Growing up in Maricopa, the young Robert Nisbet fell deeply in love with libraries. Almost as soon as he learned to read—sitting on his mother’s lap as she read to him—the young man began to devour books voraciously, loving the literature of the Age of Coolidge.

Though proudly possessing the Confederate soul of a southern man, Robert Nisbet came into the world in the Far West on September 30, 1913, in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Cynthia, was a devout follower of Christian Science, while his father, Henry, was a lapsed Presbyterian.[1] Neither of their religions ever took ahold of anything permanent in Robert’s personal life and soul, but their ethics and morality most certainly did. From each of his parents, he inherited a profound love of family, tradition, and community, each a guiding principle in his life, personally and professionally.

As with so many conservatives of the twentieth century, though, it was not his father who meant everything to him, but his grandfather, Robert Alexander Nisbet. Indeed, our Robert Nisbet became Robert Alexander Nisbet as the paternal grandfather had requested a middle-name change long after his birth. Not surprisingly, then, the grandfather influenced and shaped our Robert rather dramatically, serving as the ultimate witness to proper and dignified manhood. “I was a Southerner. I couldn’t help it,” Nisbet admitted in his memoirs.

My grandfather’s interest in me, his wonderful tales of his boyhood in Alabama, of his service as a very young infantryman in the Confederate army, his accounts of General Robert E. Lee, the beautiful portrait of Lee that hung in the living room and was lent to my school each year when Lee’s birthday came around, with the whole school filing silently by the portrait in the school lobby, his gracious, almost courtly manner, his obvious devotion to my grandmother.[2]

All of these things pushed the young Robert to pray that he had misunderstood history and that the Confederacy had actually won the Civil War.

Though born in Los Angeles, Nisbet grew up in Maricopa, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo, California, with two very formative years in Macon, Georgia. In Maricopa—the town that the Nisbets liked least—the young man fell deeply in love with libraries. “Its ugliness and hostile challenge to the human spirit drove me straight to books for haven and experience of the vicarious,” he remembered. He found school fascinating, but the local public library “was my chief delight. Everything that the formidable desert made impossible in the way of living was available vicariously in the surprisingly large number of books on the shelves.”[3] Almost as soon as he learned to read—sitting on his mother’s lap as she read to him—the young Nisbet began to devour books voraciously. “I read novels in vast quantities, but by dint of browsing and experiment found may way to other things, chiefly biographical and historical.”[4] For his understanding of current events, at home and abroad, Nisbet turned to the paper that his mother received religiously, The Christian Science Monitor.[5]

Nisbet found his own experiences in high school and college to be extraordinary. As a member of the San Luis Obispo High School, Class of 1931, Nisbet reminisced:

For the college bound there were four years of Latin—Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil after the first year. There had been two of Greek until a year or so before I entered high school in 1927, taught by the then superintendent, Mr. Mayberry. There were four years of English Lit., math, science, history, beginning with a full year of ancient history, four years of Spanish and two of French. Physical education was required of girls and boys alike, the latter excused only if they were active in competitive sports. There was orchestra and band for those interested, the instruments and uniforms furnished by the school; there were clubs—restricted, however, to those built around a subject or theme such as Latin, science, literature, and the like. Purely social clubs were barred, most especially any that might aspire to becoming a high school Greek letter fraternity, then barred by law in the California schools.[6]

For Nisbet, it wasn’t just high school that was great, it was the whole Coolidge era that was great. In 1988, when asked about the presidency, Nisbet labeled Coolidge as the “most underrated.” After all, he continued,

A monarch was known through most of Western history for the age he presided over. The 1920s is probably the single most resplendent age of culture the United States has known. In the novel, in poetry, drama, criticism, in music (jazz, blues, etc.) and art—if only in the motion picture. Coolidge has as much right to an ‘Age of Coolidge’ as Louis XIV or Elizabeth I had to theirs.[7]

Nisbet loved not only the jazz of that era, but the jazz that followed it.[8] He especially liked the music (jazz and otherwise) of “Ellington, Cole Porter, Gerschwin, Berlin, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jack Teagarden.”[9] He also loved the Hollywood of the Age of Coolidge and believed that art combined with scholarship in many movies provided a solid cultural literacy and language for those who went to the movies. And, to be sure, he loved the literature of the Age of Coolidge. “Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Louis Bromfield, and a good many others almost as quickly as they came off the press,” all served as bellwethers for the young Nisbet. But others did, too. “Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy stirred me deeply.”[10] Never too highbrow in his tastes, Nisbet also devoured mystery novels.[11]

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Notes:

[1] Biography, University of California Form 1501, dated April 12, 1952, in CU-Riverside Papers (hereafter, CU-R).

[2] Robert Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars: A Memoir of Berkeley in Depression and War (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992), 4.

[3] Nisbet, “Introduction,” The Making of Modern Society (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars, 11.

[7] Nisbet, “History/Charm, good looks often inflated ratings,” Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (July 3, 1988), D7.

[8] Constance N. Field, “My Father, Robert Nisbet,” Society 52 (July/August 2015), 346; and Nisbet, “Prologue,” Teachers and Scholars, 13-14.

[9] Nisbet, “Prologue,” Teachers and Scholars, 13.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid.

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