Monday, September 19, 2016

Tonsor #8 -- 1505 Morton Ave.

She was standing at the front door with a warm smile and an extended hand. Already at hello, it was apparent that Caroline Tonsor was diametrically different from her husband. In physical appearance they were not at all like the cartoon of the married couple that aged alongside each other until they looked exactly alike. Quite the contrary. He was stocky; she was slender. He had short gray-white hair; she, long dark brown hair. His eyes were lighter, impatient, and discerning;[1] her eyes, darker, approachable, and kind.

I would soon learn that their personalities were as different as their looks. Where he came off as forceful and judgmental, she was soft-spoken and accepting. Where he was the know-it-all, she asked questions. Where he liked to sprinkle his conversation with something that surprised, even outraged, she was happy with quiet displays of wit. The differences between the two is perhaps best summed up by the fact that students, among themselves, always referred to him as "Tonsor," to her as "Caroline."

What with her down-home likability, I soon cottoned to Caroline. She looked to be about the age my mother would have been had she been alive. And because my parents had divorced, I couldn't help but wonder if the Tonsors' marriage were like so many between two diametrically different people who nevertheless made the union work.

Their two-story house was modest, with a living room and dining room that seemed typical of a wood-frame dwelling built around 1920. Caroline playfully called it their "summer cottage."[2] Whatever the main floor lacked in size it made up in warmth, owing to three things that worked in concert to give the space an outsized coziness. First were the wingback chairs on either side of the hearth. Great stacks of books and papers formed columns around the left chair. There was no question who sat upon that throne! Second was a Bach fugue playing in the background, which perfectly suited the home of a humanities professor. Third were the delightful sprays of flowers by the fireplace, at the front window, and on the dining room table. They spread sweet fragrance throughout the downstairs.

Caroline noticed me looking closely at a bouquet. "Gardening," she said, "is Stephen's magnificent obsession."

"No," Tonsor protested, "it's a maddening obsession. The weather quite literally almost killed us. It was an extraordinary summer of extreme heat and drought that did not break until mid August, when the blessed rains returned.[3] Up to that point we and the flowers were all wilting together."
Flowers filled the house.

Recalling the mention of grandchildren during the walk, I asked Caroline whether they got to see their children and grandchildren often. She told me that her oldest daughter had been visiting recently with her two children. One of them went to football camp; the other to band camp, at Interlochen.[4]

Tonsor added, "During the summer and on holidays our house is often full of children and grandchildren. They love the fireplace. I am certain that it creates part of the mystique of grandmother's house. Two things are my special province: the garden and the fireplace. To quote a line from Robert Louis Stevenson, 'Flowers in the summer, fires in the fall.'"[5]

"Yes," said Caroline, "and the fireplace always smokes. I suppose it does look mysterious!"[6]

Perhaps wanting me to feel at home, Caroline added that it had long been her husband's custom to invite students over for lunch.[7]

"Yes," said Tonsor. "Back in the sixties, Tom Hayden sat on that couch. He was improbably named, he told me, after St. Thomas Aquinas!" Tonsor waved off the thought as if he did not care one whit that Tom Hayden had sat on his couch.[8]

I followed Tonsor into the dining room. He moved a fat novel off the table to a nearby bookcase and motioned me to sit down. "I've been reading Trollope," he said. "His women are boring. He does an excellent job at depicting them but they are dull and trivial people. The only interesting ones, Lizzy Eustace and the Countess Neroni, are petty criminal types. Come to think of it, most of his men are dull and trivial, too."[9]

"Caroline, it looks as if you've cooked up a storm in the kitchen!" Tonsor exclaimed with much pleasure. We sat down to a hearty lunch, as he had promised: pot roast, potatoes, carrots. The surprise came when Tonsor poured me a glass of sherry. In a professor's house, that was a first.

*     *     *

After our fill of lunch and spirited conversation, Tonsor and I walked back to campus mostly in silence. Although the clouds seemed to lift a little, the air remained warm and humid.

Retracing our steps through Burns Park, I reflected on the fast start of my academic career at Michigan. On this first day of classes, it was not yet 2 p.m., and already I'd had the privilege of spending more than four hours with my graduate advisor and meeting his gracious wife who welcomed me to their home. I was eager to report their hospitality to my circle of family and friends. But as an introvert with two glasses of sherry in me, I was starting to flag. It was time to retreat into the labyrinth of Harlan Hatcher Library, where I could jot down insights from my conversation with Tonsor, prepare for my other classes, and tackle Cassirer in light of everything I had learned that morning.

Once back on the Diag, Tonsor broke the spell of our self-enclosed hike. He made an observation that revealed more about who he was. "I have been reading a doctoral dissertation written by one of your colleagues, Mr. Winnie."[10]

I wondered if Tonsor had drunk too much sherry: Winnie? My name is Whit-ney.

He didn't pause, and I wasn't about to interrupt. "At first I did not want to read it. It's long, it's the sixth dissertation from this past year, and I was supposedly on leave. But I must say it is quite fascinating. It is a history of the Cochin family, one of the great French Catholic families of the high bourgeoisie. The dissertation is based on the family archives made available by the present Baron Cochin. They were liberal conservatives, and the historian Augustin Cochin, who died in World War I, could probably best be called a reactionary. They are my kind of people."[11] With that arresting thought, Tonsor faded into the reflections of Haven Hall's glass doors.

So Tonsor was a "liberal conservative" who was happy to be called a "reactionary."[12] Confused? So was I. I knew that I'd eventually have to sort it all out during my study at U of M. But that would come in due course. For now I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the lunch.


[1] One of Tonsor's former students, who later became a close friend, said that the unsettling effect of Tonsor's thick lenses was to make him peer at you with "the two glass eyes of a fish."
[2] "Summer cottage" is from Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 3; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery. "1920" is from Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 1; Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, pp. 2-3; and Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1; all three letters are in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.
[4] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1.
[5] Tonsor to Regnery, November 17, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[6] Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017.
[7] During these same years, another great European intellectual historian was hosting weekly lunches for his graduate students. At Yale University, Frank M. Turner (1944-2010) took his teaching assistants to Yorkside Pizza near campus. See Frank M. Turner, European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche, ed. Richard A. Lofthouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), Kindle edition, "Editor's Preface," loc. 132.
[8] Tom Hayden died just weeks after I composed this conversation. See URL, accessed October 24, 2016.
[9] Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, p. 3.
[10] Lawrence Hutchinson Winnie, "Aegis of the Bourgeoisie: The Cochin of Paris, 1750-1922," 2 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1988.
[11] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2.
[12] Gregory L. Schneider, "Tonsor, Stephen J.," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 862.

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