I can hear the snow melting as I type these words. I am leading a tour of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza for a colleague’s class later this morning. It should be warm enough but hopefully not too squishy out there. This past Tuesday I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, give the 10th annual John Patrick Diggins Memorial lecture. I took a class on the Cold War with Jack Diggins in Fall 2004, fifteen years ago. He died in 2009, the same year my own father died. That these things were now so long ago is extraordinary to contemplate.
Professor Delbanco spoke movingly about fugitive slaves prior to the American Civil War, basing his lecture on his new book The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Delbanco is not a historian per se but an English and American Studies professor. He brought a strong narrative drive to the topic, touching on the writing of Melville, Emerson, and Frederick Douglass to name just three. One thing that made the talk so affecting was the human detail. It is one thing to say that 750,000 or more people died in the Civil War; it is another to give a sense of the human drama of individual lives a voice. As the cynical but accurate saying goes: one death is a tragedy, but one million deaths is a statistic. Delbanco also infused a sense of humility into his talk, something that is too often lacking in the writing and presentation of history. Who among us can say what we would have done had we lived in another time and place? What will our own disenchants say about us and the decisions we made, individually and as a society? One must embrace complexity. I could not think of a more fitting talk in the memory of John P. Diggins.