‘I Wouldn’t Have Been Nearly as Happy Anyplace Else’

Professor David Nasaw

David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History, retired from The Graduate Center this spring after more than two decades of teaching. The author of acclaimed biographies of William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Carnegie, and Joseph P. Kennedy, Nasaw began his career as a historian of children. Those earlier books include Children of the City: At Work and at Play and Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. He is currently at work on a new book that he expects to be published in fall 2020. On the day of his retirement party, he reflected on his students, his writing, and what makes The Graduate Center special.

Nasaw: We take ourselves very seriously. I’ve taught elsewhere, and I think the students here are the absolute best. They come with open minds. They come from a variety of directions, a variety of schools or from a different career. … Some come after a 10-year wait, a five-year wait. They’re committed. They come here to work.

We’ve been able to establish a community. This place supports scholarship, not only among the faculty, but among the students, with travel grants, more and more research grants, grants to go to conferences, and that’s important.

My philosophy, and I hope it remains the philosophy here, is that I’m training doctoral students for academic positions. But I know damn well, and they know that large numbers of them will not get academic positions. The Graduate Center understands that and offers additional modes of preparation for the outside world. That didn’t happen 10 years ago. And what’s important is that it’s not a secondary track. It’s not, here are our stars who we’re training to write books for academic presses and here are our other graduates. We just don’t do that.

GC: Your first books focused on childhood. How did you come to write the biographies?

Nasaw: I wrote the Hearst biography when Ross Perot was running for president, and I thought to myself, ‘Has there ever been an incredibly rich man who wields media power?’ and Hearst was there. He was my perfect storm. He was wealthy, he had a media empire, and he was ambitious, if not to be president, then to rule the world on his editorial pages.

In each of the biographies I wasn’t just interested in the person, because that doesn’t work. I think biography is an extraordinary form of historical literature.

The Hearst book was about media, the explosion of media and information from newspapers to newsreels to television, and the role they play in politics and culture and society.

The book I did before that was about the industrial revolution. How did the United States of America go from being a backwater to being an industrial giant and along the way create these extremes in wealth and poverty? That was the Carnegie book.

And my Kennedy book. I needed to know about ethnicity and what role it plays in American culture and American life and American politics. There was no better person to seek out those questions than Joseph Kennedy and his children, though they were in the background.

My new book is called The Last Million. It’s on displaced persons who were left behind in Europe when World War II was over, including the Jews who had no homes to go back to and a bunch of eastern Europeans who had collaborated, or had been in a position where they could be accused of collaboration and were afraid of the Red Army. So they left Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine with the German army to come back to Germany where they thought they would find some safety. And then there were hundreds of thousands, millions of Poles and other eastern Europeans who had been brought into Germany as slave laborers, as forced laborers. When the war was over they couldn‘t figure out whether to go home to a devastated Poland that was now under Soviet rule or what to do.

And this book is in response to questions about the postwar period. It’s sort of my anti-“the good war” book, because the war didn’t end. There are now several wonderful books about veterans who came home shattered, and what greeted them was mental illness, depression, divorce. Twenty years later we began to forget that pain, or push it aside because we had had bad wars — Korea and Vietnam, so we clung to what we thought was a good war. And I wanted to complicate that picture and that’s part of what’s going on in this book, too.

GC: It sounds as if you have always been able to combine teaching and writing.

Nasaw: Classroom, writing, and advising students, working with students on dissertations. I think The Graduate Center is one of the rare places that understands how important and how much time it takes to work with students on their dissertations.

GC: What are the highlights of working with students?

Nasaw: A bunch have gotten jobs in Washington, at the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the State Department. Two of them are here. Luke Waltzer runs the Teaching and Learning Center and Peter-Christian Aigner is the deputy directorof the Gotham Center for New York City History

Students have written extraordinary books for trade and university presses.

And a bunch of them have done fascinating things. I’ve got a student who works in the Bard prison program, teaching U.S. history in prisons.

GC: You’ve also managed to have a public career?

Nasaw: That’s what The Graduate Center is and should be. When I came here, the models were not the people who shut themselves up in libraries. The models were Irving Howe, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Alfred Kazin, and Arthur Schlesinger.

They were just as comfortable writing an op-ed for the Daily News or speaking at a high school as they were speaking at a professional conference or writing monographs or articles in scholarly journals.
The Graduate Center has always prized that. Other universities are catching up to us. We’ve been doing that from the beginning. We’re a public university and we take that very seriously and I’ve taken it seriously and I’ve enjoyed it.

I wouldn’t have been nearly as happy anyplace else.

Photo credit: Alex Irklievski

Submitted on: JUN 6, 2019

Category: Faculty | General GC News | History