Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003

Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog

A Review and Profile, by H. Larry Ingle


Oxford-educated political scientist Isaiah Berlin, in his minor classic "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1953), divided people into two groups, those who understood one big thing like the hedgehog and those, like the fox, who knew many things. The subject of this essay was a hedgehog who throughout his life concerned himself with one common theme, the threat of state authority over the individual; this threat emerged, he insisted, because individuals permitted it by not resisting the state’s encroachments.

During the current period, a time of mounting concern about civil liberties and individual rights, especially in the face of mounting governmental authority, it is wise to consider one of the best known Friends of the twentieth century. I write of Milton Mayer (1908-86), now mostly forgotten but well worth recalling because he illustrated a significant, continuing, and newly-timely strain in Quaker thinking.

A newspaperman and magazine columnist, Mayer wrote and edited numerous books and turned out reams of personal essays for the Progressive, a journal that carried his byline for nearly forty years. His best known and most important book was his study of ten average Germans from 1933 to 1945, They Thought They Were Free, a work he published a decade after the war when he lived in Germany and interviewed residents of that defeated nation. No one has done a biographical study of Mayer, although he left numerous references to his personal experiences in his essays and books, so it is only a matter of digging out the factual details to put his life into context.

Born in Chicago of a German Jewish father and an English-born mother, Mayer was educated in the public schools of the city where, he reminded readers constantly, he received a classical education with a heavy emphasis on Latin and languages; he graduated from Englewood High School. His Reform Jewish family was well enough off that young Milton visited Germany probably after World War I.

His self-composed entry in Who’s Who in America for 1984 refers only to his being a student at the University of Chicago from 1925 to 1928, without mentioning that he did not earn a degree. Mayer apparently left the University the year before the thirty-year old Robert Maynard Hutchins became president in 1929. He told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942 that he was "placed on permanent probation in 1928 for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window, ‘failing, however, to hit the dean.’"("Keeping Posted, March 28, 1942) Their lives would be intertwined until Hutchins’s death in 1977, and Mayer’s widow would oversee publication of a biography her husband had penned of his friend. This unorthodox study, Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir, published in 1993 by the University of California Press, offers insights into the genesis of Mayer’s development that are absent from his other writings.

After leaving the University, Mayer worked as a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post for nine years and married his first wife Bertha Tepper; the couple had two daughters. They were divorced in 1945, and two years later he married Jane Scully, who would become well-known as "Baby" or, after protests from feminists, "Ms. Baby," to readers of his magazine columns. These details come from the Who’s Who entry, but the Hutchins biography reveals that Mayer had gone to work for William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American sometime during the early 1930s, covering the University of Chicago from which position he met Hutchins.

Preparing an article for that paper, he read Hutchins’s 1935 commencement address to the graduates at the University, and his life was changed. In words that Mayer would echo and re-echo again and again, Hutchins told his auditors that they faced a life that would corrupt them, tempting them to become safe, sound, agreeable, and inoffensive, giving them habits of timidity. "Believe me," Hutchins pointedly warned, "you are closer to the truth now than you will ever be again."(Mayer: 1993, 3-5)

Mayer for one believed, and he went to Hutchins in April 1937 and asked how he could be "saved" from having to work for William Randolph Hearst. Hutchins offered him an undefined job at $45 a week, half of what Hearst was paying. When Mayer countered that he couldn’t live on such a paucity, the president reminded him that he had asked only to be saved, not to live. So, confessing privately to himself that he would have gone with Hutchins for $22.50, Mayer accepted his offer and emerged a tutor in the Great Books class that the president and professor Felix Adler conducted. Later, minus any advanced degree– indeed, any degree at all!– he was "promoted" from tutor to assistant professor on the committee of social thought, a post he held for eleven years. He also served as assistant to the University’s president. Of such were academic careers built in those long ago days.

Now also a free lance journalist– although he always referred to himself simply as a "newspaperman" – Mayer followed his mentor and honed his skills as a young curmudgeon, a gadfly looking for human foibles among his fellow citizens. The personal essay became his favorite genre. He sold pieces to various journals, including even the Rotarian, the most notorious being his October 7,1939 article in the family-oriented Saturday Evening Post, entitled "I Think I’ll Sit This One Out," in which he explained why the approaching world war would produce more harm than good; the common enemy was, he insisted, "the animality in man." (p. 100) He added to his notoriety with a March 1942 contribution to the Post, "The Case against the Jew." (reprinted in Mayer: 1964, 136-145)

Stressing that Jews had become so assimilated that they had lost their chance to be prophetic, Mayer quoted the prophet Isaiah when he attacked those who whored after false gods, "In righteousness shall thou be established."

To make his point, Mayer related the story of an assimilated Jewish correspondent who had had his children baptized in a Christian church and who had been in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion. Riding a train while Jews were being mobbed in the streets, he told of seeing an old Jew wearing a robe and a skull cap sitting across the aisle reading his prayerbook. A half dozen Nazis got on and passed the Jew, who never looked up; one spat on him. Still, he didn’t look up, didn’t even wince, and the reporter explained that the incident haunted him; "that old Jew makes me feel like a heel" – and this from a man who had just said that he didn’t ‘feel like a Jew.’" Mayer understood and commented that the old man "was prepared for suffering because he had something worth suffering for."(Ibid.)

Most people who saw the article apparently never got beyond its title. It was so controversial in the wartime atmosphere, in the flush of patriotism four months after the United States entered the war, that the Post carried an unusual editorial two months later explaining why they had published it and commissioned a response from former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Even as late as 1986, more than forty years later and after Mayer was in his grave, it provoked a heated exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books regarding his alleged "anti-semitism.." (Draper, 1986)

Mayer was definitely a left-winger in politics, even a revolutionary. But his would be a revolution different from the one urged by the typical anti-capitalist agitator, socialist, or communist. His, an anti-materialist one, would indeed put an end to capitalism, but, he told the editors of Christian Century in 1944, it would be a moral one. (Conscience and Commonwealth, p.24) His writings almost always put a moral and religious twist to his analyses, pretty much ending his association with journals like Life and Harpers.

He lived at Hull House, the social work settlement house made famous by Chicagoan Jane Addams, and he wrote more articles for the Nation. Too old for the draft, he denied to the annual dinner of the War Resisters League in 1944 that he was a pacifist, even though he claimed conscientious objector status to the current conflict, a position for which the Christian Century took him to task in July of that year. (Ibid.) About this time too he began a steady career as a columnist for the Progressive, a magazine founded in 1909 by senator Robert M. Lafollette of Wisconsin. From these pages emerged most of his more trenchant insights.

It remains unclear when Mayer began attending a Friends Meeting, although he composed an article called "Sit Down and Shut Up" for Common Sense in April 1945 about what he said was his first experience at one in a Pittsburgh hotel’s sub-ballroom. There he reflected on his misspent life and successfully resisted the temptation to get up and hold forth, as was his wont; instead he listened within the "living silence" to three messages. He lauded Quakers for their appeal to African Americans, their denial of a special priesthood, their indifference to sacraments, their opposition to war, even as he professed to be troubled by their tendency to make money and become rich. (Reprinted in Mayer: 1990, 171-175) He formally joined Friends in Germany in the early 1950s, according to what his wife told this writer, although he had already served as a visiting professor at the rather evangelical William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, from 1948 to 1951, when it had an anomalously progressive president.

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