What non-official sources can tell us about the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In about two years, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding. The foundation opened its doors in 1925, with a mission to “further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions.” With his wife Olga, Simon Guggenheim provided the initial endowment, naming the foundation after a son of theirs who tragically died very young and was on the cusp of a promising career as a scholar. Simon was a prominent American businessman, public servant, and philanthropist. He was a U.S. Senator from Colorado, among other roles.
As of 2022, the foundation reports granting “nearly $400 million in Fellowships to over 18,000 individuals, among whom are more than 125 Nobel laureates, members of all the national academies, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Fields Medal, Turing Award, Bancroft Prize, National Book Award, and other internationally recognized honors.”
To commemorate its 75th anniversary, the foundation published in 2001 a nearly 500-page look at its history. This work reproduces the foundation’s key founding documents and then plunges into a brief chronology (pp. 28-75) of significant developments in the foundation’s work—including its response to the 1954 Reece Committee investigation of foundations convened by Congress, as well as its efforts to navigate Congressman Wright Patman’s 1969 hearings regarding tax-exempt foundations.
Following this comes a summary of all fellowship recipients, plus the names of those who have served as academic advisors to the foundation to help it assign fellowships. Given the thousands of people who have received Guggenheim Fellowships, the grantee list makes up the bulk of the book.
Eunice Schwager, a longtime employee of the foundation, plus two former Guggenheim executives, Peter Kardon and G. Thomas Tanselle, held the pen as editors of the 2001 book. Hopefully, an update is in the works, to capture the highlights of the last 25 years.
While the book’s year-by-year chronology of the foundation’s history is not all that long or detailed, it’s a valuable if abbreviated scorecard laying out various issues that the foundation’s board and management have had to confront over the years. This section names key executives and trustees, and quotes verbatim their views on these matters. In addition to the brushes with Congress mentioned above, this includes those events that every long-lived foundation needs to manage, like the inevitable passing away of the founding donors and of those confidants with a first-hand understanding of their intent.
Someone who wanted to trace the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation’s history need not only rely on “official” sources for insights. Several of the foundation’s key executives have left behind speeches or authored books touching on their years with Guggenheim; these volumes provide us with additional, non-official windows on the foundation and those who have held leadership roles there over the years.
One might start with Henry Allen Moe, who served in various roles with Guggenheim from 1925 to 1963. These included secretary-general and later, president.
Outside of his Guggenheim activities, Moe was well-known as a Renaissance man—a Rhodes Scholar, World War I veteran, trained lawyer, president of the American Philosophical Society, and deeply experience board member.
Through his public and private speeches, he was also a proud, vocal and unapologetic defender of America’s founding ideas of personal freedom against what he called “pessimistic moonshine” about their long-term prospect for continued success. A posthumously published collection, The Power of Freedom, includes several representative examples.
Here’s Moe in 1954 (emphasis in original):
The channels of the mind and spirit must be kept open for renewal and development. Liberty and freedom must be shaped to the needs, not of the hour, but of all time. Conformity does not produce freedom and liberty in the American sense. We were born in revolution and the American system is revolution. We shall not remain the land of the free, if we are not also the home of the brave.
You have it all there, ladies and gentlemen—the important things that one needs to know in the world as it is …. These principles are at once the result and the source of our American greatness and of our American strength.
Or again in 1956:
During some of the unhappy events in our country since 1951 [a reference to McCarthyism], I have been taunted by the pessimists and the doubting Thomases [for praising the American tradition of freedom.] … I stand exactly where stood our Founding Fathers, who believed that freedom is the indispensable ingredient of all progress, to which concept they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. The true faith is Thomas Jefferson’s: “I have sworn, upon the alter of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of mind.”
Succeeding Moe was Gordon N. Ray, who would serve as Guggenheim’s President from 1963 to 1985. At the time of his retirement, Ray had “overseen the award of some $96,000,000 to 8100 Fellows,” according to the foundation’s 75th-anniversary record. Like Moe, Ray enjoyed a wide-ranging career in addition to his years at Guggenheim; a veteran of World War II, he was a well-regarded professor of and authority on English literature, not to mention expert book collector.
Also like Moe, Ray was not shy about wading into contemporary debates. Given Ray’s role at Guggenheim, these must be seen as something less than an official statement of policy—but clearly more than some random musings assembled for the amusement of colleagues.
In 1961, Ray delivered a speech entitled “The Social Responsibility of the Humanist” before the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. Ray had yet to rise to the role of John Simon Guggenheim Foundation president; he was at that time its “Associate Secretary General.“
Ray’s remarks focused on contrasting the relatively pure focus of “humanist” scholars (that is, those active in fields such as history, literature, philosophy, modern and ancient languages, etc., where increasing our understanding of past human activity and achievement is key) on their respective area of inquiry and research with another section of the American academic community. This was what he called a “substantial group” within the American community of “social scientists,” which he described as having as “primary motive” a desire “not to know but to act, who wish to assimilate education to social service.” (He emphasized he was referring to a subset of the social-scientist population here, not every single member.)
Ray bitingly added: “The prevalence of this urge to manipulate humanity can be readily demonstrated. One sees it, for example, in the Peace Corps, for which may predicted all the success that attended the Children’s Crusade.”
In other words, Ray believed these social scientists were not seeking truth as their highest goal—but instead were focused on grabbing power over others. Ray went on to quote A.J. Kroeber, an anthropologist and another critic of social science, who said these social scientists “’want … to benefit and improve the world, to remodel other people, even before a fundamental science is development which is in any sense comparable to what you have in the organic or inorganic sciences.’”
The road that social scientists would have society take, to Ray, led not to utopia but to the “sort of anti-utopia presented in Brave New World [or] 1984,” he added in this 1961 address. (On this specific point, Ray drew on his intensive study of the works of British writer H.G. Wells, whose science-fiction novels often explored themes related to social engineering.)
We need to keep in mind that people’s views can change of course, and this is a snapshot in time of Ray’s opinions. In Ray’s case, his views seem to have at least held steady until 1976 (several years into his term as Guggenheim president), the year he delivered a speech before the Association of Research Libraries with the title “The Uses of the Past.” This speech was an impassioned call for foundations to provide the support needed for humanist scholarship to thrive.
Ray began his remarks with some comments about foundation executives and board members—and how they had, in his view, come to absorb some of the ethos of the “remodel-other-people” school of social science (emphases supplied):
My talk today will be a plea for more attention to the past, particularly on the part of trustees and officers of philanthropic foundations. … The reasons for the neglect of the past by foundations are not far to seek. Foundation trustees are usually lawyers or business executives immersed in the problems of practical life. There is no prescribed program of training for foundation officials, and they are cut to no particular pattern, but they too tend to come from the world of affairs, with some leavening of academics who are often social scientists.
Consequently, foundations are usually managed by people whose aim is to affect the current scene in some immediate, tangible way. They typically justify foundations by describing them as agents of change, which provide the “cutting edge” of society’s thrust for improvement and whose grants are the “seed money” that prepares the way for innovation. This philosophy of social engineering hardly makes for retrospective contemplation.
Given their preoccupation with innovation, I wonder if foundation trustees and officers don’t have a similarly extensive blind spot [regarding support for the humanities]. In their professional journals, for example, they are constantly assured that “the genius of America is controversy, not consensus,” urged “to get a bigger bang out of the buck,” and told that they must achieve the perspective that comes from being “poor, black or brown, female, powerless.” This sort of conditioning puts them in what amounts to an adversary position with regard to the past.
Some time ago I was invited by a foundation president to talk with him and his chief associates about a program for aiding the humanities which his organization had under consideration. It was a strange session. After my description of each step that might be taken, one of the vice presidents would inquire, “how would that help ethnic minorities?” He was a worthy, if literal-minded man, and I tried to suggest that long-term benefits in the way of softening or removing prejudices would be substantial.
I think now that I should have said simply: “What would your response be, if you were asked concerning your program for ethnic minorities, how would it help the humanities? If you want to help ethnic minorities, help ethnic minorities. The humanities claim assistance in their own right, not for the peripheral benefits that may accrue in other areas.”
It is thanks to the very patient personal efforts of G. Thomas Tanselle, another scholar, Renaissance man, and former Guggenheim vice president (1978-2006), that we enjoy easy access to some of Ray’s most-important essays and speeches, as they relate to Ray’s lifelong interest in collecting and preserving books. Tanselle edited and introduced Books as Way of Life, a wide-ranging volume of Ray’s work that was first published in 1988 and later republished in 2017 as a handsome hardcover book by the Bibliographic Society of the University of Virginia.
Books as a Way of Life helps us further contextualize Ray’s work at Guggenheim, as we get a sense of just how closely Ray identified personally with the tradition of “humanist” scholarship he defended in 1961 (and 1976).
Tanselle himself has published very extensively, and not only in those literary and bibliographic endeavors where he has long engaged in formal academic research. His 2021 Books in My Life (also published by the Bibliographic Society of the University of Virginia) combines autobiography with fascinating observations about the many roles that books can play in one’s personal and professional lives.
In particular, his brief memoir detailing the specific volumes, works of art, and other artifacts that one can peruse in his living room is likely one of the most charming and thought-provoking pieces of writing readers may ever encounter. No one will look at the contents of a bookshelf the same way after reading this jewel of an essay—one of several reproduced in Books in My Life.
You don’t need to be a former foundation executive or Guggenheim fellow to enjoy Books in My Life. You just need to sincerely love, as G. Thomas Tanselle does, the printed word.