Steven J. Zipperstein: The Two Tony Judts

Historians in the News

[Steven J. Zipperstein is a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (Yale University Press, 2009).]

Tony Judt, who died last month at the age of 62 after suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, was an unlikely celebrity academic. He was soft-spoken, dressed much like a graduate student, rarely appeared on television or radio, and derided postmodernism and ethnic studies. The finest of his many books, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press), published in 2005, is a prodigiously original, rather straightforward, dense (832 pages without footnotes in paperback) political history. His last book, Ill Fares the Land: a Treatise on Our Present Discontents (Penguin Press, 2010), was dictated over the course of a couple months as his illness progressed; it is a call to social austerity, to self-effacing, moderate, social-democratic principles—in short, a document of the conservative left.

An enfant terrible of French studies, in his early 30s Judt produced his first books and the still-memorable programmatic essays that slashed and burned an entire generation of influential scholars. He stood out for his capacity to absorb vats of knowledge and analyze them with uncommon, if acidic, clarity, and his mind combined, in more or less equal measure, rhetorical radicalism and common sense. Despite his review essays in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and a spate of important academic positions, including the directorship of New York University's Remarque Institute, until seven or eight years ago Judt's name was unfamiliar outside the corridors of history or political-science departments. I remember his telling me—ruefully, but with obvious exasperation—about attending a book party for Sam Tanenhaus's 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers and the surprise he felt, on stepping into the room filled largely with New York intellectuals of a neoconservative bent, that few recognized him.

Tony and I met at Oxford in the early 1980s. He was somewhat older than I am, English or, rather, an anglicized Jew born into the working London poor who had, laboriously, learned the ropes, picked up the right accent and manners, and was willing to let an awkward, American neophyte in on some of Oxford's keenly guarded secrets. He once said to me that we were such good friends because I was the only person he knew who was more out of place than he was at Oxford. He was being generous; I was far more out of place. Then a fellow and tutor at St. Anne's, one of Oxford's women's colleges—a comfortable, homey spot, certainly not one of the town's cutting-edge establishments—Tony was fussed over at meals by a retinue of self-abnegating colleagues who treated him gingerly, lovingly, much like a slice of fine roast beef....
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