Publication Date

November 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Editor's Note: We print below the text of a eulogy delivered by Robert Darnton at a memorial service held in Princeton on October 1, 1999, to remember Lawrence Stone.

We think of Lawrence as a master of the grand tableau, and that he certainly was. The Crisis of the Aristocracy covers nearly a century of tumultuous history. The Family, Sex and Marriage stretches over three centuries. The Road to Divorce cuts a wide swath through unexplored territory stretching from 1530 to 1987. No historian since World War II, except Fernand Braudel, has written history so authoritatively on so large a scale.

But Lawrence was also a master of the postcard. He sent great volleys of them from many ports of call, always scribbled, rapid-fire: "Natives friendly. Climate ghastly. Food rotten. Museums good." Sometimes the natives were sullen and the food excellent, but the observations could always be reduced to a few, lapidary phrases. There was always a bottom line.

Lawrence loved bottom lines, the more trenchant and heretical, the better; and best of all, the lines kept shifting as Lawrence changed his mind: the rising gentry could fragment into factions; the J-curve could turn into an S; relative deprivation could give way to narrative. There was nothing dogmatic about Lawrence's hunger for conclusions. Instead, it expressed energy, open-mindedness, love of debate, an endless curiosity about the human condition, a willingness to take risks, and an ambition to get things right, even though any interpretation was likely to be revised beyond recognition.

This was the Lawrence of the Davis Center, the master of cut and thrust, who could slice to the heart of the matter after hours of bewildering debate and uncover a startling conclusion: America was more literate in the early 17th century than it is today; death in early modern Europe was the functional equivalent of divorce; class did not correlate with political alignment during the English revolution; love is a modern invention; Foucault's facts are wrong, so his theory can't be right.

The audacity of it energized us all. We left the seminar or the last page of a paper or even a department meeting with a dizzying sensation: Lawrence had clarified things so radically that they threatened to come undone. Everything orthodox had to be rethought; every interpretation put to the question and throttled until it yielded an answer.

Thus Lawrence's penchant for violent metaphors. He liked to describe social history as vivisection. A visiting scholar, somewhat shaken, recounted a lecture by Lawrence in History: "He told the students that you had to cut into the body politic, rip its guts out, and analyze its anatomy, organ after organ."

No wonder that Lawrence struck terror among visitors to the Davis Center, or that he acquired a reputation for intellectual combativeness. He liked a good fight, even with friends. Devoted as he was to Bill Bowen, Neil Rudenstine, and Sheldon Hackney, he always referred to the power elite of Nassau Hall as "them" and fought "them" down to the last nickel and FTE. As department chair, he assumed that a conflict of interests was built into the department's relations with the administration; he was determined to do battle and to win. In practice, that meant promoting talent, improving salaries, and recruiting scholars like Carl Schorske, Natalie Davis, and Peter Brown. Lawrence fought to create what we modestly refer to as the greatest history department in the country—and I suspect that Nassau Hall understood him well enough to know that it would win by losing.

Many of us here today know that this Lawrence—Lawrence Agonistes, Lawrence the Terrible, the Lawrence of the Bottom Line—was a caricature. The man we knew and loved was gentle and generous. Why did he bother to send all those postcards? Why did he go out of his way to have lunch with inconsequential visiting firemen and unimportant junior lecturers? Why did he read and correct endless drafts of papers by colleagues in fields far removed from his? Lawrence did not merely write letters of recommendation and let the chips fall where they may. He was a one-man employment agency, finding jobs in places where his students never dreamed of applying. He was their literary agent, too, guiding their work into his inside track at Past and Present and the Oxford University Press. His advice, offered freely but frugally, came with a mixture of criticism and sympathy that made it strike home. And his hospitality was inexhaustible, thanks to Jeanne. She served successive generations of graduate students enough salmon to sink a fleet and enough Chablis to drown a navy. Where was the combativeness in all of this?

We must discount, I think, for the tough-guy manner, English style, in the presentation of the Laurentian self. Lawrence liked to talk tough, using an anti-rhetorical rhetoric that belied his sentiment. Consider his description of his years in Charterhouse, the English boarding school as "an extended male puberty rite, very similar to those of many other, more primitive, societies in the world: total segregation from the other sex; regular beatings to be endured in stoical silence; humiliation rituals; a complex formal hierarchy symbolized by elaborate dress codes; inadequate food; sexual initiation by older males; and the learning of a secret language, in this case Latin." This account conforms to the standard style of ironic deflation in modern memoirs about life in public schools.

But Lawrence loved Charterhouse. If you drew him out on the subject, he explained that he never got flogged (or only once, perfunctorily, without the slightest infliction of pain) and that when he became a prefect, he abolished flogging: it was the first of the reforms that he championed as a lifelong liberal. Thanks to his skill at soccer, he cut something of a figure as a campus hero. He hated the dreary drills of translating from English to Latin to Greek and back to English again. But the headmaster, Sir Robert Birley, rescued him by tutoring him in history. That act of kindness sent young Lawrence down a road that led to Christ Church, Oxford; Wadham College; and ultimately to us.

Along the way he encountered kindness by other mentors, especially his Oxford Tutor, John Prestwick, and the great socialist historian, R. H. Tawney. The dedication of his collected essays, The Past and the Present, reads: “To Sir Robert Birley, John Prestwick and R. H. Tawney, who first taught me what history is all about.” They also taught Lawrence a more important lesson: generosity.

He needed it. The tough-talking, self-assured, vaguely aristocratic Lawrence the Terrible conjured up by gossip and polemics bore no resemblance to the lad who arrived in Oxford in the fall of 1939. He was not to the manner born and certainly not born in a manor. He was a scholarship boy, from a poor but respectable family and a broken home. Jeanne remembers him from their first meeting at the Oxford French club as penniless, thin, and devastatingly handsome. They fell in love, remained in love, collaborated and quarreled in a marriage that lasted 56 years and that produced Elizabeth and Robert, whom we are happy to have among us today. When Lawrence mentioned the baby that his daughter-in-law Melissa is expecting, his eyes lit up. Yes, he was delighted the line would continue, he said. His notions of lineage, family, broken lives, and companionate marriage owed something to his own experience, the graphs and statistics notwithstanding.

But that happy ending was not visible to the skinny boy who took his place among the patrician undergraduates in the terrifyingly grand dining hall of Christ Church. While his classmates occupied themselves with port and beagling, Lawrence scrambled to win a first in history. He jousted with his tutor in preparing the special subject on the Third Crusade and won a few rounds by citing Muslim sources, which he read in French. He later recalled that "the experience taught me the importance of sheer factual information—erudition, if you like—in the cut-throat struggle for survival in the life of learning."

Another violent metaphor, which disguises another positive aspect of Lawrence's vocation: his love of debate. He understood history in the British manner, as argument from evidence—endless argument, from boundless possibilities of increasing the stock of knowledge by research in the archives. Although he loved to pilfer, as he put it, from the social sciences and claimed some mastery of theory, Lawrence conceived of knowledge as ultimately grounded in facts. Once, when I objected in a seminar to an especially provocative remark—"Lawrence, that sounds like positivism"—he replied, "Of course. What's the matter with that?" He did not use "positivism" as a pejorative. He even described himself as "the last of the Whigs." Far from suffering from epistemological angst, he scorned postmodernism and warned that historians would sell their birthright if they mixed fact and fiction.

It was this conviction that fired Lawrence's polemical energy. He believed that facts existed, not as cultural constructs but as nuggets of knowledge; that they could be combined in arguments; and that arguments could be won. So there was a bottom line, even if it kept changing. Far from being a vain discourse turned in upon itself, history was a valid form of knowledge, one that could take us ever deeper in our struggle to understand the human condition. Though it was hard won, it was also generous, because it spoke to all humanity and everyone was invited to join in the scramble to expand it. In short, Lawrence's vision of history expressed Lawrence's qualities as a human being—generous and tough, big-hearted and broad-ranging, humane and rigorous, gentle, kind, compassionate, and a hell of an adversary.

—Robert Darnton
Princeton University

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