Congdon, who received Hungary’s Order of Merit, Small Cross, draws meaning from European order and tradition in politics, religion and intellectual life. The rituals of baseball, though thoroughly American, attract him for similar reasons.

JMU’s Favorite Monarchist

Like the Hungarian intellectuals he has spent a lifetime researching, history professor Lee Congdon is an exile — in America.


Though American born and raised, Lee Congdon is a stranger in a strange land. As he himself puts it, he is a “cultural and intellectual European.” Indeed, there is a touch of Old World sensibility about this 30-year JMU history professor, especially when perceived against the end-of-the-week revelries at a Harrisonburg brew pub and restaurant, where he has agreed to meet for an interview.

It is there in his poise and the contemplative pause he takes before responding to a question, as well as the barbed humor he evinces as he derides the vox populi of American culture and politics. It’s evoked, too, in his crisp appearance — his neatly clipped gray beard and combed-back hair, his buttoned cuffs, the suit jacket he wears, and — though it’s not a cravat — his tightly knotted necktie, even though it is nearly 7 on a Friday evening and most people are just getting loose.

Congdon is an internationally recognized scholar for his lifelong research and publications dealing with the generations of Hungarian intellectuals, who, as exiles throughout the cafés, cabarets, art houses and salons of Europe, particularly in pre-Nazi Berlin, were prominent in shaping 20th-century culture and politics in the West. And while the notion of exile lies at the heart of his scholarship (one of his three books is titled Exile and Social Thought), Congdon, a Chicago native, admits to a degree of alienation when it comes to living in America. “I do feel myself to be something of an exile in this country,” he says. “I feel closest to those Americans who preferred Europe — Henry James, T.S. Eliot, George F. Kennan — there are others I could name.”

Politically, for instance, Congdon veers right of the American right, meaning, within a European context, he is a monarchist. He sees little difference between the competing ideologies of America’s political parties and he professes an abiding admiration and preference over the common-denominator chaos of American democracy for some of Europe’s royalist governments of the latter 19th century, wherein “liberty — not equality — was the highest political value. For European conservatives,” Congdon says, “order is first and liberty only within a context of order.”

When he asks his students whether they would “prefer to live under a good government or a participatory government that is bad,” he is bemused that they always choose the latter. It’s a choice the professor finds somewhat incomprehensible as a proponent of “right-wing liberalism” a là Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, in his view “two of the greatest political thinkers produced by the Western tradition.”

Although he is not dogmatic about his politics in his conversation, writing or teaching, Congdon is quick to challenge his students’ assumptions about the “verities” of American democracy, beliefs inculcated throughout their lives. His monarchist leanings, moreover, are certainly provocative amid JMU’s recognition of James Madison and his political genius as author of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In matters of faith, Congdon also parts company with most of his compatriots. In the early 1980s, prompted by a personally and deeply affecting reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, he reconverted to Christianity, “from which I had strayed.” In 1996, furthermore, he and his wife, Carol, converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, attracted to its Divine Liturgy. Today they are members of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Candidly speaking, Congdon, upon whom the Hungarian government bestowed the prestigious Order of Merit, Small Cross, takes a rather detached view of his American citizenship. “God placed me in this country, and I am bound to it by certain loyalties — to my family and my friends — and by memories of a time when America was a more innocent, but more decent — I do not say perfect — land.” Finally, he adds, “I’m afraid my loyalty to the U.S. is now a matter of principle, not of the heart.”

So is there nothing quintessentially American that can thaw this Europhile’s cool demeanor? Has Congdon, who learned Hungarian in the U.S. Army intelligence corps in the early 1960s, expunged from his heart all fond traces of his American roots — other than family and friends? Well, for starters, he is a big fan of Duke Ellington — but so were most Europeans. Is there not just one purely American institution that he holds in high regard that Europeans have steadfastly and largely spurned?

Yes, there is. Baseball! (Ah. Waiter. Another round of beer, please!)

At home in Congdon’s study, among the things he values most — the Orthodox icons on the wall facing his desk, his shelves of books, the smattering of family photographs and a postcard of Dostoevsky sent by his wife — a pride of place atop a bookcase is given to two baseballs, one of which is autographed by Jackie Robinson, Mel Ott and Stan “The Man” Musial. The other is “one that Andy Pafko autographed in 1949 or 1950,” writes Congdon in a favorable review earlier this year of Don DeLillo’s novella, Pafko at the Wall. “It was given to me by Jocko Conlan, the Hall of Fame umpire and Chicago florist, whom my father knew as a business friend. The fiery Irishman hoped to lift my spirits during one of the Cubs’ off years.”

When Congdon begins talking baseball, there’s no mistaking his locus classicus: It’s the diamond in Wrigley Field, a painting of which adorns a plate hanging in his study. For Congdon, allegiance begins with the Chicago Cubs, then it’s baseball, then America. In particular, Congdon’s fealty is for the era before free agency, when players were less mercenary and more loyal to the cities that supported them. His own “baseball awakening” occurred in 1948, and he is especially fond of the game as played during the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. He recalls going often to Cubs’ games with his father or “taking the bus to Wrigley Field with a friend [and] seeing my favorite players.”

“Baseball is a far more interesting game than, say, football and basketball, which are merely mass spectacles — games for the unthinking masses who simply look for circuses,” he says. “So many things happen on the diamond, and it takes time to learn to look for them. Moreover, baseball is the most historical of games. Part of the pleasure it gives derives from knowing its history,” he adds.

Sportswriter Thomas Boswell says that baseball is a game of conversation. It is through conversation that the games’ history is daily revisited, passed down or debated, as fans recount the individuals — great and small — who turned a game, saved a series, or lost everything in a bad bounce or ill-timed decision. Then, too, there are the records and numbers — RBIs, errors, home runs and batting averages — to examine, challenge and reconfigure in discussing the “what ifs” of the game. This historical and mathematical dimension is what attracts so many American intellectuals to the game, says Congdon, passing on an idea attested to by a venerable line of American intellectuals of all persuasions — from the late, left-leaning evolutionist Stephen J. Gould to conservative columnist and talking-head George F. Will, among a legion of others.

Congdon, a Spenglerian even at his American core, sees the game today in its demise, like so much else in the West. “It is yet another sign of national decline that baseball is no longer the national pastime. Young people — including my own children — in my experience are bored by baseball. They require more frenetic action.” Of course, he’s right. How long before some TV syndicate proposes “X-treme” baseball?

“But the game itself,” Congdon adds, “has declined. Money — too much — and drugs and the end of the reserve clause — I shall not speak of the designated hitter — have taken a heavy toll. I continue to love the game, but I find that I love the game as it was before, say, 1965.”

The emphasis on spectacle and entertainment for its own sake, as well as the greed so prevalent in the game today are the consequences of a larger culture-wide slide into the dugout that — to risk oversimplifying Congdon’s academic work — can be traced back to the pronounced nihilism expressed by so many European writers, artists and philosophers in the latter 19th century. That nihilism, which undercut the moral authority of Judeo-Christian beliefs, was countered by an urgent search for meaning among many of the European intelligentsia, who were drawn increasingly to the utopian appeals of communism and nationalism, the two competing sociopolitical movements that prophesied a terra firma world of social justice and equality. Of course, those utopias rapidly spawned the terror-forming policies of Hitler and Stalin.

One of the major themes of Congdon’s work is that the “intellectuals, who contributed so much to the secularization of the modern mind, are particularly reluctant to accept a world from which God has fled, and therefore look for meaning and direction in secular — substitute — religions, especially of a political kind,” he says.

Such was the zeitgeist during which several extraordinary generations of Hungarians came of age in the first few decades of the 20th century. Among them were physicists, mathematicians, sociologists, poets, playwrights, artists, political theorists, musicians, architects, filmmakers and engineers — intellectuals of all stripes, men and women, who achieved international distinction in each of these fields. Sure, many countries produce great individuals within a spectrum of disciplines during specific eras or generations. But consider that Hungary is a country roughly 5,000 square miles smaller than the state of Virginia. Moreover, nearly all of these people were from Hungary’s urban center, Budapest, with a population circa 1900 of approximately 733,000.

“I do not think it possible to explain how it happened that so many talented people were born in one time and place,” says Congdon. “But I do think I can identify some factors that account for the Great Generation’s record of achievement. One such factor was the quality of Budapest’s schools — especially its Gymnasia. These schools were reserved for the country’s intellectual elite. No one pretended to believe that every child was gifted or capable of serious academic study. Such a system has its drawbacks, of course. Little or no provision was made for ‘late bloomers.’ But in my judgment, no American university (of the present day) can match the education those schools offered to those who qualified themselves.”

Congdon also notes that “many of the best students came from assimilated Jewish homes that placed a high value on education and culture.” In addition, this generation “drew upon the kinetic energy of Europe’s fastest-growing metropolis. They could share in the excitement generated by the modern culture taking shape in [Budapest’s] democratizing coffeehouses and bustling editorial offices,” adds Congdon. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner, who emigrated to America, once said of his days growing up in Hungary, “You heard a great deal more erudite conversation than you hear in the United States. ... People talked more about culture, about art, about literature.”

Perhaps the most significant reason for this flowering of talent is that this “Great Generation possessed a sense of mission. For them, life was public, not merely private,” says Congdon. “Hence they were never content to withdraw into their own worlds or to view the outer world in a detached manner. They looked for ways to fulfill what they understood to be their civic responsibilities.”

Unfortunately, as Congdon chronicles in his three books, particularly his recent Seeing Red: Hungarian Intellectuals and the Challenge of Communism, that sense of mission ended in personal tragedy for many Hungarians who chose to immigrate to the Soviet Union, instead of England or America, the two main alternative routes. Attracted by Russia’s “colossal human experiment” under Communism, which Congdon terms a “substitute religion,” those who went to the USSR met with penury, fear and even death.

“The intellectual history of 20th-century Europe must be understood within the broad context of secularization and the consequent crisis of belief,” Congdon says, reiterating one of his main themes.

And so, then, what of baseball? What about the crisis of belief there — and what it means? Congdon, in his review of David Halberstam’s Summer of 49, answers, “Despite some salutary changes, especially the breaking of the color line, the game, like our public life, has lost its civilizing function, its ability to elevate our sense of human possibility.” But Congdon also believes the game still points to a larger redeeming truth.

“It is hardly surprising that we long for something that will not be lost to time, something that won’t be forgotten, something eternal,” Congdon writes in his review of DeLillo’s book in the June 2002 issue of The World and I. “Everyone can, and almost everyone does, participate in some ritual; think of the Catholic Mass or Orthodox Liturgy, which in their continual repetition lift us out of time and give us a foretaste of those things eternal. There are, of course, secular rituals as well,” Congdon adds.

Baseball, he proposes, is one of those rituals, one in which history and tradition are central. And its most memorable, dramatic moments are “analogous to icons in Eastern Orthodox churches” that “point us to a transcendent reality.” Accordingly, a spectacular home run in the bottom of the ninth, upon which a series hangs, or one snatched away by a daring fielder’s catch at the wall are images “of the eternal.” Through them, Congdon concludes in his book review, “we catch a glimpse, however small, of permanent things.”

These words reveal an exile-in-residence who makes his way around to home with uncommon grace. Furthermore, at his inner core, there remains a uniquely American touch of optimism. Congdon “still believes” the Chicago Cubs will one day achieve utopia on that field of dreams.

The Great Generation of Hungarian Intellectuals

Endre Ady 1877–1919
poet & journalist

Frederick Antal 1887 – 1954
Marxist art historian

Béla Balázs 1884-1949
Marxist poet, dramatist & film theorist

Béla Bartók 1881-1945
composer

Marcel Breuer 1902-1981
designer & architect

Arnold Hauser 1892-1978
sociologist of art & literature

Gyula Hay 1900-1975
Marxist dramatist

Oscar Jászi 1875-1957
historian & political theorist

Lajos Kassák 1887-1967
avant-garde poet & artist

Zoltán Kodály 1882-1967
composer & music educator

Arthur Koestler 1905-1983
novelist & political journalist

Aurel Kolnai 1900–1973
political & moral philosopher

Alexander Korda 1893-1956
film producer & director

Georg Lukács 1885-1971
Marxist philosopher & political theorist

Karl Mannheim 1893-1947
sociologist of knowledge

Lászlo Moholy-Nagy 1895-1946
artist & art educator

Karl Polanyi 1886-1964
economic historian & social theorist

Michael Polanyi 1891-1976
physical chemist & philosopher

Leo Szilard 1898-1964
physicist

John von Neumann 1903-1957
mathematician

Theodore von Kármán 1881-1963
aeronautical engineer

Edward Teller 1908-
physicist

Eugene Wigner 1902-1995
physicist

Johannes Wilde 1891-1970
art historian

 

Story by Randy Jones
Photos by Diane Elliott (’00)


Publisher: Montpelier Magazine • For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu