Page 1 of 5from The Northern Lights
Voegelin at Baton Rouge
by Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn
Professor Cooper is the author of numerous books and essays in political science and has edited several volumes of the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Jodi Bruhn is the editor of Vol 13 and also translator of Vols 8, 13, and 32 of The Collected Works.
The Voegelins in the United States
LISSY VOEGELIN: After we arrived from Europe, we were in New York for two days.
PAUL CARINGELLA: They arrived in New York, and just as they got to their hotel, the great hurricane of 1938 came up the coast.
L. VOEGELIN: And the windows were all falling out onto the streets. Oh, it was terrible. The wind–oh, it howled. And we were on the twenty-second floor. But Eric just said, “That’s the way it is in the United States.”
CARINGELLA: Eric said: “You have to get used to it! It’s a new country.” The next day, I think, Eric went somewhere for a meeting, or to a library. He made sure you knew that, if you went out, you should stay close to the building. You were to go around the block and not wander off. So, you went out for a walk, and you turned around the corner . . .
L. VOEGELIN: And the first thing I saw was two rough girls in brown uniforms singing songs about refugees. Then I started crying. I turned around, and cried and cried.
CARINGELLA: And you told Eric, “They’re here.”
These were American Nazis?
L. VOEGELIN: Eric told me it was very stupid of me.
CARINGELLA: So that was a great introduction to America. Then they got on the boat.
You had to take a boat up to Boston?
L. VOEGELIN: Oh yes, because of the hurricane. The trees were falling over the tracks, so we had to take the boat. And we couldn’t afford a cabin to sleep in, but there were great big chairs on the deck outside. We got two of them, and I had my fur coat with me, so I put it over me and felt very comfortable. And Eric left for a while to buy some cigars or I don’t know what.
Then a man came up to me and said, “You don’t have to stay here on this deck. Come with me to my cabin. I have a very nice room there. You can sleep all night.” I said, “No, thank you very much. My husband is coming.” I couldn’t stand talking to this person. Then he said, “Oh, your husband’s coming,” and he disappeared.
When we went to Boston, Eric put me in a hotel. And he said, “Stay here.” Then he emptied his pockets, and there were fifty dollars in them.” Now I’m going on to Harvard,” he said. “I have the permit until the tenth of October, and I’ll try to get fifty dollars from them.” When he came back, he said that they wouldn’t do it. He had asked for a senior secretary to come and had told her that we were refugees really, that it wasn’t our fault. Eric said, “Oh, I am doing lots of things for Harvard, and I’ll be getting lots of payment.” But she said, “No, we cannot do it. We can’t do it, it’s absolutely impossible.”
You then spent the winter in Cambridge?
L. VOEGELIN: Yes, yes. In January, we went to Bennington. Eric had to return to Harvard every Wednesday afternoon, I think. He went to Cambridge every Wednesday because he had two boys to tutor. He was also looking for a job, of course. Then on Thursdays and Fridays, Eric came back to Bennington.
CARINGELLA: A group of the Bennington girls upset you and Eric once. They were very much against Germans, and you happened to speak German. And what did they do?
L. VOEGELIN: Well, they had a group of girls who sang about refugees in Bennington. Because the quarters where we had to live had big windows, they had seen me. They knew that I could see them, of course. When Eric came home, I told him, and he knew exactly who they were and that they had seen me. Eric went to the director and told him about it, and the girls got a lecture.
They did it just because they didn’t like Germans?
L. VOEGELIN: I don’t know why. I had never done anything to them; I had never seen them before. They probably didn’t like Germans. But Eric and I, when we were together, talked German together because I didn’t know English well yet. But we only whispered; we did not make much noise.
CARINGELLA: On the train once–I think you were coming back to Baton Rouge from Cambridge–this couple behind you heard you talking to one another in German. And they called the conductor and told the conductor something. So that when you got to the train station in Baton Rouge . . .
L. VOEGELIN: When we got off the train and Eric tried to hail a taxi, the police came and said, “Wait a minute, who are you?” And so forth and so on. Eric showed them that he had an appointment at the university, that he was a professor of government, and so on. He asked, “What’s going on here?” And the policeman said, “Well, somebody sitting behind you in the train heard you talking German, and thought you were spies.” But what spies would talk in German?
Did you enjoy your time in Bennington?
L. VOEGELIN: Oh, yes. It was in Vermont. At that time, it was girls only. The girls liked Eric very much. They were asking the president to ask Eric to stay for five years. But Eric didn’t want to.
CARINGELLA: They offered Eric five thousand dollars, which was a lot in 1939.
L. VOEGELIN: Then we went to Alabama for two thousand. Eric said, “I’m not going to stay up in Bennington, in the mountains in the snow and ice where I see only fifty people and they hate each other. I don’t like it there.” So, we went to Alabama.
CARINGELLA: By way of Evanston–by way of Northwestern.
L. VOEGELIN: That was for summer school, yes.
CARINGELLA: It was in Evanston–or Chicago–that Eric and Lissy bought a car. And Eric drove first to Wisconsin, then straight down from Wisconsin to Alabama.
I thought he couldn’t drive. I thought you would drive.
L. VOEGELIN: Oh, he could drive. But he was a very thoughtless driver. One day I heard him after he had left in the morning for the university: I heard a big bang, and I thought, “Oh, it was somebody else.” But then came Eric with a really white face. He said he had lit his cigar and his hands had left the wheel. And then I thought, “Ah, I want us to live a little longer.” So, I took over. And Eric was delighted. He never drove again.
CARINGELLA: When they got the car, I think they both said to the salesman, “We can’t drive.”
L. VOEGELIN: The salesman said, “Oh, anybody can drive. Sit in there, and I’ll show you how.” And we went right into the car.
CARINGELLA: Those were the days!
JAMES BOLNAR SR.: When I taught at Alabama in the early ‘6os, I heard a story about Voegelin. This had to do with his absentmindedness.
One day, the Voegelins let it be known that their car was not functioning properly–or not functioning at all. They then discovered that there was absolutely no oil in the motor block; there was just no oil. It had never occurred to them to get the oil checked or changed or whatever. This is an Alabama story, and although it might not be true at all, that level of absentmindedness corroborated other stories you would hear in Baton Rouge.
So, you came to Tuscaloosa.
L. VOEGELIN: Tuscaloosa, yes. They were very nice to us. Eric had gone down there on a Rockefeller fellowship, and when the Rockefeller expired, somebody said, “No, you’re out.” I remember the head of the department went to the president and did all kinds of things to try and keep Eric, but they could not keep him. So, Eric had to go to Baton Rouge one weekend to give a lecture there . . .
CARINGELLA: At the meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.
L. VOEGELIN: And Eric was immediately hired. So, he went to Louisiana.