Without you, Heaven would be too dull to bear,
And Hell would not be Hell if you are there.
— JOHN SPARROW, EPITAPH FOR MAURICE BOWRA
I miss my friend Edward Shils, as I miss many other now dead friends. But these others are dead for me in a way that Edward isn’t quite. He seems never to have left me, and I can write about him today in a way I couldn’t when he died—being enabled, by the passage of time, in the phrase of the House Un-American Activities Committee, to “name names” in a way that wasn’t possible then.
An academic of renown in his own time who passed away in 1995 at the age of 85, Edward published four volumes of essays and papers, a book on civility, another on tradition, a selection of portraits of intellectuals and scholars, and more. But his writing, which often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel, does not convey anything like the full force of his extraordinary personality—a personality that was an amalgam of Samuel Johnson and H.L. Mencken with a strong strain of Jewish wit, Yiddishisms included.
In his will, Edward left me two Jacob Epstein busts—Epstein’s great bust of Joseph Conrad and his self-portrait—that sit in our dining room and a 26-volume collection of the essays of William Hazlitt; and to my wife he left a set of elegant Wedgwood dishes—blue and white, trimmed in gold—that we invariably refer to as “the Edward dishes.” I often think of his remarks on various subjects. Along with recalling amusing things he had said, I occasionally find myself imagining things he might have said. A number of years ago, for example, when at the Ravinia Music Festival, I noticed Edward’s and my lawyer Martin Cohn and his wife walking down to their expensive seats, she wearing a wide-brimmed summer hat, and I thought, channeling Edward, “Marty Cohn is the kind of Jew who buys an extra seat at a concert for his wife’s hat.”
Soon after his death, I had a call from the obituarist of the London Times, who, checking his facts, asked, “He came from railroad money, did he not?” No, he distinctly did not. Edward’s father, a Jewish Eastern European immigrant, was a cigar-maker, a man who sat at a bench in Philadelphia and rolled cigars for a living. Other people thought Edward was English. In World War II, he was seconded to the British army, and because of his proficiency with German was charged with interviewing prisoners of war. That led to a job at the London School of Economics. Later he become a fellow at Kings College, Cambridge, subsequently moving on to become an honorary fellow at Peterhouse at the same university.
By that point, he had acquired not so much an English as a mid-Atlantic accent, which was highlighted by his adoption of a slightly anachronistic vocabulary. He said “district” instead of “neighborhood”; he might call a woman’s dress a “frock”; I had him remove the word “wireless” from an essay he wrote for the American Scholar, when I was that magazine’s editor, and replace it with “radio.” So far as I know, he owned no leisure clothes, never appearing outside his apartment without hat, suit, tie, and walking stick.
The phrase “reinvented himself” doesn’t apply to Edward. Rather, he had an idea of what a serious person should look, speak, and be like, and through force of will he, more than approximated, became that person. He also internationalized himself. During the 1950s, he spent large swatches of time in India. He knew German academic life from the inside, and Isaiah Berlin, R.H. Tawney, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and most of the other leading English intellectuals and scholars of his time were personal acquaintances, in some instances friends.
He was cosmopolitan, which is to say knowledgeable about and at ease in many countries. He introduced me, usually through an invitation to meals, to a number of international scholars: Leszak Kolakowski, Arnaldo Momigliano, Francois Furet among them. After a lunch with Furet, he asked me what I thought of the man. I said that I found him most impressive, but with a slight touch of the furtive about him. “What do you expect?” Edward replied. “He’s a Corsican.”
The teenage Edward Shils went to the then all-boys Central High School in Philadelphia, and thence to the University of Pennsylvania, concentrating on French literature and reading his polymathic way through the library. “My teachers would ask for 20-page papers,” he once told me of his student days, “and I would present them with 80-page ones. It could not have been easy for them.” Edward had no advanced degrees. “Ph.D.,” he once reminded me, “stands of course for Piled Higher and Deeper.”
Early in his adult life, while living in Chicago, Edward went to work on a project led by Louis Wirth, a well-established University of Chicago social scientist. Wirth arranged a job for him in the then famous sociology department at the University of Chicago, and there he stayed. The University of Chicago became the center of Edward’s intellectual life. He spent roughly eight of every 12 months there, the other four usually in England. His own attitude toward the school was mixed. As Churchill viewed democracy as the best of all poor forms of government, so Edward viewed Chicago as the best of all deeply flawed American universities. He pretended not to understand why people would depart it to go off to Harvard, Yale, Princeton. He of course knew they were drawn there by the magnet of Ivy League snobbery.
Under the university’s presidency of Edward Levi, from 1968 to 1975, Edward’s position at Chicago was akin to that of a powerful cardinal at the Vatican. The two Edwards conferred on matters large and small. When graduate students occupied the university’s administration building during the 1960s student protests, Levi, on Edward’s advice, told them to evacuate the building or be removed from the university. Those who chose to remain were summarily expelled, their principles intact but (in many cases) their academic careers ruined. Owing to this decisive action, the University of Chicago was spared the empty, though destructive, tumult and loss of prestige visited on Columbia and Cornell, Michigan and Wisconsin, and other schools that caved in to the student protesters.
Edward Levi departed the presidency of the university in 1975 to become Gerald Ford’s attorney general. Hanna Gray, a historian on the faculty, was his successor. I remember Edward telling me that he called Hanna Gray’s office to discuss some matter, and being given an appointment in October (it was then mid-September). His days as cardinal were over, and he knew it. The university was not the better for it. Edward was less than taken with Hanna Gray. “They say President Gray is tough-minded,” he once told me. “I suppose that means, as I’ve learned, she says ‘f—’ in meetings.”
Edward had a long connection with Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, a department invented to foster interdisciplinary study and accommodate scholars, intellectuals, and writers who didn’t quite fit into traditional academic departments. Edward was himself such a figure; though thought a sociologist, he was closer to a philosopher whose main subject was the organization of society. Hannah Arendt was for a time a member of the Committee on Social Thought and so was the art critic Harold Rosenberg. Edward brought Saul Bellow onto the Committee. He was never chairman of the Committee on Social Thought, but always a power there.
“A bit of a curmudgeon, Edward Shils?” That was a common line on him. A curmudgeon is generally thought of as an ill-tempered, surly person. Edward was no such thing; rather, he was a person who knew his mind and spoke it without looking over his shoulder. He told me that at a dinner party he once queried a married woman who spoke admiringly of Philip Roth about what must be her concomitant admiration for adultery, since that was one of the specialties in Roth’s fiction. When students appeared on the first day of any of Edward’s classes, he declared that he admitted no one who was there for “intellectual tourism.” “As soon as I close the door you are enrolled in the course for good.”
I was once in his apartment during the presidential campaign of 1980 when Allan Bloom came over to report, with much agitation, that Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings had dropped two points in a recent poll. “Now, Allan,” said Edward, “it is true you have not read many books. But you have read 30 or 40 of the world’s greatest books. Those books should have instructed you not to give a good goddamn about two points in some opinion poll. My advice is to return home to reread those 30 or 40 books some more.”
Allan took this with equanimity, or at least seemed to do so. A strange figure, Allan Bloom, volative, febrile, garish. He spoke with a slight stammer, his thoughts travelling faster than his words. He smoked nervously, wore expensive clothes, not infrequently stained by his over-enthusiastic dining. He had himself been an undergraduate and Ph.D. student at Chicago, and his crucial intellectual experience had come in the classrooms of Leo Strauss, who was known for studying philosophy in a Talmudic fashion. I recall being with Edward in a stationery shop when he picked up an elegant unlined notebook and said: “Ah, Joseph, this notebook, just the gift for Leo Strauss, who believes everything of true import the great philosophers thought was to be discovered between the lines.”
If Edward was less than impressed by Leo Strauss, he was scarcely more so by Allan, even though he helped bring Bloom back to the University of Chicago from a job at the University of Toronto, and allowed that he was an influential teacher.
Allan cultivated the friendship of Saul Bellow, and the two team-taught classes. A few people who took these classes report that in them Bloom served as the master of ceremonies, Bellow the star performer, with the former paying heavy obeisance to the latter: “Mr. Bellow will now explain the true meaning of the Fool in Lear.” Along with obeisance, Bellow, a novelist who invented very little, derived from Allan Bloom the character of Ravelstein, protagonist of his final novel.
The closer Allan Bloom became to Saul, the further he departed from Edward. By the time Allan arrived back at the University of Chicago, Edward and Saul had gradually but relentlessly been distancing themselves from each other. The nature of the distance is revealed in Bellow’s letters, which begin with his writing “I love Edward Shils” and toward the close by his writing “Edward Shils is a boil.”
I owe to Saul my friendship with Edward, because he introduced us. At that time, and for most of the 1970s, Saul and I were close friends. He was 22 years older than I, but we had in common the subject of the city of Chicago in all its glories and corruptions, many shared literary tastes, and racquetball, which we played together usually once a week. No surprise to anyone who has read his fiction, Saul could be charming and very funny. Of my getting to and putting away a difficult shot, he said: “Damn, you’re quicker than a sperm.” I once described the insecure behavior of an intellectual. “’Insecurity?’” Saul asked, “What happened to the word ‘cowardice’?” He read me, in manuscript, portions of his novel-to-be, Humboldt’s Gift. The morning in 1976 that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he called to let me know about it.
Friendship, alas, was not Saul’s strongest suit. He was touchier, in his friend Isaac Rosenfeld’s simile, “than a fresh burn,” and always on the qui vive for criticism, insult, betrayal. These could come in various forms, personal and impersonal. Erich Heller once told me that, after he had written an essay on the fate of the novel, Saul told him off, taking it as an attack on him. Saul broke with me because a woman named Ruth Miller, who was then writing a book on him, told him I had misquoted him during a symposium at the Plaza Hotel in New York—which I hadn’t. Saul often repaid betrayals with acid portraits of his supposed betrayers in his novels. An old boyhood friend, an attorney named Samuel Freifeld, who is said to have given him bad advice during his, Saul’s, third divorce, appears in Humboldt’s Gift as a flasher. He was famously a literary Bluebeard, killing each of his ex-wives with poison ink.
That the friendship between Edward and Saul could not endure should not have been surprising. Not only was each a powerful personality, but both were put-down artists extraordinaire, and so their deepening rift was perhaps inevitable. This was fueled, I believe, by Saul’s feeling that Edward was always judging him and finding him wanting. He was probably not wrong. Edward did come to think Saul a less than scrupulous teacher, a poor judge of women, and a man who didn’t make the most of his artistic gifts. On this last, he felt that Saul should have extended his novelistic range beyond the subject of the discontent of intellectuals; and in the editing of the one novel that he did so, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Edward had a large hand, according to Bellow’s biographer James Atlas.
In the realm of put-downs, sometimes I would receive back-to-back calls from Edward and Saul, each taking down the other.
“Joe,” Saul would ask, “what’s up?” When I told him I had had dinner with Edward the night before, he asked, “Ah, does he still have a leather palate?” The joke here is that Edward was a gourmand and a superior cook.
“Joseph,” Edward would ask in a phone call 20 or so minutes later, “have you heard from Saul recently?” After I told him I had just done so, he said, “Saul is easily imagined as one of those Jews who wears his hat in the house, and prefers to talk turkey, his hat pushed back, while sitting on a kitchen chair turned backwards.”
Saul once told me, which I hadn’t known before, that Edward had had not one but two failed marriages, and did so with malicious pleasure.
That morning in 1977 when the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, Edward told me to be sure to not to call Saul, who was likely to be sulking about not having won it for a second time.
In later years, long out of touch with Bellow, I heard only Edward’s put-downs. When Saul wrote to a colleague about the conditions he met with when he lived briefly in the house once owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Edward said, “You know our Saul. Houses or women, if it’s for free he takes it.” When Saul attempted to get jobs on the Committee for Social Thought for his former lady friends, Edward told me that he wasn’t about “to let Saul turn the Committee into a rest home for his old nafkes.”
At the end, with Edward on his deathbed from cancer in his 85th year, Saul called to ask if it would be all right if he came over. Edward instructed the old friend who was staying with him to tell Saul he could not, for “I don’t want to make it any easier for the son of a bitch.” After Edward’s death, Saul put an Edward-like character in Ravelstein, a character to whom he attributed a pretentious library, a bad smell, and probable homosexuality, none of it true.
Edward was often critical of other intellectuals and academics. “You know, Joseph, I fear that members of the Committee on Social Thought labor under the delusion that Richard Rorty is an intelligent man.”
Of Hannah Arendt he said, “No great chachemess, our Hannah.” (The word roughly means “wise and learned female.”)
He remarked of a left-wing philosophy professor at Harvard named Morton White, “This little Abie Kabbible, he wants revolution.”
I once entered Edward’s apartment to find him razoring an introduction by Alfred Kazin out of a copy of a book. “I don’t want any part of that wretched fellow in my apartment,” he said.
He mocked Daniel Bell for his pseudo-scholarship; was fond of reminding Philip Rieff, who had extravagant pretensions to being an English gent, that his father had been a kosher butcher on Chicago’s south side; and said of David Riesman, who attempted to pass himself off as a WASP, that “at least he has never taken undue advantage of being Jewish.”
Among the living (of the day) he admired Sidney Hook, James Q. Wilson, Edward Banfield, Hilton Kramer, R.K. Narayan, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Peter Brown, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and a small number of others.
What Edward saw in me, a man in his early 30s, some 27 years his junior, with no great intellectual accomplishments to his credit apart from having published in a few okay magazines, I do not know. Whatever it was, I remain thankful for it. We also quickly used our full first names with each other, Edward and Joseph, never Ed and Joe. This, too, was a rare privilege, for I knew Edward to continue to address people he had known and even much liked for decades, including former students, by their last names.
One afternoon Edward said to me, “Joseph, you and I have talked about so many subjects and so many writers, but we are both too civilized ever to talk about Shakespeare.” We talked about nearly everything else. He read more widely in literature than any social scientist I have known, and the novel was one of our subjects. We were both great admirers of Joseph Conrad and Willa Cather. What we didn’t talk all that much about was politics. We were both strong anti-Communists, and such left-wing days that either of us had known were well behind both of us. Intellectuals of Edward’s generation did not descend to discussing American party politics.
After the student protest movement, Edward felt that the more deleterious political mischief was arriving from the left, but, then, exposure to university life will do that to one. If Edward were alive today, my sense is that he would have been appalled by Donald Trump’s ignorance yet mildly amused by his effrontery. He would have considered Barack Obama callow, shallow, a less than first-class graduate student.
Edward phoned me nearly every day when he was in Chicago, and we met at least once a week, usually to go to dinner, though I sometimes took him (he did not drive) to the various Chicago neighborhood shops for the Lithuanian bread, Hungarian sausages, seafood, and other comestibles he favored. He admired shopkeepers and thought well of the city’s various ethnic groups—Poles, Greeks, Italians, Irish—who scrupulously maintained the small lawns before their bungalows. He enjoyed the stories I would bring him about the decidedly unintellectual members of my own family, such as my older, considerably overweight cousin Moe Mizeles, whom I had last seen sitting in his kitchen methodically devouring a pound cake, every so often looking up at a Cubs game on the small television set he had installed there, and calling out, “Give it a zetz!”
Discovering new restaurants in the city gave Edward especial pleasure: a chili place on the near west side, Greek restaurants on Halsted Street, two or three restaurants in Chinatown. I took much pleasure in introducing him to Ben Moy’s restaurant The Bird, which served Chinese but with an elegance and unfailing subtle flavor neither of us had ever encountered. We began to go there once a week, even though it required a 30-mile round-trip drive from Edward’s apartment in Hyde Park. Mr. Moy soon allowed Edward the run of his kitchen. Mrs. Moy, whose family before the revolution had the exclusive rights to the sale of Philip Morris cigarettes in all of China, paid him great deference.
A meal at The Bird would occasionally stir reminiscences in Edward of Strulewitz’s Restaurant on Roosevelt Road, which he had frequented during the Depression. He would recount the elaborate and heavy meals at Strulewitz’s, always beginning with chopped liver and ending with strudel, and end by noting that the entire meal might have cost 85 or 95 cents. The restaurant, he noted, was open 364 days a year; he suspected that on Yom Kippur they served from the back door. He told me he asked Mr. Strulewitz how he was able to produce such splendid fare. “Simple,” Strulewitz replied. “I buy fresh. My Yiddenesses cook it up.”
I rarely left Edward’s company or hung up the phone after one of his calls without learning something new or amusing. Knowing him in the close way he allowed me to know him was, I now understand, the most fortunate intellectual event of my life. He was not formally my teacher and would never have claimed to be my mentor. He was instead a dear friend who was also a powerful influence. My friendship with Edward broadened and deepened my outlook, helped me establish steady intellectual standards, gave the word “serious” a new meaning for me, and in countless ways enriched and made the world a more amusing place. He will soon be dead 25 years, and I miss him still.