teaching us to dismantle an automobile engine or a watch and then assemble it again correctly. We learned clean English from him. Mr. Graetsch taught German in the same way, mechanically, so that one remembered all the rest of one’s life that six German prepositions take the dative case—aus-bei-mit, nach-von-zu, in alphabetical order. French was taught by Mr. Scully. Not only did we memorize passages {D’un pas encore vaillant et ferme, un vieux pretre marche sur la route poudreuse), but we memorized them so well that long after one had forgotten the title of the work, one remembered its phrases; all irregular French verbs were mastered by the end of the second year.

What culture was pumped in came in ancient history, taught by Mr. Hayes, American history, taught by Mr. Nemzoff, who enlarged on what Miss Fuller had taught in the sixth grade, and Latin itself, taught by “Farmer" Wilbur. “Farmer” Wilbur was a rustic who raised apples on his farm outside Boston, and would bring them in by the bushel to hand out to the boys who did well. Latin was drudgery; one learned Caesar, one groaned through Cicero, one went on to Virgil, I did badly in Latin, although ancient history fascinated me; and not until I came many years later to American politics did I realize how much of “Farmer” Wilbur’s teaching of Caesar and Cicero had flaked off into the sediment of my thinking.

Yet, though the choice had been my own, my first three years at the Latin School were an unrelieved torment. I barely managed a sixty average, which put me somewhere in the lower third of my class. But then in June 1931 my father died, and 1 was plunged into an education that remains for all men and women of my generation their great shaping experience—the lessons taught by the Great Depression.

One reads now that the 1920s were boom years, that the Great Depression did not begin until the stock market crash of October 1929. For those of us of the under class, the Depression had begun long before then. I had started a schoolboy diary the same year I entered the Latin School, in 1928. On historic Black Friday, October 29, the day of the great Wall Street crash of 1929, my diary makes no mention of the event. It says; “No money all week, Pa brought home $2.00 today, Mama is crying again.”

I was, by then, an American history buff. But what I saw and what I felt had no connection at all with what I had learned of American history. The evidence before me said that Papa was right—capitalism did not care what happened to us. No one cared what happened to us. I worked on off-school days and during the school vacations for a house renovator, a small-time contractor who had me on the job from eight in the morning until the house was scraped of its old wallpaper, its crumbling plaster gouged out and respackled; for a twelve-hour day I was paid two dollars, and glad to have it. I was lucky until he little contractor went broke too, and that was the end of that job. People hungered. Lives ended.

The Depression was too immense an event to grasp. Our streets and my friends hived with young adolescents who were joining either the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) or the Young Communist League (YCL) or the Young Worker Zionists, whose song ran: “Off we go to Palestine -the hell with the Depression.” American politics seemed to offer nothing. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I visited the local Democratic party storefront on Blue Hill Avenue, the first political headquarters I ever entered. I might get a

job, I thought, by getting into politics—and a thug grabbed me by the shoulders, kicked me so hard that the base of my spine still tingles at the memory, and said that they didn’t want any goddamn kids around this place. It must have been the year that Franklin D. Roosevelt was building his 1932 campaign for the presidency; but from where I walked the streets, I could not see what Franklin Roosevelt would do. Revolution, only revolution, would save us—but how did you connect revolution with what Miss Fuller and Mr. Nemzoff taught of American history?

It was worse when my father died. I was sixteen then. My diary records a one-line sentence, June 16, 1931; “Pa died today.” And the memory of the year after he died I cannot, despite every effort, bring back. I pushed it out of mind long ago. I know, technically, that my mother let me finish my last year of school before I went to work—I was to graduate in the class of 1932 at the Boston Latin School. But in dignity the price of my finishing the Latin School, instead of going out to hunt work, was crushing.

We were on home relief.

It was shameful—we, of a learned family, on home relief. With my father’s death, we were five left. And for five people the city of Boston gave eleven dollars a week. We survived on eleven dollars a week, for my grandmother, upstairs, had ceased demanding that we pay rent. But to get home relief, in those days, my mother had to take a streetcar (ten cents each way) downtown to the relief office. And there, after standing in line for hours, she would receive a five-dollar greenback and six ones. Each week she made the trip, each trip brought her home desolate. It was intolerable.

If there was no father left, I had to make it on my own. If I wanted to go to college, I would have to do it by scholarship, and scholarship meant getting good marks. Given this need, my marks jumped from a sixty to a ninety average. My final College Board examinations brought marks then called “highest honors.” And immediately after graduation, there was an acceptance to Harvard. But no stipend, nothing but the right to enroll. And so the certificate became a trophy to put away in a drawer. The problem was how to get off relief—and yet survive.

I woke at five each morning, for I had won from the local news wholesaler the right to run the streetcars on the tough ride from Franklin Park to Egleston Square, peddling papers. On the streetcars I met the Irish as workingmen. Except for Mr. Snow— I always called him Mr. Snow -who was a motorman six days a week and taught a Congregational Sunday school on the seventh day, the motormen were all Irish. Most were Galway men. They were proud of being men of Galway, and they told me why men of Galway were different from men of Cork, or Tipperary, or Dublin. It sounded very much like Jewish talk-why Pinsk Jews were different from Warsaw Jews, or Odessa Jews, or Lvov Jews. They were hard men, but once they accepted you they offered the camaraderie that makes Irish radicals die for each other. Of these men, the meanest was Motorman Conley. He was hard-faced, surly, and profane. Even though I wore the nickel-plated medallion which officially entitled me to sell newspapers on the streetcars, he wanted me to “stay the hell off” his car. I had to brace him, and hopped his car one day to sell the papers; I rode three stops trying to explain to him that I had to make a living too, for my mother and the kids, and I had the right, and I didn’t want to have a fight with him, and on and on. Finally, he said, “Okay.” And then, after that, he not only gave me the key to the booth of the Franklin Park station, where there was an electric heater to warm the fingers and toes of the motormen on the early-morning run, but he also began to help me get more money from the boss. I was doing well selling papers, making between two and three dollars a day. But I could also hand in returns and get credit for the unsold papers against my account with the boss. Conley figured out for me that I could make an extra half-buck a day if he picked up for me the discarded newspapers at Egleston Square, the turnaround of his trolley run. He would bring me back a batch of newspaper throwaways at ten or eleven in the morning, and if they were neatly enough cast off, I could refold them and slip them into my returns, thus making 1.3 cents on each false return that I claimed from the boss. I am sorry now that I cheated the boss by half a dollar a day, but he probably cranked it into his calculations of the net he took from the newsboys he “owned.” And since my cash return to him was high, I was not challenged; he sent them back to the newspapers anyway. Conley and I became friends; we were both against the system.

Newspapering lasted for over a year. I would scream the headlines, and occasionally, when I saw an old Latin School friend taking the trolley in town to Boston University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I would scream the headlines in Latin. I could sell almost as many papers, if I put emotion into the call, by shrieking, “Quo usque, O Cat Hina, tandem abut ere patientia nostra, quern ad finem nos eludet iste furor tuus . . .”as I could by shrieking anything else. But my old schoolmates of the Latin School ignored me. I was a dropout, they were college day students.

Newspapering led to cheating—all newsstand operations do, as I learned later when I tried to manage magazines, or tried to find out how my more successful books were selling on paperback newsstands. I converted some of the regular streetcar customers to home delivery, and within a year, I had a growing homedelivery route which would bring in several dollars a week all by itself, apart from what the boss knew I was selling in the open.

Far more important, I had won a steady job—teaching Hebrew to children in the local Hebrew school at fourteen dollars a week, subjecting them to the same cruelty to which I had been subjected when a child. Middle-aged men and women now approach me as I travel and tell me they were my students and that I was a stern but effective teacher of tradition to the young. But I was then just eighteen myself, full of the juices of life. Thus, rather than teaching children the Hebrew characters by reading in the standard books of the Bible, which they were required to decipher but not to understand, I had them do their rote reading from the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. They could not understand that text either, but to hear little boys and girls pipe the lines of love in the ancient language soothed me in the dreary evening sessions.

And then, in the fall of 1934, when I was two years out of Latin School, confused, angry, and on my way to nowhere, two things happened. Harvard College gave me a scholarship of two hundred and twenty dollars and the Burroughs Newsboys Foundation gave me a college grant of one hundred and eighty dollars. Twotwenty and one-eighty came to four hundred dollars— which was the exact fee for a year’s tuition at Harvard. So in September of 1934, cutting a corner here and amplifying a hope there, I took the subway into Harvard Square to enroll.

One emerged, as one still does, from the subway exit in the Square and faced an old red-brick wall behind which stretched, to my fond eye, what remains still the most beautiful campus in America, the Harvard Yard. If there is any one place in all America that mirrors better all American history, I do not know of it.

The signature building of the Harvard Yard was the Widener Library, its gray faqade and pillars dominating all the open inner space. Widener was the crownpiece of the largest university library in the world, and its architecture made a flat statement: that books and learning were what a school was all about. But the rest of the Yard spoke history. Across the green was the chapel built to commemorate Harvard men fallen in World War I, which would, in time, have carved on its tablets the names of thirty-two of my classmates who fell in World War II. Across the street from the Yard, on the edge of Cambridge Common, stood the Washington Elm, where, legend claims, George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775. Beyond rose the gorgeous Romanesque bulk of “Mem” Hall—the memorial for the veterans of the Civil War. To the north were acres and acres of a university no one person has ever fully explored—law school, graduate schools, museums, laboratories. To the south the residential houses rose along the Charles and there, beneath their turrets of red and blue and yellow, one could lie on the grass with a friend beside the slow-flowing Charles River and gaze at the Harvard Business School across the river. The business school, though few knew it, had its roots in history too. It had sprung out of the Spanish-American War, when a few public-spirited alumni decided that America, for its new empire, needed a colonial school of administration to match Britain’s imperial and colonial civil services. The school they envisioned became, in the course of time, the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, eventually fulfilling the imperial dreams of its sponsors by staffing the multinational corporations of the twentieth century.

Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I had all left marks behind at Harvard. World War II was on its way, and Harvard was in change under the leadership of James Bryant Conant, who took leave to head the National Defense Research Council, which was managing a secret project called “the uranium program.” Conant wanted to make Harvard something more than a New England school; he wanted its faculty to be more than a gentlemen’s club of courtly learned men, wanted its student body to be national in origin. Excellence was his goal as he began shaking up both faculty and student body, and in the end, twenty years later, when he left in 1953, his insistence on excellence had made Harvard the most competitive school in American scholarship, a meritocracy in which students and professors vied for honors with little mercy or kindness.

But then, at the beginning of Conant’s regime in the thirties, Harvard combined the best of the old warmth and the new strivings. Conant himself would address the freshman class. We all squatted on the floor of the Freshman Union, and he told us what a university was: a place for free minds. “If you call everyone to the right of you a Bourbon and everyone to the left of you a Communist, you’ll get nothing out of Harvard,” he said to us. And went on to explain that what we would get out of Harvard was what we could take from it ourselves; Harvard was open, so—go seek.

Students divide themselves by their own discriminations in every generation, and the group I ran with had a neat system of classification. Harvard, my own group held, was divided into three groups—white men, gray men, and meatballs. I belonged to the meatballs, by self-classification. White men were youngsters of great name; my own class held a Boston Saltonstall, a New York Straus, a Chicago Marshall Field, two Roosevelts (John and Kermit), a Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. The upper classes had another Roosevelt (Franklin, Jr.), a Rockefeller (David, with whom I shared a tutor in my sophomore year), a Morgan, and New York and Boston names of a dozen different fashionable pedigrees. Students of such names had automobiles; they went to Boston deb parties, football games, the June crew race against Yale; they belonged to clubs. At Harvard today, they are called “preppies,” the private school boys of mythical “St. Grottlesex.”

Between white men above and meatballs at the bottom came the gray men. The gray men were mostly public high school boys, sturdy sons of America’s middle class. They went out for football and baseball, manned the Crimson and the Lampoon, ran for class committees and, later in life, for school committees and political office. They came neither of the aristocracy nor of the deserving poor, as did most meatballs and scholarship boys. Caspar Weinberger, of my class of 1938, for example, was president of the Crimson and graduated magna cum laude; he later became secretary of health, education and welfare, but as an undergraduate was a gray man from California. John King, of the same class of 1938, was another gray man; he became governor of New Hampshire. Wiley Mayne, an earnest student of history who graduated with us, was a gray man from Iowa, later becoming congressman from Sioux City. He served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon—with Wiley Mayne voting to support the President.

The most brilliant member of the class was probably Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who defied categorization. Definitely no meatball, Schlesinger lacked then either the wealth or the savoir faire of the white men. Indeed, Schlesinger, who was to go on to a fame surpassing that of his scholar father, was one who could apparently mingle with both white men and meatballs. In his youth, Schlesinger was a boy of extraordinary sweetness and generosity, one of the few on campus who would be friendiy to a Jewish meatball, not only a liberal by heredity, but a liberal in practice. Since Wiley Mayne, Arthur Schlesinger, and I were all rivals, in an indistinct way, in the undergraduate rivalry of the History Department, I followed their careers with some interest. Mayne was a conservative, tarttongued and stiff. I remember on the night of our Class Day dance, as we were all about to leave, he unburdened himself to me on “Eastern liberals who look down their long snob noses on people like me from the Midwest.” Over the years Mayne grew into a milder, gentler, warmer person until, in his agony over Nixon, wrestling with his conscience on whether to impeach or not, he seemed to be perhaps the most sensitive and human member of the Judiciary Committee. Schlesinger, by contrast, developed a certainly about affairs, a public tartness of manner associated with the general liberal rigidity of the late sixties that offended many— and yet, for all that, he remained as kind and gentle to old friends like myself, with whose politics he came profoundly to disagree, as he had been in boyhood. Both Schlesinger and Mayne, the liberal and the conservative, were always absolutely firm in their opinions. I, in the years starting at Harvard, and continuing in later life, wandered all through the political spectrum, and envied them both for their certainties.

I find some difficulty in describing what a “meatball” was. Meatballs were usually day students or scholarship students. We were at Harvard not to enjoy the games, the girls, the burlesque shows of the Old Howard, the companionship, the elms, the turning leaves of fall, the grassy banks of the Charles. We had come to get the Harvard badge, which says “Veritas,” but really means a job somewhere in the future, in some bureaucracy, in some institution, in some school, laboratory, university, or law firm.

Conant was the first president to recognize that meatballs were Harvard men too, and so he set apart a ground floor room at Dudley Hall where we could bring our lunches in brown paper bags and eat at a table, or lounge in easy chairs between classes. The master of this strange enclave of commuting Irish, Jewish, and Italian youngsters from greater Boston was a young historian named Charles Duhig, whose argument was that the most revolutionary force in history was the middle class. Duhig had contempt for the working class (“slobs”), disdain for the upper class. His theory held that modern history is carried forward chiefly by the middle class, their children, and what moves them to the future. In us, his wards, he had a zoo of specimens of the mobile lower middle class, and he enjoyed watching us resist Communist penetration.

Dudley Hall was plowed regularly by Harvard’s intellectual upper-class Communists, who felt that we were of the oppressed. Occasionally such well-bred, rich, or elite Communist youngsters from the resident houses would bring a neat brown-paper-bag lunch and join us at the round tables to persuade us, as companions, of the inevitable proletarian revolution. Duhig, our custodian, welcomed their visits because he knew his scholarship boys could take care of such Communists in debate as easily as they could take care of the Republican youngsters who staffed the Crimson. Most of us, largely Boston Latin School graduates, knew more about poverty than anyone from Beacon Hill or the fashionable East Side of New York. We hated poverty, and meant to have no share in it. We had come to Harvard not to help the working classes but to get out of the working classes. We were on the make. And in my own case, the approach to Harvard and its riches was that of a looter. Harvard had the keys to the gates; what lay behind the gates I could not guess, but all that lay there was to be looted. Not only were there required courses to be attended, but there were courses given by famous men, lectures open to all, where no one guarded the entry. I could listen. There were museums to be seen, libraries and poetry rooms of all kinds to tarry in—and stacks and stacks and stacks of books. It was a place to grab at ideas and facts, and I grabbed at history.

One had a choice, in one’s freshman year, of taking either of two required courses— History I or Government I. Government I was a “gut” course, and the student underground passed the word that no one ever failed in Government I. History I had the reputation of being a nutcracker; no one ever got an A in History 1 except by luck. But History I was the course most freshmen took because its professor, “Frisky” Merriman, was perhaps the most colorful character on Harvard’s then vivid faculty of characters. He believed history was story—thus, entertainment. He could entertain a hall of six hundred students and hold them spellbound; he paced the platform from end to end, roaring, wheedling, stage-whispering, occasionally screeching in falsetto, and earning fairly his nickname. We raced through the Antonines, enjoyed the Middle Ages, saluted Caliph Harun alRashid, thrilled with the struggle of Moors and Catholics in Spain, mourned for Boabdil, last sultan of the Moors. But the course was like an express train, pausing only at major stops on the track of history, and always, at every turning point, there he was, like a conductor calling the next stop and ultimate arrival, closing his lectures with “Unity, gentlemen, unity!”

Europe, he held, had sought the long-lost unity Rome had given it two thousand years ago as a man seeks to recapture a dream. Charlemagne, Napoleon, Bismarck, the Hohenstaufen emperors, the Popes, the Hapsburgs, the Versailles Treaty—all had sought to give unity to Europe. It was a theme that would echo all the rest of my life, and resound again when I came to Europe to report the Marshall Plan, the Common Market, and the dreams of Jean Monnet, who had never heard of “Frisky” Merriman but held exactly the same view of Europe.

History I led in two directions, both of them luring me from my past without my knowing it.

The first direction in which History I led, as I romanticize the beginning, came by mechanical accident. It led across a corridor in Boylston Hall—to China.

It happened this way: A reading room on the ground floor of Boylston Hall was set aside for the hundreds of students who took Merriman’s course, and it would become crowded, sweaty, and steamy on weekends as we crammed for the next week’s sections. But across the corridor in the same building was the library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute—the library which would grow over the next forty years into the greatest collection of Oriental volumes outside Asia. It was easier to study in the empty library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute than in the History I reading room, so I would surreptitiously cross the corridor on Saturday afternoons. And if I was bleary with reading about medieval trade, or the Reformation, or the Age of Imperialism, I could get up and pick Chinese volumes off the shelves—volumes on fine rice paper, bluebound, bamboo-hooked volumes with strange characters, volumes with their own particular odor, an Oriental mustiness different from the mustiness of Western books. As I became more and more accustomed to the Oriental atmosphere, and my eyes rested on the scrolls of calligraphy on the walls, I began to feel at home. The Boston Latin School had given me reading knowledge of Latin, German, and French. Yiddish I understood from home. Hebrew was the language I knew I spoke best after my native English. Why not take a giant step, and add Chinese to my languages—and find out what the blue-bound volumes said? And my father had told me to pay attention to China. The choice, then, at the end of my freshman year, as I had to choose a field of concentration for my sophomore year, became Chinese history and language.

And a more dangerous choice I never made.

Chinese is one of the simplest languages to speak, but the most difficult to read. The Chinese Department at Harvard, in those days, had the standards of the Emperor Ch’ien-lung laced with a dash of sadism. Their theory, entirely wrong, was that no youngster in his teens, no undergraduate, could possibly master the Chinese language. Conant had overruled such desiccated scholarship in his second year as president, and in my sophomore year the study of the Chinese language was thrown open to undergraduates for the first time. Chinese I, the introductory course, was conducted by one of the most brutal men I have ever met. The class had five students, three graduate students and two undergraduates; but our professor was determined to prove his point (that undergraduates could not learn Chinese) by trying to flunk both of us immediately. The other undergraduate collapsed quickly. I, however, was at Harvard on scholarship, and if I flunked, I would lose my scholarship and thus my dreams would end. The professor taught the language by main force—simple visual memorization. We were never taught that almost all Chinese characters have a phonetic element which gives the sound, and an idea element which gives the meaning.

I was put on notice of dismissal within six weeks of joining the course; and since my survival depended on staying at Harvard, I could not flunk, I had to study— until one and two and three in the morning, forcing my memory to inscribe and retrieve Chinese characters.

What we learned in Chinese was almost entirely useless. By the time I graduated from Harvard, I had memorized and could recognize by sight three thousand individual Chinese ideograms and as many more combinations of ideograms; I still have the memory cards on which each is written. But I can no longer recognize more than a hundred of the characters I once mastered, and can no longer read any kind of Chinese. All the characters and all the literature I was taught came from the Chinese classics: we read and translated Confucius and Mencius, histories and ancient odes. None of the spectacular Chinese novels of tradition (and the Chinese invented the novel form almost two thousand years ago), none of the lyric poems of the Tang or the nostalgic poems of the Sung were taught to us. We were taught the classics as if we were training for examinations in the Manchu civil service—and the classics were rules, regulations, moralities, history. And war. Those who think of the Chinese as a sublimely philosophical and peaceful people should be steeped in such Chinese classics. The Chinese tradition seeks order, discipline, moral behavior at all times; and when this order in the mind is affronted, the Chinese system reaches, as their tradition records, paroxysms of violence and ferocity.

Parallel to the path across Boylston Hall was the second direction in which I was invited—to the History Department. And history as it was taught in my four years at Harvard is, in retrospect, a wonder.

The best course in American history was given by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. and Paul Buck. Schlesinger, a magnificent teacher, opened the course by telling us that American history was singularly poor in ideas, deficient in political theory, in philosophic system, in abstractions of all sorts. He insisted that American history swung in regular cycles of sixteen years, from hope to fear, from liberalism to conservatism. He concluded his masterly introductory lecture by saying: “The American people have not been governed by political theory, but purely by opportunism . . . because of this plasticity we have been spared violent and bloody convulsions. . .

A full dozen names and images of teachers remain engraved in memory. All of them were bound by the conviction that history was, in essence, storytelling, and more art than science.

Yet the teacher who, more than any other, spun me off into history as a life calling was a young man who arrived at Harvard only at the beginning of my junior year: John King Fairbank, later to become the greatest historian of America’s relations with China. Fairbank was then only twenty-nine—tall, burly, sandy-haired, a prairie boy from South Dakota; soft-spoken, with an unsettling conversational gift of delayed-action humor; and a painstaking drillmaster. He had himself graduated from Harvard in 1929, but on his way back to the Yard had made a circuitous route via Oxford and Peking to become a specialist in modern Chinese history. He had a freshly minted Ph.D. and was on trial at Harvard as both a tutor and an Orientalist; since I was the only undergraduate majoring in Chinese history and studies, I was assigned to him as tutee. No two young people could have come of more different backgrounds. The tutorial system at Harvard was then in its early years, exploring the idea that each young mind needs an older mind to guide it. Tutors at Harvard now are usually embittered graduate students, rarely, if ever, emotionally committed to the undergraduates they guide. But Fairbank approached me as if he were an apprentice Pygmalion, assigned a raw piece of ghetto stone to carve, sculpt, shape, and polish. He yearned that I do well.

It was not only that I was invited to my first tea party at his home, where I learned to balance a teacup properly; nor that, by observation, I learned proper table manners at a properly set breakfast table in the little yellow cottage where he lived with his beautiful young wife, Wilma. It was his absolute devotion to forcing my mind to think that speeded the change in me. We would talk about China and he would tell me tales of life in Peking as chatter—but only after our work was done. He was insistent that I read. I spent six weeks plowing through St. Thomas Aquinas, which, he agreed, was useless, yet necessary for a professional historian’s understanding. He would make the hardest work a joy, and his monthly assignments were written with a skill and personal attention that no tutor at Harvard, or anywhere else, today gives to his students. One of his assignment memos, which I still treasure, shows how a great teacher goes about his calling.

WHEREAS [read his communication] it is not possible to live (long) without thinking, and not possible to live well without thinking well; and

It is not possible to think well without making distinctions between this and that, or heredity and environment, or cause and effect, or the group and the individual, or the law and the facts, or tactics and strategy, or rights and duties, or man and woman, or nominalism and realism, or communism and fascism, or collectivism and individualism, to say nothing of up and down, or backwards and forwards; and whereas

It is not possible to go very far in making distinctions without making use of categories of thought, such as a category of laws and a category of events, or a category of noumena and a category of phenomena, or a category of spirit and a category of matter; and whereas

It is not possible to think with critical power without being critical of the categories with which one is thinking; and

It is not possible to avoid receiving certain categories at an early age from the contemporary intellectual environment;—


Philosophy is a most necessary and admirable subject, and

You are cordially invited to be present at a meeting on Friday, January 8, 1937, at which there will be a discussion of Whitehead’s volume Science and the Modern World (entire) conducted by none other than Mr. Theodore H. White.

Thus I was introduced to Whitehead’s philosophy, as to myriad other ideas, by Fairbanks loving and disciplined tutelage.

Yet, though he molded me, he was pursuing his own cause, too—which was understanding the revolution in Asia in our time. The fossil sinologists of Harvard’s Oriental Department felt that all Oriental history ended with the end of the Ch’ien-lung dynasty, in 1799. Professor Elisaeff, the department chief, insisted that everything after that date was journalism. Fairbank held otherwise—that history was happening now. He was probably the only man in all Cambridge who recognized that the Long March of Mao Tse-tung, the year before he himself joined Harvard’s faculty, was epoch-making. Thus, then, in my senior year, young John Fairbank was allowed to teach a course—History 83b—on China from the death of Ch’ien-lung down to our times. It was a magnificent series of lectures, ground-breaking in intellectual patterns, and those few students who attended it caught the swell of what was happening in China and Asia from his wry, caustic, surgical stripping of myth from fact, noumena from phenomena, his separating Dr. Fu Manchu and The Bitter Tea of General Yen from what was really going on in China. His course reinforced what my father told me of China and what I felt by instinct. It inflamed my itch to be off, away, and out—to China, where the story lay.

My senior year passed pleasantly enough. I was reading Chinese, steeping myself in history, writing about the Twenty-One Demands, slowly swinging in my politics from socialism to hushed approval of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Graduation in 1938 was a pleasant June day. My mother and my sister came in by streetcar and subway to watch me graduate, and found nothing at all noteworthy in the program’s statement that I had graduated summa cum laude under the rubric “Qui adsecuti sunt summos honores.” That was what they had expected since I had entered the Boston Latin School.

I left at noon, not staying to hear the commencement address by John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir. I was very hastily off that afternoon—by bus to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they were giving a special summer course in reading Chinese newspapers, then back to Boston, then in a hurry to go to China.

Everything had come together in those last few months at Harvard.

In my own mind I was a revolutionary; but in reality I was the creature of other people, of another past, beneficiary of all the Establishment had packed into the Harvard processing system. My summa cum laude degree had won me a $1200 fellowship from the Harvard-Yenching Institute. I could take that up, when I chose, and start on the long run to becoming a professor of Oriental history. But there was another surprise gift from the Establishment, which came in my last month at Harvard, something called the Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship.

The Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship was most important. Sheldon was a childless New England bibliophile who had graduated from Harvard almost a hundred years before. When his widow died in 1908, she had bequeathed in his name half a million dollars for fellowships to let “students of promise” travel for a year outside the United States, with no obligation either to study or to work in the year of wandering.

The grant was $ 1 500—a fortune. For $600 (actually $595.27), I found, 1I could buy a series of tickets that would take me around the world: by U.S. President Lines to London, thence to Paris, thence to Marseille; by Messageries Maritimes to Palestine, thence from Port Said to Hong Kong; then an economy passage from Hong Kong to San Francisco, and bus fare from San Francisco to Boston. This would leave $900 from the total. I could leave $600 of that behind for the family, as my contribution to the budget my mother and I had worked out—twenty dollars a week for eight months. There would still be $300 for me to eat, sleep, and live on as I moved around the world to China. If I could not earn a living in China, if I could not earn enough to help my sister keep the family going back in Boston, I would have to come back and take up the route to my Oriental professorship.

A new thought had also crept in during my senior year—the thought that I could, conceivably, write of history as a newspaperman. Both Charlie Duhig and John Fairbank thought I was not really and truly of the stuff of scholarship. Without being specific, both implied that I had the manners, lust, and ego of someone who might be a journalist. Fairbank had known Edgar Snow in China, and he thought I should try to do what Snow was doing.

So, with Establishment money in my pocket, and Harvard advice in my mind, I had begun to feel around the approaches to reporting. The Boston Globe was not then, as it is now, the best newspaper in Boston. But I was urged to try there before 1 went overseas. The name on the masthead that indicated “boss” was that of the managing editor, Laurence Winship, the father of its present editor, Thomas Winship. Larry Winship was a gruff man, but not frightening. In retrospect, he was the best of the old open-door newspaper editors. In his office on Boston’s newspaper row, the Fleet Street of New England, he would, apparently, receive almost anyone—politicians, “cause” people, cranks, strangers, and Harvard seniors like myself. He gave me a brisk ten-minute hearing. I told him I was going to China, wanted to be a foreign correspondent and write for the Boston Globe. He listened, then said abruptly, All right. He could promise nothing except that he would read what I wrote if I mailed the copy to him personally; and if he liked it, he’d print it and pay for it. That was all, but he turned out to be as good as his word. In the fall of 1938, I set out. I had a letter on stiff white Harvard stationery signed by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, recommending me to the good graces of the entire world as a Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellow of the university. Charles Duhig, custodian of the meatballs at Dudley Hall, had always been upset by my vulgarity of manners and had given me a stern lecture about the graces of the world I was entering (“You’ve got to learn to clean your fingernails, White!”); then, as a gift, he also gave me his father-in-law’s worn-out tuxedo. If I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, he said, I would have to go to diplomatic receptions and I would need a black-tie suit. John Fairbank’s gift was more practical—a secondhand typewriter. My relatives gave me secondhand clothes. I bought a new suitcase and I had two hundred dollars in travelers checks plus one hundred dollars in greenbacks in my wallet to get me to China.

I left Boston on the weekend of the great New England hurricane of September 1938. All the way down to New York on the New Haven Railroad, the shoreline was littered with the wreckage of the hurricane; at New London, a huge ship’s prow, blown on shore, hung within inches of the coach I was riding. It was a dramatic night. The next day I spent at the YMCA in New York and then boarded the SS President Roosevelt where, deep in the hold, above the throbbing engines, I shared a bunk with a young man whose name I still remember—Serafin Aliaga, a Spanish anarchist returning to fight Franco. Since the cause of the Republic was now hopeless, he said, he must therefore go back.

His sense of history was drawing him back to what must have been his death. My sense of history was drawing me outward, with no particular purpose of political passion. I hoped eventually to come back to Harvard. But first I must satisfy curiosity, my absolute lust to see what was happening in the China I had studied. □