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Daniel Aaron, 1912-2016

On April 30, Baffler contributor and friend Daniel Aaron succumbed to complications from pneumonia at the age of 103. A scholar of plain-speaking eloquence, which flowed from his mastery of the American literary canon, Aaron developed a deep and complex relationship with radical critics of U.S. society.

Faithful readers of The Baffler will find in Aaron’s life and works several notions dear to the magazine’s critique of conformity in the American social order. Among these was his fear that the highly bureaucratic Human Resources offices and Admissions departments of the contemporary university were weeding out some of the most creative souls in our society. Aaron missed the “lonely fellows or oddballs” allowed at Harvard in the late 1930s: “One had a passion for snakes; another for Vilfredo Pareto; another turned his room into a gambling casino.”

Dan Aaron gave generously of his time to many late-twentieth-century free spirits and oddballs. I consider myself lucky to be among them. Abandoned as hopeless losers by our Harris tweed-clad academic advisers, these free spirits and oddballs would be adopted by Aaron, who soon gave us the encouragement to publish our ideas and not be beaten down by the putative winners in academe. He looked out for many marginalized souls whose careers had otherwise been snuffed out by academic kingmakers enthralled with what the conservative historian John Lukacs liked to call sleek mediocrities repackaged as brilliant.

In my last conversation with him, Aaron was pondering the ongoing research of Canadian scholars Alison Mountz and Keegan Williams exploring Harvard’s elimination in 1948 of its program on Geography, an action deemed especially urgent by the university’s leadership when they learned of a sexual relationship between the male chair and a male lecturer in the department. Aaron himself had been a steadfast friend of F.O. Matthiessen, a major literary scholar driven to suicidal despair by the homophobic atmosphere and crusading anti-communist investigations of the era.

In 2010, President Obama presented Aaron with the National Humanities Medal, in part a belated recognition of his role in founding the Library of America in 1979. Aaron had been orphaned in childhood and raised by his Uncle Charlie, who told the youthful ne’er-do-well that he would most likely end up as “a banana vendor” selling fruit on the streets of Chicago. So a lifetime achievement award from the president for helping to create the Library of America may have brought smiles to those still brimming with the Horatio Alger outlook on the American Dream.

In talks with Aaron, the literary critic Edmund Wilson had bemoaned that so many masterworks of American literature had gone out of print. France had Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, created by Jacques Schiffrin in 1931 with the aim of producing outstanding editions of the works of literary giants such as Balzac, Baudelaire, Montaigne, and Rousseau. Though Schiffrin was chased out of France by the Nazis in 1940, his enterprise lived on, and now increasingly includes world literature outside of the Francophone world. Aaron’s U.S.-centered Library of America, today claims around 300 volumes. While Aaron admired the LOA’s thematic volumes on central crises confronting the United States such as reporting on Civil Rights, Vietnam, and World War II, he regretted that commercial pressures led his team to reject some of his ideas. He long believed that the Emersonian individualist John Jay Chapman and the social critic Thorstein Veblen, both of whom delivered bracing commentary about plutocracy’s reign in the United States, deserved their own LOA volumes.

Aaron missed the “lonely fellows or oddballs” allowed at Harvard in the late 1930s.

Aaron’s own work as a literary scholar is sometimes overlooked by the high theorists of contemporary lit-crit and postmodernity. But his Writers on the Left, published in 1961, provided a model for the social and political history of literary intellectuals. Moreover, he rescued scholarship from the hectoring anti-communism of the 1950s, even as democratic socialists such as Irving Howe initially faulted Aaron for failing to denounce communism with the requisite ferocity.

Aaron thought that the climate of sanctimonious condemnation rendered social observers less able to see how American left literary figures possessed indigenous roots of creativity and could not be understood if they were portrayed merely as servile lackeys of Moscow. He hoped the academic mainstream might step back from the prevalent style of Cold War vituperation, though he also collected many exemplars of over-the-top left polemics, including one pre-Popular Front Marxist who thundered against “Neo-Kantian bandits” in academe.

When asked, however, why he was not as fearful of American Communists as many of his Cold War liberal colleagues, Aaron evoked the memory of journalist Edwin Lahey, an early Nieman Fellow, who had declared that most meetings of the Communists in Cambridge were “as interesting as one of your infernal New England clambakes.”

Meanwhile, Aaron had been a dynamic participant in the early postwar sessions of the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. Amidst the Austrian Alps, he was confronted by a German participant who earnestly declared in thick Hans and Franz-accented English what his nation now needed to do: “We Germans must learn tolerance. We must compel people to be tolerant.”

One of Aaron’s most trenchant commentaries zeroed in on the artistry of Objectivist philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, whose resurgent influence on Paul Ryan and other contemporary proponents of rawhide capitalism has made her a frequent Baffler target. In the conclusion to his chapter “Literary Scenes and Literary Movements” for The Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), Aaron called The Fountainhead

a crude biographical novel with a Homeric soap-opera plot about the travails and ultimate triumph of a Nietzschean architect, a triple-pronged foray against collectivism, altruism, and mysticism, and a celebration of ‘rational self-interest.’ To vindicate his individuality, the hero blows up his own housing development, because ‘second-raters’ have viciously tampered with his designs. He is improbably exonerated by a jury who swallow his un-Niebuhrian thesis that happiness is an inalienable right.

For Aaron, surveying the postwar landscape with his familiar sweeping eye, “two years after Ayn Rand’s hymn to freedom, President Roosevelt died, and a real bomb exploded over Hiroshima . . . During the years since Hiroshima, the ‘Bomb’ has proved far more portentous than Halley’s Comet. It continues to haunt the world.”

When Aaron entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in 1929, English literature was too often all about British literature. In many roving teaching engagements from Belfast to Belgrade, from Sussex to Salzburg, Aaron helped introduce Europeans to a more expansive canon, and to the very idea of an American literature and civilization.

Aaron helped introduce Europeans to a more expansive canon, and to the very idea of an American literature and civilization.

With his own particular brand of humor, Aaron made a project of recovering words that had been purged from the English language or fallen into disuse and forgotten. In several issues of The Baffler he contributed a feature called Daniel’s Dictionary, accompanied by cheeky artwork from Victor Kerlow. In one such dispatch, he introduced readers to the word “chaosticist – A believer in and promulgator of the doctrine of ultimate disorder. Chaosticists are fatalists. For them history is an unbroken tale of fuck-ups and catastrophes. They relish what they deplore. Chaosticists are doomsters. Henry Adams was a Chaosticist Supreme.”

Though regarded by Aaron as a “patriot exhorter,” Walt Whitman worried in Democratic Vistas (1871) that “unprecedented materialistic advancement” greets a social order “cankered, crude, superstitious, and rotten.” Indeed, he feared that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but is infinitely greater” as “the great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism.”

Daniel Aaron held out hope that at its best, “American literature, for all its affirmative spirit” could also deliver “the most searching and unabashed criticism of our national limitations that exists.” Sharpening this critical edge in our culture and literature may be the best way to honor his legacy.