A Miraculous Biography
To Teddy Roosevelt, he was “Nicholas Miraculous.” To Ezra Pound, he was “one of
the more loathsome figures” of the age. Yet whether revered or reviled, Nicholas Murray Butler
(Class of 1882), University president for 44 years, was unforgettable.
“I’m fascinated by Nicholas Murray Butler,” says Michael Rosenthal, the Roberta
and William Campbell Professor of Humanities, “but I don’t think it’s easy to like
him.” Rosenthal’s view is grounded in a thorough knowledge of Butler, as he has completed
the first substantial biography of the legendary figure, Nicholas Miraculous: The
Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35).
With 600 boxes of Butler’s papers in Columbia’s Rare Book Room, 144 volumes of clippings
in The University Archives and Columbiana Library, and additional administrative papers to sort through,
Rosenthal had his work cut out for him. “I believe I hold the record for logged hours in the Rare
Book Room,” he jokes of the dozen years he spent researching the 500-plus page tome. “It
was a vast amount of material, so culling it into something that made sense and appealed to readers
was a real issue.”
Butler’s history is complex, indeed. Returning to his undergraduate institution as president
in 1902, he worked to transform Columbia into New York’s major research university. Simultaneously,
Butler promoted himself and became a figure whose dominant personality became known worldwide. “He
defined himself as a publicist first and president second,” Rosenthal says. “The presidency
was a base, and his interests were all over the place.”
Those widespread interests can be exemplified in one of Butler’s busiest years, 1931. Recipient
of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, he was president of Columbia, president of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Though, in the Republican
primary of 1920, he failed to achieve his true desired post, President of the United States, after his
death he was described by The New York Times as “one of the best known Americans of his generation
the world over.”
Now, however, he is virtually forgotten.
“There’s a mysterious element to knowing why some stay famous and some don’t,” Rosenthal
says. “What had kept him famous was his capacity to promote himself. Once his name wasn’t
on the front page of every newspaper in the country and the world, the institution of Butler fell. He
had the misfortune of outliving his relevance. When he died at 85, he was a figure no longer connected.
The Columbia he built was suffering under his own decay.”
Though essentially a biography, Rosenthal’s book offers insights into the culture and political
atmosphere of the times in which Butler lived. Rosenthal explores how Butler captured his national stature,
wielded his power and then all but vanished from national consciousness (see “Forum” for
An expansive history of Butler might not seem a logical endeavor for Rosenthal, whose two other books
are about Virginia Woolf and the founder of the Boy Scouts. “The connective tissue was my interest
in empire builders,” he explains, “and I was looking for a big project.” This big
project came to him when a friend called after a visit to the Rare Book Room and told Rosenthal that
the previously closed Butler papers had been opened.
“The most surprising thing was discovering what an immense figure he was in the culture, endlessly
honored and hated,” says Rosenthal, who began teaching at the College as a preceptor while earning
his Columbia Ph.D. and has taught full-time since 1966. “I think he was an incredible narcissist
and autocrat, but fascinating. My feelings are complicated. He’s an amazing character, and never
Now that the book is finished, Rosenthal says he is “in Butler recovery mode.” Though
he spent most of the last 12 years teaching while writing, he is happy to be back to focusing on teaching
Humanities. “It is my favorite,” he says without pause. “I always teach Humanities.
I believe that’s what professors of literature should do.”
Laura Butchy ’04 Arts