nor•ton•esque

MORRIS PHILIPSON, 1926-2011

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Nov. 3, 2011 — So it’s goodbye to Morris Harris Philipson, age 85, man of letters, bon vivant, head of the University of Chicago Press from 1967 until 2000, quietly, this morning, surrounded by a number of his loved ones and a far greater number of his books — many of them written, edited, or published by his own hand.
Morris Philipson Morris Philipson Morris Philipson

Fitting for a man who said “li-chra-chure” without affectation, a man who built a career in the serious publishing world of the latter half of the 20th century as a writer, an editor and the longest-serving director of the University of Chicago Press — where, I’m told, hung a banner that proclaimed a single word: Courage.

Just look at some of the serious books he worked on!

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1966)
  • The Count Who Wished he were a Peasant: A Life of Leo Tolstoy (1967)
  • An Outline of a Jungian Aesthetics (1990)
  • Foundations of Western Thought: Six Major Philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (1964)

Then there were the novels—Bourgeois Anonymous (1964), The Wallpaper Fox (1976), A Man in Charge (1979), Secret Understandings (1983), and Somebody Else’s Life (1987). Don’t forget Everything Changes (1972), a children’s book.

In the last two years or so I worked sporadically with Morris on putting together his last project, a remembrance of past things that included what seems to have been the intellectual idyll of boarding-school life at the now-defunct Cherry Lawn School in Darien, Conn. He was in the class of 1944. It was at Cherry Lawn where he roomed with Emil Oberholzer Jr., the son of a European doctor who had administered Rorschach ink-blot tests to many of the leading minds of that earlier time (perhaps 50 in all, Philipson recalled, including Dr. Sigmund Freud himself) only to die before ever publishing a single word on his findings.

There was a feeling of loss that circled around and around the story of Oberholzer’s lost Rorschach studies, much like the shadow of the absence of things Jewish that falls across certain pages of Philipson’s novels, most of whose central characters happen to be WASPS or secular Jews. However, I’ve had the privilege to have him share with me as-yet unpublished works concerning his New England youth and post-retirement ruminations on the Jewish-American experience that pick up the thread.

Our first task was for me to finish taking the dictation of a memoir, “Conclusions,” that he hoped to have “paged out” to 232 pages by June of this year. At the heart of “Conclusions” was the conceit that no actual book need be composed, just one perfect review that explained the essence of the original; had it in fact existed; but which, of course, there was no need to publish because the review would summarize it all so sublimely. If only we’d made it that far.

Cheers, M.P. And Courage.

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