Chandler Davis on Exile and the Hunt

by John Holbo on December 2, 2005

Ray Davis has made available a pair of essays by H. Chandler Davis, mathematician, SF author, resident of Canada, and no relation of Ray’s (so far as I know):

… From an exile (1960)

My apprenticeship was honorable, as a teaching fellow at Harvard, where I got my Ph.D. in mathematics, and as an instructor at the University of Michigan. I loved the university life. Not that it occurred to me at the time to compare it to any other; I had never seriously considered leaving it.

However, it happened that one summer ten distinguished members of my faculty convened (five at a time) and unanimously declared me guilty of “deviousness, artfulness, and indirection hardly to be expected of a University colleague.” I had refused, first before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and then before these juries of professors, to answer yes or no to the question, was I a Communist. The juries could assume (with that background and in the year 1954) that their recommendation that I be fired would mean my complete expulsion from the profession.


“Shooting rats in a barrel”: Did the red hunt win? (1995)

“You want the short answer?” my late friend Chaim used to say, and if the student said, “Yes,” Chaim said, “I don’t know.” Today’s question may not even have any short yes-or-no answer. Let’s work toward an answer; there will be surprises on the way.

You can read a fine Davis story, “It walked in beauty”, at the (sadly soon to be discontinued) SCIfiction site. (Critical tributes to the site are being collected here.) You really should read the story. Written in the 50’s. Sort of a Woman in the Gray Flannel Suit fable.



Ray Davis 12.02.05 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the pointer, John. I’m very taken by the addresses’ sustained energy, honesty, and commitment, and it feels good to have them more widely available.

And no, I’m not related to Professor Davis. Given how poor a math major I was, I would have broken his heart.


Ben Alpers 12.03.05 at 12:15 am

Chan Davis may not be related to Ray Davis. However, he is the spouse of Natalie Davis, pioneering women’s historian. In addition to being brilliant and interesting, both are also wonderful people.


Ray Davis 12.03.05 at 9:11 am

For more on Natalie Zemon Davis, here’s a bibilography and a memoir. I regret to say that I’m not related to her, either.


Ben Alpers 12.03.05 at 10:59 am

You wouldn’t be related to Ray Davies, would you? He’s pretty brilliant, too.


Ray Davis 12.03.05 at 3:00 pm

No, so far as I know no one in my family has ever been brilliant. We might be related to the first horse thief hung in Missouri, though.

Of more general interest, I’ve just posted a fourth piece by Professor Davis: “The Purge”. This is more of a history than the two exhortations referenced by John Holbo, and fills in many details.


Mr Ripley 12.04.05 at 4:53 pm

Ben: don’t forget theDaviskids: in an unusually egalitarian (especially for the Fifties) child-rearing arrangment, Chan and Natalie brought up musician Aaron Davis, anthropologist Hannah Davis-Taieb, and cult stud Simone Weil Davis.


Hektor Bim 12.05.05 at 10:09 pm

“Shooting rats in a barrel” is a very strange essay. It’s strange to compare awareness of the regressivity of the sales tax to supporting violent overthrow of the state to establish a proletarian dictatorship.

I have never liked this conception of the “Left” and the “Right”, and I think we should start to move past the French revolution on this. If we are all supposed to be free-thinkers, then I don’t see why we can’t be anti-communists. That doesn’t mean we break the law or commit witch-hunts, but it also doesn’t mean we praise the Soviet Union or defend the gulags. There’s an awful lot of space between the Communist party and McCarthy.

The point of the essay seems to be that the Red-hunt cleansed the universities of the “Left” and because of that progressive economics has been killed in this country. But that doesn’t seem clear to me at all. The peak of the Red scare was followed by the peak of income mobility and the lowest score on the Gini coefficient the country has had since industrialization and possibly since the founding of the country.

There’s another equally plausible argument, and that is that the defeat of segregation and civil rights created a backlash against progressive economics because of underlying racism. My recollection is that there are even studies that show that support for social welfare programs goes down as the perceived heterogeneity of a population goes up.

I think the people who did nothing during the red-hunt do have something to answer for. But I think Communists do as well. After all, if causing death and destruction in the pursuit of a noble goal is fine in retrospect, then you can’t have a problem with the neoconservatives.

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