Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Arthur S. Link

Arthur S. Link

Arthur Stanley Link, the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History Emeritus, died at his home in Bermuda Village, North Carolina, on March 26, 1998, at the age of 77. Link, a native of the Shenandoah Valley, received his BA in 1941 and his PhD in 1945 from the University of North Carolina. He first came to Princeton as an instructor in 1945, and, three years later, was promoted to assistant professor. After spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, he went to Northwestern University as an associate professor in 1949, and in 1954 was promoted to the rank of professor. Having been selected by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to edit the papers of Woodrow Wilson, he returned to Princeton in 1960, and was appointed to the Edwards Chair in American History in 1965 and to the Davis Professorship in 1976. From then until his retirement in 1991 he combined undergraduate and graduate teaching in the department of history with his editorial direction of the Wilson papers.

Simply to list Link’s many publications, his incomparable service to both the historical profession and to his church, and the numerous honors he received would more than exceed the space limitations of any memorial resolution. Link published more than 30 books, including five volumes of a projected eight-volume biography of Woodrow Wilson, two of which received the Bancroft Prize as the best book in American history published in their respective years. Most of his books and articles were, as one would expect, about Woodrow Wilson, but, first in conjunction with William Catton Jr. and later with his own son William Link, he published a three-volume history of the United States in the 20th century, American Epoch, which quickly became one of the more successful textbooks of recent years. In 1958–59 he served as the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford and received an MAOxon from that institution. Link was awarded Rosenwald, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller fellowships, was elected to the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and served as president of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association. He received honorary degrees from 10 colleges and universities. In retirement he was named historian of the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, as well as distinguished adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and he served as co-chair of the Working Group on Disabilities of US Presidents. As the world’s leading authority on Woodrow Wilson he lectured in every state in the Union, as well as throughout western Europe, South America, and Japan. Link had many passions: the novels of Anthony Trollope, opera, North Carolina football, and travel (as one of his sons said, he never met a cruise ship he didn’t love). But none of these passions, of· course, approached his personal devotion to his four children and his beloved wife, Margaret Douglas Link, who predeceased him in 1996. And none of them approached his extraordinary professional engagement with the life and work of Woodrow Wilson.

Link’s crowning scholarly achievement—and it was his personal achievement—was the editing and completion of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 volumes in all, which were published by the Princeton University Press between 1966 and 1994. That work, for which he sacrificed completion of his biography of Wilson, is remarkable in many ways. It includes not only every letter and document known to have been written by Wilson, but also all of the relevant correspondence Wilson received. To date it is the only complete set of presidential papers to have been edited and published. Moreover, since Link scorned the computer, all of the editing was done on index cards, by handwritten notes and on the typewriter. As such, in the words of the New York Times, “it approaches the stuff of legend.” Every item was checked, double checked, and even triple checked by Link, who personally chose every document and wrote the great majority of the lengthy footnotes that explained their significance. His work ethic and his powers of concentration were exceptional. Despite numerous illnesses—he had no less than seven major back operations and was often in severe pain–he invariably worked 10- to 12-hour days. Indeed, his work habits had become legendary even when he was a graduate student at Chapel Hill. His son, coming to that same institution three decades later, recalled that there were two legends about his father: that, in preparing for his graduate general examinations, he read the entire 26-volurne American Nation history of the United States in two weeks, and that he learned his second foreign language, Spanish, in a mere 10 days.

Over time Link’s admiration for Woodrow Wilson steadily increased, and his thought processes, it seemed to many, became those of Wilson. Indeed, he could even tell a reporter that “aside from St. Paul, Jesus, and the great religious prophets, Woodrow Wilson was the most admirable character I’ve ever encountered in history.” Yet he never lost his scholarly objectivity. He always sought to learn the truth about the former president, and he was receptive to new information about him. One of his notable achievements, for example, was to bring to the Wilson project distinguished neurologists, who sought to discover the medical reasons behind Wilson’s stubborn, uncompromising behavior in dealing with the board of trustees on the Graduate College and with the US Senate on the League of Nations.

But what sustained Link throughout his academic and his personal life-which provided its underlying unity-was his religious faith, his lifelong commitment to his church and to his God. The son of a Lutheran minister, he was, in the words of his own son, “a person who lived and believed in the Reformed faith.” In Princeton he and his wife were elders at the Nassau Presbyterian Church, and for the welfare of that church gave generously of their time and even more generously of their means. He even found time to write the history of that church. On campus he was equally committed to the support of the Westminster Foundation. In the larger world of American religion, he served on the Council on Theological Education of the United Presbyterian Church, on committees of the General Assembly, and as a vice president of the National Council of Churches of Christ in America. On more than one occasion he told people who interviewed him that he had received a divine call to study the life of Woodrow Wilson, and that in that work he had found his calling. The last lines in his entry in Who’s Who—words which he himself had recently added—are “I have no thoughts on life that do not stem from my Christian faith. I believe that God created me to be a loving, caring person to do His work in the world. I also believe that He called me to my vocation of teacher and scholar.”

Richard D. Challener, Nancy Weiss Malkiel, James M. McPherson, and Marius B. Jansen, Princeton University

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