Dr. Sheldon Hackney can't remember a time when he wasn't on the liberal side of America's culture wars. He still struggles to explain how it came to be that way.

He was born 72 years ago and raised in Birmingham, Ala., in a "completely conventional, conservative" Southern family.

"My father was Republican," he recalled. "I can't explain what happened to me, but from my earliest memory of being aware of racial segregation it seemed wrong. I don't know where that came from. All the way through high school and college, I was the village radical, at least on race, if not on political systems and economics and that sort of thing.

"It led to some tension between me and other members of my family. We got through the 1960's, basically, by not mentioning those issues . . . ."


All Mr. Hackney's life choices, though, served to deepen and confirm that early instinctive position. By the time he left college at Vanderbilt (he was a scholarship student in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps), he knew he wanted to study history. He went to graduate school at Yale, where he worked under C. Vann Woodward, the pre-eminent historian of the post-Civil War south.

"He was a public intellectual of some visibility and renown, most notable for a book called the Strange Career of Jim Crow, showing it wasn't a time-honored practice but was invented by statute in the 1890s, some time after the Civil War," he said.

His choice of studying history, particularly Southern history, Mr. Hackney suggests, was partly an attempt to find out who he was, to explain himself to himself, as well as to explore the bigger questions of national identity.

That quest for explanation of what it means to be American, why people experience it differently, and what holds the nation together in spite of those different experiences, has been a life's work.

During his five years in the Navy, he married a woman from a very different family background from his own. Lucy Durr's parents, Cliff and Virginia, were prominent civil rights activists, most famous for having posted the bond for their close friend Rosa Parks when she was jailed in Montgomery after her iconic act of refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.

Mr. Hackney credits his mother in law with having influenced Rosa Parks in her decision not to yield her seat.

"Virginia Foster Durr was quite radical for the times and for the South in particular," he said. "She believed in such strange things as racial equality. She got to know Rosa Parks because Rosa Parks was the secretary of the NAACP and was also a seamstress.


"The civil rights activity came first, then Rosa did some work for the Durrs. But they were friends first and foremost," he said.

"One of things Virginia Durr did was to arrange for Rosa to go to the Highlander Folk School in the summer of 1955. It was a labor organizing camp in eastern Tennessee, run by people who were thought to be extraordinarily radical. That was the first time Rosa Parks had ever been in an integrated setting. I think it had something to do with her decision next December not to give up her seat."

Virginia Durr was a powerful force in his life.

"She stayed every summer with us for the last 20 years of her life. She would sit right here," he says, indicating a corner in the sunny kitchen overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor, "sort of lie back and people would come talk to her during the day. She was quite a social person, quite an unusual person."

Mr. Hackney's first teaching job was at Princeton in 1965, He stayed there 10 years, the last three as provost, then went to Tulane as president for five years, then to University of Pennsylvania as president from 1981 to 1993, when he was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities by the Clinton administration.

That appointment brought him to the front line of the culture wars. The endowment had been previously dominated by conservatives, and Mr. Hackney was subject to fierce opposition from the political right both in the media and in the confirmation process.

Since leaving that job in 1997 he has been back at Penn, teaching and researching and writing, and living half-time on the Vineyard.

"We've been coming to the Vineyard since the 1960s, over 40 years," he said. "Since before trophy houses."

The Hackneys moved in next to another of the Vineyard's intellectual powers, William Styron, whose death on Wednesday was a deeply felt tragedy.

"We were friends for 40 years," he said. "We started coming to the Vineyard when the Styrons did and have been through-the-hedge neighbors ever since," he said. "Rose and my wife are very good friends and I've had many a long conversation with Bill about values questions, moral questions.


"The obit in the New York Times this morning says quite correctly that he wrestled with the biggest moral issues of our time, Nazism and slavery, that is to say race. We talked a lot about those things and he helped shape my own ideas quite a bit."

It says a lot about Mr. Hackney - and perhaps about liberal questioning in general, as opposed to conservative certitude - that he is still shaping those ideas, still engaged in what he calls the "dialogical" process of exploring the apparently contradictory aspects of the American myth, all these years later, and is still open to the input of anyone interested enough to express a view.

Thus, even on the night of his friend's death, he was engaged in the first of several discussions on "the Meaning of America" with other Vineyarders, down in the Vineyard Haven public library. The first, on the notion of "American Exceptionalism," will be followed by discussion of the nation of immigrants next Wednesday night and "America as it should be" on Nov. 15.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, as the course introduction says, "have caused us to think as never before about who we are and what values shape our behavior in our dangerous and shrinking world."

In an interview before that first lecture, he said, "This series is of interest even without the Bush administration and the Iraq war and the mistreatment of prisoners and the limitation of civil liberties and all of the stuff going on that I think is terrible. This is about what holds us together as a nation."

Without revealing his own views on what that glue is - he's saving them for the final night - he talks about the competing values which define the nation:

"We Americans created the country in an act of revolution and decided what the political system was going to be, which was quite radical for the 18th century - the idea of democracy."

The democratic idea is essentially about how the society resolves its differences, and it is those differences he wants to explore.

"There is at the core of our self-conception a set of dialogically opposed ideas to both of which we are committed. Freedom and equality being the primary ones, and they often don't go in the same direction.

He enumerates some: greed versus philanthropy, materialism versus religion, individualism versus community, practicality versus utopianism, assimilation versus diversity. And there are many more - far too many to go into here.

"There is a grand narrative of American history that sees it sort of as the exodus story," he said. "That we are the children of God who came to the new world, to the wilderness, and were the chosen people from the first."

"Originally we were supposed to build a society that lived according to God's laws, [but] that notion changed in the course of the 18th and early 19th century so our purpose was really to show the world how democracy, how rule of the people, can work in a way that's beneficial for everyone."

That narrative was predicated on the idea that Americans had "perfected ourselves in the light of those ideals more and more over time." But that idea had been "picked apart" over time, in the light of historical inconveniences such as slavery, the genocide of the Indians, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the oppression of workers.

"And there has really been nothing advanced to put in its place," he said.

"Yet we're still hearing that [narrative], and now you hear President Bush saying that's our purpose in the Middle East."

And that adds a sense of urgency to the dialogue about the meaning of America.

"The country's in the worst shape I have even seen it," he said "and I worried all the way through the McCarthy period and the Nixon presidency. The last few years have just been devastating."

It's not just the war, or the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, or increasing economic inequality at home, or Republican government which concern him.

It's the broader personal isolation of people, the inward turning of the nation. He struggles still to explain why it has happened.

"A glib response would be that the world has become much less understandable for the ordinary person [and when] you don't understand the forces affecting your life, the tendency is to shrink back, and see change as a threat. All that argues for more conservatism."

Mr. Hackney finds it all "terribly depressing." But that just makes his quest to find a new American narrative all the more pressing.