TRIBUTE TO HARVEY WHEELER

by

Linda Kauffman

Linda Kauffman is the author of Bad Girls and SickBoys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture, among many other books &essays. An ex-Santa Barbaran, she now lives in Washington, D.C. www.lindakauffman.com
 

 Harvey Wheeler was a time-traveller, imagining the future while studying the past. His sons read Homer to him as he lay dying, as he had read to them as boys. He viewed politics as the ancients did as the architectonic science. He was living proof of the range of knowledge one person might master in one lifetime: an esteemed, life-long scholar of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), as well as of the Constitution, longevity studies, sociobiology, semiotics, and the virtual society. He was an art lover who counted Cy Twombly among his friends; an ardent student of Palladio architecture (his own beloved Palladian estate overlooks the Pacific); a colleague and correspondent with the world's leading intellectuals, journalists, and scientists. In short, he was a polymath, one with tremendous powers of prophecy, born not of psychic gifts, but of a vast erudition in science, mathematics, politics, philosophy, history, and culture.

After the 1929 stock market crash, Harvey's family not only lost everything, but he was essentially abandoned; as a result, he went to work at the age of 13. He confided to his employer his dream of playing football at school, so his employer, who saw this boy's intense drive and determination, arranged for a football scholarship to Subiaco Academy in Arkansas.Harvey injured his knee early in the season, but his professors were already so impressed with his intellect that they kept him on. He credits their early generosity with his desire to become a scholar.

In WW II, Harvey served in the Army as a French interpreter for the troops, following the Normandy Invasion. That experience fueled his fierce antipathy to war, and his life-long quest for humane alternatives to violent conflict as well as social injustice. He was a radical in the etymological sense, for his thinking went back to the roots of things: America, he argued, must recover the revolutionary potentials that were present in the nation's early political system. As a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, he proposed practical solutions to the problems confronting our nation: social inequality, uninformed citizens, corrupt leadership, environmental disaster, nuclear threats.

In the grim Orwellian times we are now living through, Harvey and I often said that we need such a Center now more than ever. In my view, we also need Harvey more than ever: Where are the Harvey Wheelers who will dispatch the hypocrites and bullies who are now corrupting the Republic? Harvey was already warning us against right-wing extremists in 1950 when he defended a professor under attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy and found himself blacklisted as a result! (He didn't know the man personally, but wrote Lattimore the Scholar to defend the principle of freedom of expression.).

More than a quarter century ago, he predicted that we would all be living longer than we could ever imagine and that this would cause one of the most pervasive upheavals in social arrangements that we had ever known. (He worked for many years on a novel that took this longevity as its premise.) I first met Harvey in 1979, when he and his wife, Norene, consulted me about that novel. Collaboration was one of the cornerstones of Harvey's intellectual life: his apocalyptic best-selling novel, Fail-Safe (1962), evolved from his short story and was developed with Eugene Burdick. It epitomizes Harvey's powers of prophecy, for it was written before the Cuban Missile Crisis and perfectly captured the terrors of the Cold War ('the Bomb Generation' and today's 'Terror Generation.') He could easily have rested on his laurels, but his mind would not rest; the projects he was still working on in his final years could easily consume another lifetime. As I write, scholars in diverse fields all over the world are calling to confer about these myriad works-in-progress. Harvey was complicated and paradoxical: an intellectual with a blockbuster novel and film; a Renaissance scholar who edited journals on Goethe's Science and Social and Biological Structures; an iconoclast with boundless humanity and compassion. He was the most curious man I have ever met in both senses of the word: curious in the way his inordinately capacious mind worked, and curious about the entire world's cultures and people. He counted among his friends architects, chefs, actors, writers, educators, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, musicians. He had a vast appeal to younger generations. This was partly personal: his youngest son, Mark, was born when Harvey was 57, so he was keenly interested in the latest trends and youth movements. I once said to him, "I guess old age isn't for sissies," and he shot back, "Neither is youth!"

He devised sophisticated teaching tools and methods for students at all levels, primary school to higher education, including publications on the Virtual Academy, the Virtual Library, and the Virtual Society (a book on disk). But Harvey's erudition was always personal, and his life's work remains even more relevant today, as George Clooney found in re-making the 1964 film Fail-Safe as a live television drama in 2000.

He was enormously proud of all three sons David, a successful LA litigator; John, an executive with the Mall of America in Minneapolis; and Mark, who works for a talent agency. His love for Norene was boundless; she is muse, counselor, heart and nerve center of this unique family, whom Harvey was wise enough to realize were his very best teachers.

Given his passionate interest in the increasingly stark divisions between the haves and the have-nots, it seems fitting that he was born on Oct. l7, on the lst anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and that he died on Labor Day. On that last week-end of his life, he murmured: "I must vote can I get an absentee ballot?"

As he lay dying, he said to Norene, I'm adjusting my ideas!" I like to think that even as I write, he's discussing them with St. Peter.

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