In Memoriam

Stow Persons (1913-2006)

Hamilton Cravens | Mar 1, 2007

Stow PersonsStow Persons, Carver Professor of History emeritus at the University of Iowa, died at his home in Iowa City on January 6, 2006, at the age of 92. Persons was born on June 15, 1913, in Mt. Carmel, Connecticut, the son of Frederick Torrell and Florence Cummings Persons. On September 4, 1943, he married Dorothy Ruess in Princeton, New Jersey. He won his BA and PhD degrees from Yale University where he worked with Ralph Henry Gabriel. From 1940 to 1950 Persons taught at Princeton University, where he also published several books. First came his monograph, Free Religion: An American Faith (1946), a detailed discussion of 19th-century New England free religious thinkers, their ideas, and how those ideas fit into the larger American culture and its history. This was the work that established him as an adept in American religious history. Next came two studies whose origins were in his teaching at Princeton in the Program on American Civilization. One was Evolutionary Thought in America (1950), which he edited, and along with notable scholars such as Edwin S. Corwin, Joseph J. Spengler, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, contributed an essay. Two years later, in cooperation with his colleague Donald D. Egbert, he edited Socialism in American Life 2 vols., (1952); one volume a collection of essays by Persons, Daniel Bell, and others, the other a large and useful bibliography on American socialism. Both works still are starting points for scholarship today.

In 1950 Persons was appointed professor of history at the University of Iowa, where he joined William O. Aydelotte to rebuild the department, which indeed they and their colleagues did, handsomely. At Iowa City Persons taught courses in American intellectual history, American society in the 18th century, and the history of science in America. Persons always brought his current research into his teaching. His seminal book American Minds: A History of Ideas (1958) was an outgrowth of his lecture course in American intellectual history. Like other practitioners of American intellectual history, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and John Higham, Persons was very interested in using ideas and methods from the social sciences as a basis for writing intellectual history. In American Minds Persons began by insisting that, strictly speaking, the sources of ideas were always previous ideas. But he fashioned the concept of the "social mind" to provide historical circumstance, context, and understanding for ideas. Even more satisfyingly, each "social mind" represented something like an age in the past. But Persons was no mere Geistgeschichter, after the example of the 19th-century German historians. He assumed that history is the story of people solving problems, of how they defined the problems they faced and resolved them. This gave his work a different flavor, a certain sophistication; he was not a conventional historian. A major theme running throughout his work was cultural class conflict, which he used to frame his histories of ideas.

When I arrived to take my PhD with Stow Persons in August 1962, his courses, undergraduate and graduate, were packed to the rafters. His lecture course in American intellectual history was a "must take" course that many students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences eagerly chose, often standing in line for hours to sign up. Lectures were an event; his lectures were models of original scholarship, delivered with polish, wit, and considerable intellectual horsepower. From testimony of others long after I left Iowa City, he was always a master teacher, hugely popular, widely respected, and very effective. Indeed there is now an annual prize in the Iowa department named after Stow Persons for the best senior thesis. At Iowa Persons also taught many graduate students. He directed the dissertations of 37 PhDs, and served on countless committees for graduate students in history and many other departments. He was equally capable of analyzing historical problems of whatever size and significance with precision, with an astonishing depth and breadth of knowledge, and with considerable insight and originality.

In the 1970s and 1980s Persons continued to publish interesting and innovative scholarship. In 1973 came The Decline of American Gentility, a work that he had devoted enormous time and thought to for some years; the rise and fall of the gentry class was the major theme of the two lecture courses in American intellectual history that I took from him. Here was a sophisticated model of the social history of intellectual life, the argument being that the gentry was the culture-bearing class in American history, and its disintegration in the later 19th century led to what we today term modernism and post-modernism in American cultural life. In 1981 he retired from active teaching; in 1987 came yet another important study from his pen, Ethnic Studies at Chicago 1905–45, in which he returned to a theme that had interested him while at Princeton: Americanization. In this work he probed the ideas of the Chicago school of sociology, especially on ethnic assimilation, a project that he had taken up in his last years of teaching. Yet there was more, a history of the University of Iowa published as The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990), which is probably the best relatively short, analytical one volume history of an American university. Stow Persons remained an active scholar until his affliction with Parkinson's disease made that too difficult. He was a man of great honesty, the highest integrity, and utter decency, and someone not prone to professional and personal self-promotion. His widow, Dorothy Ruess Persons of Iowa City, and his daughter, Catherine Persons and his son-in-law Peter Rob of Nome, Alaska, survive him.

—Hamilton Cravens
Iowa State University

Tags: In Memoriam North America


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