For years the Reader’s Digest had a feature entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” For me that was John Lukacs and the meeting took place in 1955 during my sophomore year at La Salle College.
As a freshman I had heard stories about Lukacs and how interesting, informative, and entertaining his classes were. As a nineteen-year-old college student with no real sense of purpose other than a love for history, I was in for a treat. That one class, “The World Since 1914,” changed my life. It launched me on the path to a career as a history professor. For that reason alone I owe John Lukacs much.
Lukacs joined La Salle in 1948 as an adjunct professor while teaching full time at Chestnut Hill College. Like so many other colleges La Salle experienced a boom in enrollment because of the GI Bill and was expanding its faculty.
John, who escaped from his native Hungary in 1945, was just 24when he started at La Salle—younger than some of the World War II veterans who populated his classes. An Anglophile whose mother started him learning English at five, John spoke English with only the trace of an accent. His English was grammatically correct, even precise.
John’s job at La Salle was to teach courses in modern European history. He would remain as a part-timer for forty years, in the process becoming the most influential member of La Salle’s History Department.
When I enrolled in John’s course in September 1955 he was thirty-one, six foot tall, balding, a natty dresser who featured shirts with a tab collar and wore suede shoes, something I had never seen before. After a mediocre freshman year I was suddenly in a class which was my first experience with serious scholarship.
The first day John gave out a syllabus with a schedule of lecture topics and a list of required readings—ten books in all. This was the first time I had ever seen a syllabus and the ten readings were more than I had done in my entire freshman year. In later years I took three other courses from John covering the full sweep of European history from the Renaissance, along with a special course on Russian history. Each of these courses featured anywhere from seven to ten books per semester. In all I read some seventy-five to eighty books in John’s courses, far more than I read in all the rest of my classes as an undergraduate. These readings in many cases laid the ground for my graduate work.
I can still remember the books that John’s course exposed me to as well as the sheer pleasure I derived for the first time in reading scholarly monographs. John’s classes exposed me to such authors as Iris Origo, Garrett Mattingly, J. Huizinga, Eileen Power, Robert Graves, Stefan Zwieg, Winston Churchill, Harold Nicolson, and Dwight Macdonald, as well as fiction by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, as well as the essays of George Orwell. Many of these readings I would use myself later in my teaching career such as Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Zwieg’s The World of Yesterday, Nicolson’s The Congress of Vienna and Orwell’s A Collection of Essays.
John didn’t require papers or critiques of these books. Instead he questioned—really, interviewed—you about them. He would take you aside and begin to discuss the book with you to see how much you grasped or understood. The amazing side of this was that he listened to you, treated your judgments seriously, and would argue points with you. The give-and-take was like nothing I had experienced before, and left you with a sense that you had arrived at an important point on your own.
I remember discussing Orwell with John. He asked me what essay impressed me and why. I mentioned two in particular, “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language.” Pressed to give reasons, I groped badly for something to say that was original. Soon he and I were discussing what we admired about Orwell—his crisp prose, his use of vivid images, his contrarian streak. That discussion lasted twenty minutes and began the process of making me into a lifetime Orwell admirer.
I came to see a lot of Orwell in John—someone of independent views who did not fit comfortably in any political or ideological category. That was part of his appeal.
This type of process was typical of John. If you were genuinely interested in history, John treated you with respect and took your opinions seriously. During my sophomore year other than the reading discussions I was awed by the class and mostly kept quiet.
As I noted, his classes were always entertaining. He was a superb and colorful lecturer. He didn’t use notes but would stand with his left foot slightly in front, his hands on the lapels of his coat, and just talk. His lectures were easy to follow and richly illustrated by anecdotes from his vast reading. He would occasionally read a selection from an important historical work for our reaction. One I remember in particular was from Carlton J. H. Hayes’s inaugural address as President of the American Historical Association, “American Frontier: Frontier of What.” It was typical of John to expose his students to an essay that challenged a widely accepted idea, in this case Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis. He occasionally used the blackboard for key terms. I was fascinated by the freehand maps he would draw on the board. In his maps of Europe Ireland was always drawn as a beer stein, which usually got a groaning response from the many Irish-Americans in the class.
Little things like this were typical of his classes and made them fun. In one class we had a loud leftist and an equally determined right-winger. John placed them on opposite sides of the class and often refereed their disputes.
John had a good sense of humor. After a History Club banquet, John began class the next day by asking the class: “What was the last thing I said?” One of the students shouted: “I’ll have a scotch and soda.” John laughed along with the class.
An incident I will never forget occurred in my Junior year. John was discussing the outbreak of World War I. On certain topics he could be very theatrical and this was one of them. During his explication of the events of July–August 1914, John told of the British ambassador in Vienna taking leave of Emperor Francis Joseph. Caught up in the historic moment, the ambassador broke into tears as he bid goodbye to the Emperor he knew he would never see again and who had been an old friend. The Emperor seeing his tears, according to John, tried to comfort him.
It was all very dramatic with John literally imitating both men.
One student in the class raised his hand and said: “I don’t see what’s so great about that. In a few days men from both countries will be killing each other.”
John turned red in the face. “You barbarian, you barbarian!” he shouted. “What would you have him do? Kick the Emperor in the stomach and say I hope you die of cancer of the bowels, you miserable old man.”
This was greeted with nervous laughter but the student turned grey. After class John pulled me aside—I was president of the History Club—and asked me if I knew the student. He asked me search him out and apologize to him for John’s outburst. I found the student in the cafeteria and passed on John’s remark. John apologized to him personally the next class, despite the fact the student was basking in glory at the incident. I still see some of my classmates from that particular class and we still laugh about the incident fifty years later.
During his years at La Salle, John played a key role in preparing students for graduate school. When I took his class as a sophomore I had no idea what I wanted to do. Listening to John discussing advanced study with some of the seniors began the process where I decided that I wanted to become a college professor like John.
Between 1952 and 1959 John personally was responsible for sending seven La Salle history majors to graduateschool where they went on to receive doctorates. No other department in the school could match that record.
John Lukacs was my first great teacher, then my colleague for forty years at La Salle, and most importantly, my friend. For all of that I bless him.
John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.