NEW YORK (AP) — Daniel Aaron, a founding scholar and ambassador of American studies who explored and explained his country through books, essays and diplomatic missions and helped preserve the literary canon as the first president of the Library of America, has died.
Aaron, who received a National Humanities Medal in 2010, died Saturday at age 103 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, according to his son, Paul Aaron. Daniel Aaron had been admitted a week earlier for breathing problems.
"He was active intellectually, right to the end," Paul Aaron told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He was a professor emeritus at Harvard University, where even at age 100 he worked daily in his office. But, unofficially, he was the foremost "Americanist," a self-described "practitioner of things American." A child of Russian immigrants, Aaron's long life was a quest to learn the new world and share his knowledge. He traveled from Eastern Europe to South America and wrote such influential books as "Men of Good Hope," profiles of left-wing writers and thinkers in the U.S.; and "The Unwritten War," a critical review of Civil War literature and how writers confronted racial prejudice.
His most lasting contribution to American letters was likely the Library of America, established in 1979 — through public and private grants — as an answer to France's Pleiade series of elegant volumes of classic texts. The project was first suggested by critic Edmund Wilson in the early 1960s.
Aaron, editor Jason Epstein and others wanted to ensure that major American books and authors remained available, affordable and in worthy condition by publishing hardcover volumes with shiny black covers, acid-free paper and ribbons to keep place. Releasing a handful of books each year, the library now has more than 200 works, including writings by the founding fathers, 19th century standards by Herman Melville and Mark Twain and contemporary giants such as Philip Roth and John Ashbery.
Aaron, president of the library until 1988, lived long enough to witness more than one-third of his country's history. He had first-hand memories of every presidential administration from Woodrow Wilson's through Barack Obama's and every foreign conflict from World War I to the war in Iraq. He was a boy in Los Angeles when the movies were still silent. As a young instructor at Harvard, he gave a "so-so" grade for a test submitted by then-undergraduate John F. Kennedy.
In his memoir "The Americanist," published in 2007, Aaron identified himself as a "father seeker, hungry for acceptance, eager to slough off his Jewish identity and to melt into the larger America." Aaron's citation upon receiving the Humanities medal praised him as "an Americanist of both mind and heart" and for "a career unhindered by academic and political boundaries."
One of five siblings, Aaron was born in Chicago in 1912, spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles, and moved back to his hometown after the death of his parents: His mother died when he was 8, his father a year later. Growing up, his primary education was Chicago itself, its stockyards and ethnic neighborhoods. But at the University of Michigan, he first read Henry James and Virginia Woolf and heard William Butler Yeats read from his poetry. In graduate school, Harvard, Aaron was among the first to complete a new program of study, American civilization, a melting pot of "history, literature, art and politics."
Throughout the Cold War, Aaron traveled as a visiting scholar, in Poland and in Uruguay, in China and the Soviet Union. He was a liberal anti-Communist equally opposed to the Vietnam War and the Eastern bloc, and sometimes in conflict with his own government. In "The Americanist," he remembered lecturing in Finland about the misperceptions of American students, only to screen a United States Information Agency documentary that reinforced the same stereotypes.
There was nothing complacent about his travels or his scholarship, which tracked the breaks and connections between literary and social outlooks and questioned the most expansive and insular minds. For "Men of Good Hope" and "Writers On the Left," he interviewed ex-radicals and true believers, from former New Masses editor Max Eastman to author Michael Gold, who drank wine with Aaron and spoke hopefully of a workers' Utopia in China.
"Dad was interested in outcasts, in people estranged from society," Paul Aaron said.
His other books included "Cincinnati, Queen City of the West" and "The United States," a popular textbook co-authored with William Miller and Richard Hofstadter. He also edited the private notes of Arthur Crew Inman, an eccentric and reclusive would-be poet, into "The Inman Diary," for which Aaron read through and condensed more than 150 bound volumes.
Aaron's wife of more than 60 years, Democratic Party activist Janet Aaron, died in 2003. They had three sons.