Jay Winter is a star. Author of many books on modern Britain, a native New Yorker who taught at Cambridge for twenty-two years before Yale lured him back across the Atlantic two years ago, he's the kind of globally connected scholar who always keeps a bag packed. Now he's flying off to France to speak at the tenth anniversary of the Museum of the Great War, which he co-founded.
Now he's in London for a long weekend, hammering out a draft of a cultural history of WW I metropolitan Europe with a team of a dozen scholars. Oh, and there's his Emmy, too, for his PBS documentary on WWI.
There it stands, adding glamour to the neo-Gothic dimness of his office in Yale's Hall of Graduate Studies as Winter talks to me about history as public property. Is there a happier intellectual entrepreneur than an ex-Marxist with an Emmy on his office mantle?
But the heart of Yale is undergraduate education; and though a newcomer among the giants of Yale's history department - legendary scholar-teachers such as John Gaddis, Jonathan Spence, Paul Kennedy - Winter has quickly won a following.
His lecture course on 20th-century Britain meets in the chapel at Harkness Hall, its vaulting ceiling and lead-paned cathedral windows looming in churchly dissonance with the undergraduate motley of forty or so students sprawled among rows of auditorium seating. A gum-chomping girl in a leather jacket blows a big pink bubble. Winter arrives, a dapper 56-year-old in a chocolate-brown suit. Lecture notes in one hand, his other hand jingling keys in his pocket, he stands onstage in front of the podium. Today's topic is the nature of equality in postwar Britain.
"Good morning," he begins, crisply. "I want to present an argument."
Winter's lecturing style is formal, understated and thrilling. There's something faintly prosecutorial about him, and it isn't just the snappy suit. "Look at the way this argument works," he'll tell his students. Or: "Here's the claim I'd like to advance. It's a contested claim, but it's one that I think will make sense, in light of the evidence I'm going to advance later."
Hypothesis, evidence, conclusion: History is a courtroom, and you have to make your case. Unlike a prosecutor, however, Winter doesn't insist on his interpretation as the only valid one - "historians can accept reasonable doubt much better than lawyers can," he tells me. Despite the supreme confidence of his delivery, his lectures never let you forget the tentative nature of historical conclusions. "He makes controversial arguments in class," notes student Michael Horn, "and then the readings he assigns take the opposite viewpoints. It really shows you how history is constructed." History, as Winter teaches it, is all about asking good questions and drawing the strongest possible conclusions. "That to me is of lasting importance in whatever profession students go into," he says. "The feeling that you can sift through an enormous amount of evidence and say, `my rational understanding of this problem presents an answer this way.'"
The brand of history Winter practices, cultural history, attempts what he calls an "anthropology of the past," using old diaries, letters, photographs, post cards and the like to establish "the mental furniture people carried around with them." Winter himself has an extraordinarily well-furnished mind. He seems to know everything. Whether it's a quick rundown of the varieties of European anarchism, or the novels of Dickens, or the politics of French, English and German secondary education, his off-the-cuff responses in class often astound. Whatever his students ask, he gives back something of value. And he does it with near-freakish fluency. Fantastic sentences, loaded with subordinate clauses, roll cleanly off his lips; he seems to think not merely in complete thoughts, but complete chapters.
His special subject is war. Winter grew up in New York City "in the shadow of the Second World War" - much of his mother's Polish-Jewish family perished in the Holocaust - and went to college at Columbia during Vietnam. There he fell under the sway of the distinguished historian, Fritz Stern, whom Winter calls "my first real teacher." Forget the pre-med plans; from now on, history would be his life. "In 1965 I took Stern's seminar of the First World War, and thirty-seven years later, I'm still in the seminar. I haven't finished yet."
It's hard to imagine a better seminar leader than Winter himself. I ask him about the art of running a discussion. "There's always a destination," he says, "one central idea I want to bring across in each class. When I hear something in the students' comments that's adjacent to the central point, I try to draw it out - or if it's going the wrong way, turn it upside down." This may sound easy. But imagine conducting an orchestra whose players aren't sure what the music is, and trying to shape a symphony from their blaring noises. Now imagine that some of the musicians don't feel like picking up their instruments, while others never stop blowing their own horns.
I sit in on Winter's seminar on World War One. The day's topic, war literature, focuses on "The Soldiers' Tale," a survey of soldiers' memoirs by a Princeton professor and WWII veteran named Samuel Hynes. Winter is criticizing Hynes for what he calls "the essentializing of experience." His argument is complicated, but comes down to the claim that understanding war is reserved to those who have fought it - "that only soldiers can talk about war," Winter says, "and no one else."
"I disagree." A bright student named Kate, a thin-faced girl in glasses, white shirt and down vest. "I don't think that's fair to Hynes."
"Good!" Winter says. "Why not?"
A spirited discussion follows, Winter bringing in other students and steering back to the authenticity of direct experience in soldiers' narratives - "the authorial majesty of people who have been to hell and back." He refers to a WWII account Hynes cites, of GIs on a Pacific island sunning themselves while in the distance Japanese soldiers leap from a cliff to their deaths. "That's the soldiers' tale to Samuel Hynes - that bizarre, uncanny, dreadful mix of elements that you and I - thank our lucky stars - have never seen."
It's a succinct and dramatic summary of Hynes' "essentializing," and there's a silence as students take it in.
"Um..." The smart student, irrepressible. "I don't think that's quite exactly `The Soldiers' Tale.'"
Winter, listening, shows a sneaking little smile.
After class he tells me he enjoys the esprit de combat of a lively seminar. "Of course, if you engage in this kind of combative exchange, you can lose! I don't mind taking the risks." Some colleagues do mind, he notes. "They'll guard their authority by distance. That's a legitimate style, but it's not mine." As for Kate, he tells me, he sees a lot of potential there. "I think she's testing me to see whether I have the patience to listen until she actually has something to say that's worth hearing. It's her way of trying to find a teacher." By finding a teacher, Winter doesn't mean any teacher, but rather the teacher - the one whose course you stay in for the rest of your life.
The next class, a few days later, picks up where the last one left off. After a short pep talk on paper-writing, Winter yields to a student, Christine, for a brief presentation on the French writer and WWI veteran, Céline, and his bitterly misanthropic book, "Voyage to the End of the Night." Céline, Christine says, hated the war and the people who started it. "He rejects the idea of honor and comradeship. He thinks anyone patriotic is an example of everything that is insane."
Winter nods appreciatively. Céline, he adds, also hated traditional war memoirs and the people who read them. There's a coherence to Céline's misanthropy, Winter is suggesting; a rejection of the kind of humanism that laments war but, in commemorating it, affirms it. Céline, in a sense, hates us. "This notion that a writer hates his readers is fascinating. Céline is laughing at us. He's laughing at us because we think war literature is about humane values."
"But wait a minute." The smart girl breaks in. "If Céline hates his readers, then isn't he actually doing the same thing other authors are doing - exorcising his own ghost?"
"Is that what he's doing?" Winter asks. "I thought he was making money."
It's a crafty response. In coming off as abrupt, even rude, Winter is couching his response as Céline's kind of response - a cynical, dismissive one - and thus nudging the class toward an idea of the writer's sensibility. At another level, he's trying to provoke more discussion. Finally, he's jousting with a feisty student. The discussion continues. Another student wonders whether the war made Céline mentally ill. "It's an interesting claim," Winter says. "What do others think?" Gradually, the class finds that Socratic rhythm; the symphony takes shape.
At times in Winter's seminar, it almost doesn't seem to matter what's being argued about - the argument itself is the thing. These Yale students, it strikes me, aren't being trained to absorb other people's opinions, but to give their own. They're practicing assertiveness and intellectual agility; they're learning to win. I ask Winter about the special challenges of teaching at an elite institution. So much intellectual gunpowder on the table, and the teacher holding the match.
He demurs. Good teaching is the same everywhere, he says, no matter what the level of student. "I've seen wonderful primary school teachers in the north of England, in working-class schools - teachers who create their own powder and their own matches. They don't congregate at Yale, they're all over the place." When he started out as a young professor, Winter says, he had one thing in mind. "In every exchange I had with a student - every single one - I wanted that student to know what excellence was. He might not get there, but he'll know what it is."
After the seminar, I accompany him outside as he walks along Wall Street at his usual hyper-speed, enthusing about a movie he saw recently - "Bob Hoskins," he says with a laugh, "his face, it's so supple!" A student catches up and asks a rambling question about the cultural significance of mourning comrades lost in trench warfare versus mourning a child in a family - "because," she says, "I had a brother who died." "That's a very interesting issue," Winter says with a nod. And as he begins to frame an answer involving battlefield memorials, I can see he's working hard to respond meaningfully while recognizing the personal dimension that makes this much more than an academic question about history. And I think, how exhausting it is to be a really great professor. So many eager young people want a piece of you, and it has to be a quality piece.
Winter still has a graduate seminar to teach - his third class of the day - then a round-table symposium to moderate, with a group of visiting French historians. The symposium takes place in crowded Luce Hall, the four French historians speaking on topics ranging from war crimes to WWI paintings. They lecture in English, save for one who gives an animated half-hour talk in French, full of humorous asides. Winter takes a note or two - then rises to deliver a concise five-minute summary in translation, not missing a point, not even the jokes. It's a graceful performance, especially at 10 p.m., from someone who's been going for fifteen hours.
A few days later, back in his office, Winter offers some thoughts on the round table. His decades of living abroad taught him a lot about European versus American outlooks, and how deeply ours is shaped by the expectation of success and the awareness of strength. And yet only by understanding human failure and frailty can we understand history, Winter tells me. "This is a very important lesson for Americans to learn. We don't have that many failures to go on. Europeans are used to it."
Do I remember what I said before, he asks, about Yale students and their expectation of success? "If anyone thinks that the First World War was about anything other than failure, then they have another think coming." Winter has the look of a man savoring an appealing thought. "You were saying that they're here for the purpose of understanding mastery?" He smiles. "Well," he says, "I'm going to teach them about failure."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times