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Some thoughts in memory of John Salmon

By Alain Silvera, Professor Emeritus of History

24 April 2005

                I said my last goodbye to John last December, shortly before Xmas but after December 2nd. That day of December 2nd stood out in his memory as well as in mine. When we first became friends in the sixties he used to say that for him the most memorable day in French history was August 23rd, the anniversary of the St Bartholomew massacre in 1572, which secured the throne for his favorite French king, Henry of Navarre, The Galant Prince – to whom by the way he bore a striking physical resemblance, especially the cleft nose although not as pronounced as Cyrano de Bergerac’s (another of his heroes) and that distinctive beard of his which the French call a barbiche. I replied, that to me as a modern French historian, the date of December 2nd stood out as even more memorable than the advent of the Bourbon dynasty. After all, it marked the anniversary of France’s greatest victory, the battle of Austerlitz, as well as the coronation of Napoleon at Notre Dame which put an end to the Bourbons, and was also the date deliberately picked by his nephew Napoleon III to carry out his coup d’etat against the discredited second Republic. It then emerged that December 2nd also happened to be of all things John’s birthday. And later still, according to some mysterious twist of fate, it was on yet another December 2nd that his wife Jan was to die.

                Toward the end of that farewell visit last December, after a further drink or two and a leisurely chat on this and that, I plucked up the courage to ask him how he had managed to confront that landmark in his life. He replied that he hoped and prayed he would never have to face it again. We imbibed a few more whiskeys and traded a batch of Simenon thrillers and history offprints until our next reunion. Then, as twilight began to set in, he rose from his wing chair across the card table where he often played solitaire as he watched TV and thanked me for the selection of cheeses that I had brought, reminding me to bring the same assortment of Camembert and Saga next time. As on so many previous visits, he somehow managed to wend his way through the tangled web of oxygen tubes and wires that crisscrossed that spacious and cosy living room of his lined with all those wonderful books and escorted me to my car on the driveway. We hugged each other in the French manner and said goodbye.

                That last encounter with John remains indelibly carved in my mind. It serves to bring out those qualities of fortitude and stoicism combined with a mix of good cheer, good talk and good company that all his friends and students remember only too well. What prevailed at the end was the stoicism and fortitude, which gradually overshadowed all his other virtues. This had already become abundantly evident after Jan’s death. It became increasingly paramount as he discovered that now his own end was in sight. But it didn’t come as quickly as the doctors predicted. I happened to have been privy quite fortuitously to the first inkling of his dread disease when it took place on a ride back from an evening tennis game at the Merion cricket club. The therapy was tried but to no avail. But he did not despair. He continued to write articles, start a new novel, finish his memoirs, take his dog Biancha on her afternoon strolls at the Radnor park and always stood ready to welcome the visits of friends and neighbors.

                In addition to his research which he pursued with such single-minded zeal, John had two other consuming passions, sports and an abiding fondness for France and all things French, to say nothing of the love he showered on his dogs, Pepin and then Biancha. I was lucky enough to be able to share in all three of these passions. A noted cricketer since his days as a military cadet in New Zealand, he found on arriving here that the Haverford College first eleven was too tame for his taste. So he looked further afield and soon became noted for his prowess as the star googlie bowler on the West Indian Prior Beer cricket club, so named because of a generous sponsor, which played every weekend in Fairmont Park. (A googlie, to the uninitiated, is a deceptively slow bowl that suddenly veers off to the leg break leaving the batsman - the batter - in a state of utter bewilderment. And I should add that for some reason I was never quite able to fathom, but which Don Kelly and Pat McPherson helped to clarify just now, his cricket team mates called him Jock, a name by which he was more familiarly known before he left the Commonwealth.) But what drew us together was first squash, then tennis, which we played incessantly and relentlessly over the years, indoors, outdoors, everywhere, including a makeshift court that the School of Social Work obligingly set up to meet our weekend needs. I was the more forceful and vigorous of the two. He was more cautious and sly in his tactics, deflecting my smashes and swift backhands with a deft lob or a sudden drop shot at the net. We made a formidable pair at doubles, often beating Andrew and his friends in titanic 3 setters on the College courts. Gerard Defaux, ever the French individualist, who frowned upon doubles, would sometimes be persuaded to join us for a round of Canadian.

But John’s overriding enthusiasm was for France, its history, its literature and culture, but above all its countryside, its byways and folkways. For a glimpse into the enduring nature of this love affair, let me refer you to the opening pages of his latest novel, The Musketeers of Gascony, where he vividly describes how he contrived to mix business with pleasure, combining historical research in the field with the joie de vivre to be savored in an isolated village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees by feasting on steak Bearnais sprinkled or ‘arrrose’ with the local Jurancon at his favorite inn after a good day’s work in the archives – and of how he also discovered in that idyllic setting the inspiration to produce a work of superlative fiction in the bargain. As we reached retirement we both found the leisure to try our hand at recording our memoirs. We were both born and raised in the shadow of the British Empire and, oddly enough, were educated in schools which were both named after Queen Victoria. He relished that part of my reminiscences which evoked the Anglo-French-Egyptian mosaic of the colonial Alexandria of my birth to which he attributed my more nuanced and critical loyalties to the French tradition which he, for his part, never failed to champion and proclaim with unconditional fervor. I still have in my possession three draft chapters of his unfinished family memoir. They deal mostly with military history and cover in swashbuckling detail the odyssey of successive generations of Salmons, Hearsays and McMillans – which incidentally will reveal to some of you the mystery of the J H M concealed in his British name - all of them Scotsmen and soldiers of the Queen, in their march of conquest across the Indian sub continent before finally settling down to engage in more peaceful pursuits, such as digging for gold, in the Antipodes – a subject, by the way, to which John devoted one of his more delightful books.

As the only two French historians in the department our teaching naturally overlapped. We shared the same interests, subscribed to the same journals, traveled to the same conferences. In more ways than one, the great French Revolution stood out like the walls of the Bastille itself, as the great divide between us – I was for it, he was against – both in our prejudices and in the courses that we taught. For several years in the seventies and eighties we were able to join forces in offering, along with Michel Guggenheim in the French department and with the help of Pat McCarthy at Haverford and Nick Wahl who came down from Princeton, a very successful independent new major in French Studies. Here John was truly in his element! Conducted in French and run along the traditional lines of Harvard’s venerable department of History and Lit, it offered John a wonderful opportunity to try out his French by sharing his learning with a wider cross-section of students already fluent in the language.  As a native speaker I tackled the introductory course as well as the senior seminar. But most of the 200 and 300 level courses, the meatiest and most substantial, were assigned to John. What mattered here was not an idiomatic familiarity with French but a mastery of the material and a command of the sources, which John possessed aplenty. He would often say that this happy interlude marked the high point of his teaching career at Bryn Mawr.

                I shall leave to my colleagues the pleasure of recording John’s contributions to the department and his resolute defense of our curriculum, especially the integrity of the senior conference. Others will doubtless refer to the range of his scholarship and the widely recognized eminence he achieved in his chosen field. In both his writing and teaching John was vigorously opposed to the post-modernist onslaught against history which originated in France with such figures as Braudel and Michel Foucault and that has now gained almost undisputed currency in the United States. His interest in the Wars of Religion and the Fronde of the French nobility against the Crown may seem an esoteric and parochial episode to those who subscribe to the view that the historical agenda should encompass a global and wider multi-cultural approach more relevantly attuned to our present needs and concerns. But no understanding of such current terms as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘revolt,’ or of that ubiquitous catchword of ‘civil society,’ bandied about so freely by so many of our statesmen and pundits as a universal nostrum for all the woes that beset mankind can possibly be understood without referring back to its roots and evolution in the 16th century so meticulously and painstakingly recorded in John Salmon’s pioneering work – a work which also includes such fascinating detours as exploring the 17th century political career of the Cardinal de Retz and the Abbe Raynal’s ambiguous legacy as a prophet of 18th century French colonialism. One of John’s major contributions to the subject of civil society was to go back to such writers as Jean Bodin and delineate on the authority of F. W. Maitland and some of his own Sorbonne mentors such as Roland Mousnier that the mainspring of civil society grew out of a legal order that permitted the free operation of individuals and corporations within the framework of the state.

The same reliance on sources and rigid attention to detail informed his teaching, both to undergraduates and at the graduate level before the latter was abolished to his profound dismay. It is no secret that it was the elimination of our graduate teaching that prompted John to hasten the date of his retirement. As a teacher whose greatest and most seminal influence was exercised in lectures, tutorials and seminars, John’s rayonnement, or as some would prefer to put it today, his discourse, was both profound and far-reaching, shaping the minds and stimulating the interests of a steady stream of undergraduates and graduates alike. The spoken word transmitted directly from person to person, from mind to mind, may seem fleeting and evanescent when compared to the fixity and durability of the written word. But this is merely a literary conceit that is only partially true. For all that is fixed is also by definition dead and inert. On those frequent occasions when I joined John in his senior seminar to cover a topic of mutual interest, I can still remember how a thought, a sentence or a word on his part could so often have the effect of transforming the whole aspect of a historical question, of stretching the mind and enlarging the understanding. John possessed the rare gift of combining research and teaching in just the right proportions. There are few historians among us who could match his record of having written a widely read text book on 16th Century France which he dedicated to his Bryn Mawr undergraduates while at the same time inspiring on his retirement an internationally noted Festchrift with the bulk of its chapters contributed by his former Ph.D. students. It is curious to note in this connection that in his preface to that Festchrift, Sir Geoffrey Elton, the outstanding scholar in the field, contends, not without some exaggeration from his vantage point as Regius Professor in Cambridge, where John had begun his studies, that John’s career at Bryn Mawr was instrumental in converting a distinguished liberal arts college into a research university.

                In addition to what many of you will have to say in remembrance of John today, let me simply add by way of conclusion to these random recollections on a good old friend and boon companion, that I hope that these thoughts may serve in some small measure to keep his memory green, not only among all those assembled here, but more particularly for all those Bryn Mawr graduates scattered across the land who over the years were privileged to be his students.


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