Publication Date

April 1, 2000

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Gordon Wright, who died on January 11, 2000, was the preeminent historian of modern France in the United States. His many accomplishments and extraordinary qualities as a person secured him a position as a major figure in the profession in this century. His international and national standing is attested by his presidency of the AHA (in 1975) as well as by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, as a foreign honorary member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Paris, commander in the French Order of Arts and Letters, and president of the Society for French Historical Studies. At Stanford University he held the William H. Bonsall Professorship of History and served the university in innumerable ways.

Gordon was born on April 24, 1912, in Lynden, Washington, to a family of schoolteachers, farmers, and preachers with roots in this country going back to the 1630s. His great-grandfather had come west to join the California gold rush but didn't strike it rich. Gordon received his BA from Whitman College in 1933 and his PhD from Stanford in 1939.

From 1939 to 1943 and 1947 to 1957, he was a member of the history faculty at the University of Oregon, serving as department chair from 1951 to 1957. He was a specialist at the Department of State in 1943–44 and a foreign service officer at the embassy in Paris from 1945 to 1947. In late 1944 he led a convoy from Lisbon to Paris, while fighting was still going on, in order to bring reinforcements to the newly reopened embassy. The State Department official who handed him the assignment later told him that he hadn't expected him to make it. Wright returned to Paris as the cultural attaché in 1967–69, having a front row seat at the events of May 1968.

On August 20, 1946, he married Louise Aiken, and they had five sons and six grandchildren. Gordon and Louise were inseparable; she greatly enriched the life of the history department and of the Stanford community.

Gordon returned to Stanford as a full professor in 1957. He retired in 1977 but continued to teach not only at Stanford but at the University of Washington, Northwestern University, Arizona State University, and the College of William and Mary.

Gordon was an extremely successful undergraduate teacher. He summed up admirably his concerns and his attitude to teaching in remarks about a colloquium he gave on modern war: "The central goal is to encourage [the students] to read, reflect, and argue about some sensitive issues associated with modern war. For example, can one distinguish just from unjust wars? Are there moral constraints in wartime on soldiers, statesmen, citizens? Do men fight because they are innately aggressive or because they are socially conditioned to do so? Are modern wars purely destructive, or are they locomotives of history that speed up technological development and social change? My role in all this is to set the agenda and then to prod and provoke when necessary—definitely not to hand down obiter dicta.” He became the leading trainer of students studying modern France, having been the principal adviser to approximately 30 PhDs, many of whom now hold major academic positions.

Gordon had a prolific scholarly career. His most important writings include The Reshaping of French Democracy (1948) as well as his much admired Rural Revolution in France: The Peasantry in the Twentieth Century (1964). But surely his most read book was his text France in Modern Times (1st edition, 1960), which became the preeminent survey of French history since the Revolution.

Perhaps the high point of Gordon's writing career came when William Langer, editor of the highly influential Rise of Modern Europe series, invited him to write the volume on World War II. The result, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939–1945 (1968), is generally regarded as Wright’s masterpiece. In this analytical account of the central event of the 20th century, his vivid prose conjured up the drama, horror, and overwhelming passions of total war.

Gordon continued to write in retirement. In 1983 he published Between the Guillotine and Liberty: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France, in which, as the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement reported, he engaged “in a polite but skeptical dialogue with Michel Foucault, gently pointing out the occasions when Foucault has passed off hypothesis as fact.” The remark nicely captures the Wright style—rigorously empirical and doubtful about grand theories, but expressing those doubts in courteous, if unambiguous, language. Notable or Notorious (1989) was praised by his colleague Gordon Craig as “10 beautifully conceived and executed portraits” by “the dean of American historians of France.” This last book, like his first, was dedicated to his wife Louise, “Companion and Critic.”

Gordon had other qualities that meant a great deal to those who knew him. As his son Eric said of him at the family memorial service, he was not a boastful man. Indeed one could say that he was excessively modest, so much so that his colleagues had to plan a retirement event for him in secret, and one suspects that he didn't really enjoy it. He had firm opinions and great moral authority. He made it clear that the right way was to act as honestly as one could, painful as it might be at times.

He was a committed liberal. It was not surprising that in 1961 he protested against American Cuban policy. Later he spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam, at the same time bemoaning the "strange mixture of idealism, fanaticism, and paranoia" that had produced conditions "explosive enough to blow a campus up . . . ." He experienced being called a fascist by those on the far left and a traitor by those on the far right. In 1975 he gave a talk to Stanford freshmen about the ambiguities of treason, ending in a typically understated but powerful way: "Man can see that there is a higher loyalty than that to a nation. But that will be slow in coming. In the meantime the best that we can do is to try as much as possible to make that higher interest and the national interest coincide in our own country."

It was not surprising that his presidential address to the AHA in 1975 was on "History as a Moral Science." There he remarked: "The liberals among us . . . continue to be haunted by our pluralistic, skeptical, anti-dogmatic heritage . . . . We liberals have been reenacting the charge of the Light Brigade: while cannon volley and thunder to the right and to the left of us, we ourselves gallop on in a cloud of dust, unsure just which way is forward, and shouting to those who follow us to study the map and draw their own conclusions." He believed in "a self-conscious and coherent value system" that would enable students to reach their own conclusions, "a set of guideposts through the minefield."

As he said in his talk, and as Louise Wright reflected at the memorial gathering, the figure Gordon admired most in French history was the socialist leader Jean Jaurès, whom he described as "untouched by vanity, arrogance, or a thirst for power, deeply committed to the Orwellian principle of decency." Although modesty would have forbidden him from saying so, in those words Gordon Wright described himself.

Stanford University

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