Letter: Stansky on Bernard Knox

May 18, 2023

One of the winners of ALBA’s 2022 George Watt Award, Maza Reyes, chose as his subject “Bernard Knox: Soldier and Scholar.” Another renowned historian, Peter Stansky, took the opportunity to contact Maza Reyes and added some personal touches to Knox’s biography.

Bernard Knox

Dear Maza,

I very much enjoyed reading your essay on Bernard Knox. I knew him to an extent years ago. I took his fabulous course on the Greek plays and still have the books from it. In my junior year I wrote an essay on John Cornford in which I mentioned him. Because of the Cornford memoir, it was no secret that that Knox had fought in Spain and only the teacher of the course would see the mention. Yet he said to me that, in those days of McCarthyism, it was not a good thing that I mentioned his name in my paper. Nevertheless, I wrote a senior essay on Cornford, Julian Bell, George Orwell and Stephen Spender and their involvement in the Civil War. I must have talked to Knox about it as in one essay he wrote he said that a Yale undergraduate said to him “You’re my thesis!”—I assumed it was me.

Later, I was in touch with Knox when William Abrahams and I wrote Journey to the Frontier, a study of Cornford and Bell, in the mid-sixties. Even then, Knox asked that he be in the book only under a pseudonym. It wasn’t until some years later that he was comfortable writing about the war and published some splendid essays about it. Of course, the political climate had changed. But I also think he became more comfortable writing about the war as he himself had become more of a political centrist. I wasn’t in touch with him for years, but I did once sit next to him at a dinner at Stanford and my memory—perhaps inaccurate—was that he was somewhat disapproving of the left-wing political activity of the young.

I wanted to thank you for what you wrote and for bringing back to mind how important Bernard Knox was to me both as a teacher and as someone who had fought in Spain.

My very best,

Peter Stansky