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Michael Rosenthal Pens First-ever Biography of Nicholas Butler

You wouldn't guess it from his title -- the Roberta and William Campbell Professor of the Humanities -- but Columbia faculty member Michael Rosenthal has taken the road less traveled by.

He started out his academic life as an instructor and assistant professor in the English Department, but after just six years, became the department's associate dean -- an administrative position that he held for more than 15 years before deciding it was time to return to full-time academe.

This "strange, backwards career" as he calls it is reflected in his publications list. Although he did publish a book on Virginia Woolf early in his career, since then he has been researching subjects "not necessarily related to British literature," he admits. "I never had a sense of a particularly traditional trajectory that I wanted to follow, and I've never regretted it."

In the mid-1980s, Rosenthal published a book about Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857–1941), the founder of the Boy Scouts; and now, exactly 20 years later, he has produced a book on one of Columbia's former presidents: Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which hit the shelves Jan. 10.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Baden-Powell and Butler share quite a few traits. Both were creatures of the Edwardian era; both were known as educational innovators; and both had a gift for "self-mythologizing and building up an empire around themselves during their lifetimes," Rosenthal says.

He adds that he found Butler's story particularly compelling as he wondered how a man once touted as "the most decorated person in the world" could today be known to so few people.

"Nicholas Butler achieved instant oblivion in a way that is quite remarkable, but not easily understandable," marvels Rosenthal. "The man was the president of a major university -- this one. He ran for the presidency of the United States, won a Nobel Peace Prize, and dominated to some degree the world stage for 44 years; yet this is the first real book ever written about him."

An early review in the New York Observer by Patricia O'Toole, herself a biographer of Teddy Roosevelt, the man who nicknamed Butler Nicholas Miraculous, called the biography a "superb close-up" of a "supremely confident man."

"Well, we can see that Nicholas Butler was nothing if not confident," agrees Rosenthal. "He was a prolific publisher of articles and tracts and didn't hesitate to write up what amounted to press releases about his doings. I certainly had no shortage of materials on which to base the biography."

In fact, the sheer bulk of archival materials almost derailed the project. It took Rosenthal nearly a decade to wade through the 600 boxes of personal papers stored in the Butler Library's rare book room; the thousands of documents in the Columbiana Room in Low Library; numerous documents stored with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which Butler chaired; and 144 volumes of miscellaneous clippings.

"There were times when I really wasn't sure I'd be able to pull it into a compelling and comprehensive narrative," recalls the professor. "But then I'd remind myself that I wasn't in any hurry -- I wasn't going anywhere, and Butler certainly wasn't. And then I'd carry on."

Now that Rosenthal has revealed America's "best-kept cultural secret," as he likes to refer to the man who put Columbia University on the map, he plans to ease back into the full-time rhythm of being an English professor.

Rosenthal says he particularly enjoys teaching courses for the core curriculum. The work is "life giving" because it lets him awaken the enthusiasm of students who might not previously have studied literature.

In fact, it was his dedication to teaching a section of "Lit Hum" -- a core course that includes everything from Homer's Odysseus to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse -- that earned him the chair named for William V. Campbell and his wife, Roberta. A 1962 graduate of Columbia College, Campbell captained the Lions' football team and returned to coach them for several years before going on to make millions in Silicon Valley. He recently became the chair of Columbia's board of trustees.

Campbell's odyssey from coaching college football to endowing an academic chair tickles Rosenthal, with his penchant for unusual stories.

"It's not all that frequently that you find a football coach who is sufficiently interested in the academic side of things to endow a chair," he notes. "And I knew him when he was a coach, so that makes me particularly pleased to have this honor."

Excerpts from Nicholas Miraculous

Here are a few excerpts from Michael Rosenthal's work that conjure up Nicholas Butler's world or illustrate important themes in the book, reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Columbia Butler knew as an undergraduate:

Although the establishment of the faculty of political science in 1880 represented the first stage in Barnard's plan to raise the college "from the level of an elementary school to that of a grand institution of higher learning," Columbia was still, during Butler's undergraduate days, essentially "a school for small children." Without dormitories or event offices for its ten professors, efficiency of operation with low cost was the aim: chapel, three hours of classes, students out by 1:00, gates closed, and college shut down until the next day. ... A library, presided over by a librarian who resented anyone's using it, never remained open for longer than an hour and a half each morning.

The enthusiastic reaction to Butler's inauguration as Columbia's new president (April 19, 1902):

The country, Columbia, and Butler all exalted. … Butler had his dream job, Columbia had attracted the best of all possible men to develop it in the twentieth century, and the United States could look forward, under Butler's leadership, to a university of international distinction. In its lavishness and gravity, the inauguration became in effect a national occasion, not merely a parochial gesture of self-congratulation. It was less Columbia itself than the importance of the American university that was being acknowledged.

Butler's shepherding of Columbia through the depression years:

Fortunately, the one part of the university least affected by the Depression was the quality of the faculty. As jobs were scarce and competitive offers rare, the faculty excellence that Butler had helped stock during the previous two decades tended not to migrate elsewhere. ... There were departures, of course, but students coming to Morningside during this time continued to be taught by extraordinary people.

In addition, Columbia retained some of its brilliant graduate students who blossomed into distinction in the 1930s, such men as the literary critic Lionel Trilling, the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, the art critic Meyer Schapiro.

Butler's "miraculous" performance as Columbia's president:

The triumvirate of Butlers -- the Sage, the president of the world's largest university, and the international statesman and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- reinforced one another at every turn. … Butler gloried in the notion of being recognized as much more than a mere academic. For Americans, whose country was beginning to demonstrate its economic power, the image of a university president as an experienced business executive presiding over a large corporation was reassuring. The praise Butler frequently received for running Columbia like a railroad was serious indeed at a time when the organization of railroads gave America a perfect metaphor for its growing efficiency and industrial might. ... No university president achieved the worldwide celebrity Butler managed for himself, and no public or political figure acquired the intellectual distinction attributed to him.

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Published: Jan 30, 2006
Last modified: Jan 30, 2006