Historian of the book and early modern Europe; AHA member since 1949
Elizabeth (Betty) Eisenstein, 92, died at her home in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2016, after a short illness. She is best known for her two-volume work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), which broke new ground by analyzing the interaction between the introduction of movable type in the mid-15th century and three major early modern movements: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.
Eisenstein was born in New York City to Sam A. Lewisohn and Margaret Seligman Lewisohn. The family lived with her grandfather, Adolph Lewisohn, an industrialist and philanthropist, until his death in 1938. Her mother, who was active in the progressive education-reform movement and was a strong proponent of women’s education, encouraged her daughters to attend college.
Following her graduation from Vassar College, where she was mentored by its outstanding faculty (including Evalyn Clark, J. B. Ross, and Mildred Campbell), she enrolled in the graduate program at Harvard University, where she began a lifetime friendship with her adviser, the historian Crane Brinton, and his wife, Ceci, a psychologist. She joined the AHA in 1949 and would serve on the AHA Council from 1981 to 1984. After marrying a fellow Harvard graduate student, physicist Julian Eisenstein, in 1948, she accompanied him to Madison, Wisconsin; Oxford; and State College, Pennsylvania, at what is now Penn State University.
Raised in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and trained as a scholar, Betty Eisenstein was unprepared for the sexism she encountered in postwar academe and found her new role as a faculty wife and young mother in the 1950s alternately puzzling and frustrating. She was pleased when her husband found a job in Washington, DC, which offered more opportunities. Her first publication seems to have been a book review in the American Historical Review in 1958. In 1959, she became a part-time lecturer at American University and published her first book, The First Professional Revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761–1837). Her part-time position lacked prestige, but it encouraged her to consider bigger historical questions than she might otherwise have tackled and allowed her to spend more time on her own research. She later refused offers of a full-time post from American.
Eisenstein attributed her competitiveness to her position as the third in a family of four girls. It put her in good stead as she built a career in a profession that often condescended to female scholars. Her first significant article, “Who Intervened in 1788? A Commentary on The Coming of the French Revolution,” published in the AHR in 1965, offered a stinging critique of George Lefebvre’s respected book. It drew two rebuttals in the next volume, capped by her no-holds-barred riposte claiming one of the authors had “blundered too often in posing his objections to make possible a fruitful debate.” Google Scholar lists over 400 citations to the original article.
The first footnote to “Who Intervened” noted work in progress on the “impact of printing on Western European society and thought.” It was followed by a trio of articles exploring the topic: “Clio and Chronos: An Essay on the Making and Breaking of History-Book Time,” in History and Theory (1966); “Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing . . . ,” in the Journal of Modern History (1968); and “The Advent of Printing and the Problem of the Renaissance,” in Past and Present (1969). In the third very long article is this pithy claim: “My thesis . . . is that the advent of printing was, quite literally, an epoch-making event. The shift from script to print revolutionized Western culture.”
One of the tragedies of Eisenstein’s life was the death of her son John Calvert Eisenstein in 1974, when he was just 21. When the University of Michigan offered her the Alice Freeman Palmer Chair of History in 1975, she accepted, perhaps in part to put this behind her. From then until her resignation in 1988, she commuted weekly by air from Washington to Michigan.
Eisenstein's magnum opus, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, appeared in two hefty volumes in 1979 and became an instant, if controversial, success. Reviews appeared in more than 80 publications. It was reprinted the following year, and an abridged version, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, appeared in 1983. Since then it has appeared in several different languages. It is still cited as the seminal work in the cultural history of the book.
Eisenstein continued to be active in retirement. Grub Street Abroad: Aspects of the French Cosmopolitan Press from the Age of Louis XIV to the French Revolution (1992) combined her interests in print culture and 18th-century French intellectual history. Her final book, Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending, took the story into the Internet age but concluded that “Western attitudes that have survived over millennia are likely to persist. . . . Premature obituaries on the end of the book and the death of print are themselves testimony to long-enduring habits of mind.”
Under the name Betty Eisenstein, she was also a nationally ranked senior women’s tennis player, winning 33 national championships, three Grand Slam championships, and, in 1988, a World Championship. In 1999 she was inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Hall of Fame. She continued playing almost up to the time of her death.
Eisenstein received many awards, which she thoroughly relished. She returned several times to Vassar to give eulogies and lectures. She also held fellowships and visiting lectureships in the United States, Israel, Europe, and Australia. Her professional honors included an Award for Scholarly Distinction from the AHA in 2003; an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, University of Michigan, 2004; and the Gutenberg Award of the Gutenberg Society, Mainz, 2012. Among the most meaningful was Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (2007), which included essays by her friends and students and an interview. Eisenstein’s work opened up new ways to explore the transitions that shaped early modern thought; her analysis of the relationship between communication and culture remains relevant in the Internet era, more than three decades after her book first appeared.
Donations in Eisenstein’s name may be made to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabeth L. Eisenstein Acquisition Fund.
Margaret Eisenstein DeLacy
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