Famed historian pauses for the cheers

May 12, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

A fellow historian recalled the moment when Johns Hopkins University was considering hiring John Pocock, and the History Department was assembled to vote on the matter. Asked one professor: "How can I vote for somebody I can't understand?

Professor Pocock never was an easy read, but in the end all it turned out all right. He became famous, and Hopkins, not to mention a multitude of students in history and political science, benefited from his 20-year tenure there.

To the broader community -- that is, the rest of us -- he gave a new way to understand the thoughts that were alive in the minds of the men who founded the American republic more than 200 years ago.

Yesterday, before a gathering of his colleagues and friends, in the stately setting of the Eisenhower Library's Garrett Room, John G. A. Pocock talked about the long intellectual journey that brought him to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins.

Then he plunged without hesitation into the epilogue of his career.

It was a farewell address from a man who is retiring but not going anywhere. He won't be missed because he'll be around, with office space and more time as an emeritus professor of history to talk with colleagues and graduate students than he has today.

"I have no sense of saying goodbye," he said. And he didn't.

He expects to be busy. He has already written more than half a dozen books and many scholarly essays on subjects as varied as feudal law and Edmund Burke. He won the Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association for his study of Renaissance Florence and Machiavelli. He will continue to conduct seminars on British political thought at the Folger Library in Washington.

His work in progress is about the intellectual atmosphere of the period during which Edward Gibbon wrote his great work, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

"He is probably one of the most famous members of our faculty," said Matthew Crenson, dean of arts and sciences. "He opened a new path in the study of political thought."

That idea was elaborated in his 1975 book, "The Machiavellian Moment." It is expressed by the phrase "civic humanism," which describes a style of political commitment typical of Renaissance Florence. It suggests that individual citizens can achieve fulfillment only by conscious and constant participation in the political process of the republic. Conversely, only by this universal participation are the interests of the entire community advanced.

Professor Pocock's genius was to show that admiration of Florentine "civic humanism" was very much in the mental makeup of such men as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and thus a part of American political tradition from the beginning.

"Civic humanism" suggests a communal approach to political life, a determination by individuals to participate and not delegate decision-making in virtually any sphere. Civic humanism perceives the lack of participation in political life as a kind of corruption. "It is corrupt in the sense that the individual regards politics as a spectacle, something that you watch," Professor Pocock said.

"It means the citizen is abandoning such power as he or she has, which means someone else will surely exercise it."

John Pocock is a friendly, hospitable man with a gray beard that hangs from his chin like the blade of a gardening trowel. He speaks in the accents of New Zealand, where his parents took him from London, where he was born 70 years ago.

His father was a professor of classics; his mother taught history, so academic life was a natural inclination. He held posts at the University of Canterbury and Otago University, both in New Zealand, and at Cambridge, in England. He arrived in the United States in 1966 (at Washington University in St. Louis,) and in all that time has never seen a baseball game.

"I arrived in this country too late to ever understand it," he said.

Americans, he found, returned the same kind of active incomprehension toward his Pacific island home that he displayed for the National Pastime.

"Americans," he said, "display a benign but insuperable reluctance to hear anything factual about that country."

He lives in Roland Park with his wife, Felicity (he has two grown sons in California), in a neighborhood he said was once familiarly known as "Alonsoville," after a nearby bar. That's where he will stay, he said: "This is our home, where our friends are."

Professor Pocock elicits a surprising enthusiasm on campus, a personal warmth. Said Sharon Widomski, the History Department's administrator, "I think he's truly brilliant. He's got a brain like a computer. John Pocock writes manuscripts right out of his brain. There is never any rewriting, no crossing out. Literally, they are hand-written." She added: "He also has a wider range of knowledge than most people. I'd like to see him on Jeopardy."

A colleague was also deeply impressed by Professor Pocock's erudition. He recalled a little game he and others played, with Professor Pocock an unknowing participant:

"We used to eat lunch with him at the Hopkins Club. Our big game was to come up with something every day so obscure in European political history that he would not have something to say about it. We could never do it."

John Pocock speaks in what he refers to as "a rather misleading accent;" his style is professorial, his use of irony liberal. He is a Cambridge don come to roost in Baltimore, and like all of that breed, he seems to have an iron-clad composure.

But, for a moment yesterday, the cladding seemed about to crack as he stood at the podium before a room full of friends, all standing, sending wave after wave of applause his way.

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