Andrew Burstein on the Southern Biography series

Andrew Burstein

As the New York-reared editor of the Southern Biography series, I didn’t see anything odd or unusual about including John U. Monro on our list of titles. “Just how is the dean of Harvard College a suitable subject for southern biography?” you ask.

Allow me to respond a bit indirectly:

Most people focus on the South’s distinctiveness–and not often in a good way.  But the region is also a crazy quilt of bustling cultures, and the site of dynamic interactions.  Its history knows the power of human commitment beyond the well-known pain of war and stereotypical forms of religious fervor.  So let us question what it is that makes folks assume the South can only be told according to a traditional storyline.

John Monro’s roots in New England extended back to the seventeenth century, but the roots he planted in Alabama and Mississippi felt just as deep to him.  He was at Harvard in the 1930s, and served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise in World War II, where he was the damage control officer in a kamikaze attack in the spring of 1945.  Not expecting to survive the war, he resolved after V-J Day to make a difference in the world in tribute to his fallen comrades.

So when he was Harvard’s dean, he didn’t just wallow in whatever power he held.  When the president of historically black Miles College, near Birmingham, Alabama, challenged him to do more than wax eloquently about equality as a part of educational theory, he responded.  Miles students and faculty alike were “foot-soldiers” in Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign.  Monro went to Birmingham.

Near the end of his Harvard deanship, he became embroiled in the Timothy Leary (“Tune in, turn on, drop out”) drug controversy, plus Vietnam-era draft resistance.  All of a sudden, Monro took the bold step of exiting the Ivy League to become a foot-soldier at Miles, teaching nothing more dignified (or romantic) than freshman English.  He was hailed as a pioneer and hero for his dramatic decision.  The New York Times, Time magazine, The Nation, and others told his story.

The author of this exceptional biography, Toni-Lee Capossela, writes: “Monro had always looked with skepticism on the layers of privilege and comfort which Harvard’s members were swaddled.”  In one of the more memorable quotes from her book, Monro charges: “Once you start orienting your life around the expectations of pay, family, neighborhood, swimming pools, status, you’re done.”

Monro didn’t think of himself as any kind of hero.  In fact, he felt lucky.  While teaching freshmen at Miles, he told a reporter: “The kids have an old-fashioned idea about college, which I find charming.  They are not cynical.  They believe the college can do something for them.”  So, Monro came south “naked,” a learner.  He came south, and he stayed.

Good historical writing does more than feed an existing consensus–anybody can to that.  No, what makes history and biography really come alive is that which highlights unexpected moves and tells us why they should matter to us.  By telling this unconventional life story without dressing it in “heroic” garb, Professor Emerita Toni-Lee Caposella has done much to carry on the distinction for which the Southern Biography series has been long known.