In Memoriam: Rowland T. Berthoff
David Konig, January 2002
From the In Memoriam column in the January 2002 Perspectives
Rowland T. Berthoff, Emeritus Professor in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis, died at his home in University City, Missouri, on March 25, 2001.
Rod, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was born in Toledo, Ohio, on September 20, 1921, and graduated from Oberlin College in 1942. He immediately entered the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain. After the war he entered graduate school at Harvard and earned his PhD in 1952 under Oscar Handlin. He came to Washington University in 1962 after teaching at Princeton, and from 1966 until his retirement in 1992 he was William Eliot Smith Professor of History.
Rod was Oscar Handlin's second PhD, and his dissertation on British immigrants in industrial America was one of several pathbreaking ventures into the new field of social history that elevated the lives of ordinary people into the historical significance they deserved. We now tend to take for granted the ascendancy of social history and its descendants, but Rod was one of the first of a new wave of social historians who swept across the profession and gave respectability to peoples and subjects once derided, and coherence to a field that had lacked order and meaning. City dwellers, immigrant ethnic groups, working people, African Americans, children, and even the homeless received attention in Rod's formulation of American history. To counter its doubters, the new field of social history had to be done well, and British Immigrants in Industrial America, 1790–1950 (1953) set a standard that other works had to emulate. It became a classic when published, consistently recognized by those who have followed him into the subject.
Rod's great work, however, was to synthesize and recast American history in a pattern that most in his generation had forgotten in their own rush to portray the dynamism of American life. In a tantalizing preview of his sweeping revision of American history, Rod published an essay in the American Historical Review in 1960 entitled "The American Social Order: A Conservative Hypothesis." Described by one commentator as a work "of striking originality and reverberating importance," it examined those institutional arrangements that people made to keep their lives and communities stable amid change and growth—families, voluntary associations, religious organizations, and communities of their own creation.
That article and the book—indeed, all the work that followed—revealed fault lines not only in American life but in the writing of history, for he had posed questions about social organization that others had not, and the gaps he revealed pointed others to look in the right direction. Rod found American social history to be "an all too familiar quagmire" treated by many as "a merely residual field," but he recast it, as he described it, into a study of "the social order—the structure of society—and the functional interplay of the various institutions and population groups that make it up."
Rod's work also revealed much about him. He once described himself as "an instinctive medievalist," and his labeling of his subjects as engaging in a "nostalgic quarrel with modernity" actually could have been turned back on himself. One reviewer of his magnum opus, An Unsettled People: Order and Disorder in American Life (1971) could not help but remark on "Mr. Berthoff's obvious humanism and humanitarianism." Rod continued writing after retirement, and his collected essays were acknowledged by the publication in 1997 of many of them in a collection, Republic of the Dispossessed.
To Rod, the "dispossessed" were not only those marginalized by writers of history but all of us dispossessed by social change, all of us seeking to reconstitute order in our lives.
In an afterword to his collection, he commented that "a historian may be excused from outright prophecy," but he correctly demonstrated his thesis about the dispossessed seeking coherence by noting the resurgence of "traditional values" in America today.
Rod was an adopted Scot. His marriage to Tirzah Park brought him closer to her roots and to a way of life he believed was replicated in much of America. After earning his PhD, he spent a year at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, and he later took a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. Throwing himself into both experiences, he became adept at not only Celtic but Welsh. He was outraged by the way history was manipulated and misused, and especially in misguided attempts to create bogus traditions or traditional values for purposes for which he had little sympathy.
Rod is survived by his wife of 46 years, Tirzah, and four children—Thomas, Margaret, Andrew, and Clarissa.
—David Konig, Department of History,
Washington University in St. Louis.