In Memoriam

Henry D. Shapiro (1937-2004)

Alan I Marcus | Apr 1, 2004

Henry D. Shapiro, scholar of the life of the mind in America and teacher of friends and students, died of lung cancer on January 21, 2004.

Born in 1937 and raised in New York City, Shapiro entered the profession as American intellectual historians were questioning the vitality of their approach. First at Columbia University and then at Cornell University, Shapiro quickly exhibited the virtues of meticulous research and precise exposition. Shapiro's first publication, his MA thesis, Confiscation of Confederate Property in the North, won the Moses Coit Tyler Prize at Cornell in 1961 and was published by the university press the following year.

Shapiro's appreciation of method, especially the relationships among culture and the perceived past, led him to follow Warren Susman to Rutgers. While completing his dissertation, Shapiro accepted an instructorship in 1963 at Ohio State University. In 1966, Shapiro received his PhD and was hired by the University of Cincinnati to teach American intellectual history and the history of science. He quickly discovered an apt means to combine his two passions in the life of the physician-naturalist-entrepreneur-city booster Daniel Drake. More importantly, he met his lifelong collaborator and friend, Zane L. Miller. Together these Young Turks set out to refashion the university and to open new historical vistas. Shapiro directed the new medical history archives and labored to get Cincinnati to hire a medical historian. He also developed collections for other parts of the university's past, such as the Ohio Mechanics Institute.

The mercurial Shapiro provided much of the intellectual basis, while Miller masterfully worked out implications as well as sharpened insights. Their collaboration first resulted in the co-edited Daniel Drake: Physician to the West (1971). In this and other efforts, method dominated their discussions. Shapiro was smitten with French structuralism from Levi-Strauss to Foucault. Shapiro concluded that what held human societies together at various times and places was the sharing of similar taxonomies. Shapiro held that it was cultural ideas—taxonomies of reality perceived in a particular way—that both “caused” conditions and situations to become seen as problems that demanded amelioration as well as circumscribed the arena and methods by which amelioration could successfully occur. Among other things, that understanding posited race, gender, class, religion, and the rest not as universal social forces or constructs but rather as products of culture. To Shapiro, the understanding of culture in this manner rescued intellectual history from its malaise. It accentuated the ideas themselves, not the cultural-social demographics of their genesis. After a year at Harvard's Charles Warren Center, Shapiro and Miller created the Laboratory in American Civilization. Patterned in spirit after the Chicago School of Sociology's “the City as Laboratory,” the Shapiro/Miller effort took Cincinnati as its locus. Events in Cincinnati were “symptomatic”—indicative but neither identical nor extraordinary—of what happened elsewhere in America at a similar time. Working with graduate students, Shapiro and Miller did original research on some relatively minor act at a certain time in Cincinnati. Later lab discussions put those apparently discrete acts together—to understand why those events or acts were done in that way at that time and how they might have changed at later times. Clifton: Neighborhood and Community in an Urban Setting (1976) became the first lab product.

Shapiro's insistence on culture as a central project in intellectual history emphasized place and the bonds that categorized it. But he recognized that interpretation of place was itself a cultural construct. Nowhere was this truer than in his seminal Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870–1920, which had begun as his PhD dissertation, and was published in 1978 as Shapiro filled a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin. Shapiro began this work with the caveat, “This is not a history of Appalachia. It is a history of the idea of Appalachia, and therefore the invention of Appalachia.” Shapiro emerged as a major figure among scholars of Appalachia as identity politics took charge. Always nattily attired in a three-piece wool suit and blue oxford cloth shirt no matter the season, the full-bearded Shapiro sat on the board of Appalachian Journal, wrote introductions to various collections and volumes, and reviewed countless others. His Appalachia on Our Mind remains in print some 26 years after its initial publication.

Fascination with the idea of place dominated Shapiro's thinking as he continued his fruitful collaboration with Miller. Together they formed the University of Cincinnati's Center for Neighborhood and Community Studies and edited the Urban Life and Landscape series for Ohio State University Press. Forty titles have been published there.

Shapiro's life took a dark turn in 1986 when his wife Nancy succumbed to leukemia, leaving their three sons. After retiring in 1988, Shapiro married Genevieve Ray and moved to Cleveland. In 2002, they relocated to York, Pennsylvania, and began work with the York Foundation. At the time of his death, Shapiro was writing an intellectual biography of the philosopher Harry A. Wolfson.

— Alan I. Marcus
Iowa State University

Tags: In Memoriam


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