Chicago History

Different Worlds

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'Different Worlds'

Excerpted from a profile of Harry G. Pitt

by Gary T. Johnson*

I loved being Harry's 'guide' to my home town of Chicago, but of course I remained the pupil in what he affectionately called 'the most American of cities'.  There always was a visit to his 'glorious Impressionists' at the Art Institute, but 'step lively past the Renoirs; no need to waste our time there'.  Each example of the Chicago school of architecture already was an old friend.  I suggested once that we visit other parts of Illinois, and while he listened politely, it turned out that he had seen it all during a pilgrimage to the sites of every single debate between Lincoln and Douglas. In the case of one town that is now under water, he had stood reverently on the riverbank.

Harry had an historian's knack for coming when there was breaking news.  He was here during our peculiar crisis when a forgotten network of steam tunnels ruptured and the downtown buildings flooded underground. 'Now, this is interesting. Infrastructure gone bad'.  While the rest of the city fled the downtown, Harry climbed over piles of firehoses and became conversant with the names of all the companies competing for contracts to plug the leaks.  One Friday evening, we returned from dinner and were mortified to find our three children watching the Los Angeles police pursuing O.J. Simpson.  The man who never owned a television joined the kids on the couch and asked for popcorn.  'Can this man's actual name be O.J.?  Look how they are interrupting coverage of the basketball game. Now the players themselves are watching the chase on the monitor!  Does this sort of thing happen often?' When my wife and I were ready to retire, he asked, 'Would it be too much trouble to show me how to operate the television in the guest room?'  He was very late for breakfast. 'I didn't sleep at all, but I will dine out on this story for months.'  The saddest letter Harry ever sent us arrived from Oxford a few weeks later.  'They already knew all about it!'

Wasn't one key to Harry -- to his popularity, his usefulness to Worcester College, Oxford, his insights as a scholar and his talents as a teacher -- his ability to move comfortably between worlds?  The foreign visitor who became the guide. The teacher who remained a wide-eyed student. The Englishman whose little book showed keener insight into Lincoln's formative years in Illinois and his character as president than the multi-volume efforts of Americans.  He felt almost as much at home in each of his worlds as he did at Oxford, and that is saying a lot.

* Excerpted from "Harry Griffith Pitt. 1923-2000," edited by Lesley Le Claire and published by Worcester College, Oxford (2001).  Pitt's biography of Lincoln is: H.G. Pitt, Abraham Lincoln.  Sutton Pub. Ltd. (London, 1998).  Read as an essay, this offer shrewd insights into Lincoln's character.  My only regret is that Pitt did not have fuller access to Lincoln's law papers, which have emerged over the last several years and offer a fuller context for Lincoln's speeches and writings as President.

Memorial Tribute to Harry G. Pitt.