Only in America

The first time I met Vartan Gregorian he gave me a big bear hug. I had known from Philip Hamburger’s profile of Gregorian in a 1986 New Yorker that he tended to hug people, but I thought that meant he hugged people he knew or was at least acquainted with, not people he had never met before. Hugging people, however, is part of Gregorian’s charm, a charm that is backed up by a remarkable intelligence and a driving ambition.

Although his autobiography is much more formal and sedate than the gushing volubility of Gregorian’s recollections recorded in Hamburger’s profile, it is equally honest and straightforward. In the book Gregorian tells us how he made his way up from his impoverished beginnings in the provincial city of Tabriz in northern Iran to become not only a famous American educator but also an exponent of American values.

Growing up in Tabriz, Gregorian always thought of America as a dream. America, he writes, was always “a fantasy built and rebuilt in my mind and psyche.” Although like many other immigrants he mainly created that fantasy from the scores of American movies he saw, “in the United States,” he writes, “I saw hope. I perceived the United States as a place where dreams did not die, and one did not have to live off the flesh of dead dreams.” One of the first books he read when he arrived in America was Elmer Davis’s But We Were Born Free, a defense of personal liberty. For him the “joy in being an American has been the joy of freedom.” He was shocked to discover when he first arrived in America in 1956 that African-Americans were not born as free as other Americans; but apart from this, his early impressions of most Americans as hard-working, friendly people who don’t like to be bossed around or told what to do have stayed with him, reinforced again and again by what he calls “American openness, generosity, and the volunteer spirit.”

Despite his obscure and poor beginnings Gregorian has never thought of himself as a victim overcoming adversity. He knows he is too talented for that. His is the traditional American success story, modeled on that of Benjamin Franklin—the bright young boy who read book after book and rose out of nowhere to become one of America’s preeminent citizens. He calls his autobiography “The Road to Home,” and his home is America. Although he is as much a citizen of the world as anyone could be (he went to school in several different countries and speaks seven languages), Gregorian loves America as perhaps only an immigrant who has made it can.

Although Gregorian never tells us the actual date of his birth (indeed he is sometimes as casual in omitting dates in this memoir as he notoriously is in omitting articles in his speech), we can deduce that it was sometime in 1934. Iran in the 1930s was predominantly Muslim, but …

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