- In Memoriam: Hennig Cohen 1919–1996
The subject of these memorial remarks was one of the earliest editors of American Quarterly, an early executive secretary of the American Studies Association, a founding architect of the Melville Society, and a centrally positioned Americanist teacher and scholar in a pivotal generation. His was the generation that, in the prevailing present view, saw through to its conclusion the life span of a modern age—in American literature, scholarship and academic organization—that had begun around the turn of the twentieth century. Now, in the concluding hours of that century, there is still debate about what kind of literary, scholarly and academic worlds have succeeded his; but whatever they are they will be fortunate if they find to serve them such faithful figures as he.
When Hennig Cohen was not teaching or otherwise discharging the academic duties of his position at the University of Pennsylvania, he would change out of his jacket and tie into a uniform of a different kind. Working in his Swarthmore home, he almost always wore a government issue flight suit—tan, lightweight, with a zipper all the way up the front, and shorter zippers at each forearm and lower leg. He would explain that he wore it because he found it comfortable, but surely he also found it reminiscent of his experiences in the war.
He had served in the Army Air Force for four years, flying as an aerial gunner/radio operator sergeant on a B-17: he flew scores of missions over Europe, finally getting shot down in a raid over Germany and crash-landing in a field in France. His decorations included the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters, and when he got home in 1945 he married Merrie Lou Conaway, started a family, and used the G.I. Bill to add a 1948 University of South Carolina Master’s degree to his 1941 B.A. [End Page 221]
Right up to the time of his death, on December 12, 1996, Henning Cohen was still teaching in an emeritus capacity at Penn, and, when working at home, still wearing the flight suit. He was an important member of that generation of Americanist scholars and editors who came out of the war and began in the decade following to take up the work and the leadership being passed along by the last pre-war generation. The leading figures in the earlier generation had written and in 1948 published the monumental, monographic LHUS—Literary History of the United States—which had the effect, among others, of summing up the state of Americanist scholarship to date.
The chief strategist and senior editor of LHUS was Robert E. Spiller who, along with his academic colleagues across the country, was busy recruiting young scholars into Americanist work, and who in fact recruited Hennig Cohen. He came up to the University of Pennsylvania from an administrative job at South Carolina, with a Tulane Ph.D., arriving as an assistant professor of English in 1956. Along with this faculty appointment, he was also appointed executive secretary of the fledgling American Studies Association, which would be housed at Penn for another twenty years.
The Association was organized from the start into regional chapters, and cultivating the establishment and development of these chapters was one of the executive secretary’s first priorities. The other was the creation of a central national office that could at once support the chapters and establish the Association on a national level. ASA was accepted at this time into the American Council of Learned Societies, and became a coordinating society with—among others—the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and what is now called the American Literature Association.
American Quarterly had also recently arrived at Penn in 1956, and by 1958 its editorial chair passed from Anthony Garvan—who was involved in the organization of the Department of American Civilization—to ASA’s executive secretary. Hennig Cohen held both offices until 1961, when he turned the Association post over to a successor and continued editing the journal through 1970. During this period Robert Spiller sat as chair of the...