by Irwin Edman (Viking 1938, Penguin Books 1943)
This is the sort of book that doesn’t get written these days, brought into being by the sort of man who doesn’t himself get produced any more.
Irwin Edman was a philosopher, essayist, and pretty good poet – with the kind of sensibility that gives itself room enough to stretch to the limit of its power to feel and observe. He taught philosophy at Columbia University, being of the generation old enough to have been teaching when my father (class of 1925) was an undergraduate there. In fact, his reminiscences include a passing reference to a student who could only have been my father: “the withering cynic of his class, whose god was [Jonathan] Swift” and who, despite all that, surprisingly became “a mystical and fanatical rabbi.”
I very much doubt my father would have endorsed that portrait. He always grinned, as if at something irresistibly comical, whenever the name of Irwin Edman came up.
The author’s reminiscences include a brief glimpse of New York City (my home town) in the years 1900 – 1910, when he was a boy. He “grew up … in simple gemutlich Manhattan, through which one could cheerfully ride a bicycle from the farms in outlying Harlem to Forty Second Street and Fifth Avenue … that friendly simple town … full of brownstone houses … and German beer gardens … open-air trolleys that took on exciting adventures … of the neighbors … shouting ‘Get a horse’ to goggled automobilists” and so on and on into the fabled past. One time, he records being stopped by a “ragamuffin about my own age” who demanded that he “Gimme all you got.” Our author was about to deliver his entire fortune, which came to twenty-five cents in coin, when “with some singular surge of moral scruple,” he asked the young tough, “’what do you want to do with it?’” When he was told that it would go to buy cigarettes, young Edman urged his assailant not to spend it that way. “They’re coffin nails,’ I said; ‘they’re bad for you, and you’ll die early. You really oughtn’t to smoke, you know.’” At that, the would-be junior mugger returned it all — the watch, the fountain pen and the twenty-five cents — and thereafter told his buddies in crime to leave young Edman alone. Our professor of philosophy comments with wry realism: “It’s the only moral conquest I can remember making.”
We get a picture of the Columbia College of Edman’s student days. His teachers included Frederick J. E. Woodbridge who “educated a whole generation of students in philosophy … [including] Morris Cohen and Sidney Hook and J. H. Randall, Jr. and Herbert Schneider.” I asked Jerry about Woodbridge. He was, Jerry said, a naturalist of the common sense variety, not the “throw the furniture overboard to lighten the ship” kind of naturalist. He had no hesitation in quoting poetry, great literature or scripture. He revived interest in Aristotle, who had long been dismissed as of antiquarian interest only. He founded the Journal of Philosophy, one of the premier philosophical journals. He didn’t require that an object be put to a practical test, or set one to problem-solving, in order to be worth attending to. His was a summons to intellectual vision.
Woodbridge and John Dewey were the most influential and honored teachers of their time, which extended from the beginning of the twentieth century into its first three or four decades. As Dewey’s student, Edman underwent a kind of about face. Dewey lectured without eloquence, “very slowly in a Vermont drawl … and … hardly seemed aware of the presence of a class.” It was only when Edman looked over his notes after class that he discovered, “what had seemed so casual, so rambling, so unexciting, was of an extraordinary coherence, texture, and brilliance. … Not every day or in every teacher does one overhear the palpable processes of thought.”
Aside from its portraits of a vanished New York, his teachers and later students, the chapters also range and rove over the experiences of an attentive and thoughtful traveler in the time between the two world wars. The book’s original publication date was 1938. “We came to look … even on the living world of Europe with something of the aesthetic traveler’s eyes with which we viewed its past. We gathered vaguely from the newspapers on the Continent that there were ominous matters afoot … armies of occupation and starved populations … [but] somehow, to one bemused young American at least, these things at the time seemed more unreal than the beautiful surface of the past by which one’s eyes and imagination were enriched.”
Though the author cautions against using these surfaces of the past – or for that matter, the tokens of an imagined utopian future – for escapist purposes, even so, at the end he rather celebrates the refreshment afforded by what he is not ashamed to call “the Ivory Tower.” By that he means the inner refuge where, if only for a season, one may “love art in the sense of loving life where it is at once rich and clear” and where “one must retreat to the Ivory Tower for refreshment or for understanding” or “perhaps deserting the realm of philosophy for that of poetry, and exact analysis for the pleasures of a waking dream.”
What shall I say in conclusion about this intelligently detached revisiting of what is now a bygone era? The author has shown personal toughness sufficient to protect his own rather delicate and wide-ranging sensibility.
I respect that.