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.”
Q. 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.
Q. 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.”
Q. 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.
Q. 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?
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Louisiana in the 1930s
ROBERT B. HEILMAN: Huey Long was killed in 1935. There’s no reason why you should remember it; I wrote an essay on it because I was present. [My wife Ruth] and I, on what was practically our honeymoon, arrived at Baton Rouge on Labor Day in 1935. The next Sunday, we went to a meeting of the legislature because the United States Senator Huey Long was going to be there.
And we were sitting in the balcony, which is at the rear of the lesser chamber, and we saw Huey Long in action on the floor. United States Senator Huey Long was sitting in one of the head chairs of the Lower House of the Louisiana legislature. After about forty-five minutes, he left; he was walking down the aisle underneath us with henchmen going after him in droves.
And then we heard something that sounded like firecrackers. People started running back in and ducking behind desks. What we were doing was attending the death of Huey Long–well, he died two and a half days later. That was quite an introduction for a couple of Northerners to Louisiana! We thought, “So that’s how they settle problems here!”
The head of the department at that time came to my apartment several days later. He said, “Heilman, I don’t know if the university is going to open next week.” I thought he meant that a formal period of mourning might continue. But no–what he meant was that the whole state might fall apart. I thought, “Good God!” But the university did open.
LEWIS P. SIMPSON: Huey, he had actually got control of everything, even of the university. He had the National Guard here in Baton Rouge and so on. He had made the National Guard into his own groom, so to speak, as he already had the state police and the state legislature. He left the governorship to become a United States Senator, but in fact he kept both jobs and solidified his power in Louisiana even though he had gone to Washington.
He had aspirations to become president, and there were reports that Franklin Roosevelt was rather afraid of Huey Long. But I don’t know how true that was, considering Roosevelt had some cognizance of the fact that he [Long] would have some problems trying to establish himself as a national force as well as a having a stake in the South.
That was the context when Voegelin arrived. By the time he got here, what is referred to as “the Scandals” had already broken open. By 1939, a number of members of the Long regime were in prison, including the president of Louisiana State University. He had been engaged in various fraudulent activities.
He was sentenced to the state penitentiary at Angola, which is still bad enough, but in those days was probably one of the worst penitentiaries in the country! They still wore prison stripes, traditional prison garb. There is a picture in Life magazine, oh, from about 1943: “Ronald Smith, former president of LSU, standing in a cane field with a machete cutting cane.” Anyway, he died there not long afterward. It was a strange time in Louisiana. A great deal of it was used in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men.
Colleagues in Baton Rouge
SIMPSON: Robert Penn Warren was already at LSU when Voegelin came. So were such scholars as Cleanth Brooks, T. Harry Williams, Robert Heilman. Voegelin stepped into a situation where there was a marvelous group of people–most of them younger–at LSU. It was a pretty exciting time in a way, a Southern university acquiring a broad reputation almost overnight. It became internationally known even. The intellectual aspect of the university in the ’30s and ’40s was more impressive than it ever had been.
Q. The intellectual liveliness of LSU in the early 1940s is not something I expected. How did this configuration of minds come together? Did they recruit one another? Was it purely good luck for the undergraduates?
ROBERT PASCAL: It was not good luck. This campus is the result of the efforts of Huey Long. Huey Long’s idea was that this university was going to be one of the best universities, if not the best. Money was not an object for Huey Long; whatever the university needed, it got. Salaries for good people were high for the time.
The law school, for example: Huey wanted a law school that would teach the law of the world. He wanted a law school that would be able to teach European law, Latin American law, certainly Anglo-American law. He got a professor, then at Tulane, Frederick Butell, to head the LSU Law School. Butell was simply told by Huey Long that he should get the best people and pay them well. He did. To give you an idea, back in the ’30s and early ’40s, before World War II, salaries for some full professors at the law school were ten thousand dollars. That was a lot then. Butell managed to attract a great number of people to the LSU Law School.
Now, that’s only the law school–I can’t tell you very much about the other faculties, but I have no doubt that the law school was part and parcel of the same thing. While Huey was still alive, he told Butell that he was to build a building for a proper law school and a library building that would permit a collection of books that would exceed Harvard’s collection in number and quality.
It was only after Huey died that the plans were toned down. But still: Heilman and people like that were brought here, the Southern poets were brought here, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and other people. The Southern Review was founded then. It is still a very respectable review.
Q. Did he ever talk to you about how he came to LSU and why he left Germany?
ERNEST J. WALTERS: Oh, no, although we knew he left Europe because of the Anschluss. He had friends where he was able to get into Switzerland, and then from Switzerland came to the United States. He taught at Harvard and at the University of Alabama, then he came to LSU. Then, when he gained such notoriety, they gave him one of these chairs.
There were three people who got those chairs: Voegelin was one of them, Harry Williams was one of them, and I don’t remember the third person. But I do remember that Voegelin got a salary of eight thousand dollars a year and all of us thought, “Good heavens, how could anyone earn that much money?” So you see, this was a long time ago!
DONALD STANDFORD: I did not arrive on the scene for any length of time until 1953. At that time, I received my long-awaited doctorate degree from Stanford University, and with my new wife, I traveled out to Baton Rouge and we lived in Baton Rouge from 1953 on. I believe that that was the year Voegelin was made Boyd professor here. I heard about it soon after my arrival. He was a great scholar and a very erudite man.
SIMPSON: A Boyd professor is supposed to be, academically, the most prestigious rank. They have established in recent years a number of professorships named for alumni, so it’s not quite what it was. But when Voegelin was appointed, it was still supposed to be the highest academic ranking. Not a great many were appointed to that.
But I think Voegelin was appointed first, then T. Harry Williams was probably the second. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for a long book called Lincoln and His Generals–that was the book that made Harry prominent. After he wrote Lincoln and His Generals, he wrote a biography of General Beauregard. He then spent many years working on Huey Long. And he won, I think, two Pulitzer Prizes.
PASCAL: Voegelin found some people on the faculty of interest to him, such as Heilman and Brooks. That’s perfectly true. But I think what he liked about LSU was the fact that he was allowed to work as he pleased. He didn’t lack anything by way of library resources or other such things. He would go off at times, in the summer, to other places and do some research–that’s true. But he found it very comfortable here. Able to work peacefully.
Everyday Life at LSU
PASCAL: You know what his schedule was? He’d get to the university about nine o’clock in the morning. And you might see him strolling around the campus, smoking a big black cigar, until it was time for his ten o’clock class. Then he would come in and teach it. If he had another class, he would go out and smoke another cigar and think. That’s about the way he carried on here.
He did his work at home. Generally, he would go home for his main meal, around noon, and take a siesta. Then, at three o’clock, he would begin his work. And except for a very light supper–almost every day, he had a very light supper, prepared by Lissy–he worked through until three, three-thirty in the morning. She was an academic widow, for the most part. Although he did try out many things on her, would test things on her. So, she was not someone who was entirely out of the picture.
L. VOEGELIN: He very seldom went to bed before two o’clock in the morning. And he had to have breakfast at seven-thirty. Then he read the newspapers and the journals. And then he went and worked, and then we had lunch. After lunch he’d always have a nap of at least two hours–that’s where he caught up on his lost sleep. And then he read. At night he started really to work.
Q. And you made him breakfast and lunch.
L. VOEGELIN: Yes.
Q. Did he ever cook?
L. VOEGELIN: No, never. He always was very happy to cook omelettes, but that was all he could cook.
Q. Did you make him Viennese coffee or American coffee for breakfast?
L. VOEGELIN: For breakfast? Oh, I had American coffee made in a coffee machine. But we never had coffee for breakfast. We had tea. Eric didn’t like coffee for breakfast, and I couldn’t stand it. Both of us had tea.
Q. And he did most of his work in his study at home rather than in his office?
L. VOEGELIN: Yes. In Louisiana, he had to teach in the morning, of course. From nine to ten, and from eleven to twelve he always had to. And on Saturdays, of course. They always put him in a Saturday class, especially from eleven to twelve, because he was the only one who could make the students come. Otherwise they would leave.
JO SCURRIA: I remember he always wanted his classes at the time of eleven o’clock–from eleven to twelve on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Those were his class times.
Q. Why did he want those times?
SCURRIA: I don’t know exactly. You didn’t make up a schedule–classes were given by Dr. Voegelin at the eleven to twelve hour. He never did drive, and Mrs. Voegelin would come and pick him up. She’d come into my office and talk to me and wait for him to get out of class. I guess they just went home after that and did whatever a brilliant man like that does at home.
He would go home with her, and you never found him around the hallways in the afternoon. I think at the time he was also teaching a course in jurisprudence in the law school. At that time, they did give you a class load, and then you also had time for research. So, he probably taught about six hours and used the others for research.
Q. If he did most of his work at home, his office wasn’t filled with books?
SCURRIA: He had books in his office, but he had evidently a lot more at home, because, other than at eleven o’clock, you’d never find him in his office. He was always at home. But he was not unreachable: if I had questions about a manuscript or something, I felt comfortable calling him.
Q. So you had the task of typing Voegelin’s manuscripts? Did you do all his typing?
SCURRIA: I must have typed something like 5500 pages of manuscripts. Remember, we didn’t have any electric typewriters; we had all elite typewriters, that was what we typed with. But Dr. Voegelin wanted his done with a pica type. I had an old, old Underwood typewriter, and I can’t think now how I ever typed on that typewriter. But I typed on that old typewriter all those pages of manuscript for Dr. Voegelin.
The man never failed to compliment me, saying, “Where did you learn to type that good?” It was just typing; it wasn’t any big deal, especially for a typist. It all just came naturally to me. But he never failed to compliment me on anything I did for him.
Q. Elite type is the smaller?
SCURRIA: The smaller, and he wanted the pica type. I think that’s what his publishers wanted. And all his own typing was done on a manual typewriter.
Q. So, he typed what he wrote himself?
SCURRIA: He typed himself. Dr. Harris was the chairman of the department at that time, and I said, “Dr. Harris, this stuff is all Greek to me anyway.” But when Dr. Voegelin was typing, he would want to type over something like an e with an o or an o with an e, and I never could tell if it was supposed to be an o or an e. I always had to ask him about it, because I guess he thought that I knew what the Greek words meant, but I didn’t. But he typed it, and he’d have all these little things in the margins, you know–these thoughts that he had had afterward.
But he was quite a chore, and I used to think, “Is this stuff ever going to stop coming?” I guess it didn’t, though, because as long as he lived he was always producing stuff! I found that, when he left, I truly missed all the typing that I had done. I was sorry he had left, because he was truly a great, great man.
Q. You could read his writing, too?
SCURRIA: Yeah, I could read his writing. In fact, I still have to read it to people. It sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but I am reading what he put down because nobody else can read it!
Q. You didn’t just work for Dr. Voegelin, did you?
SCURRIA: No, I worked for the whole department. There were five of us in the department at that time. I was the only secretary; they just had the one secretary. And no matter what else I had to do, Voegelin’s work came first. I was not exempt from anything else, but his work was put right alongside everything else in the department.
Not One to Complain
Q. He had good support from LSU. Was he comfortable in other senses? Did he ever mention the weather, for example?
MARIANNE STEINTRAGER: I don’t remember him complaining about anything.
SCURRIA: No, he never did, he never complained. Of course, he always got his schedule arranged like he wanted to, his eleven o’clock class. It was like: whatever Voegelin wants, Voegelin gets. I think some people probably resented that on campus, because a lot of people didn’t feel about Dr. Voegelin the way we did.
Q. It’s not really a matter of reputation, but of an internal awareness of his own abilities. With someone of his stature, it must have been a source of considerable resentment?
SCURRIA: It may have been across campus. I say across campus because we were on one side of the campus, and they were on the other. And maybe some of the others in the history or philosophy departments may have resented him. But within the department, they always felt it was complimentary to the department for LSU to be recognized through such a scholar.
Q. Do you think there was any resentment?
STEINTRAGER: I never remember any resentment. And then we also had Dr. Heberle in sociology. His wife was Arnold Toynbee’s daughter, so we had two of those fairly distinguished people. I think that people were just very pleased that LSU had them.
Q. The English department was also quite prominent then.
STEINTRAGER: And we had T. Harry Williams in history, too. It was a good time to be at LSU, actually. We had a lot of famous people.
LUCILLE McDOWELL: I got this little student job–well, I didn’t get it, jobs were foisted on me. I didn’t mean to work, they would just happen. So, I was grading papers for the philosophy department, and I was in this English library, and that’s where Cleanth Brooks was. He was my undergraduate adviser, and he really helped me schedule things. He was absolutely remarkable in the classroom. He drew people: we would study a poem and think there was nothing to it, and two days later you would know that that poem was the equivalent of any novel that had ever been written. They were his insights and he was leading you to them; it was fabulous.
Well, Dr. Brooks and T. Harry Williams and Eric Voegelin and a man named Robert Heilman–all of them were marvelous lecturers. They were friends. And Peter Carmichael, who was the head of the philosophy department, their offices were all on that floor. They would sometimes forget, I think, that I was there. I suppose I learned as much from the conversations as from the lectures!
And sometimes Dr. Voegelin would come over. Now, he wasn’t in the gang because he wasn’t on that floor, but he would sometimes come in. Of course, they would also tease one another, and he would enter into that too when he was there. He could give as good as he got. And he got and gave! I heard a lot of that, and it was marvelous: he was absolutely charming and a different person with that group of people. But then, being with Cleanth Brooks and T. Harry Williams would swing anybody. There would have to be something happening, because T. Harry Williams was kind of crazy.
One day, for example, T. Harry Williams was walking down the hallway. And he said, “Hey, Lucille!”–he used to call me Lucille, the Miss Klausen went long ago because he would tease me, he liked to tease everybody. And he was coming down the hall toward me, yelling all the way down the hall, “Hey, Lucille, guess what? I just learned there are three sexes on the campus.” And I said, “Oh really, Dr. Williams?” “Yeah, three it is.”
And he’s coming closer the whole time, and I’m wondering what this is going to be. And he gets to me and says, “Guess what they are.” “I don’t know, Dr. Williams, what are they?” “Well, there’s the male sex, and there’s the female sex, and then there’s the English major.”
And he just falls all over himself. Everybody was looking because he was yelling and he had a booming voice: this little bitty man and this booming voice, and he was yelling this joke. And every time he used to tease me about being an English major and how ridiculous it was. He teased anybody about whatever it was that was their thing. He teased Eric Voegelin too, and Dr. Voegelin, I think, enjoyed it a great deal.
In fact, I think they were a kind of club, and Dr. Voegelin was admitted. He wasn’t a prominent fixture because he wasn’t there every day. But that little group met, and there was the wonderful quality of T. Harry Williams and of his mind and of his spirit. He was absolutely the life of the place. And Cleanth Brooks was simply a fabulous human being. And Dr. Heilman was a marvelous person, and Peter Carmichael was very interesting, and they enjoyed each other very much.
When Dr. Voegelin would come in, you could tell that he enjoyed it too. But what person of any intellect whatsoever wouldn’t enjoy Cleanth Brooks? Or T. Harry Williams or Dr. Heilman? And Peter Carmichael: I think the other three sort of accepted Peter Carmichael on sufferance, but they didn’t accept Eric Voegelin on sufferance. He was welcomed.
I felt that I was really privileged to be able to listen, to be able to hear a lot of the conversations, because they would have them in this huge room with a lot of books in it. Of course, there was a sign that said “Quiet,” but they didn’t care about that. It was their clubroom.
Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin
Q. Voegelin says that Robert Heilman helped him a great deal with his English. Do you know anything about that?
LUCILLE McDOWELL: I know they seemed to be very friendly. I know that Dr. Voegelin would come over. As I said to you, Dr. Heilman was one of these men who gathered–not as much as Brooks and T. Harry Williams, who were just pals, it seemed to me, but Heilman was much in that group. Dr. Heilman was a remarkable man in his own right. As a pair–they were both very big men–they were both impressive, a little bit reserved.
It seemed to me there was more likeness between Heilman, who was just a magnificent lecturer, a straight-out lecturer, and Voegelin, with his manner of straight-out lecturing in his class. It was not a seminar or that sort of thing. I would say that those men were probably more alike than T. Harry Williams and Cleanth Brooks would have been.
Dr. Heilman was pretty formidable; he was a more formidable person, a more orderly person. In fact, a friend and I did something very funny in his class. We were reading The Prince by Machiavelli. And on just one page there were so many footnotes. It was a little bitty book and we were just laughing–she and I were laughing and laughing because some of the footnotes were in Chinese, some were in Greek, and so forth. And we just thought it was all ridiculous.
We were two eighteen-year-old kids who really thought this was funny. So, she was writing her research paper and I said, “You ought to put a lot of footnotes in it, and you ought to put some of them in Chinese, and some of them in Greek, and so on.”
So, we went to this Chinese person we knew and he helped her write them in. But Dr. Heilman gave her an F, and was not amused. That was Dr. Heilman. Now, I believe that Mr. Brooks would have been amused and I know Dr. Williams would have been amused–but Dr. Heilman was not amused. I then had to go in to him and say, “Dr. Heilman, it’s all my fault. ” And he said, “She is capable, isn’t she?” “Yes, sir.” And we had quite a little discussion, and I felt very bad about it because she would not have done it without me. So, they finally worked it out. But that’s the kind of person Dr. Heilman was: he was not loose and easy in situations where I think the others might have been. But I don’t think, if it had come to that, that Dr. Voegelin would have been loose and easy either.
HELEN TRIMPI: I tried to figure out why he was interested in this particular literary man because there were loads of literary people at LSU. But I think it was because Heilman was trying in his own literary studies, particularly of Shakespeare, to deal with large symbolism. And I think Eric at that time was fascinated with the application of his idea of symbolism to literature. I used to be very skeptical of that, and I don’t know that I’m not still a little skeptical. I think the way he uses symbolism is so broad, so general, that you apply it to Shakespeare’s plays almost at the expense of the plays as literary structures.
You see, that’s sort of my corner: I think I understand the way writers of fiction and writers of novels write. And if they think about these things, they don’t think about it in the very general way that Heilman writes about them. Which is not to say that there isn’t that grain of truth in what Heilman writes–it’s there. But I still always want to come back to the writer’s point of view. So, I wouldn’t pursue that line of thought myself. But I think that was the bond they shared intellectually. And then of course, as you know, they did become really good friends.
Q. When did you first meet Eric?
robert b.heilman: When he was at Alabama, he came over to LSU to do a lecture, and I remember hearing that lecture and commenting on it then. That was about 1940, perhaps. And of course I met him in 1942, shortly after he came to LSU.
Q. You saw each other then socially?
heilman: We belonged to the same group and there were parties, and I don’t know how often those parties were. You see, this was fifty years ago now. We entertained the Voegelins and they entertained us. We seemed to have some congeniality both ways. I became sort of his–to use an anthropological term–American informant. He always asked me how things worked on the faculties and what the faculty attitudes were, their relationships to each other and so on. And he asked a lot of questions about English literature. About attitudes to things that he’d read and knew about. So, I was Mr. Know-It-All on that subject.
Q. Did he take any particular interest in faculty politics? Or did you?
heilman: He took very little, I took a good deal. At LSU, there was a whole group of us who thought we could sort of, as somebody at the law school said, “make it more like a university. ” Make over the place, and so on.
Q. Did it work?
heilman: We tried that, we had a favorite candidate for the presidency, and then we got the very guy we didn’t want. Once, four of us–and another of the four was Cleanth Brooks, who was at Yale for many years and who just died–made a Sunday trip to Shreveport from LSU to call on the head of the board and make our recommendation for the presidency. At any rate, we told the old guy what he should do, and of course he went right ahead and did what he was proposing to do anyway, which was to appoint the guy we didn’t like! So, it’s all rather amusing to look back.
But Eric was not much interested in that sort of thing. Well, he sensed that, as foreign born, anything he was for would naturally suffer from it having a foreign supporter. So, he didn’t spend time on things like that.
Voegelin’s “American Informant”
Q. So, you were his informant as to university politics in daily life and so on as well?
heilman: I remember him asking very many questions about how things worked in this university, how things worked in the field of English generally, and so on. And asking about personalities and about ideas.
Q. Probably the most well-known document between the two of you was the letter he wrote about Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw.
heilman: Oh, that famous letter, yes. I was just delighted by that. I happened to be teaching The Turn of the Screw in class, so when he said, “I’ve never read anything by Henry James, what do I read?” I said, “Try The Turn of the Screw. ” He was fascinated by it. I think he read it in one sitting, all night long, which is the kind of thing he did. Then he wrote me that long letter that I subsequently had published in the Southern Review. I thought it ought to be turned over to the Xerox office and have copies made. Of Eric’s essay I said, “It’s the best thing that’s ever been written on it. This is profound, and it is difficult.”
Q. It was so far out of line with the conventional . . .
heilman: It was so far out of line with the sort of standard modern goop, you know, which is all debunking. Then, as you know, there was the first essay he wrote when he first read it and the second thoughts twenty years later, which got much more difficult because of all the very difficult theological problems. But the first part, at least, was quite intelligible.
Q. You’ve written several books on the various plays of Shakespeare. Did you discuss Shakespeare with Eric?
heilman: Yes, various issues would come up now and then. He would say, “What’s the going attitude on so-and-so?” That kind of thing.
Q. I think he read your books.
heilman: Yes, I have one book on Lear and one on Othello.
Q. Did he give you a response?
heilman: Oh yes, he wrote a wonderful letter. Talking very knowingly and intelligently and ever-so-delicately where he was suggesting an alternative view. He could do that with marvelous grace. He knew I was being an idiot, but he wasn’t saying it in any fiercely negative way.
Q. He could also state it in a very straightforward way when he wanted to.
heilman: Oh yes, he could. Indeed he could!
I always felt amazed that he put up with me. Sometimes he said, “We must go and have some little boy talk.” Every now and then he liked cute terms of that sort. So, he’d take me out to lunch, and you know, the little boy talk was me just listening as he recited to me his latest chapters. And that would be it: me trying desperately to catch on. I’d try to say something intelligent, but I was just conceptually not there.
But I don’t think anyone ever felt really at ease with him. Nobody there was equipped to carry on at his level of discourse and with an appropriate vocabulary.
Q. Was Robert Penn Warren there?
heilman: Yes, he was there, but I think he and Eric never got close. He was a poet and novelist. I think that the particular kind of abstraction that was characteristic of Eric’s intellectual procedure was quite foreign to the kind of thing that Warren did. There wasn’t any hostility, but it seems to me there was never any particular warmth.
Q. When I took a second-year English course, I read Brooks’s A Well Wrought Urn. Part of it was on Keats, I think.
heilman: Yes, and on a series of poets and poems.
Heilman and the “New Criticism”
Q. Now he was–and perhaps you were too–part of an approach to English literature?
heilman: Well, yes. Cleanth was very important in the development of what for a while was called “new criticism.” And the new criticism in essence–you’ll hear all kinds of silly things said about it–was saying that history is not all. Graduate schools did everything in history, you know: “the influence of A on B” and that sort of thing. What were the influences on Chaucer, the influences on Shakespeare, the sources of Shakespeare?
The new criticism simply said: let’s look at the structure of these works and see what we learn about why they’re good or not. It was something of that sort. The old historians all raised a hell of a howl. Of course, both Brooks and Warren, having had undergraduate degrees from Vanderbilt and graduate degrees from Oxford, had a damn sight more history in their training than most English professors do these days. And they were never saying, “Let’s give up history;” but, “What is there besides history?” And that’s what the new criticism [was] in essence. It has been totally misrepresented by people who act as though they would take everything out of context. They took context for granted, everybody knows that. But they asked: what else is there besides source, influences, and context?
Well, we’ll have my lecture on the new criticism another time. It’s now been replaced by what’s called literary theory.
Q. Did Eric and Brooks ever discuss his work?
heilman: I don’t know. I was never present at an official discussion. I do know that Brooks had used Voegelin in some critical essays. Notably in an essay on a Mississippi doctor–Walker Percy. He wrote The Moviegoer.
Q. I met Brooks once in New Orleans, and he was a very courtly man.
heilman: Yes, that’s right. Very courtly.
Q. I talked to Bob Heilman, and I sensed he was very reluctant to say he knew anything at all about Voegelin.
lewis p. simpson: Well, Bob’s always like that. I always felt that he has that same reticence I have, only he’s less justified in having it! That said, in spite of the fact that he knew him well, and he helped him get his citizenship papers and all that stuff, he still never really knew him. You just don’t meet very many people with such wonderful minds. Because he was far and away an intellectual. So, I think he has that feeling too: if you have any respect at all for the life of the mind, then you had the feeling, “Eric Voegelin, he was a real genius. ”
Q. Do you know if he and Voegelin were very close?
simpson: Yes, yes, they were. But there again, I expect they weren’t, you know, bosom buddies. It was more an exchange of ideas. I know in his criticism, several years later, he referred to Voegelin. He was considerably influenced by the idea of Gnosticism and was attracted to his anthropology.
After The New Science of Politics
Q. Were you there when The New Science of Politics was published?
ernest j. walters: No, but I can remember Voegelin afterward. I was talking with him about The New Science of Politics, and the expression he used was: “You know, they have sold ten thousand copies of that? Who on earth would want to buy it?” Of course, I would assume the sales shot up once he got that Time magazine article.
Q. After The New Science of Politics, there was this article in Time magazine. How did his colleagues respond to this?
simpson: I don’t know. I think in the English department there wasn’t much response, because not too many people knew about it at that point. I remember being tremendously impressed by seeing that spread in Time, because, as far as I know, nobody at LSU had ever gotten that much attention before. Not too many university professors ever get it. That summer, when The New Science of Politics came out, I tackled it and I read it two or three times. And it impressed me at that point more than almost any other thing I had read of Voegelin’s. Because it was easier to get into in a way. Once I read The New Science of Politics, it gave me more understanding of what he was up to. This book, at that point, was his vision of his whole project. I also found it pretty concise.
jo scurria: You know that book he gave the Walgreen Lectures from? It was our big joke: as he was going on the plane to deliver the Walgreen Lectures, I was practically going behind him in another car typing it. It was that close, how we got to finishing it up before he left to deliver the Walgreen Lectures. Then I heard afterward that he didn’t even refer to his notes! It was just off the top of his head, as he always spoke. I couldn’t understand the big rush to get the book finished when he didn’t even look at it when he was delivering the lectures.
paul caringella: He really worked the entire summer of 1952 on the review of The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.
l. voegelin: The whole summer on a text that was just seven or eight pages.
caringella: Is that so? It’s very, very clear. It’s one of the clearest things that he wrote. It’s very clear where they disagree. I think it’s a wonderful piece of work. And, I suppose, if he worked the whole summer on it . . .
l. voegelin: Yes, he really worked the whole summer on it. I complained about it; I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I know what I’m doing. I have to know first what I want to say!”
Q. Did he ever talk to you about the change from The History of Political Ideas to Order and History?
l. voegelin: Oh yes, of course. He talked about it all the time. That was really a hard time, the hardest time of our lives when he went through that: leaving The History of Ideas alone and starting all over again. That was really a very hard time.
Q. I was reading some letters. He was saying in the spring that it would be ready in the fall of 1952.
l. voegelin: Oh, he said that all the time.
Q. Could you describe the period that ensued in 1953 and ’54?
caringella: Well, it was difficult. He had no publisher, and he had to devise a history of political ideas–not just in order to make it marketable, to find a publisher. But he was discovering new things, things that had made it difficult to finish The History of Political Ideas–especially what he was doing on the scriptures in ’54.
Q. Didn’t you also take that trip to Scandinavia in 1955?
l. voegelin: That was before the first volume of Order and History came out. I think he wanted to meet some writers there that nobody else had.
caringella: Yes, he felt that the best scripture scholars were there at the time.
Q. And this was because of the delay in publications because of the war, that The History was written essentially on the basis of the prewar, textual criticism? And then this new archaelogical material came out and he had to incorporate it?
caringella: The Scandinavians were not as much affected by the war. It didn’t interrupt the scholarship in the scripture studies as much as it had elsewhere. The German scholarship completely stopped. The libraries and journals really ceased in many areas. And the Scandinavians still had their German libraries intact, so they had the best German scholarship as well.
Sociability – Up to a Point
caringella: The awful thing when Eric had to do Order and History instead of The History of Political Ideas at Louisiana was that he had to give up going to dinner parties. That made it also very hard on Lissy.
caringella: Because she felt she couldn’t go without him, until one of her friends said, “Oh Lissy, you can come by yourself. ” So, she asked Eric, and he said, “Of course! You go. I have to work. ” Then he always waited for Lissy to come home.
l. voegelin: Yes, I went to all the dinner parties myself. Without Eric. But when I came home, all the lights were turned on, and Eric even had a drink ready for me–it wasn’t necessary. Of course he wanted to talk: What was going on at that party? Who was there?
Q. Did you ever see Voegelin socially at LSU?
donald stanford: Yes, yes I did. Eat dinner, throw some parties when he was here, have visits. I think I can say I got fairly well acquainted with him. I found him, as all people did at times, a bit hard to understand because of his accent. His accent was very strong.
Q. I have heard other people who have said of him–in fact, Heilman said this–that he seemed to be incapable of small talk.
stanford: That’s true.
Q. So, at parties, one must have simply discussed important questions.
stanford: That’s true. And at parties, I would usually just listen. I mean, he would get into a serious conversation with various faculty members on his own terms. And I would listen in on that, but I did not have much to contribute to the conversation.
Q. Did you find him approachable?
stanford: I did, yes. He was different for different people I suppose, but I think he liked me and my wife, and I liked him and his wife. And I carried some clout with him because I edited the Southern Review, and I was chairman of the lecture committee as well.
Q. So you didn’t converse regularly about literature with Voegelin?
simpson: No, no. I don’t think anybody conversed too regularly with him. He wasn’t going to go and have coffee with you or something like that. He was always working. His mind went two times faster than everybody else’s anyway.
I would see him at parties: he usually would be sitting in a chair somewhere, and he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself too much. He didn’t like small talk; he really didn’t. I remember seeing him the last time I saw him at a party, when he came back to lecture. What impressed me was that he was attempting to sort of mingle and talk, to stand up with a drink in his hand and do that cocktail party sort of thing. And I think he found it difficult. I think his wife had to look after him; she took care of his social obligations and so on.
He wasn’t somebody who you would think about going over to his house to visit, you know. Unless you had received a very formal invitation to go.
robert pascal: My wife and I found ourselves invited to the Voegelins’ home from time to time, usually in the evening, after dinner. And it would be a simple evening of, perhaps, hors d’oeuvres, or a dessert and a drink or two. We were never alone; the Voegelins were very sociable, in a sense. He did spend a tremendous number of hours studying, working, but he nevertheless found time for some socialization.
ellis sandoz: Jay Walters had a story about having a faculty/student party, and Voegelin showed up and they would chug-a-lug beers. But I never saw any of that.
Q. Voegelin would chug-a-lug beers?
sandoz: The beer was disappearing very swiftly, let’s say. But he said he didn’t drink because it made him sleepy and he didn’t want to go to sleep; he wanted to read. So, he wouldn’t drink except very occasionally. And as far as I could see, he drank vodka; I’ve forgotten what his brand of choice was. Lissy seemed to like scotch. Let’s say that, on a social evening, he would partake.
jo scurria: Voegelin–he never let a holiday go, whether Christmas or Easter or whatever, without giving you a gift. He always gave me a gift. I always felt good about it. He was just very complimentary to me. And he noticed things. My father had passed away during the summer, and when I went back to work, he said, “I noticed you’re very sad, is something wrong?” He was very observant. I told him that my father had died. And he was so good: he had just realized what had happened. I thought that this was very observant for a man of his caliber: to notice that his secretary is depressed, or that something is wrong.
Q. What was the social life like here in the ’40s and ’50s?
scurria: There was not very much. They would get together on election night or something, and they would all be together to discuss or talk about the election. Dr. Voegelin had a sit-down supper at his house one night for the faculty, and I was invited. But there was not very much socializing.
Q. Would the students be included in these? Was that line pretty carefully drawn?
marianne steintrager: It was Mister and Miss, professors and students.
scurria: No calling by the first name, like they do now. I am always amazed–I continue to call them Dr. so and so, and they come up with first names, and I still cannot get used to that.
But Dr. Voegelin never treated me like I was below him. He always acted like we were on an equal footing. And goodness knows, as far as brains go, I was not on an equal footing with Dr. Voegelin! But I never felt like less of a person when he talked to me; he didn’t intimidate me.
Q. Not all people who work for German professors have that experience.
scurria: He was very down-to-earth. If I came to work with a particular perfume, he would notice it, and he would say, “What are you wearing?” And I would tell him. Nobody would ever think of Voegelin in that way, but he was just down-to-earth like everybody else when you got him talking one on one. Here’s something interesting: after Dr. Voegelin left for Germany, I used to send his mail to him. And if you don’t mind me reading this, he wrote:
“Things are going slow but sure. I have three beautiful rooms in a new office building, completely empty, the university architect now is occupied with the furnishings. Yesterday, I ordered a lovely desk made of teak wood and designed by himself, a handmade work of art. I was going to settle for less, but he insisted that was my due as a professor. In two weeks, the object will appear together with a desk chair upholstered and covered in Chinese red. Isn’t it ducky? About that time I hope the bookshelves and my books will have appeared, too, so I can start working.”
You don’t think of Dr. Voegelin saying things like “ducky, ” you know! This was March 6, 1958. That’s when he left us, and shortly after he arrived in Munich.
I have another one that I think is just a classic. He thanks me for forwarding the mail so faithfully and for so judiciously selecting it–you see? He just had a way of making you feel that you were really doing something for him. Then he writes:
“We came here for the last week of the carnival and that event spilled over to the university. I got my certificate of employment on Mardi Gras. And when I came to the rector’s office, the two secretaries in the anteroom are in dress for the occasion. And one of them was particularly fetching as a sort of cat with black stretch-pants and a long curly tail. The rector was a distinct let-down after that prelude. He did not even wear a false nose. I am writing you all this because I strongly feel that something should be done in our department in Baton Rouge along these lines. Just imagine how the enrollment would go up if you were on exhibition in black tights with a tail!”
He was just a terrific person. I just thought so much of Dr. Voegelin. You can tell that I personally was trying to describe him in a different sort of way, but I had a lot of respect for him. And I won’t say I loved him, but I really liked him a lot.
He was very good to me, and he was so appreciative of everything that I did for him. And he’d never forget to let you know, to say something like, “Where did you learn to type like this?” It was just things like that. I just had a lot of respect for him and really hated to see him leave LSU. I think it was a loss to LSU.
james bolner sr. (interviewed May 6, 1996, in Baton Rouge) attended Voegelin’s lectures as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. Inspired to pursue graduate studies by Voegelin’s example, he taught in LSU’s department of political science until his retirement in 1999. He now resides in Baton Rouge.
paul caringella (interviewed May 23,1995, in Mountain View, California) became Voegelin’s assistant in 1978 and provided Voegelin both scholarly and personal support until his death in 1985. Now a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Caringella is director of the Eric Voegelin Archive there. He lives in San Francisco.
robert b. heilman (interviewed July 27,1995, in Seattle) was Voegelin’s colleague and friend during his tenure at Louisiana State University. As a member of LSU’s English department, Heilman not only sponsored Voegelin’s naturalization as an American citizen but also frequently assisted Voegelin with his English. In 1948, Heilman accepted a position at the University of Washington, where he taught and wrote until his retirement in 1984. A prolific literary scholar, he remained active in his profession until his death in 2004.
lucille mcdowell (interviewed May 4,1996, in Baton Rouge) was one of Voegelin’s first students at Louisiana State University. Formerly a producer for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the coordinator of Louisiana’s “Literacy and Learning” program, she is retired and lives in Baton Rouge.
robert pascal (interviewed May 6, 1996, in Baton Rouge) was Voegelin’s colleague at Louisiana State University, where he taught Civil and Anglo-American Legal Science and Voegelin taught the Philosophy of Law to first-year students. Now an emeritus professor of law, Pascal lives in Baton Rouge.
ellis sandoz (interviewed October i and 2,1995, in Calgary and November 4,1995, in Indianapolis) met Voegelin as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, completed his M.A. there with him, then wrote his doctorate under him at the University of Munich. A prominent Voegelin scholar and promoter of Voegelin studies in America, Sandoz teaches political science at Louisiana State University, where he also leads the Eric Voegelin Institute. He lives in Baton Rouge.
jo scurria (interviewed May 4,1996, in Baton Rouge) was the administrative assistant at the department of government throughout Voegelin’s time at Louisiana State University. One of the few expert interpreters of Voegelin’s handwriting, she estimates that she typed more than five thousand pages of his manuscripts. Scurria is retired and lives in Baton Rouge.
lewis p. simpson (interviewed May 5,1996, in Baton Rouge) was a professor of English Literature when he met Voegelin at Louisiana State University. Also a Boyd professor, Simpson co-edited the Southern Review from 1964 to his retirement in 1987. He died in April 2005.
donald stanford (interviewed May 5, 1996, in Baton Rouge) was a colleague of Voegelin’s who taught in the department of English at Louisiana State University. Both a literary scholar and a poet, Stanford co-edited the Southern Review from 1963 until his retirement in 1983. He died in August 1998.
marianne steintrager (interviewed May 4,1996, in Baton Rouge) studied under Voegelin as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, then did graduate work under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. She lives in Baton Rouge.
helen pinkerton trimpi (interviewed May 25,1995, in Palo Alto) together with her then-husband, Wesley Trimpi, was a personal friend of the Voegelins and a frequent guest at their home in Palo Alto. A Melville scholar and acclaimed poet, Trimpi lives in Palo Alto.
lissy voegelin (interviewed May 28 and 29, 1995, in Palo Alto) was Eric Voegelin’s wife from 1932 until his death in 1985. His lifelong companion, constant support, and frequent adviser, Lissy joined him in exile after the Anschluss and accompanied him in all relocations up to their final move to Palo Alto in 1969. Lissy Voegelin remained in Palo Alto until her death in 1996.
ernest J. walters (interviewed November 4, 1995, in Indianapolis) knew Voegelin as an undergraduate and M.A. student at Louisiana State University. After completing his doctorate under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, Walters joined the political science department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He taught there until his death in January 1997.
This excerpt is from Voegelin Recollected: Conversations of a Life (University of Missouri Press, 2007). It is the first of three parts, with parts two and three available; also see “Voegelin at Notre Dame,” “Voegelin in Munich,” “Voegelin and his Contemporaries,” and “Voegelin Recollected.”