In the archives

Taking a quick break from my work in the Samuelson archives – so fascinating, believe me! – I can’t resist sharing the following, which I found in his correspondence files. Commenting on David Landes’ draft on Abba Lerner (subsequently published), as Landes explains that Lerner did not get a professorship in Britain in the 1930s, in spite of his having published 29 papers so far, Samuelson writes in the margin:

Somewhere, you should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius.

And he adds in the related letter to Landes:

History [historians] never get things right.

Source: Samuelson to Landes, February 23 1990, Box 84, Folder “Lerner Abba”, Paul A. Samuelson papers at Duke University.

8 thoughts on “In the archives

  1. Yann, fascinating post! Samuelson’s comments with which you closed it seems to suggest that history (historians) is not that useful. But I believe it is quite the contrary: only historians doing serious archival work can construct a rich historical narrative. Samuelson’s words point out to a different matter: that in fact he saw himself as the one to “get things right”. As a witness and participant of many developments in postwar economics, and as a well-connected economist, Samuelson was always willing to construct historical record by telling how he saw/participated of those debates (and he was very much willing to talk to those who eventually wrote pieces like this by David Landes on Lerner). Nice indeed!

  2. Pedro: of course, we agree on that! But quite weirdly, I have the impression that what Samuelson is criticizing in this comment – which might just be a wisecrack – is not the history that we do but intellectual history, the one that tries to locate logical consistencies underlying various events. It is clear that if you want to find a rationale behind Lerner’s denial of any position in UK, you will be quickly short of arguments – “he did not publish enough”, “he wasn’t Keynesian enough” or “the logic of his arguments was flawed” have no relevance here. So, what matters is the context and the context is that he was a Yiddish-speaking Jew, a womanizer, a free spirit and a weirdo who operated in a context were people tended to prefer Lutheran family fathers who acted rationally and relied on mathematical rigor. Quite surprising for someone who has always stated his preference for rational reconstruction, isn’t it?

  3. There may be a personal note in this as well, I seem to recall a rumour that the reason SAmuelson left Harvard to work at MIT was because Harvard did not want to give him tenure due to him also being jewish… Not sure he would be bitter by 1990, but at the time I am sure it didn’t leave a happy memory.

    1. Yes. It is clear that anti-semitism plays an important role in the story. When Lerner was considered for a professorship at the LSE, Robbins wrote to Keynes, in order to get his opinion on Lerner. In response, Keynes wrote the following: “He is very learned and has an acute and subtle mind. But … if there is any fault in his logic, there is nothing to prevent it from leading him to preposterous conclusions … In thinking over the problem of Lerner’s future, I feel in my own mind that the really right solution would be to make him take up some manual craft of a kind which would not exhaust him and would leave him free to pursue his own studies in dialectic in the evenings. I should like to see Lerner as a printer’s compositor, or as a cobbler, or grinder of lenses like Spinoza; – free from 5 or 6 o’clock onwards to discuss high subtleties with his friends and to pursue, like the Talmudist that he is, the curious aspects of truth which appeal to him.” (reproduced from Colander and Landreth 1996, pp. 113-5).

    2. ah… right… Well, I’m not sure Keynes is the right person for unbiased advice on his semitic brethren – I’m told the preface to the first German edition of the General Theory, which Keynes wrote for that market alone, is of a similar nature…

  4. These issue are taken up in real detail in: Weintraub, E. Roy, Keynesian Historiography and the Anti-Semitism Question. History of Political Economy, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:
    It will be presented at ESHET 2011 in Istanbul at May 21, 2011.

    1. That is a really interesting piece, and thank you for sharing. I opened with a pre-conceived notion that This issue of Keynes’s anti-semitims is brushed under the carpet, either as part of embarrasment or hagiography
      [I feel that is somewhat confirmed on p.10], and am excited to read a wider story about this and a really thorough background to this material.

      I am interested to see you pose a question in the conclusion – or at least it seemed a question to me – that “Discussions of anti-Semitism have been particularistic, not systematic” but issues of gender and race (and I guess class) are studied by historians of economics and economists as (almost) specialist fields. Is the answer perhaps that these modes of discrimination remain?

      I think I agree with Patinking and Skidelsky’s point that opening any education on Keynes about his anti-semitism is not wildly useful, but it shouldn’t be hidden away either. That all said, I did not know of the Einstein article Keynes had written – which reads quite shockingly – but I know he went to visit Einstein in Princeton, who was lying in bed very ill, and reported Einstein’s suggestions on the war in a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 2 June, “if, when we are ready, we bomb Germany continuously and without remorse they most certainly will not stand it”. So there may be more to the Keynes-Einstein story than just the very negative article?
      [UK National Archives, T247/113: First American Visit (1941) June 2 1941, letter to the Chancellor]

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