This column was originally published in a May 3, 1989 issue of the News. It is reprinted today to commemorate the late Edmund S. Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who taught at Yale for more than 30 years. Morgan died on July 8 at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 97.
At Yale as in life, there are different ways of moving on, depending mostly on age. Elderly professors retire, while seniors graduate: The experience separation is not same. And yet, my final few weeks here, I find myself coming back to the leave-taking of a professor who retired three years ago, the teacher of a large lecture course of which I was one face among hundreds. I can’t even claim have known him.
Yet one does not have to be close to a man feel a certain closeness, and everyone who attended Yale at some point in the twenty-odd before his retirement could claim a share of Edmund Morgan, the Sterling Professor of History. By time he left Yale in the spring of 1986, Professor Morgan had guided two generations of Yalies through the early history of their country, and as by his scholarship he taught them fundamental things about the American experience, by his quiet example he offered more subtle lessons, surely as necessary to one’s liberal education as others.
The professor won our trust early. He didn’t tell us history as if it were etched stone, unscathed by the elements, but chose instead to weave the disparate threads together: spin historical yarn on his craftsman’s loom. He cut a quite different figure from those self-conscious speakers who play games with their hands and arms in valiant efforts to strike the correct balance between imposing authority and casual friendliness. While the dons and the bores would thrust deep into their jacket pockets, or clench them behind their backs in a fist, or wave them ever upwards like the Pontiff urging the masses to greater things, Professor Morgan used his hands instead like a measure, spreading his palms before him in a slow, rhythmical manner, as if sifting through the weighty evidence of Time for just truths.
The professor’s topic was the American Revolution, the greatest episode in America’s history, and unusual for professors who lecture on greatness, whether in men or their deeds, modesty prevented him from inserting his presence before his material. Indeed, he hardly looked the part of Hero-Teacher. A small, slightly-built man, his face was haggard with age, and revealed the soft lines of a gentle, unassuming character. His smile was that of a man who seemed more bemused by his success than overly proud of it. From his pulpit, a wooden lectern at the foot of SSS 114, Professor Morgan looked everywhere a kindly, if somewhat vulnerable, man: a reassuring presence in this great hallw hose walls were studded with familiar names from Yale’s history.
He became quickly a friend, and friends have nicknames. We called him “Fast Eddie,” as if the professor were a pesky scrapper who enjoyed coming to blows with the hotheads and blowhards in the tough neighborhood of academia. Certainly Fast Eddie enjoyed a challenge when one came along, but he always took care to treat it with respect before encircling it, gingerly, then bringing it down. Courtesy was a lesson from the book of his subjects, the Founding Fathers, and so necessarily was passed on to us. A gentleman scholar, he played by the Queensbury rules.
The years had had worn away the strength of his voice. Even with the microphone he rigged up at start of each class, his voice seemed at times faraway and indistinct, even somewhat bland in the far reaches of the lecture hall. His remarks were often punctuated by bouts of hollow coughing, which shook his shoulders mercilessly; we worried about him. Yet he would have none of our bother, and when he had steadied himself he would boldly go on, breaking the apprehensive silence with defiance: “You may be getting used to this coughing, but I’m sure as hell hell not!” But not even physical weakness could tarnish the fine sparkle of his lectures. And when the Yale Daily News reported that Professor Morgan planned to take up flying planes upon retirement, few of us could have been very surprised. We knew Fast Eddie was tough.
The professor addressed his students for the last time on the morning of Friday, April 24th, bringing to a graceful end the exhilarating story of American independence. It would have been uncharacteristic for him to mention or even hint at the special import of the occasion, and of course, he didn’t, as if he were the only one in the hall not in the know. But even as the sentimental among us grew restless in our hard wooden stools from nervous anticipation, we certainly didn’t want Professor Morgan to suffer the embarrassment at having a finale thrown unceremoniously upon him. Instead, the professor in his own good time tied together in a neat parcel the various problems facing the young American nation in 1787, coming to an abrupt end ten minutes before the hour, a step ahead of those whose minds had drifted away in thought.
Speaking from the perspective of our difficult century, Professor Morgan assured us with just the right touch of confidence, as he so many times before, that no matter how we looked back on our Revolution, it was, “as it always has been, enough for us.” Looking up quickly, he folded his notes, and bending forwards one last time over his microphone, he bade us a quiet “Thank you,” moving towards the steps at the far side of the stage. The professor stopped at the edge of the stage for an instant, and looking up once more, he haltingly raised his right arm halfway as if in silent tribute to the highest reaches of the hall. And then, as we stood together and applauded, Fast Eddie was off, down the long aisle away from us, his trot breaking into a dash for coveted anonymity. And though he was gone, really before we knew it, we stayed standing for a few minutes more, clapping before an empty, suddenly lonely lectern.
The next three weeks meant for us all a last sustained burst of academic energy before succumbing gratefully to beckoning summer. Once classes ended, the end-of-term parties came then gave way to the rigors of reading period and final exams, a time when the carefully-woven fabric which binds us all to each other gently unravels as we prepare to go our separate ways. Studying for the Morgan final was simply routine, as for any other class; no longer did it seem that we were joined together in a special journey through our early past.
For those of us who had witnessed America’s infancy through the eyes of our instructor, Professor Morgan’s departure seemed to us our rite of passage, when the last redcoat had left America and we were left, as Americans, to sort out our fate. And so when the professor left, so did we the same, and turning from our history books and the sound of his lecture, we came towards the present age, with perhaps a little more hope than before, which to me is the mark of received education; and as I left his class then, I leave Yale now, with a variety of feelings, not the least of which is gratitude.
Eric Weinberger is a 1989 graduate of Yale College. He wrote this column during his senior year.