Hello, Dick. What’s Up?

Earlier this year, I published an In Memoriam for my thesis supervisor, Stanley J. Stein, who died at 99. It was not easy to write. All the difficulties of graduate education, and they range from personal to professional, come back to you when you are asked to write a memorial. And there is one you never anticipated–the John Donne moment. You know, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, hotshot. Writing about someone who was like the major grown-up in your life after your biological parents reminds that tempus fugit. Today, you write for your mentors, but that assumes that you are now old enough to be shown the door too. If it doesn’t cross your mind, you’re a hardier soul than I am. Maybe you are.

One of my friends who read the memorial called it a “formal elegy.” Since this friend was a long-time Perfesser of English, I was pretty pleased, as if learning that I spoke prose for the first time. But, knowing me, he also said he doubted it really got to the core of the relationship between me and Stanley Stein. Well, yeah, you could say that. You know, Gibbon says that in the Roman Legions, discipline was such that the average soldier feared his officers more than his enemies. I think Stanley must have read Gibbon in junior high.

Which is not to say we didn’t end up as real friends, because we did. Or that I didn’t look forward–well, maybe that’s too strong–anticipate is better, my periodic phone conversations with him over the last twenty years. Talking to Stanley Stein was always a seminar, and there wasn’t much question as to who ran the show. I told friends nothing could take me back to those glorious 1970s in Princeton faster than having Stanley decide he was going to bounce a few ideas off me to see if I hadn’t lost my edge (what little I have) living in the Great Beyond. Like, conversations got serious in a hurry. After “Hello, Dick, what’s up,” there wasn’t much time for small talk. It was off to work. And keeping up with Stein was tough when you weren’t used to it.

Linda, my wife, friend, and fellow sufferer through graduate education, had a great description of a seminar with Stein. “He’d come out swinging. And he’d pound you into a corner. And, boy, you better be ready to have a comeback (or an escape route). Because, otherwise, you were finished.” Was that ever true. I once watched him interrogate a fellow student in American history(whom I know he liked) by asking “Having you read any Russian history? Have you read any German history? Have you you read any French history?” When he got a negative shake of the head to each more insistently uttered query, he finally exploded, “Well, what the Hell have you read?” Even now, I’m laughing as I recall this little pas de deux. Didn’t seem quite so entertaining then.

My first in the flesh glimpse of Stanley was in late Summer 1973, as Linda and I were trying to figure out a very complicated marital residence situation. We sort of decided, jointly, that if I was going to work with this guy, I better go meet him. So I (we) screwed up our courage and went over to Dickinson Hall, then the seat of the Great Princeton History Department (sic), down in the basement, to see him. I knocked tentatively on the door, he said come in, and there we were.

My first impression of Stanley J Stein was of a dapper little guy with an Adolphe Menjou moustache in an office neatly but fully stacked with old books, a thick stack of typescript in front of him, wearing a seersucker suit. Yeah, wearing a suit. In his office. In the Summer. Working. Since my undergraduate teachers had been, shall I say, somewhat less formal (not to say considerably less famous), I was suitably intimidated. And we didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. “I was trying to make myself scarce,” he said. From which I gathered he was not altogether pleased at the late-afternoon intrusion. God knows what I stammered, but what seemed like the very next question was “What do you plan to write your dissertation on?” Oh, sweet Jesus. WHAT? Again, God knows what I stammered. He looked distinctly unimpressed and said something like “Well, you know, sometimes people arrive and they are all on fire to do a specific thing.” On fire. Right. I just wanted to get the Hell out of the room at that point. It was, alas, a feeling I frequently had in my student* days at Old Nassau. The little asterisk is intentional. You get that when you are a product of the Graduate School at Princeton. You are never a Bentley Goldman ’06. You are, alas, always a Richard Salvucci* Kind of telling, ain’t it?

I don’t remember what Linda and I talked about after that, but I suspect both of us were a little shell shocked. Welcome to the NFL, rookie. Both of us would learn that Harvard PhD’s of a certain age, ethnicity and background shared a certain characteristic intellectual aggression that was not personal, but too direct to seem otherwise. The idea was that intellectual discourse was hand-to-hand combat, and you had damn well be ready to kill or be killed. Bernard Bailyn, Stein’s exact contemporary, had the same manner, and so did David Landes. Stein was no outlier, but it took some time in a Higgins boat on Nassau Street to figure that out. Actually, it took a lot longer than that. I got to know David Landes at Berkeley, and Linda really got to know Bailyn in the 1980s at his Atlantic seminars. It took about twenty years to get over the initial shelling, but the ordnance was always the same.

There are so many stories I could tell about my academic interaction with Stein as a student–frankly, I’ll have to leave some of them for a second installment. I’ll give you a taste here.

My first “homework” as a grad student almost stopped me dead. I had gone down to visit Stein in his office and was undoubtedly saying something stupid about economic history. He sat back regarding me and then came out with, “Dick, I want you to read Huguette and Pierre Chaunu, Seville et l’Antique.” I dutifully wrote this down, phonetically, since I had no French (we had a triple language requirement in Latin American history, even if we fudged by sticking to the Romance languages: I passed, dude, all of them. French after a week’s crash study). So then over to Firestone Library as it was then (not the Wall Street financed Taj Mahal it is now) and to the old card catalogue. Little did I know this was a repository of scholarship itself–I pray Princeton did not discard it–and went to look up “the book.” My first inkling that something was amiss was that I found so many damn cards for Chaunu. “Weird,” I must have thought, and then repaired to the dungeon of, I think, B Floor to go find “the book.”

Well, I found it. Did I ever. I pulled down one volume. Then another. Then another. Damn, it took up an entire shelf. Some of the volumes had two parts and some of the parts had two parts. I carefully cleared the shelf, walked up the stairs to Circulation, and checked the whole damn thing out, volume bu volume, with my name joining the ranks of predecessors on the circulation card, some of whom were well known historians. I do remember bringing the stack down to the graduate study room and putting them on my desk. Where they remained for a week while I frantically tried to figure out what to do with them. It made no apparent difference where I started or ended, not that I could read much of the text anyway. And the maps. And the tables. And the routes. And the cartograms. It got to be a kind of running joke among the other first years, until an advanced Europeanist told me there was a pretty good summary of the thing in one of John Elliott’s books, which I quickly acquired. And with a dictionary, a grammar, and lots of cigarettes, I slogged. And slogged. And slogged. I would occasionally report back to Stein who listened without saying much.

Now, the climax came when I had to produce a report for him, which must have been a mess. I can’t find it, and I still have some of that stuff. In any event, there was no letter grade, but a comment that Stein nearly eviscerated me with. “Dick, this is a good job. But you didn’t answer a basic question. So what?” I remember wondering how the Hell were you supposed to answer some existential question about the work of some bonkers Frenchmen that came down to why did you do this and what did you learn? I do think I got loaded that weekend from our perch in 903 Lawrence Apartments. It was quite a view in 1973, mostly sod farms on Route 1, little else. No malls. No corporate centers. You could get trashed and contemplate the Great American Question. “So what?” Years later, when I posed that same question to a couple of grad students at Berkeley, they regarded me as if I were some kind of madman. One of them said as much. For once, at the moment, I understood why I was supervising people older than myself who clearly weren’t pleased at being put in such a position. For once, they had no answer. “God bless you, Stanley. I shut them down today.”

Because Stein was in the throes of composing his (and Barbara Hadley Stein’s) magnum opus on the Spanish Empire, I didn’t see much of him until the end of my second year, right before my comprehensives. We were like two pipe bombs that crossed paths occasionally. I didn’t much like him. And, to be honest, I’m not sure he thought too much of me. He once wrote I had a critical mind, but it wasn’t clear that I had an original mind. Ouch. Can you imagine being 23 or 24 and getting clobbered that way? When I hear the current generation of students complaining about their teachers, the unfairness of life, and all the rest, I think back to that moment. Stein would have killed most of them. And he would have simply thought he was doing his job. And he was. There was no bs. I later joked that Princeton was the Parris Island of Latin American Economic History. Because it was. I told Stein that many years later and he laughed. He told me he ended up in the Navy only because the USMC wasn’t interested. No one ever accused the Marines of being too cerebral.

So when does this story become “And they lived happily ever after?”

Oh, boy. You got a minute?

I somehow managed to squeak through my general exams, although, quite honestly, I was by that point wondering why I had left the prospect of a nice career at a bank in Philly behind. And had once walked out of a seminar on a break and almost not gone back, were it not for the insistence of Linda, who basically said, since when do you run away from a challenge? And I almost never went to Mexico to do research, which is another long story. But while it isn’t irrelevant, it isn’t very edifying. So we cut to the chase.

Linda and I worked in the Mexican archives for the better part of eighteen months. Linda, who has her own Stein story to tell, got involved in her own research and ended up publishing a very well regarded paper in Historia Mexicana that won the Haring Prize. Yup. Would you believe that Stein read it as a seminar paper and actually gave it an A-? My theory, recently developed, was that her argument essentially contradicted one of the major points of the multi-volume project he and Barbara were at work on for 20 years. I think he admired the scholarship, but was ticked that one of his students may have been stealing his thunder. Stein was very smart, but very human. I honestly think he was thunderstruck That’s how it works sometimes. Since it’s Linda’s story, I’ll pass over the rest. But anyone who thinks either one of us sailed some “Hey Boomer” graduate program with a Club Med fellowship is apt to get some dirty looks and a curt, if not obscene, dismissal. Life, dear younger colleagues, is tough all over. That doesn’t change.

Living in Mexico and working in the archives every day–sometimes double shifts–was the education in “Latin American” history I never had. Basically you learned how to decipher centuries old documents written in some kind of scrawl in metallic, flaking ink and adorned with incomprehensible symbols that you asked the Mexican staff about. If you hit them on a good day, you got an answer. If not, you kept plugging. At first you had–I had–no idea of what I was doing, but there, buried in this stuff, you started to look for patterns, meaning, something that would tell you what the Hell you were trying to work out. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle whose final image appeared nowhere. You had to conjure it up. That Stein called “historical imagination,” and he valued it even more than independence, a thick skin, or a facile line of slick historical trivia. If you had it, you were ok. If not, well, you’d find out. About 75 percent of the way through our stay, I sent him a forty-some page precis of what I thought I was seeing. To my utter amazement, he liked it. No, he didn’t say that, but the wind started blowing from the South for the first time, and I confess, it felt good.

Stein valued originality and independence of mind–frequently these are difficult to distinguish from absolute ignorance, which I displayed in abundance–and he had no reason to think I had anything on the ball until I showed him. And he wasn’t going to pat you on the head, hold your hand, anything. He was very much a tough sob because that was how he did it. And if you were going to do study with him, that’s how you were going to do it. It was, really, a compliment of sorts, although many of us had no clue. Especially me.

What really broke the ice between us finally was my finding the manuscript to an important mercantile bankruptcy which had long eluded his grasp. This was one of those dark basement “archives”, unorganized, no copy machine, places where current legal files were kept and the historical stuff just happened to be there. You had to beg your way in–and you got good at that in Mexico after a bit–and then you plodded. No finding aid. No calendar. Hell, barely any light to read by. Me and my buddy Gabe Haslip Viera sat in that dungeon for months inhaling God knows what and plowing through stacks of uncatalogued stuff, frantically writing down digests of what we read. One day, by luck or God’s grace, I found this case, which documented the collapse of a commercial house named Oteyza Y Vertiz. I knew that Stein was bugged by this particular case, but had never been able to make much headway with it. So I wrote him. Snail mail, right, it’s 1978. Lol. He called me. In the DF. At our apartment. I’ll never forget the tone in his voice: “You found the quiebra (bankruptcy)?” Man, if he could’ve come down on the next plane from New York, he would have. However he was teaching, so I told him I’d handle it. No microfilm. No xerox. Forget your little smartphones, yet to appear. I sat down for a week and transcribed most of the case. Yeah, you’re thinking brownie points, and I’m sure that entered my mind too. But actually, it was more like “Hey, this is amazing. It’s like walking around Mexico City in the 1790s and talking to all the big shots.” It wasn’t really work, and I probably got as much out of it as he ultimately did. Maybe more.

Coming home, writing the dissertation, teaching full time as Linda went back to class (and working on a biographical project directed by Frank Craven about wealthy Princeton boys from back in the antebellum day, of all ironies) was the kind of life that you really need to be in your late twenties to handle. A lot of stress, not much sleep, a lot of tobacco, not much bread, but, somehow, if you wanted it, you did it. And we both did in our own ways and at different schedules. This was by no means a solo thing. It never is. We both paid our dues, and plenty of them. I won’t dwell on it, but we did run out of gas in Princeton once. For a week.

I remember the triumphal moment in Berkeley when I sent off the finished manuscript to Stein, the thing I would defend as a dissertation. I was an Acting Assistant Professor making about 17K. Big deal, right. And it was all great fun right? Like Hell. I don’t think either of us could or would do it again.

As for Stanley, my day of the defense went ok–a small rumble with Herb Klein, down from Hudson U, notwithstanding (see, plus c’est la change, right). When we had finished up and we got ready to go to lunch at the Faculty Club, a first, believe me. I can’t remember much about it other than spotting that Olive Tree and Lexus guy holding court. But I do remember what Stein said to me about the dissertation before we left his office. “Dick. It’s a gem.” Yeah, Stanley J Stein said that to me, the kid from West-by-South Philly. Stein and I would go on to become colleagues and even very good friends, about which I’ll write some other time. But one thing no one can take from me: I earned his respect, and frankly, he earned mine. The difference was he really didn’t need mine, but it was nice to think that somebody as smart–and tough–as Stanley Stein liked and respected me. Priceless, as they say. Stockholm Syndrome, you say? Maybe.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

3 thoughts on “Hello, Dick. What’s Up?

  1. I love the back story. You knew back then that people are judged by the company they keep and there was no better company in Latin American History than Stein. Choosing him was your way of jumping into the deep end but sticking it out and making a good show of it is really a feather in your cap. You are still doing it. Might as well, you don’t play golf. Keep ’em coming.


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