New York University’s Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center honors the memory of Frederic Ewen, an English professor at Brooklyn College from 1930 – 1952. During the height of the McCarthy period, Ewen was forced to resign his teaching position after refusing to cooperate with a Senate Internal Security Committee investigation of communism and higher education.

Ewen, who was born in Lemberg, Austria in 1899, immigrated to the United States with his family in 1912. He graduated from City College and received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His first book, The Prestige of Schiller in England, based on his doctoral dissertation, was published by Columbia University Press. Ewen was appointed assistant professor of English at Brooklyn College in 1930, joined the Teachers Union shortly thereafter, and was involved in left-politics on campus and within the larger movement in New York City.

In 1940, the New York State Legislature’s Joint Committee to Investigate Procedures and Methods of Allocating State Moneys for Public Purposes and Subversive Activities, known as the Rapp-Coudert Committee, launched an investigation of public schools and city colleges. Along with 19 other professors, Ewen was summoned before the committee and refused to testify. Ewen and his Brooklyn College colleagues were tenured, so they retained their position, but City College professors, including Morris Schappes and Moses Finely, lost their jobs when their contracts were not renewed. However, in 1942 when Ewen was recommended by the English department for promotion to associate professor, college president Harry Gideonse declined to approve. In 1952, Ewen and three of the other Brooklyn College professors who had survived the Rapp-Coudert inquiry were summoned before the Senate Internal Security Committee chaired by Pat McCarran. They again refused to testify. Ewen was eligible for retirement, so he quietly put in for his pension. The other three professors lost their jobs.

After being forced to leave Brooklyn College, Ewen assembled a team of blacklisted actors, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sam Waterson and John Randoph, to present dramatic readings of great works of literature. The group performed at union halls, theatres, and other venues that would accept them. When the repression of the McCarthy era began to lift in the early 1960s, Ewen, along with Phoebe Brand and John Randolph, produced an adaptation of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which had a two-year run (1962 – 1963) at the Martinique Theatre in New York City. In 1967, Ewen published Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art, and His Times. During these years he worked with Phoebe Brand and John Randolph on adaptations of a series of Antoine Chekhov’s plays for CBS’s Camera 3 series.

Frederic Ewen remained active until well into his 80s. In 1984, he published the Heroic Imagination: The Creative Genius of Europe from Waterloo (1815) to the Revolution of 1848. Here he took forceful issue with the new literary criticism that focused on a close reading of the text without considering social context in the ways that literary critics did when Ewen was coming of age in the academy of the 1930s and 1940s. At the time of his death, Ewen was working on a second volume, published by New York University Press in 2007 under the title, A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe 1848 -1884. These two volumes explore the relationship between Marxism and Romanticism, the politics of protest and revolution, and the European literary tradition.

Shortly before Frederic Ewen’s death in 1988, Brooklyn College formally apologized to him and to the other professors dismissed during the McCarthy era. The college has since established a lecture series in his name.

Michael Nash
June 2008

Photo of Frederic Ewen from the Frederic Ewen Papers 1915-2005 x, Tamiment Library