In Memoriam

Joyce Appleby (1929-2016)

Margaret Jacob and Lynn Hunt, February 2017

Historian of Liberalism and Capitalism; Former AHA President

Joyce Oldham Appleby died peacefully in her sleep on December 23, 2016, in Taos, New Mexico. Born on April 9, 1929, in Omaha, Nebraska, she never forgot the long lines she saw outside soup kitchens during the Depression, even though her family was prosperous. A passionate believer in social justice, in later life she seized every opportunity to make a difference, from agitating for a living wage to organizing shipments of American studies libraries to universities across the world.

After graduating from Stanford University in 1950, she went off to New York and Mademoiselle magazine, where she honed writing skills that served her well throughout her long academic career. Like so many women of her generation, Joyce came to scholarship later in life, after having her three children, Ann, Mark, and Frank. In 1966, she earned her PhD at Claremont Graduate University with a dissertation titled “An American Pamphlet in Paris,” a study of the influence of American political thought on the opening debates of the French Revolution. One signature quality was already evident: she would go where an intellectual problem led her rather than follow expected trajectories. She took up her first teaching job at San Diego State University in 1967. Her beloved husband, Andrew Bell Appleby (d. 1980), also taught there, and together they left an indelible mark. His sudden death while out jogging left a long shadow over her middle years.

Having been trained and first published as an Americanist, Joyce made an almost unprecedented move by venturing into the lion’s den of 17th-century English history. Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-­Century England (1978) burst upon the scene and generated instant controversy as well as praise from the likes of C. B. Macpherson and Christopher Hill. Writing in the American Historical Review (1979), Hill called it “stimulating, provocative, trail-blazing.” Almost every great British historian had made his reputation (it was then an almost entirely male set of luminaries) by tackling aspects of the country’s political history. When Joyce wrote about the intellectual history of capitalism’s impact—assessing how contemporaries made sense of wealth and the market and naturalized both, and relating these to the political trajectory of liberalism—almost no one else had.

One of the longest reviews came from J.G.A. Pocock, whose epic work on republicanism, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), had taken a very different tack; he argued that republican thought in the Anglo-­American tradition was essentially hostile to possessive individualism and the spirit and reality of capitalist endeavor. His work co­incided with and further inspired an upsurge of interest among Americanists in republicanism. Given her own Anglo-American interests, it is perhaps not surprising that Joyce would take up the gauntlet. Having prepared the way with a series of articles, she laid out her alternative in Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (1984), which she deepened in Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992). She saw republicanism and liberalism as complementing each other and offered a nuanced but optimistic account of the embrace of capitalism in the new US republic. The debate that ensued was spirited but always respectful. It played out in local and national conferences and countless articles and review essays. Joyce moved to UCLA in 1981 and remained there until her retirement in 2001. She had become a leader in the profession with an international reputation, and many honors followed. In 1990–91, she served as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. She was elected president of the Organization of American Historians (1991), of the American Historical Association (1997), and of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1999). She was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1993), member of the American Philosophical Society (1994), and corresponding fellow of the British Academy (2001).

Resting on her laurels was not in Joyce’s nature. Her pace of publication quickened even as the topics broadened, and she gave unstintingly of her time to set up innovative undergraduate and graduate courses and mentor students and young faculty alike. She got high marks in her course evaluations but often received from students a groaning complaint that she assigned too much reading. Daunted but intrepid, she even mastered PowerPoint.

Given her abiding interest in explaining the significance of scholarship to the public, it is not surprising that she closely followed the rise of postmodernist criticism and helped her students organize an accessible reader on the subject (Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective, 1996). In 1994, she published her own views on the subject in a book written with the two of us, called Telling the Truth about History; it addressed the issues of truth, science, nationalism, the culture wars, and postmodernism, making the case that a philosophically aware and empirically grounded notion of historical truth was an essential foundation of democratic societies. It was a primer for students and interested readers alike.

Joyce’s fascination with early American identity blossomed into Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000). This work was based on some 200 autobiographies and gave an up-close and personal view of the sensibilities of early Americans. When she retired, she announced a desire to garden and see her grandchildren rather than write, yet three books followed, aimed in different ways at the wider reading public: a short biography of one of her heroes, Thomas Jefferson; a general history of capitalism, The Relentless Revolution (2010); and a history of curiosity in the West, Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination (2013). Her own boundless curiosity kept her vibrantly engaged with her family, friends, colleagues, and readers around the world.

Joyce Appleby touched thousands through her books, teaching, public lectures, and television appearances, yet what her countless friends will remember is not so much the sweeping arguments or even the writerly elegance of her articles and books as the engaged, enthusiastic, loyal, and elegant person who so willingly shared her knowledge, fierce intelligence, joy for life, and love.

Margaret Jacob and Lynn Hunt
University of California, Los Angeles


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