The Sage of Ann Arbor

Cooley rose fairly rapidly through the academic ranks. He was made anassistant professor in 1899, an associate professor in 1904, and became a fullprofessor three years later. He had none of the flashiness and brashness thatappeals to the mass of students. The lectures that this slight, nervous, andsomewhat sickly looking professor delivered with a high-pitched voice lackingresonance often would not go over well with the undergraduates. Yet he ap-pealed to a number of graduate students who were inspired by his probing andsearching intellect. Many of the graduate students felt that it was a privilegeto sit in his seminars and to watch him develop slowly and haltingly a trainof thought that came from the very depths of his being. Cooley was inept atadministrative detail, chafed at participating in the social and political life ofthe faculty and even found himself wanting when it came to directing thework of students or initiating faculty research projects. Yet, as many of hisstudents have testified, those who managed to gain privileged access in hisseminars and classes to the workings of his complicated mind were influencedby his approach throughout their lives.

Cooley's life-style was in tune with a pattern of academic mores that nolonger exists. The academic setting was still dominated by a semi-aristocraticcode of gentlemanly poise. Having no financial worries and living in an agein which the publish-or-perish philosophy had as yet made few inroads, Cooleycould afford to devote himself to a life of unhurried contemplation and leisurelystudy. His books grew slowly and organically from notes he made over longperiods of time. Human Nature and the Social Order was published in 1902and its companion, Social Organization, followed seven years later. His thirdmajor work Social Process, appeared after an interval of nine years, in 1918.These three books, together with extracts from a journal he kept throughouthis life, entitled Life and the Student (1927), constitute almost the wholeof his intellectual output. His early papers in social ecology and a few othercontributions written in later years are available in a posthumous volume,Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).

Cooley's life was extremely uneventful. He shunned controversy and con-tention; any sort of conflict upset him and cost him sleep. He participated inthe formation of the American Sociological Society in 1905 and went to mostof its subsequent meetings, but the hustle and bustle of these meetings werehardly to his taste. After having become president of the Society in 1918 hebegan to enjoy the meetings a bit more, perhaps because, having now attaineda measure of success, he was able to overcome his previous insecurity whenmeeting colleagues. The fact that his books sold well, and that he had by thenacquired an enviable reputation both among peers and among the youngergeneration, probably also led to increasing self-confidence. His biographernotes that "the years from 1918 to nearly the close of his life, were perhapsCooley's happiest."

Throughout his many years at the University of Michigan, Cooley hadrelatively little contact with his colleagues. He was a good deal older than thenext man in the department, Arthur E. Wood, so that he found little com-panionship there. The Cooleys entertained rarely and went to few parties. Theyliked simple, informal contacts. Cooley often took long walks with a fewchoice companions and also went on camping trips with them to Canada forseveral years. They enjoyed roughing it and cooking picnic suppers for theirwives. Most of the summer season Cooley and his wife would spend atCrystal Lake in Northern Michigan, where he built a cabin near the lake forthe family, and went swimming, boating or walking with his wife and chil-dren. He was a good amateur botanist and bird watcher. During these sum-mers, especially during the last period of his life, Cooley seems to have attainedthe serenity and contentment that had eluded the young man for so long. "Iam glad of life here, he wrote in his journal, "glad of the air, the food, andthe lake, glad of the work of my hands, glad of my family, glad that I canprobably come here every summer, glad of my books, my thoughts, myhopes."

Cooley received many calls to join more prestigious departments ofsociology; Giddings invited him to Columbia, for example. But he never evenconsidered these offers seriously. He felt bound to Ann Arbor and to a uni-versity where his father and the father of his wife had taught, and where hehad spent almost all of his student career. He did not want the excitementand competitiveness of a large university such as Columbia.

In the last decade of his life Cooley became something of a University ofMichigan institution. Although he never conformed to the outward trappingsof the academic role, was a poor committee man and possibly an even worsedepartment chairman, he had managed to produce a body of work that re-flected most favorably on his university.

Cooley summed up his career better than any commentator can when hewrote: "It is conducive to intellectual achievement in our universities to beknown as incapacitated for anything else. One may be thankful for a poorvoice and hesitating address, a perturbable and withdrawing disposition, ageneral appearance of scholarly inefficiency. It will retard his promotion, buthe has some chance of doing something in the long run.'' Ensconced in thecongenial setting of a university that was willing to give him a large measureof "idiosyncrasy credit" and to overlook his lack of regard for the ordinarywont and use of the academic man, Cooley used such institutional assetswisely. Protected from interference and cushioned against the impact of thewider world, Cooley managed during his long career to turn his initial weak-nesses--his shyness and sensitivity, his withdrawing nature, and his self-centeredness--into assets which allowed him to bring forth works that werethe slowly ripened fruits of leisured contemplation and introspective observa-tion.

Late in 1928 Cooley's health began to fail, and the following March histrouble was diagnosed as cancer. He died on May 7, 1929.

From Coser, 1977:316-318.


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