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A reasonable person might assume that history has been taught at American universities from the beginning. Not so. At Yale, formal instruction—only on Thursdays—in the subject began in the 1780s, well after the founding of the College, and it was taught by Yale’s President Ezra Stiles as part of other courses. An actual history department wouldn’t be formed until 1840, and the first full-time history professor, Arthur Martin Wheeler, wasn’t hired until 1865. In fact, the subject wouldn’t really come into its own until the early 1900s, but since then, and for most of this century, history has been considered one of Yale’s finest academic offerings.
In the past decade, however, death, retirement, and other institutions claimed some of the University’s most powerful teachers. But after a period of acute concern about the department’s prospects, it now appears to be as strong as ever. “It has been an utterly confusing time,” concedes Robin Winks, the Randolph W. Johnson Jr. Professor of History and chair of the department. “But we are very much alive and well.”
Only a few years back, the prospects of such health appeared uncertain. Against a backdrop of University belt-tightening, there came the deaths in 1995 of medievalists Harry Miskimin and John Boswell. Then, there were the retirements of such noted senior faculty members as Peter Gay, an expert on the Victorian era, Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar of the medieval period, and Howard Lamar, an authority on the American West. Some professors went elsewhere—most notably, environmental historian William Cronon, to the University of Wisconsin. There were also faculty positions that proved difficult to fill, and junior professors, such as Diane Kunz, who were denied tenure.
But the fact that in the last year five prominent senior historians, along with talented junior professors such as William Lee Blackwood, who specializes in Eastern Europe, and Brett Walker, who studies Japanese history, have decided to join the faculty—and that the subject is again the number-one undergraduate major—suggests that any dark cloud the department was under has dissipated. Indeed, rather than perceive the department’s fortunes in terms of rise and fall, Winks sees all the recent changes as a kind of metamorphosis—a rather awkward one, to be sure—and a metamorphosis that is not without historical precedent. “Many people have the feeling that certain fields are immutable, but history is not a set of fixed principles,” says Winks. “It’s a constantly moving target.”
Howard Lamar '51PhD, now a Sterling Professor Emeritus and President of the University from 1992 to 1993, agrees, noting that Yale is replete with examples of this “ebbing and flowing of areas of interest and styles of inquiry.” In the 1920s, he points out, the department concerned itself solely with European, English, American, and diplomatic history. “These fields were very stable, distinctive, and big,” says Lamar.
But such lecturers as John Allison, a specialist in French history who was particularly interested in art, helped to create what became the new subdiscipline of art history. Ralph Henry Gabriel, a pioneer in the investigation of intellectual history, spun off a field that would later be known as American Studies. As chairman of the department from 1956 to 1962, George Pierson led what Lamar characterizes as an “expansion into new worlds,” hiring scholars in Oriental history (including Yale’s first female professor) as well as historians interested in Africa and Latin America.
The field that would eventually capture Lamar’s interest, the history of the American West, was, in his view, “absolutely moribund” when he arrived in New Haven just after the end of the World War II to begin work on his doctorate. But serendipitously, Yale at that time received a gift of a mammoth collection of Western books, documents, and ephemera. “The material was so rich that it, along with several other important collections the University didn’t really know it had, allowed the field to blossom here,” says Lamar. “I was advised to 'go West' for my dissertation.”
Others went south. Taking advantage of major new sources of documentation, such charismatic professors as Ulrich B. Phillips, David Potter, C. Vann Woodward, and John Blassingame made southern history a major subdiscipline at Yale.
In more recent years, the academic heirs to these pioneers have chosen to concentrate on fields as new to contemporary America as the West and the South were a generation ago. “We’re still pursuing the traditional areas, but we’re also embracing new ones, such as environmental history,” says Lamar. “For while you can never take away the basic facts, the changing perspective of each generation often enables you to think of them in new ways. We write history knowing that we never have the final answer.”
Based on the Yale department’s experience, this ongoing process of renewal and metamorphosis appears to be a necessary part of the historian’s environment. For an example of how this has played out on an individual basis, one need look no further than the academic history of the current chairman, who made his original mark on the discipline as a student of the history of British colonialism. That work led him into a study of Canada, and a foray into the 19th-century American West eventually gave him material for his 1991 biography of railroad magnate Frederick Billings. The Billings research piqued Winks’s interest in the history of the National Park Service, and in the course of that investigation, Winks began working in the area of environmental history. One result has been the professor’s most recent book, Laurance Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservation (Island Press, 1997), and he has other projects in mind. “Every book stimulates 20 more,” says Winks, “and like all of us, I’m continually trying to grow intellectually.”
Despite all the changes in personnel and scholarly direction, however, the department has apparently retained a distinctly Yale style of doing its work. According to Eric Papenfuse ’93, a history graduate student who expects to complete his doctorate in American 18th- and 19th-century history next year, “There are three characteristics that have long made history an exceptional discipline here.” The first, of course, is an emphasis on the use of primary sources, the investigation of which led Papenfuse to a newly discovered document that would spawn his first book, The Evils of Necessity: Robert Goodloe Harper and the Moral Dilemma of Slavery (American Philosophical Society, 1997).
The emphasis on going right to the source starts at the undergraduate level, says Joanne Freeman, a newly hired assistant professor of history whose specialty is the American Revolution and the early history of the United States. “I’m a big proponent of using primary sources,” says Freeman, who recently received her doctorate from the University of Virginia. “In my junior seminar on 'The Creation of the American Politician' last fall, I encouraged students to wander the stacks and follow their gut inclinations. I always assume that there are critical pieces of information out there you wouldn’t expect.”
Freeman’s dedication to digging was formed in childhood. She grew up during the Bicentennial in the mid-1970s and was fascinated by stories about the people and decisions that created America. But when she read a biography of Alexander Hamilton, “I didn’t quite believe it, so I did something pretty strange for a teenager,” Freeman confesses. “I started to read Hamilton’s papers.”
In graduate school, Freeman’s efforts paid off handsomely when she found, tucked away in the dusty pages of the transcripts of the trial that followed the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, a previously unknown pamphlet that defended Burr. “Historians simply hadn’t thought to look,” Freeman says, noting that such discoveries became the cornerstones of her doctoral dissertation, Affairs of Honor: Political Combat and Political Character in the Early Republic.
As critical as primary sources are to reconstructing history, Papenfuse explains that a second characteristic—a “commitment to an innovative approach to how we tell our stories”—is the one that “put the department on the map.” This commitment, represented by such current members of the department as John Demos, a specialist in early-American history, and Jonathan Spence, one of the leading authorities on the history of China, requires both skill in the unearthing and analysis of information, and a novelist’s touch in presenting historical research as a readable narrative. “We’re taught to think of our seminar papers as articles and our dissertations as books for a wide audience,” says Papenfuse.
To provide practice in such thinking, John Lewis Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History, teaches a seminar called “The Art of Biography.” Gaddis, an authority on the Cold War who came to Yale from Ohio University last fall, explains that “the ability to capture and portray a personality is primarily a literary skill. But you also need grounding in the methodology of history to put someone into context and not fall prey to an occupational hazard: exaggerating the importance of your subject.”
In Gaddis’s course, students read a wide variety of biographies, as well as a novel, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. He includes this last book because “archives leave behind only a small amount of information. They’re often a pitiful reflection of what actually happened.”
One important job of both the historian and the novelist is to fill in the blanks. For Gaddis, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union have made the task far easier than it was in 1972, when he published his first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War. There were few Soviet bloc documents available then, says Gaddis, “so we knew we were examining only the tip of a very large iceberg.”
That situation, of course, has changed dramatically, and there’s now relatively free and open access to files in Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries. (See “Inside the Russian Archives,” Yale Alumni Magazine, May 1995.) “Historians are always rewriting in light of new materials,” says Gaddis, noting that his latest book, published in 1997, is appropriately titled, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Gaddis’s work is one of many examples of what Eric Papenfuse terms the third key characteristic of the study of history at the University: an emphasis on what he describes as “comparative patterns across time and between nations.”
According to medievalist Paul Freedman, a senior professor recruited in 1997 from Vanderbilt University, this ability to span times and borders, to say nothing of departments and disciplines, was one of the major reasons he decided to come to Yale. “My field is strongly interdisciplinary,” he says. “You can’t study medieval history without the input of scholars in such areas as religion and literature, both of which are important areas of research here.”
Freedman’s primary interest is in developing a history of the Spanish peasantry during the Middle Ages—a pursuit that requires “real detective work,” he explains. “There were no opinion polls or censuses, and no peasant left a journal until the 15th century, so you have to use other, indirect sources to answer questions about how they lived and what they thought. I’ve found that you can learn a lot about people from what they owed.”
Or what they spent, says Freedman’s new colleague Carlos Eire, a fellow medievalist who, before coming to Yale last year, had taught for 15 years at the University of Virginia. Eire focuses on the study of Christianity in Europe, Spain in particular, during the period between 1400 and 1700 that is now dubbed “early modern.” At that time, he says, “religion was integrated into society and culture at every level. “ There are certainly enough official Church documents to examine, but what interests Eire—and what increasingly is becoming an important focus of historians of every era—is how the general public reacted to major events. To uncover this hidden history, Eire takes an innovative approach. “I read a lot of wills,” he says.
From these, the historian has uncovered an intriguing relationship between devotion and inflation—a subject explored in his 1995 book, From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in 16th-Century Spain. Eire discovered that as the Spanish culture adapted to times of increased purchasing power and inflation rose, so did the number of masses a person would need to get out of purgatory: from an average of 90 in 1520 to an average of 750 in 1590. “The material economy and the spiritual economy were linked,” says Eire. “Impressing your neighbor and impressing God were not diametrically opposed to one another.”
Some related conclusions have been drawn by Stuart B. Schwartz, a senior professor of Latin American history who came to Yale after teaching at the University of Minnesota for 20 years. Schwartz recently spent a sabbatical year in Spain to investigate how the general public behaved during the Spanish Inquisition. The official party line, of course, was intolerance, notes Schwartz, “but, as in Nazi Germany, there were common people who were tolerant. It’s often surprising—and instructive—to find the roots of current problems in the experiences of earlier people and civilizations. Everything is tied to the past.”
Schwartz, who has studied topics as diverse as the social history of hurricanes and the relationship among Spain, Portugal, and Latin America during the 17th century, explains that while the study of this area has been going on for a long time, “we’re all the god-children of Fidel Castro,” notes Schwartz, “No one really paid much attention to the region until after the Cuban revolution.”
Thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation in the early 1960s, Yale established the Center for Latin American History and quickly assumed a leadership role in scholarship on the area. But, as sometimes happens, key professors left for other opportunities, and in recent years, there’s been less emphasis on Latin America. That, however, may change fast. Schwartz, along with Eire and Freedman, are all interested in the same general region, and there are other professors already here in such scholarly disciplines as Spanish language and literature and anthropology. “We’ve got an interesting concentration of researchers and teachers,” says Schwartz, “and a chance to achieve a dynamic synergy.”
Some of the fields now before Yale’s history department will, no doubt, seem strange to its Graduate School alumni when they gather later this month for a reunion. But the department’s goal—understanding what Winks calls the “the rich particularity of life”—will be remarkably familiar. And if scholars, like ideas of what’s important, come and go, that’s to be expected. “History may be about dead people, but it’s not about dead ideas,” says Winks. “It’s constantly remaking itself.”
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