Monthly Archives: January 2020

Roger W. Smith, Current Biography








Le Roy Ladurie





Posted here (above) are four articles which I wrote for the reference book Current Biography:


Chaim Potok


Current Biography, May 1983



A.J.P. Taylor


Current Biography, November 1983



Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie


Current Biography, July 1984



Fernand Braudel


Current Biography, April 1985



Roger W. Smith

vaporized; or, when is a person not a person?



My wife and I got to talking this morning about people who make demands on one’s time or attention, something that we experience with acquaintances from time to time.

We were sharing stories from the past. She told me one about a fellow member of an organization she belonged to who knew another member who was looking for a math tutor for her son, and how the fellow member thought my wife would be perfect to recruit to do it, pro bono; that my wife would be eager to do it for another member of the organization, assuming (the fellow member, that is) that my wife had the time and motivation, which she didn’t. My wife said the fellow member was miffed when she told her that she wasn’t interested.

I thought of times when I have shared my writings with other writers or scholars, thinking they might be interested. Usually, they are not responsive. I said to my wife that this was not “wrong.” Most writers are too busy doing their own work to want to pay attention to that of others (especially writers who a priori would have no claim on their interest or attention). (Ditto for other fields of endeavor.)

Which brings to mind a story I shared with my wife.






I think that the following anecdote illustrates something about people and interpersonal interactions. Something that has nothing to do with importuning someone.

In 1987, I took a journalism course at New York University. I was enrolled in the graduate journalism program. The course was city reporting. It was taught by New York Times political reporter Maurice Carroll, known to everyone as Mickey.

The course was very hands on. Carroll had us actively doing reporting assignments with New York politicians. He was well connected and arranged for group interviews with Mayor Dinkins and City Council member Ruth Messinger; and we attended a City Council meeting (open to the public), which we were required to report on.

(An aside: I recall that the Council members at the meeting were constantly talking about “budget mods.” And that Queens Borough President Claire Shulman called Rikers Island “the world’s largest penal colony.”)

We journalism students were sitting in the first row of the spectator section, which was right behind the committee room, I believe separated by a wooden railing. During a break in the hearing, one of the prominent Council Members, Sheldon Leffler from Queens (who served in the Council for over two decades), leaned over, and to my surprise, addressed me. “Are you from the New Yorker?” he asked in a seemingly friendly manner.

“No,” I began to answer. “I‘m a journalism school student at NYU and –.”

In mid-sentence, he turned away as if I didn’t exist.






I continually run past events over and over in my mind, trying to conceptualize and make sense of — extract meaning from — them.

Something occurred to me the other day that I shared with my wife.

The incident was inconsequential, though I momentarily felt the effects of a putdown or rebuff (equivalent, perhaps, to a mosquito bite). But, even then, it did not make me think well of Leffler. All he had to say, should have said, if he were not rude, was something like, “Good luck in your studies.” (After all, he had addressed me.)

But it occurred to me the other day (I hadn’t thought about the incident for a long time) that such behavior illustrates something. Some people evaluate other people they meet solely on their “resume,” on externals such as occupation, importance, etc. (and perhaps — in fact probably — on whether the person has enough standing to somehow be of value or use to them). They care nothing about people as people. They are not interested in people as persons. I think this is true of many politicians and probably of many successful people in the private sector, such as executives and entrepreneurs who have made it big.

When Leffler realized that he was not speaking to a New Yorker reporter, I was “vaporized” from his consciousness. I became a nonperson.


— Roger W. Smith

  January 29, 2020

an intellectual adventure



“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008



i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”






Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.


I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.






Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.





So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.



— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Joshua Prawer




English Society in the Early Middle Ages



In the spring 1966 semester, I took the course History 124a, “Feudalism: Medieval Society and Political System,” at Brandeis University.

The course was taught by Professor Joshua Prawer. Prawer, who was a visiting professor on leave for the academic year, was dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was an internationally known medieval historian. Books which he later published include The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages, The World of the Crusaders, Crusader Institutions, and The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I took great courses and did well in my first two years of college. I had placed out of a few required core courses, which enabled me to take several higher-level elective courses.





Despite enjoying the courses — greatly — I was a shy, inhibited person in those days, and I was unhappy with the social milieu at Brandeis. I tended to be repressed and taciturn. And diffident among other students and probably in class as well. (I can’t exactly recall.)

I recall that there was no final exam for Professor Prawer’s course, in which I received a final grade of B. There was a required term paper.

My term paper was based on the English historian Doris Mary Stenton’s English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066–1307), which was published in 1951 as the third volume of the Pelican History of England. She was the wife of the medievalist Sir Frank Stenton, author of Anglo-Saxon England, c550–1087, Volume II in the Oxford History of England.

I recall that I worked fairly hard on the paper and enjoyed Doris Mary Stenton’s book. I was very interested in medieval history and society. I seem to recall that my paper mostly amounted to summarizing the contents and findings of the book and I thought that, on that account, it was probably not a great paper.

To my great surprise (really and truly), I got the paper back with only the following (no other comments or marks): an A+ on the top of the first page and the professor’s comment beneath, “Why didn’t you open up more in the seminar?”

If I may say so without bragging, what this seems to show is that a good writer can write well at any time about almost anything, and under constraints and deadline pressure. It must have been my writing that impressed Professor Prawer. I don’t recall that the paper was otherwise remarkable.


— Roger W. Smith

    January 2020





… Lecture 7 [in A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773 by Sir Robert Chambers] deftly capsulizes the complicated economic history behind the conversion of villenage from the yoke of abject slavery to the privilege of landholding. Villenage arose in early feudal Europe not because foreign invaders made slaves of conquered people but because the inherently primitive circumstances of agrarian societies produced a lower class in economic bondage. [italics added] Opposed to theoretical notions of an original human equality was the stark historical situation of an unequal distribution of property and an overabundance of laborers to farm a limited number of estates. Since Europe lacked commercial diversity and economic opportunities for social advancement and ownership found in a civilized milieu, most of the populace faced either dire poverty or cruel servitude under a feudal lord:


When the accommodations of life were few, but few arts were necessary to produce them. One man was therefore less necessary to another, and the numerous wants and ready supplies by which the system of polished life is held together, were not yet known to the world. Men held commerce with men but as givers and receivers; where there was little traffic there was little money, and all the products of the earth which are now circulated through a wide range of buyers and sellers, then passed immediately, if they passed at all, from him that raised them to him that consumed them. He only was rich who was the owner of land, and he that had no land was necessarily poor. And the poverty of those days was not want of splendour but want of food …. Yet this was undoubtedly the state of the first feudal communities: of which the traces still remain in some parts of the world. (Sir Robert Chambers, “Of the Feudal Law, Strictly So Called, and of the Effects of That Law on Our Constitution and Government. IN A Course of Lectures on The English Law; Contained in Four Lectures, Volume I; one of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford University 1767-1773; manuscript in British Library)


[Samuel] Johnson would observe numerous traces of such a backward feudal economy in Scotland and contemplate measures for alleviating the widespread poverty upon his return to England. What Lecture 7 sets forth as historical remedies for the end of serfdom might have offered Johnson some pertinent lessons for evaluating the Highlands. According to the lecture, the emancipation of villeins coincided with the spread of peace, religion, law, and economic mobility, as more of the peasants shared in the ownership of lands by copyhold tenure. Alarmed by the spectacle of mass emigration from Scotland, Johnson would have welcomed some curtailment of “the inequalities of life” in northern Britain to stabilize a region caught between a medieval heritage and modern progress.


— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 64-66


In his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson, who is known to have collaborated to an undetermined extent with Sir Robert Chambers on his Oxford lectures, wrote:

Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich …. The laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed /through the labyrinths of traffic, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it …. Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable. But where flocks and corn are the only wealth, there are always more hands than work …. He therefore who is born poor never can be rich.”






Feudalism has always fascinated me, ever since I majored in history at Brandeis University and took almost half of the courses in my major in medieval history.

The above excerpts from works I was recently reading — my interest in Sir Robert Chambers was spurred by my knowledge of his relationship with Samuel Johnson — seem to provide an excellent and succinct explanation (which I shared with my wife, who agreed) of the workings of pre-capitalist economies in Europe.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2020




I have kept and treasure the books from my medieval history courses.