The Old Account Was Settled
There’s a country gospel song about our debt of sin. It goes:
The old account was settled long ago.
I’ve been reckoning up accounts that ordinarily get settled in young adulthood, when you figure out what you owe your parents. And what you owe yourself, if your life is to have its own record to stand on.
In my possession is something an archivist has called “a trove”: the papers that belonged to Henry M. Rosenthal, my father. They include his journals spanning three decades amidst people who marked American intellectual life from the 1920’s to the mid-1950’s; correspondence that’s sometimes quite dramatic; unpublished MSS, fiction and nonfiction; published essays and reviews; papers relating to his and my mother’s Holocaust rescue work.
In June of 1940, Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and did more than anyone else to make it a crime under international law, wires from Sweden:
“Trying to get some contributions friends.
Save me. Wire. Letters too late.
I see the public man. I see the private man. Along certain lines, HMR is more achieved, more brilliant than I expected. Along others, more frustrated and thwarted than I knew.
People thought the world of him, as this letter from Columbia University philosophy professor Horace L. Friess attests.
“It is rare indeed to find a friend who goes beside one’s spirit with as much of an ideal brotherly quality as Henry does with mine. … But what comes chiefly to mind is this. There is a gripping sense of work to be done in the world and of the many gifts which it requires, such as fortitude and incorruptibility, understanding, imagination, and detachment, trained skill and perseverance and generous love.”
You don’t find a Columbia academic writing that kind of letter every day.
Even ten years ago, when I was a reasonably well-published philosopher, I would not have been able to come to a balanced assessment of this trove, distinguishing the achieved work from what’s unrealized. I would’ve been too magnetized by him. He’s ever-fresh, even on yellowed paper.
Do I have what is so charmingly called a “father-fixation”? Nah. I had a remarkable father. There’s a difference.
When Jerry and I were in Denver, we had lunch with a very senior philosopher who, as a young man, had crossed paths with my father. What he recollected was his “presence.”
At a certain point in my long fight to get my job back, my case came before an Arbitrator. My father was asked to testify regarding one of the matters that had come up. Under oath, he answered several questions from my counsel, the union lawyer. As he spoke, the hearing room took on the hush of a cathedral. The “Corporation Counsel,” who represented the City University, had a right to cross-examine. He waived it.
Later I described the incident to a lawyer friend. About the silence of the Corporation Counsel, my friend commented, laughing,
“No. You don’t mess with that.”
I am compiling a Master List of these materials, describing their contents for the archivist. The shorter pieces — often concerning the Jewish spirit — strike me as gems. I am making sure I have duplicates of those, for posting on academia.edu. The two introductions I wrote for his posthumous book, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, are already posted on that site. They get hits from all over the world.
Is the old account settled by this time?
There are some accounts
that don’t need to be settled.
They can be left open.