In Memory of Louis Greenbaum (1930-2017), Reflections by Daniel Gordon, Professor of History
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
On August 7, 2017, retired history professor Louis Greenbaum passed away peacefully at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. A distinguished specialist of eighteenth-century France, Greenbaum was also a capable administrator. In the years 1960-1963, he served as the first Director of the University Honors Program. Greenbaum’s work even extended beyond the academy: He was a pioneer in the field of architectural renovation in the Amherst area.
Louie, as he was generally known, was born on February 14, 1930, in a working class family in Milwaukee. His passion for European languages and cultures took him to the University of Wisconsin, where he received his B.A. in History in 1950, and to Harvard, where he took the Ph.D. in 1955. At the age of 25, Louie arrived as an instructor of history at UMass Amherst. He worked his way through the ranks, becoming full Professor in 1969. He retired in 1992.
An important biographical question is why Greenbaum, who had other academic offers, chose UMass. In 1955, the Amherst campus, with 4,000 students, was not yet the large and nationally recognized research university that it later became. Moreover, Louie and his wife Hilda were committed to Judaism; Amherst had no synagogue and no Jewish school. As Irving Seidman relates in his recently published book, The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative Years, 1969-1979, so few Jewish people resided in Amherst in the 1950s that they were not included in the town’s survey of religious affiliation. Officially, then, there were no Jews in Amherst.
Shortly after Louie’s death, I had a chance to ask Hilda why they came to Amherst in 1955. She had clear memories of their arrival but stated that Louis never expressed a particular reason for the move. One can speculate that Louie recognized Amherst—both the university and the town--as ready for development. Other institutions may have been more prestigious but they had too much history; they were finished institutions. Louie identified with the idea of progress in the Enlightenment, and he he could apprpoach UMass and the town of Amherst as works in progress. Here was a chance to be a principal figure in a modern Enlightenment.
Louie’s publications deal with two topics concerning leadership in the era of the Enlightenment. The first was the career of the French statesman Talleyrand (1758-1834). Louis authored a book entitled Talleyrand, Statesman-Priest (Catholic University Press, 1970), which covers Talleyrand’s career up to 1789. It was favorably reviewed by French and American scholars. Jacques Godechot praised the book for its exhaustive use of archival sources. Edward T. Gargan observed that Louie’s work was especially important for its detailed coverage of Talleyrand’s role as Agent of the General Assembly of the Clergy of France, from 1780 to 1785. Talleyrand’s job in those years was to defend the Catholic Church’s economic privileges and to manage its massive land holdings. Paradoxically, after the outbreak of the French Revolution, it was Talleyrand who, on October 10, 1789, initiated the motion in the National Assembly to nationalize the Church’s property.
As Greenbaum suggested, it was because Talleyrand was an elite insider who had fully mastered the technicalities of Church property in the Old Regime that he was able to indicate the steps that could subordinate the Church to the democratic state. Louie’s point was that effective change is accomplished by experienced and competent people inside of a system, the elites who possess the secrets of how institutions work--not by radicals and outsiders who lack experience in the system they attack.
The second area in which Louie published extensively was health reform in late eighteenth-century France. According to Jacques Tenon, a hospital reformer in the 1780s, the hospital is “the measure of the civilization of a people.” Hospital reform was fashionable in the last decades of the Old Regime. It enjoyed the patronage of Louis XVI. Many leading administrators in the royal bureaucracy were influenced by the Enlightenment and expressed their dream of creating a more rational and happy society by reorganizing the hospital system.
In his articles, Louie steered clear of the theories of Michel Foucault and other critics of the Enlightenment. While Foucault presented hospitals as a new tool of incarceration and social control, Louie remained devoted to the standard image of the Enlightenment as progressive and humanitarian. He also subscribed to “the thesis that the Enlightenment, while conceived in Europe, was being realized in America.” He expressed this thesis in one of his last articles, published in 1994, which meticulously documented how Thomas Jefferson’s interest in public health and hospital reform, during his stay in France in 1785-1789, influenced the blueprints for the University of Virginia.
Twenty years later, Louie spoke of Jefferson again, when the Commonwealth Honors College, which evolved out of the Honors Program that Louis helped to found, paid tribute to him for his past service for a major financial donation. Classroom 301 in the Honors College was named the Louis S. Greenbaum Classroom, and a gallery just outside the classroom was named the Louis and Hilda Greenbaum Gallery. In an interview at the time of the dedication, in March of 2014, Louie stated that his greatest inspiration as Director of Honors was Jefferson, who designed the University of Virginia to be an “academic village.”
It should be noted that another history professor, Howard Quint, was crucial in creating the new Honors Program. In fact, prior to coming to UMass, Quint had served as the vice-president of an organization, The Inter-University Committee on the Superior Student, which sponsored honors education at public universities. It was Quint who persuaded our faculty senate to create an Honors Program. But Quint decided to remain in his post as Chair of the History Department, giving Louie the chance to serve as the first director of Honors.
In the 2014 interview, Louie said that his years as director of the Honors Program (1960-1963) “were the three happiest years of my life.” Louie would hold many administrative positions during his career at UMass —he was Chair of the Fine Arts Council, the Study Abroad Committee, and other committees. But it was his experience as the director of the Honors Program that truly mapped onto the ideals of reason and merit that he associated with the Enlightenment. In a memo of August 4, 1960, Louie wrote to the provost, deans, and department chairs:
"The purpose of the honors program is . . . to stretch students to their intellectual capacity by providing fresh programs of increased substance and challenge which will enhance their professional initiative, competence in inquiry, speculative acumen, and ability to synthesize disparate materials. In the purest sense, honors work is the pursuit of excellence."
Louie further explained:
"The honors program has its greatest impact in the colloquium. . . The colloquium is designed to expand the scope of the student’s work rather than to emphasize more intensive study in one field such as is done in the senior honors thesis.... Ideas and techniques peculiar to other areas are used to make decisions in one’s own special field. And the relationship between scholarship and responsible citizen is also emphasized. It provides a liberation from the traditional, limiting requirements of regular courses and stresses the totality of learning."1
This was not mere rhetoric. A review of syllabi for the honors colloquia offered in the early 1960s shows that they lived up to these standards. Students discussed major works of literature and social theory that raised fundamental questions about knowledge, ethics, and public policy. The number of students in the Commonwealth Honors College today is about ten times larger than the 250 students in the original Honors Program. The challenge facing any large honors college today is to maintain the high standards that inspired honors education in its early years. At UMass, this standard is especially explicit and lofty on account of Louie’s vision and leadership.
If 1960-1963 were Louie’s “happiest” years at UMass, what does this imply about his remaining time, a full thirty years, as a member of the History Department? While these were productive decades for Louie, we cannot avoid noting that they involved tensions. With the rise of radical history, the values Louie stood for were put on trial as Euro-centric and elitist. The leader of the early 1960s became a dissenter in the years that followed. Louie continued to flourish as a teacher, especially of honors students. But having been highly prominent in the atmosphere of the 1950s and very early 1960s, he now had to adjust to being simply one of many faculty members in a large department.
And adjust he did, with a vengeance. The full story of Louie’s emergence as a real estate magnate, a pioneer in historical restoration in Amherst, and a philanthropist has yet to be told. The outlines of this story are that he began, in the 1970s, to buy and restore houses built in the eighteenth century, which was of course his favorite historical period. Once he finished renovating a home, he would sometimes rent it out to university students. What began each time as a labor of love repeatedly turned into rentable student housing. Louie, who had done archival research about land ownership in eighteenth century France, was going to make history as a property owner. He chose as his own residence the oldest home in town, 298 Montague Rd., in North Amherst, a house built in 1737. Louie called it “Les Charmettes,” which was the name that Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave to his favorite retreat in France.
There is irony here. Rousseau, the Enlightenment author who attacked the Enlightenment itself, was not one of the idols of the young Louie Greenbaum. By the 1980s, however, Louie probably saw parallels between himself and the self-styled outcast of the Enlightenment. As the humanities and social sciences at UMass crystallized around a more Leftist nucleus, Louie also became an outsider. But like Rousseau, he forged his own base of influence.
I said that the full story of Louie’s career outside the university remains to be told. But one instance of his vigor must be related. It is his crucial role in finding a place of worship for the Jews of Amherst. Louie served as the Chair of the Building Committee on behalf of a group of Jewish families that aspired to establish a synagogue in Amherst. As Seidman, again, has written in The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative Years, 1969-1979, Louie was an ideal Chair because he and Hilda were “ardent about the preservation of old New England buildings and homes.” Determined to avoid a cinder-block synagogue, Louis explored the historic possibilities. He fastened on the Second Congregational Church of Amherst. The Church was built in 1839 and founded by Amherst citizens, some of whom had fought in the American Revolution. In the 1970s, the Church was experiencing a decline in membership and wished to sell its property.
It was a perfect fit, except that the price exceeded the budget that the Jewish families had agreed upon. Louie made the deal work by personally buying the parsonage, which enabled the other Jewish families to purchase the rest of the property within budget. After the sale, Louie played an important role in restoring the building and its historic accoutrements. He was especially proud of restoring the organ, which is today a featured stop for tourist groups that enjoy visiting historic organs.
The organ is not an instrument associated with Jewish music or the Jewish liturgy. But Louie loved European organ music and had his way: Music by Bach was played on the instrument at beginning of his funeral ceremony in the synagogue he helped to acquire. So it was throughout Louie’s life. He was person who did things the way he wanted to do them. He did not compromise. He lived his life based on his own conception of the great moral and intellectual traditions of the Western world, which was in fact an eclectic mix of Jewish, Christian, Enlightenment, and Ivy League value.
After playing a formative role in establishing the Honors Program, he never had a comparable sphere of influence within the university. No matter. He responded by creating a parallel career in real estate and historic preservation. His leadership instincts required a zone in which he could be what he had been in the Honors Program, a director with a broad-minded, if conservative, vision of human flourishing. And he “laughed all the way to the bank,” as the saying goes--but less for the sake of financial profit than out of historical nostalgia and the love of continuity.
Through his work in the field now called “public history,” Louie enriched the lives of everyone who resides in Amherst or who visits this area. Louie Greenbaum endures as an original example of achievement and independence for all of us—professors, students, and alumni—who struggle to find self-respect meaningful service in our lives with the help of historical knowledge.
1 “A Newly Inaugurated Honors Program at the University,” August 4, 1960, Memo to Provost, Deans, Department Heads, Commonwealth College Archives.