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Stanford Report, December 10, 1997

Hal Kahn's What Matters speech: 12/10/97

Historian Hal Kahn: ‘What Matters’ to an ‘inadvertent radical’


He said he could not talk about the three things at the core of his being: food, baseball and words.

Instead, Hal Kahn, professor of history, waxed and waned on grandmothers, ties, fascists, backpacking and revolutionary spirit as he stood at a lectern in the side chapel of Memorial Church on Dec. 3. Kahn was the final speaker on the fall quarter lineup of the noon-time faculty lecture series, "What Matters to Me and Why."

Oranges also figured prominently in Kahn's remarks. After studying Chinese language and history for more than 30 years, he said, he can walk through San Francisco's Chinatown today and still is not able to read the labels on orange crates being unloaded off trucks.

"It's one of the many frustrations of my field," he added, to appreciative laughter.

Following a "shard" pattern of exposition, Kahn laid out the "archaeological remains" of his life and work in somewhat chronological order, beginning his talk with reminiscences of growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., during the Depression.

Kahn was surrounded by "whole housefuls of aunts and grandmothers and their old-world cronies, all of whom seemed to be named Mrs. Perlmutter," in his hometown, which he described as safe, comfortable and short on adventure.

"Young boys could ride their bikes to school, only occasionally getting knocked down and beat up by Jew-taunting yobs," he said. "Minority status seemed to us, growing up, to be a paradoxical thing."

Kahn recalled listening to the hysterical voice of Hitler on the radio, and he said the arrival in his home of "refugee cousins, unkempt, ill-dressed, mortified by their dependence and incomprehension" paralleled in some ways his own mortification at being asked to knit afghan squares for U.S. fighting men on the front lines in Europe.

Kahn described his sojourn at Williams College in the late 1940s as "when Countess Mara met repp stripes." Labeled a "turkey" and deemed "unfit for fraternities," he found quiet places to read books and engaged in polite subversion.

"Maintaining citadels of privilege in the academy seemed to us to be archaic and wrong," Kahn said, "Abolishing them seemed to be just about the right thing to do."

The politics of inequality didn't require a lot of theory or soul-searching, he added. "It seemed obvious. You fought against it."

On a scholarship to the University of Stockholm, Kahn said, he studied a non-utilitarian language, saw the early films of an obscure director named Bergman and read Strindberg. He also encountered his first fascist.

"He was a well-turned out gentleman with impeccable manners who gave me a ride one day and a lecture on the fecklessness of Swedish wartime neutrality and the unsuitability of Jews and Gypsies to the Nordic way of life."

On his way to Harvard to study political science ("a subject I detested"), Kahn said he was encouraged to study Chinese history.

"My entire life, it seems to me, has been a triumph of inadvertence. I had never studied history at any level, and the only thing I knew about China were the names Anna May Wong and Charlie Chan."

But John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese historical studies in the United States, convinced Kahn to try his hand at the emerging discipline. After all, Fairbank assured him, he already knew one tonal language.

Kahn spent 13 years as a graduate student, touching down in Taipei, Hong Kong, Kyoto and Tokyo, where leadership was thrust upon him one wet day.

"After two weeks negotiating with the metropolitan security police, I led a phalanx of 25 rain-drenched marchers through the streets to the American embassy, accompanied and protected by 150 baton-wielding police," he recalled. "We were protesting a visit by Henry Kissinger. I don't think he got the point."

Kahn also taught for three years at the University of London, where he was surrounded by the culture of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Nureyev and Fonteyn. There, too, he was witness to the "the famous battle of Grosvenor Square, which may have been the first expatriate shot in the war against the war in Vietnam."

Back home, Kahn became active in civil rights protests and housing activism. Arriving at Stanford in 1968, he said he was "pretty well formed politically, though not, certainly, intellectually. Doing Chinese history is a lot harder than doing protest politics."

At his first "sit-in in the sun," Kahn wore a three-piece suit and said he immediately was "taken for the enemy."

"I no longer own a tie, let alone a three-piece suit. That's California for you."

In almost 30 years of enjoying "the triumph of nature over culture in Paradise West," Kahn said he had found a second life as a backpacker and written several camping books.

As for the heroes of the revolution, he suggested that "if you laid them all end to end, you'd have the Bay Area's biggest horizontal Liars Club."

"I myself can claim only one distinction," he added. "I seem to have been the babysitter of the revolution. While others stormed the heights, I stayed home with the kids or brought them to the edge of the battlefield."

Some years ago, Kahn said, a former graduate student had published a book in which he acknowledged and thanked his teachers.

"He described me fondly as a 'reluctant radical,'" he said. "But I would prefer the label 'inadvertent radical.' I keep stumbling into the obvious. It's a posture I'm not ashamed of." SR