Robert Morse Crunden (1940-99)

Jeffrey L. Meikle, November 1999

Robert Morse Crunden, professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin, died suddenly at home on March 23, 1999, after suffering a heart attack. He had taught at Texas for more than 30 years and played a central role in establishing American studies as a department.

Bob was born on December 23, 1940, and grew up in New Jersey. His sister Joan recalls that even as a young boy he excelled in intellectual pursuits. Reading and writing were his passions. During summers at the family home in Nova Scotia, he spent long hours sitting quietly with his books. He was fiercely independent and relished a good argument on almost any subject. While still in college, he collaborated with his grandfather in writing his first book, a self-published mystery entitled A Chicago Winter's Tale.

Bob matriculated at Yale College and received the BA magna cum laude in 1962. Again with the encouragement of his grandfather, he published his senior thesis as The Mind and Art of Albert J. Nock (Regnery, 1964). Without a break in his academic career, he entered the program in the history of American civilization at Harvard University, where he studied with Frank Freidel and received the PhD in 1967. He was then hired by William H. Goetzmann, one of his undergraduate professors at Yale, who had recently arrived at the University of Texas to rejuvenate a 20-year-old American studies program. These were boom years at Texas, and Bob later recalled the free-wheeling social life of young assistant professors in the humanities and their spouses and graduate students—"exiles" from the Northeast trying to adapt to Austin's legendary "laid-back" atmosphere. Two years after arriving in Austin, he published his dissertation as A Hero in Spite of Himself: Brand Whitlock in Art, Politics and War (Knopf, 1969). At that point he was already serving as graduate adviser, a position he held until 1976.

For many years, Bob anchored the undergraduate American studies major with a popular two-semester survey course, "Main Currents of American Culture," which was famous for wry sarcasm, pithy anecdotes, unprecedented note-taking challenges, and a refusal to consider public university students less capable than the Ivies'. Students in his graduate seminars likewise found him a demanding teacher. He regularly taught a required first-semester seminar in which students learned to "deconstruct" recent works in American studies long before that term became current. Over the years he also offered seminars in the American conservative tradition, the artist in American life, southern history through literature, and modernism as a cultural paradigm. He gave good hard advice to everyone, never minced words when judging student work, offered his own intellectual life as a model, and considered his courses a form of initiation.

Many thrived under his discipline. Most recognized that Bob rarely confused the personal with the professional and would gladly share a pitcher of beer with someone whose paper he had just taken apart. His crusty exterior concealed a shy man who was often helpful, warm, even sentimental. Colleagues often marveled at his ability to maintain an energetic research and writing agenda while tirelessly mentoring students and continually taking the pulse of undergraduate and graduate programs.

Bob developed an approach to late 19th- and early 20th-century cultural and intellectual history that focused on shared climates of opinion motivating a range of individuals across a wide spectrum of disciplines. He sought the meanings of a particular cultural moment in the biographical—for example, reconstructing the Progressive era in Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889–1920 (Basic Books, 1982) with analyses ranging from Jane Addams and Woodrow Wilson to Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Ives. He first experimented with this approach, which owed something to the psychological and historical writings of Erik Erikson, in From Self to Society, 1919–1941 (Prentice-Hall, 1972), developed it fully in Ministers of Reform, and later employed it in both American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism, 1885–1917 (Oxford, 1993) and a manuscript on the art and literature of the jazz age, which is to be published by Basic Books. These works reveal impressive primary research, considerable narrative drive and coherence, an array of meaningful and provocative connections, and a mature understanding of the relationships of personality and culture from the 1860s through the 1940s.

In 1972, Bob joined Frank Freidel and Norman Pollack in editing the second edition of their anthology, Builders of American Institutions: Readings in United States History, 2 vols. (Rand McNally). On his own, Bob compiled The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900–1945 (University of Texas Press, 1982), which offers an idiosyncratic portrait through primary sources of American conservative traditions from George Santayana to Walter Lippmann. He also edited two anthologies of scholarly essays: New Perspectives on America and South Asia (with Manoj Joshi and R.V.R. Chandrasekhar Rao) and Traffic of Ideas Between India and America, both published in Delhi by Chanakya (in 1984 and 1985).

The latter collections derived from symposia Crunden organized at the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad, India, where he served as director for two academic years (1982–84). This Fulbright position exemplified his dedication to the international American studies movement. While in residence in Hyderabad, he supervised the center's operations, taught courses, organized conferences, expanded the library, edited the Indian Journal of American Studies, lectured extensively at other universities and advised them on curricular developments, and inspired a generation of Americanists, many of whom later enjoyed his hospitality when their travels brought them through Austin. The shape of his activities in India owed much to his prior experiences as the inaugural holder of the Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland, 1976–77. The first person appointed to a Fulbright chair anywhere in the world, Crunden defined the multifarious duties now routinely expected of chair holders. He succeeded so well that he was invited to return to Helsinki in the same capacity in 1991–92.

Among many honors, Bob was especially proud of his election to the Finnish Academy (Suomen Tiedeakatemia) in 1997. He also served as a visiting professor in American studies at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, in 1979 and again in 1982, and as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at La Trobe University, Australia, in 1978. Crunden's dedication to international Americanists motivated him to write a survey, A Brief History of American Culture, which initially appeared in Finland (Helsinki: SHS, 1990), and which has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. It was published in the United States by Paragon House (1994).

Bob was the director of the American studies program at Texas from 1985 to 1990. Always forthright in stating his views, whether reviewing books or leading an academic community, he won both praise and criticism for his policies and built the program into a department in all but name (official recognition came in 1998). He supervised more than 20 PhD dissertations and 30 MA theses and served on dozens more committees. More than any other professional activity (except perhaps for research and writing), Bob loved engaging in highly voluble—and valuable—mentoring: with undergraduates writing honors theses, with new graduate students learning the ropes, with junior colleagues revising manuscripts or figuring out the bureaucracy, with anyone who would listen and learn from his generous advice. As a colleague said when she learned of his death, "Bob kept us honest."

He leaves his mother, Marjorie Morse Crunden, and sister, Joan Crunden Lewis, both of Boulder, Colorado; and daughters Wendy Eberle-Sinatra of Toronto, Canada, and Evelyn Ann and Rebecca Joan Crunden of Austin, Texas.

—Jeffrey L. Meikle
University of Texas at Austin

(Reprinted with permission from the American Studies Association newsletter, Vol. 22, No. 2, June 1999.)