Thursday, December 19, 2013

We Lost Some Good American Historians in 2013

We have covered most of their deaths here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Pencak and Kammen and Maier and Remini and Lerner and Morgan and Hackney.  

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has consecutive posts on three of these late historians.

On Pencak

I met Bill this spring at the “Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia. He sat in the balcony and boomed down comments, but he was also happy to engage with non-academic “buffs” like myself. He had retired from Penn State and seemed to delight in shocking academic colleagues with the news that he’d taken a position at the University of South Alabama.

Bill was also part of a panel on the Treaty of 1763 at Faneuil Hall a few days later, and afterward we walked over to the Old State House together. Or rather, we tried. It was raining hard, the path was uphill, and Bill finally begged off, saying he was exhausted. He really didn’t look well, and I worried about whether he could get back to where he was staying. (Not that Bill let me walk him further than the T stop.)

So I can’t say I was shocked to learn of Bill’s death during heart surgery at age sixty-two. But I was definitely sad. He was still working on at least two big projects, a Jewish Studies program at his new university and a biography of Philadelphia’s first Episcopal bishop, and clearly still enjoying his work.

On Kammen:

The Kammen book most meaningful to me, because of my interests, was A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978), which isn’t always included among his major works. Among other topics that book considered the historical fiction set during the Revolution, and why the most popular books set in that period are about boys coming of age:

Almost to the point of numbing monotony,…imaginative writers have consistently perceived the American Revolution as a national rite de passage, and have relentlessly
projected that vision to an ever-widening readership. . . .

In some instances…a divided family exemplifies the divided empire; but much more common is the intergenerational conflict between father and son within the colonies, or a young man and his prospective father-in-law.
Of course, American Patriots coined the metaphor of parent and child when discussing relations with Britain, among other ways of viewing the crisis. But later generations seized on it.

Kammen traced a pattern of American novels through school staples like Johnny Tremain (1943) and and My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and lesser examples like Thomas Forty (1947), April Morning (1961), and even Kenneth Roberts’s Loyalist novel Oliver Wiswell (1940). Further examples published since Kammen’s book include the two volumes of The Life and Astonishing Adventures of Octavian Nothing and the eventual three volumes of the Forge trilogy.

On Maier:


Early this month The Junto devoted a week of their blog to reviewing the legacy of historian Pauline Maier, who died this summer. Their essays discuss both Pauline’s four major books (she also wrote valuable articles, reviews, and teaching texts) and where she fit into the late-1900s “ideology” school of historians of the Revolution.