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The Heat Wave Of 1896 And The Rise Of Roosevelt
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
It's been an oppressively hot and humid summer in much of the United States.
For most of us, the heat is an annoyance, but it can be deadly, as the heat now
gripping parts of Russia demonstrates.
Our guest, historian Edward Kohn, has written a book about an intense heat wave
that grips New York City in 1896, which he says is one of the worst natural
disasters in American history. It killed roughly 1,300 people, far more than
the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Kohn says the heat wave affected the career of
Theodore Roosevelt, who was a police commissioner at the time.
Edward Kohn is an assistant professor of American history and chair of the
American Culture and Literature Department at Bilkent University in Ankara,
Turkey. His book is called "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of
1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt."
I asked him to begin with a reading from the book.
Mr. EDWARD KOHN (Author, "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896
and the making of Theodore Roosevelt"): (Reading) Heat waves are not like other
disasters. Heat kills slowly over days. It does not leave marks on the victim's
body, nor does it destroy buildings or leave any physical evidence of its
destructive force. There is no single moment when a heat wave strikes, no
specific time allowing survivors to recall the moment when it began.
Heat waves produce few dramatic photos or visual images like rubble and flames.
Victims of heat can remain unaware that they are being slowly killed,
suffocating alone in a closed, airless space.
An assassin strikes quickly and flees, but heat lingers, remaining in the same
room with its victim for days. The city itself becomes an accomplice to heat's
murderous effects. Anyone who has ever lived in a city during extreme heat
knows that cities bake their inhabitants in ways unknown to rural areas. In
later years, this would become known as the urban heat-island effect.
DAVIES: And that was our guest, historian Edward Kohn, reading from his new
book about the 1896 heat wave in New York. It's called "Hot Time in the Old
Town." Well, Edward Kohn, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. KOHN: Thanks, Dave.
DAVIES: I want to begin by talking a little bit about the housing and public
health conditions in New York at the time. A lot of poor people lived in the
city, a lot of immigrants. How dense were the neighborhoods these folks lived
Mr. KOHN: Oh, yeah, these neighborhoods, you know, small precincts would have
perhaps 100,000 people. These tenements that most of the working poor,
especially immigrants, of New York packed into on the Lower East Side,
basically if it was a two-room tenement, that mean you would have two families
there, perhaps five, six people sharing a room. Sometimes, even if there's a
little extra space on the floor, the families would lease it out or rent it out
to single men.
It was so densely packed that, in fact, most people couldn't even live, really
live, inside the tenement itself. And so the streets in front of tenements and
the rooftops and the fire escapes were so filled with people all of the time
because really there was just, you know, no room for everybody to actually fit
inside these tenements, which were just, you know, squalid, suffocating, very
little access to direct sunlight, air or running water.
DAVIES: And talk a little bit about, you know, their structure, the building
Mr. KOHN: Yes, these are basically made out of brick and stone, which is almost
like â these become, during the summertime, like, you know, pizza brick ovens.
I mean, the temperatures inside would easily reach 120 degrees.
And so for 1896, it's not just that, well, they don't have air conditioning,
and they don't have electric refrigeration. I mean, it really is both the
working and living conditions that end up killing so many.
This is also the time of, you know, 10-hour workdays, working six days a week,
doing manual labor. I mean, most New Yorkers at the time aren't lawyers and
stockbrokers. They're working with their hands out in the sun.
DAVIES: And in a fair number of cases, people actually were employed in their
homes, right, doing piecework of one kind of another?
Mr. KOHN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's a very common thing in New York at the
time, rolling cigarettes, doing piecework like for textiles and tailoring,
making little, you know, paper flowers to sell on the street.
You know, by 1896, it's also three years into a terrible economic depression
that hits the Lower East Side terribly. There's thousands of people out of
work, thousands of people homeless, and so you have this massive population in
New York that's already living this marginal existence, and then you have a
natural disaster like a 10-day heat wave. It just pushes thousands of them over
DAVIES: Did many of these dwellings have running water?
Mr. KOHN: If they had running water, the most they had was perhaps a common
sink in the hallway, something that was almost â you know, shared by scores of
people, always filthy, always stopped up. And if you're on the second or third
floor during summertime, when the water pressure drops throughout the city,
probably you didn't have any water at all.
Most of the tenement dwellers were getting their water from a common outdoor
spigot. And so trying to stay hydrated, as we all try to do, you know, today,
or just to keep yourself or your children or your apartment clean, I mean, this
was a difficult full-time job unto itself.
DAVIES: And where did people go to the bathroom?
Mr. KOHN: People, again, they had either a common lavatory inside the tenement,
but very frequently, some of the older ones, you still had - it was very common
to have outdoor latrines out in the back.
And so, on the one hand, New York in 1896, it's really this transitional city.
I mean, it is this highly urbanized, industrial part of the United States, you
know, unlike anything else in North America, but, you know, so many parts of
it, you still have people, you know, raising pigs and chickens in their
backyards. You still have latrines. You still have â people don't have access
to, you know, running water, let alone bathtubs and showers.
And it's exactly I think because of this, you know, rapid immigration,
urbanization, industrialization. New York is on the cusp of a new century, on
cusp of this, you know, massive change, and people like immigrant laborers
living in tenements, you know, they really kind of fall through the cracks of
what's taking place.
DAVIES: One more question: How did people bathe?
Mr. KOHN: You got a bucket from the common spigot outside, and you brought it
upstairs, and you had the family sit around it, and you dipped a rag in, and
that was a bath. I mean, you didn't actually sit in a bathtub. That's just an
incredible luxury that only people of, you know, Theodore Roosevelt's ilk
living in Gramercy Park could enjoy.
DAVIES: So the heat wave begins Tuesday, August 4th, lasts for 10 days. Give us
a sense of the intensity of these conditions as compared to heat waves that
people experience today.
Mr. KOHN: I mean, this past summer we've had quite a few heat waves, you know,
three days, maybe five days. This was 10 days, 90 degrees at street level, 90
percent humidity, temperatures not even dropping at night. Sometimes the
temperatures don't even drop below 90 degrees until well into the evening. No
wind, so at night there's just absolutely no relief whatsoever.
And, you know, the official temperature sometimes says, well, it's 89, 90
degrees, but New Yorkers are going by the Herald Square thermometer in Herald
Square, and the temperature is well into the 90s, close to 100, well over 100
in the sun every single day, 10 days straight.
DAVIES: And what are some of the things that happened to people living through
that kind of heat and humidity in these conditions?
Mr. KOHN: I mean, one of the simplest things that the New York City government
could have done was to lift the ban on sleeping in parks during the night. So
people could have gone to Central Park and tried to get a, you know, breath of
The city government didn't do that, and so one of the things that people did
was they took to the rooftops, and they took to the fire escapes, trying to
catch a breath of fresh air. And inevitably, somebody would fall asleep or get
drunk, roll off the top of a five-story tenement, crash into the courtyard
below and be killed.
You'd have children who would go to sleep on fire escapes and would fall off
and break their legs or be killed. People would go down to the piers on the
East River and try to sleep there, out in the open, and would roll into the
river and drown.
And so, certainly, it's not just people dying of heat stroke. There are all
these other kind of bizarre ways that people, you know, meet death during the
DAVIES: At the most basic level, physically what would happen to people when
they endure these conditions day after day?
Mr. KOHN: Yeah, literally, their body starts breaking down. Your internal
organs start shutting down one by one. And some of the manifestations of it
are, you know, extreme headaches, extreme dehydration. There are stories of
people just, you know, trying to drink gallons and gallons of water, trying to
rehydrate themselves and stop feeling so thirsty, but by that time, they're so
far into the heat stroke that there's really nothing to be done for them.
The only things, the cures that they had was basically if you could get
yourself to Bellevue Hospital, even though there was a shortage of ambulances
to get you there, doctors could put you into an ice bath, wrap ice around your
head and try to quickly lower your temperature.
But it's amazing that some of the doctors' reports and coroners' reports of the
victims of the heat wave, when they measured the body temperature of the
victims, their body temperature was registered at the time of death at 109
degrees, 110 degrees, even 111 degrees. And the human body is just not meant to
live like that.
So to preserve itself, one by one, your body organs start shutting down until
DAVIES: We're speaking with historian Edward Kohn. His new book is "Hot Time in
the Old Town." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Edward Kohn.
He's written a book about a deadly heat wave that gripped New York City in
1896. It's called "Hot Time in the Old Town."
You tell us that the mayor, William Strong, did almost nothing about the heat
wave. Tell us what they should have done and whether they learned anything.
Mr. KOHN: Yeah, on the one hand, you know, this is obviously, it's before the
progressive era. It's decades before the New Deal, a long time before Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society. You know, there is no social safety net. This is
complete laissez-faire government.
Again, the United States is three years into a terrible depression, and all
during those three years, every level of government â federal, state, city â
people are â government officials are constantly saying, well, of course it's
not government's job to help the poor, to give food to the hungry.
So on the one hand, it's hard to really fault the mayor and the city for not
doing more because that's simply just not in the lexicon of Americans at the
But I think there were simple things that could have been done. The first one,
as I mentioned, you know, lift the ban on sleeping in parks. How many
thousands, tens of thousands of people, might have gotten a good night's rest
and maybe had their bodies cool down a little bit if you had thrown open
Central Park to people to sleep?
Another thing that was done by the commissioner of public works, the guy
responsible for, you know, fixing the streets, he experimented a couple times
with changing the work hours for his men to make sure that they weren't out
there working in the, you know, the heat of the midday sun.
Another thing that the commissioner of public works championed, the idea of
flushing the streets, basically having gangs of men going around with hoses,
hooking them up to hydrants and spraying the searing asphalt in the Lower East
Side and then bringing the temperature of the entire neighborhood down by a few
DAVIES: There were thousands of horses in New York City at the time. How did
they fare in the heat?
Mr. KOHN: Normally, even just during a normal day, you might have, you know,
maybe a couple hundred horses drop dead on the streets. I mean, they just were
pulling overloaded trolleys, overloaded carts.
During the heat wave, thousands upon thousands of horses died. And if your
horse died in the harness, what did you do? You just uncoupled your harness and
moved your cart away, and you left the horse carcass there to rot in the
street. The city does have an independent contractor that it pays each year to
remove the horse carcasses, but there's just absolutely no way he can keep with
just, you know, this terrible tragedy.
And so by the end of the heat wave, probably on every city block, there is a
rotting, you know, festering horse carcass lying on, you know, the steaming
asphalt, you know, just rotting in the sun, adding this real kind of flavor of
pestilence and actually adding a whole new, you know, threat to the health
DAVIES: And how did the coroners of New York deal with the human loss of life?
Mr. KOHN: I mean, they were just completely overworked. It's really not that
big of an office. And if a doctor, if you weren't in a doctor's care at the
time of your death, you had to leave the body where it died, not move it, not
bury it, and wait for a coroner to come and inspect the body and the
circumstances of the death.
And this, during the heat wave, this meant that, you know, these several
coroners officers were crisscrossing the city during, you know, this terrible
heat wave, climbing stairs to the tenements, trying to deal with this, you
know, huge load, this caseload. And, you know, there were cases where the
coroners' clerks because heat prostrated trying to keep up with filing all the
death certificates during the heat wave.
At one point, near the end of the heat wave, the coroner actually asked the
mayor if he could suspend the rule saying that, well, you can't move or, you
know, get ready for the body to be interned until a coroner comes and checks
the body because this would mean, you know, literally that a dead body in this
heat might be sitting in a tenement, where the temperatures are 120 degrees,
for two or three days before a coroner could finally catch up with the caseload
and come to inspect the body.
DAVIES: You say that in this circumstance, ice, which was produced, was a
precious, lifesaving commodity. Where did anybody get ice in 1896?
Mr. KOHN: Yeah, the ice is basically either harvested from rivers or from
lakes, and it's stored, you know, it's packed in hay and straw, and so it's
actually stored even, you know, to be distributed in August during heat waves.
And by 1896, this summer, something new has happened in New York City. An ice
magnate by the name of Charles Morse, an ice baron, has come down from Maine,
and he has actually consolidated about three-quarters of the independent ice
companies into a single, consolidated ice company, basically an ice trust.
And so, long before the summer, people are already worried that he's going to
jack up the price of ice, make it essentially a luxury for some of the poorest
New Yorkers, and people will die as a result. And this is exactly what
I mean, this is â there's no electric refrigeration. You had a tin-lined, zinc-
lined wooden box, and you put a big chunk of ice inside it. That's how you keep
food and milk from spoiling in such heat. Most New Yorkers, poor New Yorkers,
simply can't afford it.
DAVIES: So when it was clear that the heat was serious and destructive and
life-threatening, were there efforts made to make ice more readily available?
Mr. KOHN: Absolutely, and one of the â in a time when the city did virtually
nothing, the mayor didn't even call an emergency meeting of his department
heads until the last day, the 10th day of the heat wave, I do think that one of
the heroes that emerges from this heat wave is Police Commissioner Theodore
Roosevelt. He is not the police chief. He is one of a four-man oversight
committee of the police department to make sure that promotions and hiring and
firings are based on merit and not on, you know, politics and who you know.
And he's only five years away from the White House. In many ways, this was a
very innocuous position to hold. But he is the one who champions the idea of
the city giving away free ice to the poorest people living on the Lower East
Side, in the tenement districts.
And he personally supervises the distribution of ice. And I think one of the
things that most impressed me was after the ice was distributed, Roosevelt took
it upon himself to tour the back alleys of some of the worst tenement districts
in the United States, in New York, to see how people were using the ice.
And so, Roosevelt witnessed firsthand how, you know, immigrant fathers would
chip off a piece of ice, give it to their children to suck on. Mothers would
wrap a piece of ice in a handkerchief and tie it around the heads of their sick
children. And I can't think how many American presidents have had such intimate
contact with the urban poor.
So absolutely, I think this is part of the making of Theodore Roosevelt, the
progressive president that he'll become.
DAVIES: Now, he was â he's an interesting figure, of course. And he was born as
a privileged New Yorker, had at that point run unsuccessfully for mayor, right?
But someone who had long been interested in the difficulties of urban life and
efforts at reform.
Mr. KOHN: Absolutely. I think this Western mythology of Roosevelt as somehow a
cowboy and a man of the West is really misleading and overblown, that somehow
really the source of his domestic policies and foreign policies as president
derive from these couple years he spent on his Dakota cattle ranch.
Roosevelt was a New Yorker. He was born into one of the most wealthy New York,
old knickerbocker, native-stock families. He was Harvard-educated, and he was
an urban reformer. His origins are in urban, New York urban politics.
DAVIES: And did he become more popular? Was he recognized for his efforts in
Mr. KOHN: No, not really. I mean, this is, you know, really by the summer of
1896, Roosevelt's career in New York City is really at an end. He's not a very
popular person. In his early years, he launched a crusade against having
saloons open on Sundays, which made him very unpopular with Germans, with
Irish, with a lot of the exact immigrant poor that he's trying to help with ice
And, you know, the people in the Lower East Side, they weren't going to be
voting for a Republican Roosevelt, anyway.
By the summer of 1896, you know, Roosevelt is not doing the ice distribution to
get votes. Really what he's doing is he's pinning his hopes on a McKinley
victory that fall and a new position in Washington, D.C.
So this isn't something that, you know, it's not the making of Theodore
Roosevelt in that it puts votes in his pockets and catapults him into the White
House. I think it's the making of Theodore Roosevelt as that it helps make him
the progressive and one of the dominant figures of the progressive era.
DAVIES: Well, Edward Kohn, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking
Mr. KOHN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Edward Kohn's book is called "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat
Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." You can read an excerpt at
our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Fresh Air Remembers Historian Tony Judt
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We were saddened to hear about the death of historian and essayist Tony Judt.
It was only five months ago that Judt appeared on FRESH AIR to talk about his
struggle with the neural muscular disease ALS.
Tony Judt died on Friday at the age of 62. He led a distinguished career as an
academic historian. His 2005 book, "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,"
was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reviewer Alan Ryan said it had the pace
of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.
Judt was born in East London in 1948 and grew up in a secular Jewish home. As a
young man he spent time in Israel and became a passionate Zionist. But he later
changed his views about Zionism and wrote essays sharply criticizing the state
of Israel and American foreign policy. In the last months of his life, Judt
wrote personal essays about his illness and his memories. He described ALS as
progressive imprisonment without parole. First, he wrote, you lose the use of a
digit or two, then one limb, then almost inevitably all four.
When Terry spoke to him in March, he was effectively quadriplegic. His voice
needed an amplifier and he was attached to a pump that assisted his breathing,
because, he explained, his diaphragm was no longer strong enough to handle the
task alone. He spoke to Terry from his home in Manhattan.
GROSS: Tony Judt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for doing this. I know it
takes a lot of effort for you to do an interview now, and I appreciate you
making the effort to talk with us.
Mr. TONY JUDT (Historian): Thank you for inviting me on the program.
GROSS: I really like what you've been writing about having ALS, and it's like
you're functioning as a reporter, telling us what you're experiencing and what
you're thinking. One thing you haven't been doing is offering life lessons. Are
people expecting life lessons from you?
Mr. JUDT: Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, I think my answer to that question is
this: It's a bit like, if you'll allow me the analogy, which is a bit of a
stretch, it's a bit like what Primo Levi wrote about his experience of
Auschwitz, which is to say that however terrible it was, that whatever he did
to survive it, he doesn't believe there's any larger lesson or moral story to
be learned from it. Because when you are hit by something as bad as a
concentration camp, you survive, and there's no lesson to be taught about
surviving except how to do it.
In my case, I survive quite comfortably at one level because this is one of the
worst diseases you can imagine, but it has no pain. So you have a lot of time
in your untroubled head to think out of body, so to speak, about why, the
reasons why the body doesn't work, the implications of being immobile for hours
I think the only life experience that I have to offer out of this is something
we all know in the abstract but don't experience in practice very much. That is
that you can survive an awful lot of bad stuff, so long as your mind is intact.
I'm afraid that's the only life experience I have to offer.
GROSS: Well, your mind is intact, and you have such a sharp, agile mind. Is it
sometimes dangerous to turn your mind onto the subject of your body because
your body is so fragile and nonfunctional now?
Mr. JUDT: I think it would be if I were a very depressed sort of personality
type. But what it does to me is make me angry, angry not at anyone, of course,
but just at fate. As long as I'm angry, I'm productive because I look at the
body with some sense of detachment and say you've let me down. I can't do this.
I can't do that.
Then in time, what can I do? I think, well, I can still boss people around. I
can still write, admittedly with the help of an assistant, can still read. I
can still eat, and I can still have very strong views. But what it does do is
mean that you mustn't, mustn't, mustn't - and I would give the same advice to
anyone in any remotely similar disease - you mustn't focus on what you can't
If you sit around and think, I wish I could walk, then you'll just be
miserable. But if you sit and turn around and think, what's the next piece I'm
going to write, then you may not be happy, but you certainly won't wallow in
misery. And so it's an active choice every day to renew my interest in
something that my head can do, so I don't think about the body.
GROSS: Your wife is a dance critic.
Mr. JUDT: That's right.
GROSS: So her life is about watching perfectly tuned, strong, flexible bodies
moving in ways that most normal human beings couldn't possibly conceive of
moving. So can you enjoy watching dance now?
Mr. JUDT: Well, I can enjoy watching my wife.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JUDT: But I imagine that the answer is yes by extension. I remember when we
got married, we got married in 1993, and many of the guests were ballet
dancers, because of course Jennifer knew many, and I remember thinking, you
know, we can't dance in this wedding, I'll look like an idiot. I mean, it's
just full of people who are world-famous ballet dancers.
And so I was hesitant to dance. Then someone said, look, it's because you're
just clunky Tony and they are professional ballet dancers, so it doesn't
matter. No one's going to laugh at you for not being them. Everyone's going to
look at them and say, boy, they're gorgeous. They won't even notice you.
And in a way, that's how it is now. I can't be physical in the way that my wife
is physical and indeed(ph) my kids are physical or most of my wife's friends
are physical, but I so much can't be it that it doesn't hurt.
GROSS: You know, many people, when afflicted with a disabling disease, turn
away from God. You were brought up in a secular Jewish home.
Mr. JUDT: That's right.
GROSS: And you remained secular. So has being sick changed any of your personal
views about religion?
Mr. JUDT: No, but the no is very straightforward. I don't believe in an
afterlife. I don't believe in a single or indeed multiple godhead. I respect
people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big but which
enters in here.
I am much more conscious than I ever was, for obvious reasons, of what it will
mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything to me. But it
will mean a lot to them. And it's important for them, by which I mean my
children or my wife or very close friends, that some spirit of me is in a
positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginings and so
So in one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife as a place where I
still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life, except that I can
only exercise them before I get there. Once I'm there, it'll be too late. So no
god, no organized religion, but a developing sense that there's something
bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and that we have
responsibilities in that world.
GROSS: Are you talking about memory here, acting in a responsible way so that
memories your loved one have of you will be good ones?
Mr. JUDT: Well, that's - I'm certainly talking about that. That is absolutely
true. But I think it's something slightly different. The risk with something
like ALS, where you sit on a wheelchair all day, where you're looked after by
professional nurses because it's way beyond anything your family could do,
where you live in one space, your back room, while other members of the family
live their normal lives, and you encourage them to - the risk is not that you
do mean or bad things. It's that they lose a sense of your presence, that you
stop being omnipresent in their lives. And of course to the extent that you are
present, you are surrounded by nurses, equipment, a sort of smell of a
hospital, so to speak.
So it seems to be my responsibility, particularly to my children, also to my
wife and friends, is not to be Pollyanna and pretend everything's okay - no one
would take me seriously if I said that - but it's to be as present in their
lives now as I can be so that in years to come they don't feel either guilty or
bad at my having been left out of their lives, that they feel still a very
strong - not a memory of particular actions but a memory of a complete family
rather than a broken one. That seems to be something I can do or try to do.
DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in March.
We'll hear more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with historian Tony Judt, recorded
in March. Judt died Friday from complications of ALS. When they spoke, Judt's
voice needed an amplifier and he was connected to an apparatus to assist his
GROSS: Now, you've written extensively over the years about European history.
You've written about the European left. Now that your body is immobile, and
your physical world has shrunk, does history matter to you as much?
Mr. JUDT: Yes, I think it does. I know that sounds funny, but it really does. I
believe the reason is this - that all I ever wanted to do in life,
professionally, occupationally, was teach history and read and write it.
You know, there are times I've thought: My God, you're a dull man, Judt. You
know, since the age of 13 you've wanted the same thing, and now you're 62 and
you still want it. But the upside of that is that I get as angry at bad history
writing, or the abuse of history for political purposes, as I ever did.
I think, however, probably, that I am more also - not instead of but also
focused on where we go now than I was 10 years ago. You know, 10 years ago, or
whenever it was, I might be criticizing Clinton or Bush or Blair for some
ridiculous policy, but it was very much in the sort of, the sense of that I'm
doing what I can do, which is to write about politics in the public space.
But I think now I'm more worried about the future. The past is always going to
be a mess. It's going to be a mess because it was mess and because people are
going to abuse it, get it wrong and so on. But I'm reasonably confident that
with each generation of historians, we keep fighting hard to get it right
again. But we could get the future very seriously wrong, and there it's much
harder to get it right.
GROSS: Is that why your new book, "Ill Fares the Land," is, in a way, a letter
to young people about applying the past to the future?
Mr. JUDT: Well, it's absolutely, deliberately a letter to young people, though
it's not written down at all. And I would hope that a young person, aged 16,
would want to read it. But it's about not forgetting the past, about having the
courage to look at the present and see its faults without walking away in
disgust or skepticism.
It's about believing, I think, really, I've been teaching for forty years now -
I'm encountering the first generation of young people in colleges and schools
who really do not believe in the future, who don't think not just that things
will get evidently and permanently better but who feel that something has gone
very badly wrong that they can't quite put their finger on, but that is going
to spoil the world that they're growing up into.
Whether it's climate change or political cynicism or overreaction or lack of
reaction to external challenges, whether it's terrorism or poverty, the sense
that it's all got out of control, that they, the politicians and so on, media
people, are neither doing anything nor telling us the truth, that sense seems
to have pervaded the younger generation in ways that were not true in my
Maybe the last time that might have been true was in the 1920s, where you had
the combination of shock and anger from World War I, the beginnings of economic
depression and a terrifying realization that there might very well be a World
War II. I don't think we're on the edge of World War III or IV. But I do think
that we are on the edge of a terrifying world. That's why I wrote the book.
GROSS: You compare that in your book to the attitude of young people in the
'60s. You compare this sense of helplessness that you think a lot of young
people have today to the '60s. And you say back in the era of self-assured,
radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of
the '60s was that of overweening confidence. We knew just how to fix the world.
It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the
reactionary backlash that followed.
Do you feel that you shared in that sense of confidence and arrogance?
Mr. JUDT: Oh, absolutely. I don't think I would have felt comfortable writing
that if I had been either born earlier or later because it would have sounded
smug and a bit sanctimonious, an outsider, you know, dumping on the '60s and so
But in practice, that's my generation. I grew up with the idea that you only
had to worry about ideas and change because things like jobs, things like
physical security, could all be taken for granted. And that's, I think, a
common, Western position in those years, so that we had the luxury of sitting
in comfortable colleges or with parents who would support us if the time came
to it, looking at the world and saying it's terrible, it's terrible, we must
change everything that we know how.
There was the residue of Marxism, which was still very much alive, kicking in
the '60s, but in the worst possible sense in that Marxists were now young
people, with the exception of a few old people, who thought that well, the West
was a lost cause, liberalism was a fraud, the proletariat had disappeared. So
let's focus on blacks or colonial, minority victims or someone outside
ourselves. So we never looked hard at ourselves to ask what was wrong with our
GROSS: So was there a particular dogma or philosophy that you felt you became,
that you feel now in retrospect that you were overzealous and overconfident
Mr. JUDT: Well, in my case, there were two. I think most of my contemporaries
were bound up, to a greater or lesser extent, with what they thought of as
Marxism, the revolutionary critique of capitalism, changing the world in China
or Cambodia or Africa or wherever it might be. I shared some of that coming out
of an East European, self-taught, Jewish-Marxist background - both of my
parents left school at 13, my grandfathers as well. But my particular form of
ideological overinvestment came with Israel. I went to live on a kibbutz, and
I'd idealized the world of collective, agrarian work, where everyone was equal,
everyone contributed, that all this awful European intellectual stuff just fell
And I didn't realize at the time that I was completely blinded by this. I
didn't see an Arab, didn't speak to one even though I lived in Israel, right
next (unintelligible). I believed profoundly in Zionism in the way that my
contemporaries believed profoundly in Maoism or Castroism or whatever. It took
a while for me to break clear of that.
GROSS: You decided in the past few years you think that Israel should actually
be one state with the Palestinian territories and that in one state, everybody
should have an equal vote which really outraged a lot of your readers...
Mr. JUDT: Right.
GROSS: ...because it would mean Israel would cease to be a Jewish state and the
majority voting population would be Palestinian. So what was it like for you to
alienate so many of your readers - to outrage so many of your readers?
Mr. JUDT: Well, I mean my wife, who is not Jewish, was amazed. She said that
why can't people see how reasonable your essay was? I said look, what I did was
break outside of a very big circle - the circle of Jews who believe in Israel -
and speaking as a Jew, stood outside it and said the emperor has no clothes.
And that is not calculated to please people. But I would say, by the way, that
although I made a lot of enemies, some of whom probably still see themselves as
my enemy, they were nearly all in the United States.
My essay was republished all over the world, the essay on what was called "The
Alternative to the Present Situation." In Israel, it aroused a lot of critical
commentary but also a lot of approving commentary.
GROSS: Being sick now, how has your taste for being controversial been
affected? I mean it's nice when you're sick to be, you know, admired and
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JUDT: Right. Well, of course, you know, I still get admired and comforted
by people either who never read The New York Review or else who don't see
anything wrong with what I wrote. But you're absolutely right, people don't
stop being angry with you if you say things that provoke them just because
you're in a wheelchair. I think most of them don't know I am.
But I would like to backtrack, Terry, and say that I don't think I'm a
controversialist. In fact, as I was thinking about this when someone asked me,
I've only ever published four little essays in a lifetime of book writing and
lecturing and teaching, just four little essays which touched controversially
on painful bits of other people's anatomies, so to speak. Two of them are about
Israel. One of them in 1979 was a critique of the silliness of modern history
writings. That nearly lost me tenure at Berkeley. It certainly made me a few
enemies there too.
But apart from that and the essays on Israel, I have written thousands of pages
of depressingly uncontroversial boring history books, or written about foreign
policy or other stuff. I think if I'm controversial it's not because I set out
to be. It's because I've never felt comfortable being part of someone else's
I'm not in the middle of the left, even though I'm on the left. I'm certainly
not part of the Jewish world, even though I've never been ashamed of being
Jewish. I'm actually rather proud of it. I've never been English, even though I
grew up there. So I always feel myself a little bit marginal than the
marginalia that I'm on - isn't affected by the illness. I would like everyone
to love me - who wouldn't? But you don't want to be loved for the wrong things.
DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross recorded in March. We'll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with historian Tony Judt recorded
in March. Judt died Friday from complications of ALS. When they spoke, Judt's
voice needed an amplifier and he was connected to an apparatus to assist his
GROSS: We've talked a little bit about what you find most productive and what
takes your mind off of your physical inability now. What gives you pleasure?
Mr. JUDT: Well, how risque and personal would you let me be?
GROSS: Give me a shot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JUDT: Okay. All right. The thing about ALS is that there are only two
things left beyond your head which still work. One is the reproductive
apparatus, then the other is the excretory apparatus, to be very blunt, then
you keep those until you die. So you still get pleasure from sex. And you can
still get pleasure from anything you can see, anything you can say, and
although this may not last much longer, anything you can eat. So it's sometimes
I think, well, listen, all the good things in life are still with me: sex,
food, videotapes. I've got it all. What's the problem? The only thing that I
miss that I can't reproduce is travel.
I could pretty much do anything else but I can't travel very easily. And I miss
that terribly because I was a person who moved all the time, whose history
writing was based on what I saw in strange exotic places rather than just
reading books. So I miss that. But all the other pleasures to a greater or
lesser extent are still open to me.
GROSS: You know, you had referred to this earlier, but you wrote: I should be
at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of
survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in the kinds of
natural disasters or isolation cells. And you're talking here about your
ability to cope with the ALS.
Mr. JUDT: That's correct. Yeah.
GROSS: And your entrapment in your immobile body. Had you always asked yourself
if you had that survival mechanism?
Mr. JUDT: No, I don't think I did. I think I knew in myself that I could do, as
an exercise in willpower, anything that I wanted. But it would be about
willpower rather than survival techniques or special skills other than which I
have. But I do recall, and it's kind of an eerie thought, that when I first
read Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," thinking for many years as a child,
teenager, what would it be like to wake up in your bed as a cockroach?
What would your parents say? What would your wife say? Would they run away?
Would they pretend it wasn't happening? How would you handle it? And between
that and a sense I always had that Lou Gehrig's disease was something terrible
I ought to know more about because, of course, I'm interested in baseball and
my kids are, I had a kind of - not premonition but a sense that of all the
diseases that I might end up with this would be the worst. Because it would be
a challenge to my relationship to the outside world - could live in my head,
that's easy, but dealing with people when you're in a wheelchair and a
quadriplegic it's very hard, because you spend your time putting them at ease,
rather than they spending their time putting you at ease.
And so I think the answer to your question is that I had no conception of what
was about to hit me. I wasn't prepared for it. It's a new stage in life. You
wouldn't ask for it but you've got to face it and do something.
GROSS: Tony Judt, I really want to thank you so much for talking with us. I
appreciate it greatly.
Mr. JUDT: Well, thank you for having me.
GROSS: And I wish you the best. Thank you very much.
Mr. JUDT: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross recorded in March. Judt
died Friday of complications from ALS. He was 62.
You can hear the entire interview and see video of Judt talking about living
with his illness at our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.