Ken Jowitt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Individual, Charisma, and the Leninist Extinction: Conversation with Ken Jowitt, Robson Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; 12/7/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ken, welcome.

Thank you, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

Ossining, New York; it's about thirty miles north of New York City. Growing up in the forties and fifties, I thought it was about a million miles from New York City and that the largest city in the world was White Plains, which was twelve miles away. But when I started reading about peasants and how parochial they were, I wasn't thoroughly convinced they were the only ones that were enjoying that experience.

So your place of birth pointed you in the direction of your studies, but we'll get to that in a minute. How did you parents shape your character?

Well, my mother wanted me to be a professional dancer. I thought that was a good [idea] because I really enjoyed dancing, and I did it well and it meant that intellectual life for me was not something that was dull and serious and programmed. And growing up as I did in an Irish working-class Catholic neighborhood, there were experiences I had that many intellectuals who grew up middle class and in different ethnic and social backgrounds didn't have. And I've always thought I benefited from that variety of experiences.

My father wanted me to go to school. Neither of them went to college; my mother never graduated from high school. And my father was very -- he was concerned that I not do what he did. The only time he threatened to hit me was when I told him I was thinking of going to work in a factory, and I won't quote him, but you can get the idea. He wasn't too pleased with that, so I looked to option "B," which was college.

What books did you read as a young person?

Sherlock Holmes.

I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and I read a lot of historical fiction. Our family was dysfunctional in the happiest sense. It was a wonderfully happy, dysfunctional family. And the thing that came out of that was that I loved both my mother and father, that sounds trite but I did. So I liked my mother's style, she was always stylish and she liked to be a little different. And my father loved history, loved it. So after we'd go to mass I'd sit with him and he'd read Prince Valiant, this prince who went all over the place -- Western Europe, the Middle East -- and it was romantic. And I've continued to believe that your most engaging intellectual pursuits come out of pre-, if not irrational, romantic feelings. And my father loved Prince Valiant, he loved Sherlock Holmes and I read them and I found out I loved them too.

I hear themes that are going to occur later in your work, and that is the emphasis on the individual, on individuation, on carving out your own identity.

Well yeah, that's true. I have always thought Freud was a fraud.

Just like Professor Crews, whom we just interviewed.

Yes, I greatly admire Fred Crews.

I don't think it was [due] so much to my psychology as how I grew up.

I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, but my family de-emphasized ethnicity very much. And I was an only child, so I grew more with my imagination, or at least as much with my imagination, as I did with my Irish friends or my Italian friends, or in high school, my Jewish friends. And so it wasn't so much an intellectual decision. It was of an experience, it was an existential thing, that my family valued you for who you were, not for your religion, your ethnicity, your race, whenever. It was who you were. And you were expected to take the responsibility for that. So, implicit, before it became intellectually explicit, the notion of individualism to me was the ground, the base, the primitive, in that sense, value.

One of your heroes you mentioned a moment ago, and let's talk a little about him: Sherlock Holmes. What did you admire most about him?

Well it's funny. When you initially read somebody, you don't know; at least I didn't know [what I admired most]. I liked him, in part, because my father liked him. My father liked the Yankees; I also liked the Yankees. So at the beginning it's sort of an undifferentiated genesis-like reality.

As I've continued to look at [Sherlock Holmes] and continued to like him, I think it's the way he combines charisma and science. I think that Conan Doyle was a genius in coming to grips with what is one of the defining questions of our age -- is charisma possible in a scientific age? And that is what Holmes does. Holmes says, I'm going to study tobacco and ashes, and at the same time he does miraculous things. He can tell you where you were and what you're about. He can deduce things. And that ability on the part of an individual -- not married, no really close friends except for one -- I found him mysterious and scientific. Those things didn't go together, and it intrigued me. It not only intrigued me personally but it also, I think, led me to look at phenomena in the world that I'm interested in, political phenomena, that do the same thing, that are simultaneously charismatic, whether they be sacred, mysterious, but beyond rational explanation, and at the same time effectively deal with the world. Logically they don't go together. They went together in this fictional character, and they go together in some political phenomena. So I wasn't simply interested, which is one of the worst words in the English language, "interesting." The fact is, Holmes says to Watson, "I don't care whether it's interesting, is it important?" It was an important phenomenon, as well as being engaging for a kid and for an adult.

Let's talk a little about your formal education. You graduated from high school. Then where did you do your undergraduate work?

I went to a Catholic high school for three days and then I figured out that there were no girls. And so I decided that while Catholicism was good, it wasn't really my vocation in terms of career.

So you decided against the priesthood.

I decided against the priesthood. I thought about the priesthood and I decided against the priesthood, for that reason. And went to XXX high school, which is a public high school, a good high school. I never applied to college really. My father was in a labor union and he came home one day -- I was planning to go into the navy -- and he said, "Fill out these papers. You can go to four or five different schools, Holy Cross, Fordham, Columbia," and so on. So I put down Columbia and I went home and he said, "Well, why did you choose Columbia? You're Catholic, there's nothing at Columbia but Communists and Jews." So I said, "That's a little rigid of you, a little narrow; but I'm tired of all this. I know what it is to be a Catholic." Well the point of the matter is, I scored well enough on the regents' exam and so, one day, Andy the mailman came in and said, "Here's a big package and you've been given a four year scholarship to Columbia." So I went to Columbia and ended up studying Communists and marrying a Jew, which was not bad.

About thirty years after I graduated from there; yes, it was twenty-five or thirty years, they had a reunion, so one of the deans called me up and said, would you like to write something of how Columbia has added to your life? And on the phone I said it didn't add anything to my life, and so he got very upset. "What do you mean it didn't add -- ?" I said, "It didn't add a thing, it gave me a life."

And that's exactly what it did. It gave me a life. It exposed me to teachers and to people and to history that obviously no one person could live but that I could make a claim on. It was a joy. It was absolutely a joy. And then in 1962 I also was given a fellowship to come here. Actually I was rejected at Berkeley.

As an undergraduate?

No, as a graduate student. I was turned down and then they found out I had a three year scholarship. I'm sure there was no connection. But they then discovered there had been "an error."

I see.

So I was then accepted. So when I received tenure about 25 years ago, I put that next to the telegram that said that they really loved me but that my work wasn't quite good enough at that time. And I thought that was a nice sequence.

Next page: Charisma

See also: Interview with Frederick Crews (1999).

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