A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero

The Affluent Society

This afternoon I stopped by the venerable Brattle Book Shop, my favorite used bookstore in Boston and one of the nation’s oldest booksellers. The frequent turnover of their stock means that new discoveries await with each visit. Today’s brief sojourn introduced me to a newly-arrived row of books authored by John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), the renowned Harvard University economist, public intellectual, and bestselling author of books on public affairs.

Galbraith cared passionately about economic society, but he never lost sight of the bigger picture.  He understood that smart, sensible liberalism was not about advancing single issues to the exclusion of all others, but rather embraced a broader, inclusive agenda covering many priorities. He valued intelligent discussion over cheap slogans and didn’t hesitate to exchange ideas with those who disagreed with him.

Among the titles available at the Brattle were his most well-known works, including The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967), and The Great Crash, 1929 (1954). Many were signed by him, and when I opened the volumes I saw a signature that looked familiar to me. And herein lies a story…

I discovered Galbraith’s writings as an undergraduate during a semester abroad in Cambridge, England. There I attended a debate featuring Galbraith waxing eloquent about economic policy. Suitably impressed, I devoured several of his books during that overseas semester, and he quickly became one of my intellectual heroes. For years I thought to myself, gee, it sure would be great to meet the guy someday.

My assignment

Galbraith was a co-founder, leader, and ongoing supporter of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a longstanding liberal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. In 2001, I joined the ADA’s board of directors. I became active in the organization’s fundraising efforts, and in 2006 I was dispatched in this role to visit with him at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home to solicit his statement of support for a fundraising campaign. He replied promptly to my letter requesting a meeting, and I arranged to meet with him at his Cambridge family residence.

On the appointed day I arrived at his home, where he was confined to his bed. I had not known that his health was in a sharp state of decline. It quickly became apparent that he was in the final chapter of his long journey. My nerves about this first-ever private chat with a man I had admired for so long were exacerbated by my awkwardness over meeting him in this condition. But I gathered myself, explained why I was visiting, and asked for his support for ADA. Although his attention waned at times during our talk, he promised to provide me with a testimonial for ADA and added that he’d send me a copy of the latest edition of The Affluent Society.

Several weeks later, Galbraith passed away. I hadn’t heard from him, and I realized that his condition did not allow him to follow up on our conversation. Nonetheless, I was enormously grateful for the opportunity to finally meet him.

In the mail

But I was in for a stunner: A few days after his death, I checked my mailbox at work, and there was a package with Galbraith’s Harvard University return address.

Hands shaking, I opened it, and on top was a note from his assistant, apologizing for the delay in following up on our meeting and explaining that mailing the package was delayed by his passing. Underneath was a dictated letter from John Kenneth Galbraith, dated 12 days before his death, which included his eloquent testimonial in support of ADA’s fundraising campaign.

There was one other item in the parcel. It was a copy of The Affluent Society, inscribed to me with a much scratchier version of the signature I saw in those books today at the Brattle Book Shop.

Years later, it still gives me goosebumps to think about it.

2 responses

  1. What an awesome story! Such a testament to your hero and told so well. What is it about seeing an admired person’s handwriting that can be so exciting? I have a card on which Pete Seeger drew a musical staff and the notes to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” He wrote the words “When will we ever learn?” and drew his little banjo signature. I get a thrill every time I look at it!

  2. […] (For a personal story about meeting one of my intellectual heroes, ADA co-founder John Kenneth Galbraith, go here.) […]

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