In Memoriam

David Burner (1937-2010)

James Olson, March 2011

Historian of American politics in the 20th century

David Burner, professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and founder of the Brandywine Press, died suddenly on September 20, 2010, at his home in Winter Harbor, Maine. He was born in Cornwall, New York, in 1937 and graduated from Hamilton College in 1958. A student of Richard Hofstadter and William Leuchtenburg, Burner received his PhD from Columbia University in 1965. He taught at Hunter College, Colby College, and Oakland University before joining the Stony Brook faculty.  His first monograph—The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918–32 (Knopf, 1968)—enjoyed a warm reception in the scholarly community. Burner portrayed the turbulent era as a time when the Democratic Party struggled to find equilibrium between the competing demands of its increasingly ethnic northern, urban wing and its lily-white southern constituency, where little common ground existed for compromise on nativism, immigration reform, prohibition, and evolution. One reviewer hailed the book as “carefully organized, well written, and exhaustively documented . . . a sensible study that should remain a useful account of a trying period in Democratic Party history.”

In the 1970s, with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Burner shifted his scholarly focus to the other side of American politics. His biography Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (Knopf, 1979) became the most important contribution to the rehabilitation of the former president’s reputation. Contrary to the scholarly consensus, which for decades had viewed Hoover as a failure responsible for the untold suffering of the Great Depression, Burner viewed him as a more activist president than his GOP predecessors during the 1920s and anything but a laissez-faire purist. “By categorizing the needed reforms Hoover initiated prior to the crash,” one reviewer wrote, “Burner concludes that his presidency attempted to create great cooperative units that would receive energies from the bottom up and their efficiencies from the top downward. While he argues that Hoover’s system did not work, Burner describes Hoover as a strong president and suggests that his tenure be viewed as part of a larger effort dating back to his commerce years . . . an effort . . . distantly related to a later (post New Deal) joining of technical proficiency to a diffusion of power.”

In 1997 the Princeton University Press published his Making Peace with the Sixties, a re-examination of the tumultuous decade. One reviewer wrote, “For Burner, the history of the 1960s is the history of the breaking apart of the liberal mentality, particularly with reference to the two intersecting mass actions of the decade, the civil rights and anti-war movements.” To understand that breakup, Burner “examines forces of the era that might have been allies but succeeded in becoming enemies: a civil rights movement that severed into integrationist and black-separatist; a social left and a mainline liberalism that lost a common vocabulary even for arguing with each other; an anti-war activism that divided between advocates of peace and advocates of totalitarian Hanoi.”

Burner also composed a small library of textbooks, anthologies, and documents collections, and his John F. Kennedy and a New Generation remains a popular title in the Library of American Biography series. Ever the historian, he was completing a book about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the day of his death invested several hours in the project.

But the books do not really capture his life. He loved good food, good wine, the Democratic Party, and his lovely wife Sandy and two children—Eric and Diane. For decades, Dave and Sandy enjoyed bringing friends and former students to their summer home in Maine, where Sandy served the most elegant French cuisine and Dave sallied forth on the politics of the day.

To his graduate students, David Burner exhibited extraordinary generosity with his time and sometimes his own money. Not infrequently, he supplied loans and gifts to help with an automobile repair, a late rent payment, travel to a convention, or copying costs for theses and dissertations. In a monograph dedicated to him, one former student wrote: “David Burner, my friend and mentor at the State University of New York, has been a kind and consistent critic over the years. No student could have asked for a more dedicated teacher.” When a former student fell ill with a life-threatening disease, Burner called to express concern and then extended a most tender mercy:  “If by some chance this disease gets the best of you, I will put your children through college, so please don’t worry about that.” The student survived the illness, but remembers “the feeling of relief inspired by Dave’s generous offer. I knew that he would keep the promise. It was a turning point in my recovery.” Another former student remembers, “Dave believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

—James Olson
Sam Houston State University