Tom Gleason’s Liberal Education: Memoir with Music

Call this a musical-conversational extension on the memoir of a beloved teacher, the historian of Russia at Brown University, Abbott Gleason, known as Tom. We’re connecting dots from Tolstoy to Orwell to Louis Armstrong in a big roomful of friends at Brown’s Watson Institute.

Tom Gleason might be everybody’s dream of an intellectual mentor: there are touches of Mr. Chips about Tom, and of his friend George Kennan, and of my big brother Peter, and your big brother, too, if you’re blessed to have one. It’s my thought anyway that if you assemble a dozen or so people of Tom Gleason’s range and reading and curiosity and conversational talent, you’ve got yourself a university.

A Liberal Education is the title of his memoir. It’s the private side of a career in Russian studies coinciding with four decades of Cold War. It warms and deepens my pleasure in the book to have known Tom well from odd angles: our daughters were college roommates; we’ve listened to jazz bands many Monday nights at Bovi’s Tavern in East Providence; we read War and Peace together in a small group two summers ago, then Moby Dick last summer. The Brothers Karamazov is next, in summer of 2010…

The fun of the book is in the disgressions — to the Tolstoyan family farm in Connecticut where young Tom spent his summers, where “workhorses… and a team of massive white oxen lingered, long after tractors and hayloaders were the rule on the more serious farms in the neighborhood… The haying was all done manually, with pitchforks, and many a wobbly load slid or topped off the wagon before it could be brought home to the barn. Farm work was usually over in time for drinks at the Big House before the sun had sunk much below the yardarm…”

The fun of our conversation is in our version of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, as Tom Gleason free-associates on the music of Bela Bartok, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Tom’s Harvard roommate John Harbison.

Maybe the meat of things is a reflection on the academic wars that came with Tom Gleason’s job:

CL: You we born into the Cold War, in a certain sense. You kept your powder dry in it. But in the book, as in life, you observed all the high and low politics of it, the ideological and academic politics of the Cold War period. So in the end, Tom, what the hell was it all about? Over here and over there, who got it right? Who, in retrospect, had wisdom on that huge subject?

TG:  Well, I’m not sure that getting it right and being wise are exactly the same thing. As far as getting it right goes, I tend to think — and I was a sort of left center person on the Cold War — the people on the two extremes, further to my right and further to my left, got it more interestingly at least, if not absolutely more right. By that I mean people like my colleague the British historian Michael Cox, who teaches at the University of Wales, and his Trotskyite friends always had a view that the Soviet Union was conceived in sin and betrayal, and it didn’t really belong in the world and it would someday pass away — and of course from their point of view, be replaced by something that was truly revolutionary, as Trotsky had believed.  And on the other side, my more conservative colleagues Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, also from a quite different point of view believed that the Soviet Union did not belong in the modern world.  They believed that any nation or any empire which denied the market and denied the economic realities of the world, would not ultimately survive.  So in a certain sense the two extremes met, behind my back, so to speak, and in many ways they were the people who were sort of least surprised – Martin Malia being another one of the conservative ones.  But I think the two extremes were not necessarily the wisest people.  I think the wisest people in dealing with the cold war were those who tried to question their own motives and tried to question themselves and tried to take it one step at a time… I think the cold war got us into places where rhetorical flights could take us out of ourselves and get us well beyond where we wanted to be.  Once in a while I would catch myself saying something and my little super-ego would sort of pick itself up and rub its eyes and say “I’ve been asleep all this time, did I hear what you just said?”

Abbott (Tom) Gleason in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 1, 2010.

It’s a nice Gleasonesque thought that the folks who saw the Cold War prophetically were his adversaries at far opposite ends of the argument, and the very last people you’d have asked to do something about it.

Guest List
Abbott "Tom" Gleason
  emeritus professor and historian of Russia at Brown University and a former director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.    

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