The Guy the Library’s Named After

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The Blue and White’s Rob Wile sat down with English Professor Michael Rosenthal to discuss his new book recounting the exploits of the man who built Columbia, or at least served as its president from 1902-1945.. In Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Story of the Redoubtable Nicholas Murray Butler, Rosenthal documents the evolution of a man who went from being a Nobel Peace Prize winner and “president of everything” (with the notable exception of President of the United States, which he lost in the 1920 race to Warren G. Harding), to a WASPish relic whose only lasting legacy was to have Columbia’s library/singles center named after him. He was Columbia University

Blue and White: What inspired you to write this book?

MR: A friend of mine who’d liked my book on the Boy Scouts [The Character Factory] had discovered that the Butler archives had just been opened—I guess they’d been closed for a long time. And she thought that I’d be a good person to write about Butler, and I was actually looking for a big subject to involve myself in; and I had no idea that Butler hadn’t been written about a lot. So I said, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting.’ So I launched myself; it took only one phone call, actually.

BW: I read that it took you 10 years to make it through the more than 600 boxes and 144 volumes of pure stuff on or written by Butler.

MR: That was just the beginning; I could have spent five more years sitting in there; I had no idea what I was getting into, that’s why it took a dozen years to get out of it. But I decided that that’s what I was going to do, and that it would take as long is it would take. I just soldiered on.

BW: Could you talk about the title?

MR: ‘Nicholas Miraculous’ was a term used by many people to describe Murray Butler, particular Teddy Roosevelt, who was a very close friend of Butler’s and admired Butler hugely until they had a catastrophic breakup in 1908.

BW: Going in, did you have any preconceptions about this guy?

MR: Not at all, that’s what was fascinating in the research; I knew he’d obviously been a huge presence at Columbia, but I had no idea about the way he was connected to the culture, the way he had in fact dominated the culture of the first half of the 20th century. So what was exciting for me is to discover this extraordinary figure about whom people knew very little. As I encountered Butler I was aware that he was extraordinary in many ways, and in many ways awful. Empire builders tend not to be modest, self-effacing people; and so Butler had a very healthy ego and narcissism which finally can grate on you…but he used it in the service of both himself and Columbia.

BW: You discuss Butler’s policy to limit number of Jews who got admitted to Columbia. Were his efforts on par with what similar schools were doing at the time, or was he particularly aggressive?

MR: Columbia was at the forefront because of its position in the city of New York; obviously there were more immigrant Jews applying than in other places. But all the schools were concerned about the possibility of being inundated by Jews. And so they all were trying to find ways to shade the admissions policy. Butler, I dare to say, was in the forefront of that, but he was doing nothing that the other schools didn’t do; until finally this whole creation of Seth Low Junior College [1928-1937, in Brooklyn; attended by science fiction author Isaac Asimov and Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach], which was the unique feature of Columbia’s attempt to handle the Jewish enrollment. He was anti-Semitic, but not in a rabid way. He probably shared the prejudices of people of his class; there were people who were far more hysterical than Butler. Butler’s concern was that Jews were aggressive and vulgar and loud and so on. Those were commonly shared assumptions—not obviously by everybody—but certainly by a lot of the people with whom he dealt.

BW: What was the effect of his having won the Nobel prize, both personally and on the University?

MR: It was certainly a crowning piece of his career, and gave luster to Butler and luster to Columbia. But it also made it difficult for Columbia, when he began to fade in the late thirties, to find a way to summon up the courage to ask him to leave, because you don’t ask a formidable character who’s won the Nobel prize and done all sorts of other things to just go away. His ego couldn’t have been inflated more—it added just another piece to his ego.

BW: He seems to have been a kind of international sensation; a kind of unofficial American ambassador. Was this unusual for a University president at the time?

MR: Well, if you think about all the things he did while being University President—running for the Presidency, being the president of the Carnegie Endowment, winning the Nobel prize—yes. It was an extraordinary career, kind of unrivaled; people just didn’t do all those things; he was truly miraculous.

BW: Do you think his “disappearance”, as you call it, from the country’s collective conscious after his death had anything to do with the fact that he was an early supporter of Fascism?

MR: He supported Italian fascism at a time when many people did, but the notion that he was a Fascist is absurd—I certainly don’t claim that at all. He saw Mussolini—as many American intellectuals did—as the possible answer to European disarray; they thought Mussolini could control Hitler. But when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, I think Butler understood what he was dealing with. He simply lived past his relevance. That’s a terrible thing that happens. I mean it’s great to live a long life, but by the time he was in his late 70s and 80s he was feeble and infirm and no longer had the energy to direct the place; the values that he’d stood for had eroded; his own capacity to keep himself in the press began to diminish. Also, people just didn’t like him; and so part of his disappearance was that no one wrote a book about him.

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