Publication Date

May 1, 1996

Merle Curti: A Remembrance

Merle Eugene Curti, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a former president of the American Historical Association, died March 9, 1996, at the age of 98. Curti was born near Omaha on September 15, 1897, of Swiss and Yankee ancestry. As a student at Harvard (A.B., 1920; Ph.D., 1927) he studied with Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Homer Haskins, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., who directed his thesis after Turner's retirement. Bliss Perry of Harvard's English department encouraged his desire to employ literary sources in historical study—the theme of his first published article in 1922.

Curti taught at Smith College from 1925 to' 1937, at Teachers College-Columbia University from 1937 to 1942, and from 1942 to 1968 at Wisconsin, where he directed 86 Ph.D. dissertations. Many of his students, including the late Richard Hofstadter and Warren Susman, became leading scholars in their own right.

Curti's scholarship is notable not only for its quantity—more than 20 books and some 50 articles—but also for its scope and its pathbreaking quality. His Growth ofAmerican Thought (1943), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, helped define the embryonic field of American intellectual history. In the preface, Curti explicitly distinguished this “social history of American thought” from the work of Arthur O. Lovejoy, whose masterpiece The Great Chain of Being (1936) had adopted an internalist, history-of-ideas approach that largely neglected social context. Going beyond leading writers or thinkers, Curti in this broad-brush synthetic work also tapped a rich vein of popular culture sources, from newspapers to ballads.

The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier Community (1959), a forerunner of lithe new social history,” examined social mobility in Wisconsin’s Trempeleau County. Based upon tax rolls, census lists, public records, and similar sources, this collaborative study drew upon the work of three graduate research assistants, whose aid Curti acknowledged in the preface and on the book’s title page, together with that of his wife Mar., a psychologist and trained statistician he had married in 1925.

Margaret Curti died in 1961. Of their two daughters, Nancy Alice and Martha (Mother Felicitas Curti, C.S.B.), the latter survives, together with three grandsons and a great-granddaughter. Curti's second wife Frances Bennett Becker, whom he married in 1968, also predeceased him.

Curti's own ouevre bears out his oft-stated insistence on the social rootedness of intellectual history. His first book, The American Peace Crusade, 1815-1860 (1929), a revision of his Ph.D. thesis, reflected the prevailing disillusionment with the war propaganda of 1917-18. The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935) and other Depression-era works were sharply critical of capitalism. The Growth if American Thought, by contrast, completed as the Western democracies battled fascism, expressed cautious hopefulness about America’s spiritual prospects. His work of the 1950s, including studies of American philanthropy and the high school textbook America's History, coauthored with Lewis Paul Todd (first ed., 1950; retitled The Rise of the American Nation in 1961), continued the generally positive tone, reflecting both the times and his own temperament. In the spirit of Turner, Charles A. Beard, and John Dewey—his major intellectual avatars—Curti brought to all his scholarship a secular and humanistic perspective, a respect for pluralism and openness, and a desire to explore and extend the social meaning of democracy.

Some of Curti's more original work appeared in monographs exploring specific topics, such as the treatise on Lockean thought in America (Huntington Library Bulletin, April 1937); his 1937 edition of the letters of Elihu Burritt, a 19th-century pacifist and reformer; his 1968 essay on the influence of Swedish social thought on New Deal policy makers; and his three American Historical Review articles: on the “Young America” movement of the 1850s (October 1926), on pacifist propaganda and the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo (April 1928), and on Americans and world’s fairs (July 1950).

At a 90th-birthday symposium held in Madison in 1987, Paul Conkin observed: "Merle Curti is a more complete historian than anyone else I have ever known. He has a deeper dedication to knowing the human past; a wider curiosity about all aspects of that past; a more single-minded commitment, over a longer period of time, to all the hard work and drudgery involved in telling the story of that past; and a richer, more diverse body of completed scholarship."

As a leader in the profession, Curti's maximum influence came in 1936-54, when he prodded the guild to broaden its intellectual scope, demographic base, and social vision. As chair of a Social Science Research Council committee that produced the 1936 report Theory and Practice in Historical Study, he challenged his colleagues’ notorious aversion to theory and called for historians to move beyond the familiar terrain of political, military, and diplomatic history. In 1939-40, first as a member and then as chair of AHA Program Committees, he put these exhortations into practice, helping to assemble convention programs that highlighted methodological issues, social and cultural history, and new kinds of sources such as photography and folk music: Curti’s election as AHA president in 1953 recognized his central role in this ongoing intellectual and social reorientation. Earlier, in 1951-52, as president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, forerunner of the Organization of American Historians (OAB), he spearheaded a controversial decision to shift the annual meeting out of racially segregated New Orleans.

Retiring in 1968, Curti remained active intellectually and politically. He read incessantly; entertained a host of friends old and new; and corresponded regularly with former students, shrewdly assessing their work and praising their successes.

Merle Curti's memory is preserved through the Curti professorship and the annual Curti Lectures of the UW-Madison history department, and by the OAH's annual Curti Prize for the best book in U.S. intellectual or social history. A 1996 drive to. augment the endowment of this prize produced not only an outpouring of contributions but numerous tributes from former students, many themselves now in advancing years. Wrote Eugene Link, a Curti Ph.D. who taught for many years at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, "None of my teachers were as dedicated to his students as Merle Curti. Well into his nineties, each time I visited with him he tended to say 'Gene, have you seen … '(something of current importance). Perhaps at age 88, as his oldest living student, I can be proud to say that every hour with him was laced with inspiration."

Paul Boyer
University of Wisconsin at Madison

*Note: For a selection of papers read at the 1939 AHA meeting, and a sense of the ferment and excitement of these years, see Caroline F. Ware, ed., The Cultural Approach to History (1940).

Roderic H. Davison

Roderic H. Davison, professor emeritus of history at George Washington University, died in Washington on March 23, 1996. He received the A.B. in history and public and international affairs from Princeton University in 1937 and the A.M in 1938. In 1942 he received his Ph.D. in modem European and Near Eastern history from Harvard University. In 1941, while in France doing refugee work with the American Friends Service Committee, he was interned for a year by the Germans. Thereafter he performed alternative, service as a conscientious objector. Davison taught in 1946-47 at Princeton University and joined the George Washington University faculty in 1947. He was appointed full professor in 1954 and served as chair of the history department between 1%0 and 1964 and again between 1969 and 1970. He concentrated his work on the Ottoman Empire in modem times, teaching and writing on Near Eastern and diplomatic history. His Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 1856-1876 (1963) is the standard work; in addition, he published Turkey: A Short History (1968) and Essays in Ottoman and Turkish History, 1774-1923: The Impact of the West (1990). He also contributed to 15 other volumes and wrote a wide range of articles.

Following his retirement in 1986, Davison continued to teach at George Washington University until 1993. For nearly all his career he was the acknowledged leader of the department, stimulating his students and colleagues with subtle wit that was never unkind and usually operated on several levels at once. Immersed in diplomatic Washington, he would assert, "There's no such thing as diplomatic history: the diplomats come to the table bearing the full load of economic, social, and especially cultural forces that weigh on events, and those are what we study." A sensitivity to cultural forces may be the most distinctive characteristic of his writing and teaching. An account of his commitments cannot neglect his membership in the Washington Friends' meeting, where he led singing and played the accordion each week in its Alzheimer's Club.

It is difficult to convey the range of scholarly and educational institutions to which Davison made significant contributions. He was founder of the Middle East Studies Association of America and of the Turkish Studies Association of North America and served each as its president (1974-75 and 1980-81). He was also treasurer of the AHA in 1973-74; a member of the board of governors of the Middle East Institute of Washington, D.C.; and a corresponding member of the Turk Tarih Kurumu of Ankara.

Avery D. Andrews
George Washington University

Mary Philip Trauth

Sister Mary Philip Trauth, a longtime member of the American Historical Association and professor emeritus of history at Thomas More College, passed away on October 2, 1995, at the age of 71. A member of the Roman Catholic order of Sisters of Notre Darne, she also served as the archivist for the college, her order's province, and the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky. Sister Mary Philip authored a number of publications, including Italo-American Diplomatic Relations, 1861-1882 (1958) and Eurasia: The First Frontier (1968).

John Cimprich
Thomas More College

George Woodbridge

George Woodbridge, professor of history emeritus at Barnard College, Columbia University, died on March 28, 1995, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 86 and actively engaged in writing and lecturing at the time of his death, which occurred after a short illness. He retired from Barnard College in 1974, where he taught modem European history.

Born in 1908 in Garden City, Long Island, New York, Woodbridge grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. He graduated from Columbia College in 1927, with honors and Phi Beta Kappa status. After a year of graduate studies in history at Columbia, he joined a New York stockbroking firm just in time for the 1929 crash. In 1933 Woodbridge returned to Columbia to undertake graduate studies in medieval history; he completed an M.A. thesis in 1934 in early Christian history. Further study followed in England, where he met and married his wife Katherine. In the fall of 1934 he entered the University of Wisconsin, where he took up modem European history; his doctoral thesis, completed in 1937, was on town planning in the Age of Napoleon. Parts of it were published subsequently as articles. After completing his thesis, he returned to New York, where he became an instructor in modem European history at Columbia University Extension (now the School of General Studies).

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Woodbridge became an outspoken advocate for American intervention on the side of the Allies. Following Pearl Harbor, as with many academics of his generation, Woodbridge entered into the wider world of governmental agencies and international diplomacy. In 1944 he went to Egypt as U.S representative and director general of the Middle East Supply Center. At the end of the war he joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in London From 1947 to 1952 he was in Washington, first as chief historian, planning and editing UNRRA: History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1950), and then on the Middle East desk at the State Department, where he focused on the economic problems of Greece, Turkey, and Iran. In 1952-53, he served in London with the Marshall Plan.

In 1960 he returned to New York and academic life as an associate professor of modern European history at Barnard College. For the next 14 years he taught undergraduates and became a lively presence in the larger Columbia community. He took a keen interest in the scholarly lives of his junior colleagues. He retired in 1974 as a professor emeritus, after concluding his active service as chair of the history department. Subsequently, he published The Great Reform Bill of 1832 (1978) and The Reform Club 1836-1978: A History from the Club's Records (1978).

Woodbridge and his wife Katherine moved in 1985 to Raleigh. During the previous decade, Woodbridge and his wife had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was an active member of the Newport Historical Society. In addition to his wife Katherine, he is survived by a son, David, and two daughters, Kate and Jane.

Robert A. McCaughey
Barnard College, Columbia University

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