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From the In Memoriam column of the September 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

In Memoriam: David Herbert Donald

Catherine Clinton, September 2009

Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for biography; life member of the AHA

David Herbert Donald’s untimely death on May 17, 2009, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of one of the most accomplished historians of his generation. His father was a farmer and his mother a former schoolteacher when David was born in 1920 in Goodman, Mississippi. He completed his degree in history and sociology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, before attending graduate school at both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and—briefly—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He earned first his master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1942 and then completed his doctorate in history in 1945 under the supervision of the renowned Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall.

Donald’s economy of prose and dense detail won him early notice, especially with his first published article, “The Scalawags in Mississippi Reconstruction,” which appeared in the Journal of Southern History in 1944. His ambition shifted his focus away from his roots toward one of the most daunting challenges facing 20th-century historians—to rehabilitate Lincoln studies for the academy. Donald began in 1948 with a monograph crafted from his doctoral dissertation, Lincoln’s Herndon. In his study of Lincoln’s legal partner and biographer, Donald dubbed Herndon the author of “the most controversial Lincoln biography ever written.” Donald’s debut was heralded by reviewers and launched his phenomenal publishing career of more than 30 books. Donald also produced a number of pathbreaking essays, most notably “Toward a Reconsideration of Abolitionists” in Lincoln Reconsidered (1956) and “Died of Democracy” in Why the North Won the Civil War (1962).

Donald was offered a position as an instructor at Columbia in 1947, where he taught for two years before joining the department of history at Smith College. In 1952, he returned to Columbia University, a tenured professor at the age of 31.
He became part of the elite at an Ivy League department alongside fellow Mississippian Dumas Malone, who ruefully remarked, “David never had a southern accent as bad as mine.” Donald spent a year in Wales on a Fulbright professorship but settled into life in New York City. In 1955 he married Aida DiPace and they greeted the birth of their only child, Bruce Randall Donald, in 1958.

During this era “D.D.”—as his graduate students affectionately dubbed him—became legendary—as his praise was eagerly sought by many but awarded only to a few. For nearly half a century, David Donald’s book reviews sensibly reserved praise for those who earned it—and his students and colleagues were in the same boat. He put a burgeoning number of students through their paces, dramatically influencing those engaged in studies of abolitionism, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and southern culture. His seminars provoked lively and, at times, ferocious exchanges. Donald’s tone remained unfailingly courteous, his voice melodious. In the classroom or at a professional conference, he saw no reason to raise his voice or lower his standards. He often concluded his bracing comments with advice to go back to the archives, or to the drawing board, or both. His personal style was clearly not for the thin of skin nor faint of heart, but won him a loyal following. He trained an impressive array of scholars during the 1950s and 60s, including Ari Hogenboom, John McArdell, Michael Holt, William J. Cooper Jr., Jean Baker, Peter Kolchin, Syd Nathans, and Irwin Unger.

He served a brief stint in Princeton’s Department of History and a year at Oxford as the Harmsworth Professor (1959–60) before moving to Johns Hopkins University, where he held a named chair and headed the Institute for Southern History. In 1960 the first of his two-volume study of Charles Sumner was published to wide acclaim; the Pulitzer Prize in biography was bestowed on his Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War in 1961. He became president of the Southern Historical Association in 1969, the year before his second volume, Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), appeared.

In 1973 Donald joined the Department of History at Harvard University, where he taught until his retirement in 1991. While at Harvard he chaired the American Civilization program, and directed a string of striking dissertations by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Thomas Underwood, Joan Cashin, and Michael Vorenberg, to name a few. Donald shaped a generation of undergraduates at the close of the century, including Conan O’Brien, Matthew Pinsker, and Emily Bingham, among others. He insisted that his classroom was a kind of laboratory, where ideas flowed creatively. When he began his classroom career, Donald confessed he feared he might be “exposed” and thus he worked long past midnight to prepare lectures and keep ahead of his students. But Donald eventually adopted a more flexible philosophy: “My students and I have worked together in this joint enterprise of learning. That is why I loved teaching.” And perhaps why his classes became oversubscribed.

While at Harvard, Donald visited the home of one of his boyhood heroes, Thomas Wolfe, and was inspired to undertake a voyage of rediscovery. Although Donald admitted that he felt Wolfe produced “more bad prose than any other major writer,” he undertook exhaustive research and scrupulous analysis of this southern literary legend. His compelling Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe garnered Donald his second Pulitzer Prize in biography in 1988.

Donald focused his formidable talents on a new study of Abraham Lincoln. As one of his Harvard undergraduates recalled, he was “armed with diskettes and databases (and even his own personal microfilm reader).” His study of the 16th president was much anticipated. When David Donald’s Lincoln appeared in 1995, readers enthusiastically embraced his crowning achievement. Lincoln became a best-seller, saluted by critics and scholars alike. He won the coveted Lincoln Prize in 1996, and garnered 70 “five star” ratings from Amazon.com—an impressive endorsement from his audience outside the academy. The book was singled out for honors by the New England Booksellers Association, the Civil War Round Table of New York, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Museum of the Confederacy. Furthermore, in remarks to National Public Radio on Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial celebration in February 2009, historian Eric Foner remarked that David Donald’s book was the very best of the one-volume Lincoln biographies.

David Donald was first invited to offer scholarly insights by the Kennedy White House during the 1960s and was tapped in 1990 to launch a program of “Lectures on the Presidency” by President George H.W. Bush. Before and after his retirement from Harvard in 1991, Donald was showered with honorary degrees and prestigious fellowships, but seemed to prize most his continuing circle of friends. He enjoyed hosting colleagues alongside his wife, Aida, the former editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press, at their summer home on Cape Cod.

Their Lincoln home (as the Donalds settled on Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Massachusetts) was crowded with books and manuscripts, and became a gathering place for those passing through Cambridge. Eudora Welty, Gore Vidal, and many others enjoyed visits with the Donalds; they were stimulating hosts, as comfortable debating the fine points of upcoming elections as they were sharing stories of their granddaughters’ talents. David and Aida remained especially solicitous of former students whose accomplishments brought David satisfaction in his later years, as did two additional Lincoln books: Lincoln at Home (2000) and We Are All Lincoln Men (2003). He left on deposit at the Harvard University Library 55 cubic feet of papers meticulously preserved—his notes, correspondence, and lecture material covering the period from 1948 to 1999. At his 80th birthday celebration in 2000, a surprise event attended by family and former students, Donald commented that some counted sheep when they had trouble sleeping, but he took pleasure and counted his graduate students. And they, in turn, counted themselves lucky to have been shepherded by a mentor whose monumental achievements exemplified “genius disdaining the beaten path.”

—Catherine Clinton
Queens University, Belfast