BOOK REVIEW : Living at the Low End of the Upper Crust : GENTLEMAN REBEL <i> The Memoirs of H. Stuart Hughes</i> . Ticknor & Fields, $24.95, 328 pages
When he was an adolescent, H. Stuart Hughes tells us, he spent time depressively trying to figure out his social status. He lived in the upper middle-class neighborhood of Riverdale, on the northern end of the Bronx; but certainly, his family was not middle class.
The Hugheses were prosperous, yet nowhere in the range of the great American families and fortunes. Grandfather, on the other hand--Charles Evans Hughes--was secretary of state and then chief justice of the United States, and perhaps the most respected Republican of his time.
Surely, that baked Henry Stuart into the upper crust. Perhaps, the bottom of the upper crust, he muses. But then there were the Kennedys; much richer, and beginning to be more powerful. When Joseph P. Kennedy moved from Riverdale to greater things, the Hugheses thriftily bought his house. Yet they--the Hugheses--were received by Hudson River Society; the Kennedys were not.
The figuring begins in the title--"Gentleman Rebel"--and continues, openly or by suggestion, through much of the rest of this memoir. Class is not so much the subject as the pathology.
Hughes was a history professor at Harvard, Stanford and UC San Diego. He was a man of finely--some might say fussily--calibrated political compass points; not Center, nor Left, but oscillating variously between Left Left Center and Center Center Left. He was a premature skeptic of the Cold War, briefly for Henry Wallace, briefly a quixotic Senate candidate against Teddy Kennedy, and a lifelong pacifist. He was something of a failure by his own lights, and something of a success by most anyone else’s.
To read his reflections is to read the handwriting of somebody whose fingers were crippled by a birth defect, yet who has taught himself legibility, if not gracefulness. Hughes writes about childhood privilege as a West Virginia coal miner’s son might write about childhood malnutrition.
His book is rickety, accordingly. There are moments of sense and sensibility, and moments of a drifting silliness. Hughes is aware that the upper-class state he writes of with such insistence is dotted with eccentricity. He is partly rueful and partly rather proud.
He writes, for example, that his father, a successful corporate lawyer, was so sheltered--not to mention strait-laced--that he had to be instructed about condoms after his wife gave birth to two children in rapid succession. It was the Chief Justice--a worldly Welshman under a patrician and Anglophile demeanor--who did the instructing.
Some of these things may be worth talking about; certainly, his linkage of the family’s code of high-minded duty and his childhood sense of depression is interesting. But there is an involuntary priggishness in the language he uses; as if recollection were not discovery so much as one more high-minded duty.
Yet under the altruism of privilege there is also privilege’s inconsequentiality and easy acceptance of what it thinks due to it. He volunteered for an artillery battalion, although he hated noise. He writes of what an encouragement and revelation it was to associate with the other enlisted men. After a while, though, he’d had enough equality. He secured a commission, bought himself a tailored second lieutenant’s uniform, and joined the posh Washington nucleus of what was to become the OSS. “I had done my stint as an enlisted man,” he writes without apparent irony.
He had a pleasant war, serving in the intelligence unit in North Africa, and later touring liberated France with a jeep and a driver to report on the political network set up by the Resistance. There, and in his subsequent political intelligence work in postwar Europe, he developed a sympathy for the Democratic Left. He deplored the postwar purge of leftists from the American intelligence community. One of his subordinates, for example, was Herbert Marcuse. “How can I be expected to run a balanced intelligence show when I take away my Communists,” he protested at one point.
That was “reckless beyond belief,” he now recalls. In today’s perspective, his belief that the extreme polarization of the Cold War could have been avoided seems appealing; particularly since he admits that he is not certain that he was right. At the time, no doubt, he must have seemed considerably more certain; and his academic career suffered for a while under the attacks of the Cold Warriors.
Silly, high-minded, blinkered and sometimes courageously prescient, Hughes comes through in his memoirs with genuine, if frail, charm; at least until the later chapters, which turn into a kind of family Christmas newsletter. He belonged not to an endangered species but to one that is all but extinct; and if the world would be poorer for lack of snail darters, it loses a bit of buoyancy and originality with the passing of its Hugheses.
Next: Elaine Kendall reviews “Rumpole a la Carte” by John Mortimer (Viking).