John Morton Blum (1921–2011)
David M. Kennedy, December 2011
Historian of Modern America
John Morton Blum, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, died on October 17, 2011, at his home in North Branford, Connecticut. A prolific student of 20th-century American history, he wrote 11 scholarly books, conspicuously including The Republican Roosevelt; Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality; From the Morgenthau Diaries; V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II; and a collection of essays, Liberty, Justice, Order; as well as a mystery novel set at Yale, An Old Blue Corpse. He also coauthored The National Experience, a college textbook, and edited the papers of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, and Walter Lippmann.
John Blum was born in Manhattan on April 29, 1921, to parents he described in his memoir, A Life with History, as "decent, though undistinguished, people." His father, a loving but somewhat feckless inventor and salesman, never finished high school; his mother had but a year or two of college. The Depression further crimped the family's already meager means. But a scholarship took him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1935. There he confronted the unapologetic anti-Semitism that long infested the several WASP citadels in which Blum made his career.
But there he also encountered caring teachers who nourished his intellectual interests. At Andover, he later wrote, "my history with history began." For him, history was not simply a subject, but a calling, a vocation that beckoned him at an early age and held his loyalty and affection to the last.
He went on from Andover to Harvard, also on scholarship, and after graduation in 1943 was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Blum's orders took him from the Caribbean, whose squalor and inequality repelled him, to the Solomon and Mariana Islands and eventually to Iwo Jima, where he fought down "sheer terror" while safely guiding his broken Patrol Craft through a ferocious typhoon. A gifted raconteur, he later charmed countless students with vivid re-creations of his wartime exploits and mishaps—notably at a military history symposium at the Air Force Academy in 1982, when the war stories went on far into the night. (On that occasion Blum momentarily thought he was being overcharged for drinks—until he remembered that the last time he had been in an Officer's Club was on Saipan in 1945.)
With help from the G.I. Bill, at war's end he returned to Harvard to earn his PhD, awarded in 1950. Frederick Merk, a student of Frederick Jackson Turner's, directed his dissertation, which was later published as Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era. The book's focus on key personalities, progressive reform, the elusive mysteries of leadership, and the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of both politics and policy foreshadowed much of Blum's later work, as did its exhaustive archival research and its often lyrical prose. Though he never embraced the regional approach to American history that characterized the work of Turner and Merk, Blum surely inherited their fidelity to the progressive school of historiography pioneered by Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon Louis Parrington, with its emphasis on conflict as the engine driving American society toward ever-fuller realization of the democratic ideal. That, Blum believed, was "the promise of America," to borrow the title of one of his books.
After several years teaching at MIT, Blum joined the history faculty at Yale in 1957, and remained there until his retirement in 1991. Along with colleagues and cherished friends David M. Potter, C. Vann Woodward, and Edmund Morgan, he helped build the Yale history department into arguably the most distinguished of its day. Always deeply engaged with the institutions that nurtured him, at Yale he soon became a kind of institution in his own right. Trim and taut, nattily turned out in tweeds and bow tie, he was the very paragon of the professorial personality—a demeanor that later landed him a cameo role in Woody Allen's 1983 mockumentary film, Zelig. The Yale Daily News once described him as "more Ivy League than the J. Press catalogue," and meant it as a compliment. Hundreds of rapt students—including future president George W. Bush and Senators Joe Lieberman and John Kerry—annually packed the Law School Auditorium to take History 35, his fabled course on "American Politics and Public Policy," known in the Yale undergraduate vernacular simply as "Blum." His lectures mirrored the rigor, conviction, and passion of his writings. They pealed forth in a commanding baritone voice whose stentorian resonance surprised many listeners as some kind of miraculous emanation from his compact sailor's body. Speaking in effortlessly lapidary paragraphs, he unfailingly delivered masterpieces of erudition, wit, and concision, exemplars of the pedagogical art. But his lectures were something more than brilliant historical expositions. Like Merk, his "master" and "Pole Star," Blum taught not simply the stuff of history, but what he called integrity—"integrity of mind and process, of the way in which to understand and to write history," as he wrote of Merk.
Words were John Blum's tools. Nay, for the care and precision with which he wielded them, they were his instruments. He savored them, crafted and concatenated them with the pride and surety of a master workman. He passed his reverence for them on to his students. He made them write essays with no adverbs, no adjectives, no form of the verb "to be." He taught them to loathe the passive voice, to understand the difference between "compose" and "comprise," and never to forget that "data" is a plural noun and "privilege" not a verb. He found precisely the right words to restore Theodore Roosevelt's historical reputation, reduce Woodrow Wilson's, secure Henry Morgenthau's, bring the New Deal and the World War II home front to life, make sense out of the postwar years, and—unapologetic patriot and self-styled "Tory Democrat" that he was—probe the shortcomings as well as the excellences of the American Left.
John Blum was not simply a great historian, magical teacher, and wondrous wordsmith. He was an educator in the fullest sense of the word, a First Citizen of the Republic of Learning. To innumerable students, undergraduate and graduate alike, he gave time and attention well beyond any call of duty; to Yale he gave legendary service as department chair and librarian; and to Harvard nine eventful and demanding years as a member of the Corporation. His many honors included election to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960, the Pitt Professorship at Cambridge (1963–64), the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford (1976–77), and an honorary degree from Harvard in 1980.
A singularly disciplined, accomplished, conscientious, and caring man, beloved by many, John Blum is survived by his wife of 67 years, Pamela Zink Blum, an art historian; three children, Ann, Pamela, and Thomas; and three grandchildren. The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to the John Morton Blum Fellowship in American History and Culture at Yale or to any other scholarship fund.
—David M. Kennedy