One of my general exam advisor/examiners has passed away: Donald Fleming who was Harvard’s preeminent intellectual historian for many years. I studied European intellectual history for the exam, which entailed sitting through his two-semester sequence on 19th and 20th century European thought and working through carefully selected (by him) portions of his absurdly long bibliography on the subject. I’m sure I’ve told the story before about how my heart stopped, briefly, when he put not one, but two bound photocopied volumes on the desk — dozens of pages in each — of single-spaced references, sorted by topic. Then came the paring down: His selections depended on your interests, to some extent, and it ended up being about the same 80-100 books that my other fields entailed.

He was a classic “ivy-covered professor,” the kind I didn’t think really existed until I met him. His office was filled with books. I don’t mean that he had full bookshelves: I mean that he had his bookshelves (which covered both of the long walls of the office) double-lined, and that nearly every horizontal surface in that office was also covered with stacks — one foot or more — of books. There was a fairly narrow path from the door to the table (I don’t know if he had a desk in there or not: I don’t remember seeing one, but it could have been hidden!), which then branched into two paths, one to each side. The table itself had a clear space in the middle, running across from one chair to the other. In his defense, I’m fairly sure he knew where everything was: I saw him on at least one occasion pick a book off the shelf without having to search for it.

His lectures were polished over decades: he always ended within seconds of the stroke of the clock-tower next door. He’d come into the classroom, mount the stage, remove the podium, open his briefcase, take out his notes, then create his own podium by setting the briefcase on end, and putting his notes on top of a portfolio on top of his open briefcase. He could barely see over the thing, and his students could barely see him. Took a while to understand him, as well: he had a vocal affectation that took me several lectures to figure out. It wasn’t an accent, though I did waste some time trying to figure out what accent it was, so I could understand him.1 After a week or two, I got used to it. He did not use TAs, because no graduate student could possibly know enough to satisfactorily discuss all the material in the course, but he did use graders. His study guides for exams were as bad as his reading bibliographies: page after page of possible essay questions, dozens for each one that would be on the test, covering nearly every topic in every lecture and every reading for the semester.2 There was no textbook: just his lectures and a stack of primary readings.

When I started at Harvard, I thought I was going to study intellectual transmission: how ideas came from the West into Japan. Al Craig advised me to pick general exam fields that supported my dissertation goals, so I took Fleming to get a foundation in the ideas that were coming into Japan (and Iriye, for diplomatic history). It was a good choice: I had no background in European or intellectual history outside of some introductory philosophy, and since Harvard had no required historiography course (and nobody suggested that I take it anyway), I had to get some theory somehow! So I got a pretty good dose of conservativism, liberalism, Marxism, linguistic theory (very different from the phonology/morphology we studied as undergrads!), social science, modernism and my first taste of post-structuralism. Since a lot of historical theory has to do with applying these theories in historical contexts, I think I made a good choice. (From a teaching perspective, it was a godsend: I never would have made it through Western Civ without it, though a general field in European history might have been more useful. Or a field in Chinese history; that would have been good, too!) From Fleming’s point of view, I was starting from near-total ignorance, and I know I barely made it through Generals (A friend saw me during the brief break in the middle of the two-hour session and said I looked “green.” Felt it, too.). As a friend pointed out, there wasn’t a lot of feminism in the mix, nor women at all; I’d started getting familiar with that as an undergrad, and my social science friends made sure I got more. Fleming was one of the early scholars to write on environmentalism, but that didn’t really show up in the surveys much, either.

Fleming was one of the few non-Asianists I dealt with at Harvard, and I think he considered me just as odd as I considered him. I did part of my General Reading year from Berkeley, and when I suggested that we could keep in touch by phone — this was before email was common — he looked shocked, then amused. We never did keep touch by phone: I found a friendly Europeanist at Berkeley who let me sit in on lectures and chat about books. Also Andy Barshay was running grad seminars with a heavy dose of historical theory; that helped, too. At one department party, I think the holiday part of my first year, I was talking to Fleming a bit: he asked me what I studied, and I said “Japan.” He spent a moment thinking out loud what the proper term for me was, then settled on “Japanology,” “like Astrology!” he quipped, very pleased with himself. I got the impression that he hadn’t seen many of us over the years. But it was kind of nice having one classically odd professor.

  1. I thought I was on to something with “Swiss”….  

  2. Yes, I still use Fleming as an example of how nice I am to my students. Wouldn’t you?  

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