Henry Steele Commager, 95, historian, teacher, author


Henry Steele Commager, one of the nation's most distinguished historians and teachers, a prolific author, editor and essayist, and an eloquent defender of the Constitution, died yesterday at his home in Amherst, Mass. He was 95.

For decades, the name Henry Steele Commager was synonymous with American history. Starting in the 1930s, he published a torrent of histories, biographies, textbooks, anthologies and inquiries into the nature of democracy and the American mind.

He also taught history and American studies for 66 years, 36 of them at Amherst College, 18 at Columbia University and 12 at New York University.

He accomplished all this while troubled by poor eyesight that deteriorated to near blindness, relying on a phenomenal memory and extraordinary energy.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian, called him "a great teacher and one of the century's notable historians." He said Mr. Commager brought to his profession an "analytical keenness, grace and lucidity of expression, and a disciplined passion for the integrity and hope of the democratic experience."

Among Mr. Commager's important books were:

"The Growth of the American Republic" (1930), of which he was co-author, and which became a standard college textbook for more than four decades.

"The American Mind" (1951), regarded by many historians and critics as his best work, which explored the cultural and philosophical forces that shaped the nation's outlook.

Mr. Commager was born in Pittsburgh on Oct. 25, 1902, the son of James and Anna Elizabeth Commager. He was orphaned in childhood and raised by his maternal grandfather of Danish origin, a founder of American Lutheranism.

He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and Chicago and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1923, his master's the next year, and his doctorate in history four years after that.

Commager was married to the former Evan Carroll, an author of children's books, from 1928 until her death in 1968. He is survived by his second wife, Mary Powlesland Commager; two daughters from his first marriage; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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