Notes for a Life of Victor Davis Hanson

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Categories: Modern
A broad, sandy beach reinforced with rows of piles
The banks of the river Inn near Hall in Tirol

Victor Davis Hanson has lived at least three lives: one as a small-town grape farmer from Selma, California who discovered that it was almost impossible to make a living running a human-sized farm (1980-1984), one as a classics professor who taught large classes and published some very important but flawed work (1985-2004), and one as what Americans politely call a pundit or political commentator (beginning around 2001). At some point he retired from his position at California State University, Fresno, to focus on his third life. However, his biographies online have been scrubbed as clean as the ones which Robert A. Heinlein used to let them print in the back of his books, and they very carefully do not say when he retired. California State University Fresno has the usual gushing lists of honours, publications, and awards; Wikipedia is as useless as you would expect; and the pages announcing his talks and fellowships usually draw on them.

Back in 2004, Rone Tempest at the Los Angeles Times published a piece on him which gives the key dates. He was hired to launch the classics program in 1985 and retired with emeritus status (so he has library privileges, probably a pension, and maybe an office) in the summer of 2004 after only 20 years of teaching. That seems to be the year that he launched his weekly columns in several papers. He received an advance of $500,000 for A War Like No Other around 2003.

The article also has this passage:

Hanson’s courses are popular with students. But fellow professors at Cal State Fresno have been bruised by Hanson’s uncompromising attacks on modern education, particularly ethnic and gender studies programs that Hanson terms “therapeutic curriculum” and feels should be ejected from the university.

“Being on the wrong side of Victor Hanson is not somewhere you want to be,” said Western Washington University English professor Scott Stevens, who spent six years at Cal State Fresno and says Hanson drove him away. “Everyone talks about the power of the left on campus, but Hanson led a powerful clique of antifeminist traditionalists who would really like to see the university return to some pre-’60s stage.”

Even members of his extended family, Hanson admits, go for months at a time without speaking to him. {He published too many thinly disguised details of their struggles to make a living in his books on the decline of family farms in the USA}

It also says that in 2004 Hanson was building a second house in a remote location because he was frightened of the drugs and gangs in his small town and the intruders on his property whom he threatened with a shotgun. If you are interested in American politics you can spend a long time learning about the way guns, race, and power interact, but there have been a few trials in the news in Canada which make me wonder how those incidents looked from the other end of the barrel.

I do not want to delve too deeply into Hanson’s personal life or his career as an academic in the 1980s and 1990s: in my view he dropped out of academic discussion of ancient warfare some time ago, so I focus my academic criticism on the way later scholars have let him define the kinds of questions they should work on. (Although the problem here is that Hanson’s academic work and his punditry are as intertwined as the roots of his grape vines: he appeals to his knowledge of the classics to justify his punditry, and his identification of his parents and grandparents’ generation with the Greeks after Homer and before Alexander is very clear in his works on the ancient world … just talking about his academic works without talking about the underlying ideology is as inadequate as calling Jordan Peterson “a University of Toronto psychology professor with a popular YouTube channel”). However, it is clear to me that he saw several paths ahead of him, and chose the one with invitations to the White House over the path of teaching his students and tending his garden.

Also worth saying: It seems that his farm is about 40 acres (not even what we call a quarter section!) I can see how that was too small to support a family in the 1980s, but too big to treat as a hobby.

Edit 2020-06: In the press release for his National Humanities Medal (2007) Hanson gives some more autobiographical details including why his dissertation was published with a small Italian press while he was busy farming grapes

1 thought on “Notes for a Life of Victor Davis Hanson

  1. If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons | Book and Sword says:

    […] as much of the world as early as possible, and including Romanov Siberia let them do that. The retired scholar from Selma, California has nothing good to say about Spain, Portugal, or Mexico except when Castilian conquistadores are […]

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