Oral History: Christopher Hexter

Narrator: Christopher Hexter
Interviewer: Skye Doney
Date: 15 June 2018
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Format: Audio
Duration: 25 minutes, 59 seconds

**To access the OHMS oral history page for Christopher Hexter, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here.** 

[Begin Session.]


Doney:  All right. So this is Skye Doney sitting down with Chris Hexter on June 15, 2018. Mr. Hexter is in town for the Madison reunion and is going to tell us a few Mosse stories.

Hexter: [laughs] So you want me just to—

Doney: Yeah, yeah, if you want to just narrate.

Hexter: Well, all right. My father’s an historian. Name’s Jack H. Hexter (1910-1996). My father was at Washington U in Saint Louis in 1961-62, among other places he’d been. And he was former chair of the department. His field is British history, 16th and 17th century. And at that time, Professor Mosse was a Renaissance Reformation historian. And he was invited to Wash U to speak. And he stayed at our house, visited. He’d already struck an impression on me enough so that when I applied to various colleges and universities in the Midwest, I remembered him; after I had gone to Iowa City, I came up to Madison. And I, remembering him. I thought I’d talk to him about coming here. And he was very gracious. He was in an office, a very unpretentious office, which he shared with another, I think he may have shared it with Professor [Michael] Petrovitch. But it was like crowded with stuff.

Doney: Which building was that?

Hexter: In Bascom Hall. On the south side of Bascom Hall. So he was very good. He took me to lunch, took me through the Rathskeller, where there were graduate students of his. He introduced me to Paul Breines (b. 1941), which was, for me, a somewhat intimidating experience, because I was then a senior in high school. And while we were walking down to the Union, he asked me what schools I’d applied to. And I had just come from Iowa City, where I had met some students, one of whom had graduated from my high school. And Iowa [00:03:00] seemed wonderful to me. Because I was introduced to beer and drinking, so it sounded great. And that library’s open 24 hours, and we were playing PDQ Bach. I thought ah, Iowa City. That’s where I’m going to go.

So when Professor Mosse asked me where I’d applied, I mentioned University of Iowa. He said, “Iowa, Cow college!” So I thought, wow. And I didn’t know his background at that point. So anyway, we met. And then when I came up to UW, I took his introduction. I think it was modern European history class. And he–

Doney: Was Breines also the TA then?

Hexter: No. Paul had already left. Paul had gone over to Germany. But Professor Mosse, in addition to doing the lectures, which were pretty impressive, out at the Ag building, which is where he tended to have these classes, he ran one section himself. He always, always maintained. I think it was just nice. He had me in the section. It was just a very, you know, he was an engaged. You know, here we were, a bunch of 18, 19-year-old students. And he was just an engaged guy. So it was very impressive. I remember his dog, Schnutzie, who was always around him. We went to his house on what is it, Glenway, Glenwood?

Doney: Yeah, 36 Glenway.

Hexter: Yeah. So let me think through this a little bit. I do remember, among other things, Professor Mosse, which is I think an interesting mistake on his part, which he was prepared as Chancellor or former Chancellor [David] Ward (b. 1938) talked about. He thought that the great thing, which I do think of great universities, and my favorite universities are these great state universities, which are a treasure. And he thought they would become the dominant force in the USA. Well, it’s turned out they’re subject to such political pressures that, as we know in Wisconsin, not unique to Governor Walker, but it is a problem that all state universities have, that their subsidies are under threat. So I think Mosse would have acknowledged that this was a mistake.

So little things I remember about Professor Mosse. One, driving. He was a disaster as a driver, because he loved to talk. And not only did he love to talk, he loved to talk facing people in the backseat. And I remember my poor mother ducking three-quarters of the time, and being in terror as Professor Mosse would go off. And he had his hands flying around as he was talking.

And then there was a story. The nuns down at what is now the SSM, Saint Mary’s Hospital, some of them took Mosse’s classes. And so Mosse is driving a former student of his who had gone on to Time magazine. He’s driving this student around the campus. [00:06:00]  And he’s driving fast, which is the other thing. He drove fast facing the rear. [laughter] And Professor Mosse is getting stopped by the local constabulary. And Mosse says, “Take this.” He goes to the student, he hits him in the stomach. And he says, “Bend over.” And this former student of his does. And them Mosse says to the policeman that stopped him, “I have a former student suffering an appendectomy.” And the police escort him to Saint Mary’s Hospital, where the nuns, who had been his former students greet him. The police leave. And Mosses says to them, “You can relax now.” [laughter]

And the other thing I knew about Mosse, a little side story, is that very early on in his career at the University of Iowa, he was there like in the very late [19]40s, and he ran for political office on the Progressive Party ticket for dogcatcher in Iowa City. Was elected, and then promptly quit the job. Well, Henry Wallace was from Iowa. You know, ran as the president of the Progressive Party ticket.

So, what do I know about Mosse? Incredibly gracious guy. Even years after I had been a student, my son came up to UW, and Mosse again graciously took us out. And every time I took my kids up to a camp, post camp, because I didn’t have money to send them to the regular camp, I would stop at Mosse’s house, and he would greet us again with Schnutzie, who was getting older at that point.

So let me think a little more about him. Well, he definitely got me, I was sort of predisposed to history, but he got me involved. And I think of Professor Mosse looking at the United States now and seeing, I wouldn’t say he would not draw absolute equivalents, but he would certainly draw parallels between the dysfunction between the American rural fundamentalist Christian, I would say tainted fundamentalists, because they’ve identified themselves now with the state, which would be anti-fundamentalist, if you look at real fundamentalism. Certainly Baptists were anti-state. But they have certainly tied themselves. But the utter split between sort of what I call urban skeptics and rural believers. Which would have been very much, you know, and this appeal to a combination of fear by the, I think the leaders of the Republican Party, which not, [00:09:00] doesn’t just go to Trump. It goes even earlier. The sort of, the Republican Party tying themselves to the South, which I felt very strongly was a disaster. And then this sort of rural resentments about change, their loss of sort of position. The sort of latent and now sort of more public racism by the rural South. Very much sort of, and this demand that, by the president of sort of the national anthem becomes a politicized issue of whether you sing it or not. I would see Professor Mosse looking at this with a sort of geez, this is happening very much in my world. Because that’s what he, his history was about, I think, sort of like Berlin versus the rest of Germany. And it was the Berlin of Marlene Dietrich and Kurt Weill. Actually, there’s a good television show. Have you seen it?

Doney: Babylon Berlin?

Hexter: Yes!

Doney: Great show.

Hexter: And it’s sort of like Mosse on television. And I’m saying, I’m looking at it. And I just stumbled into that show. And I thought, wow, this is very much the sort of Mosse, he would have recognized that show. Whoever put it together was brilliant in capturing this sort of urban, what do you call it, urban sleaze, free sex, versus you know, this sort of righteous view out in the country. So I think that would have been, what would Mosse have thought about that? And then I recall his sort of looking at the campus. And I thought it was captured by the professor from NYU. You know, his–

Doney: Hasia Diner (b. 1946).

Hexter: Yeah. Mosse’s commitment to the institution. And I think what he saw as dangerous in student movements in which I was involved was the risk that the people forgetting that forms in cultures are terribly important. And it’s much easier to destroy an institutional structure that provides, for all its faults and bureaucratic issues and human failures, at least a reasonable structure in which to do things that are, that he would call good. And that if you politicize the very structure of the university, you destroy what he would call, I think I have it right here, [00:12:00] slogans. You know, that slogans are a risk. Because they’re easy to fall back on. And I think that’s what he would have fault, not faulted, but would have seen in Harvey Goldberg. The risk of that. In fact, I brought it here. Let me see if I have them. Because I was, as I say, active in student, I may have photographs of Mosse with my son as a baby. Because my son was born one week before the Army Math Research Center was blown up. Oh, I hope I didn’t forget those. If I did, I’ll pay a penalty. Let’s see. Or I’ll have to come back and bring them. I’ll have to go back to—ah, but, this is an example of what I think Professor Mosse would have—see, there’s Ag Hall. Student in Harvey Goldberg’s class. And there’s Harvey. At Ag hall at a class in the middle, right before the teacher—the strike in 1966, the first, they thought, student strike on the campus. And Harvey turned his class over to discussions of the strike, which is what Professor Mosse would not have done. He said, “I’ll discuss that with you after class. On my time. But not on my professional time.” But Harvey obviously disagreed with that and was willing to do that. And this is a student at that class talking about whatever struck him. I can’t remember what he was talking about. But it was certainly related to the war, and the war in Vietnam, and whatever student issues were going on on the campus. And Harvey’s relating it to either the revolution in France in the 18th century, which was his big subject area.

Doney: What groups were you involved in during the student protest?

Hexter: I was, I worked in Mississippi in 1964, in Ruleville and Indianola and Sunflower County. I was very active in civil rights stuff. In fact, I probably didn’t attend this, but my activism started in St. Louis between my senior year in high school, and I sat in at a bank. It was sort of a seminal moment in civil rights in St. Louis. There were, in 1963, in the banks in St. Louis, there were no African American employees at all the banks in St. Louis except janitor. So this was a challenge by Congress on Racial Equality [00:15:00] or that was called Committee in St. Louis, to that practice. And we ended up sitting in at a bank that held the pension funds for the City of St. Louis employees. We thought that was the most vulnerable bank. And I did that two days before I came up to the UW campus. It was, in fact, we started the sit-in on August 28th, which is the day of the March on Washington. People came back to St. Louis from the March and we sat in at the bank right then and there. It was a big cause celebre and went on for a good many years, including people putting longest sentences for contempt of court until that time, post-World War II. The leadership of Congress on Racial Equality. So anyway, that was the context in which I came to this campus.

And just an aside, they used to have what they called a speaker series. So they had a speaker series called Politics in the Mid-50s, or Politics in the, excuse me, the Second Half of the Twentieth Century. So they had, among other speakers, George Wallace, James Reston (1909-1995) in the New York Times, and an ex-professor from Ole Miss named James Silver (1907-1988), who had been chased out of the Ole Miss campus out of Mississippi even though he had been a professor there for twenty-seven years. He wasn’t born in Mississippi. And he was the only professor on the campus who befriended James Meredith (b. 1933), who was the first black student to go to Ole Miss and caused a major riot. And Professor Silver was at that point teaching at Notre Dame because he’d found a place there. And he’d written a book called Mississippi: The Closed Society. And it was a really good book and I read it. Then I applied to be in the colloquium, which was a post-speaker event with about ten students. And I grabbed a napkin during this. And I said, “Dear Professor Silver, my name is Chris Hexter. I’m interested in Mississippi. I’ve read a lot about it. And I’d love to go there and I’d love to work.” And I handed him the napkin. And I thought well, that’s dead.

And two weeks later, he wrote me a letter, saying, “I’ve put your name to some white students at Ole Miss who work underground in the Civil Rights Movement.” And then a week later I got a letter from one of those students talking about what was called a Mississippi Summer Project. Applied to it, got in, and I worked down in Mississippi. So that informed my experience.

And then when I came back, I was active in SDS. I was the first chair and vice chair. I was active in the Committee Against the House Unamerican Activities Committee. And the irony in the ‘60s was that there was a newspap—a newscaster in Wisconsin who was very conservative. And he wanted to talk about how students were destroying universities. And there were all these radical students. And Wisconsin was a fertile territory for them to do that. His name was Bob Siegrist. And he testified in front of Congress about it. He was [00:18:00] the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which was the counterpart to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. And there were a number of students in his testimony who were named as either communists or dupes of the communist conspiracy. I rated being a dupe of the communist conspiracy. And he named three incidents that I had engaged in that were examples of that. One was that I led a group of buses of Wisconsin students in my second year, this was after I was in Mississippi, to go to the Selma-Montgomery march. Except the Wisconsin students ironically, we never got there because we got to Chicago and there were so many people pouring into Selma, the people that we were dealing with there said we can’t handle it. Please go to the White House and sit in. So there was all this core of Wisconsin students sitting in front of the White House in freezing cold weather in March. In the rain and we had snow. We were sitting there in front of the White House. And the only thing that was really great about it is the taxi drivers in Washington, DC, said, most of them are African-American, and we would say, we had to either go to this church where we were sleeping on the floor or the White House. And they said, “Oh, you’re the Wisconsin bunch! Get in! Free ride!”

Doney: Oh, wow.

Hexter: So anyway, Siegrist nailed me for that. He nailed me for, they had a Thanksgiving don’t eat your food and contribute your money to—they had a project bringing food down to Mississippi. And the last one was, he nailed me for chairing a meeting of the Committee on House Unamerican Activities Committee at the Student Union. And the ironic thing about that is, although I was supposed to chair that meeting, I was chasing a girl down who went to Indiana University. So I was down actually in, her, the person I was chasing had a good friend who lived in South Bend. And the irony—irony on irony—so I never went to the meeting that I was accused of going to, so Bob Siegrist got it wrong—fake fact—and then I was actually with my friend who was Jewish, and I’m Jewish by sort of a long combination of circumstances, and my friend’s best friends who lives in South Bend were the daughters of former Nazis. I had Thanksgiving dinner at a house of former Nazis in South Bend when I was supposed to be chairing the next day a meeting on the Madison campus of the Committee Against the House Unamerican Activities Committee. So that’s me. That’s not George. But it’s sort of a—

Doney: So you were politically active, even before you took a Mosse course. [00:21:00] And engaged.

Hexter: Well, no. Because I took Mosse’s course as a freshman. His introduction.

Doney: But you were in St. Louis before university.

Hexter: But I was, yes, I was active before I came to the university. So if anything, I would say Professor Mosse was a reminder of keep your balance. Don’t lose it all. But he had sort of an Olymp—I think the other thing about Professor Mosse, he had sort of an Olympian view, sort of a humorous Olympian view of all the stuff going on around him. And then I do remember, years later, in fact, the last time I saw Professor Mosse, was the history department here sent me a note saying that Professor Mosse was the first scholar in residence at the Holocaust Museum. And they had a program that weekend at whatever, it was actually St. Patrick’s Day weekend, or day after Saint Patrick’s Day. It was in Washington. And so I decided I wanted to go up and see him. And I called him in advance of going up. And he was, so he invited me to this place. And I met him there and I met the husband of, a famous, she was a star and she went to UW and I think she got her PhD. Feminist studies. Gordon?

Doney: Linda Gordon (b. 1940).

Hexter: Linda Gordon. And her husband, I think, do they live here in Madison? Or her husband was in Madison, I don’t know.

Doney: I’m not sure.

Hexter: But anyway, I had lunch with Professor Mosse. And he asked me, he says well, because he knew my dad and he said, what is your dad doing? And my dad was very much institutional, Parliament stuff. Parliament in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. And it was sort of like, oh, yeah, your dad’s doing that. And Mosse was sort of, I think what Mosse was studying was the stuff below sort of the, what are the forms that lead to these institutions. And I think what Mosse was accurate at is the forms can destroy the institutions. The sort of guts of the world can destroy—and I sort of again see this in the context of the United States. So he was saying, “Oh, your dad’s still doing that.” Which was this institutional stuff. And it was clear that Mosse, his view did not, I wouldn’t say he was critical of my dad, but it wasn’t Mosse’s thing.

And I remember also, and I, reading his autobiography, I remember this in his autobiography, and it was both in his autobiography and what he said about himself. [00:24:00] Mosse was always somewhat careless about dates. He had to get a good editor to say, “George, that’s fifty years off.” Well, he’s writing about his time at the University of Iowa. And again, a mutual friend of my father’s and Mosse’s was chairman of the department, William Aydelotte (1910-1996), who was a brilliant historian. And my father had big fights with Aydelotte about, Aydelotte was one of the earliest historians who believed in computers as gathering data for studying how decisions were made. And my father and he were always in this debate because my father was not, my father had skepticism about the value of computerized research, which was becoming big in the sixties. But I remember in Mosse’s autobiography, him writing about Aydelotte’s frustration with Mosse’s sort of irreverence about dates. [laughs] And so, I think Mosse’s sort of the sweet, oh, the date, [makes dismissive noise].

Doney: Broad trends.

Hexter: Yes. Right. So here it is. It’s 9:40. If I don’t get over, I won’t get a seat. So I’m going to go.

Doney: Okay. If you have photographs of Mosse, we’d love to have copies.

Hexter: I have a photograph, I think. I have to dig it out of dust. Because you get old paper, you collect sh—I won’t say, stuff. And they get dusty. But I’ll try to find it. It’s Mosse, I think with his pipe and a little bit of spittle. With my son, who was like less than a year old. Then my son came up here and met him. But yes, I’ll try and find that.

Doney: Yeah, I would really love to have this for our archive.

Hexter: All right. I’ll see if I can dig it up.

Doney: All right. Well, thank you. Thank you for your time.

Hexter: You got my bit.


End Session


Leave a Reply