David H. Culbert (1943–2017)
Historian of Media
David H. Culbert, a leader in the field of media history and a longtime faculty member at Louisiana State University (LSU), died May 20, 2017, while in Italy with his wife, Lubna.
Born on July 7, 1943, in Texas, David grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and attended Oberlin College, where he received a BA in history and an MA in organ performance. He would go on to have almost a dual career, serving for 30 years as organist and choir master at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. He chose history as his primary professional focus, however, and received his PhD from Northwestern University in 1970. After a year at Yale, he came to LSU, where he worked his way through the ranks and, in recognition of his scholarly accomplishments and contributions to the department, in 2005 became the inaugural John L. Loos Professor of History. He had visiting fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Yale’s National Humanities Institute, and he held a fellowship from the Kellogg Foundation.
David’s first book, News for Everyman: Radio and Foreign Affairs in Thirties America (1976), combined interests in media, politics, and diplomacy; throughout his career, his fascination with the interplay among them shaped his scholarship. Perhaps his greatest scholarly contribution came through the unselfish role of editor. Serving as editor-in-chief, he worked with others to publish the five-volume Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History (1990–93). He also edited Information Control and Propaganda: Records of the Office of War Information (1987). With John Chambers, David edited the anthology World War II, Film, and History (1996); with Nicholas Cull and David Welch, he brought out The Encyclopedia of Propaganda and Mass Persuasion, 1500–2000 (2003).
Most important, from 1992 to 2012 David edited the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, an interdisciplinary journal published by the International Association for Media and History. An active member of the association from its earliest days, he served as its president from 1987 to 1989. The association honored his service as editor by naming after him its journal’s award for the best article by a senior scholar.
A scholar of enormous energy, David was the first chair of the Organization of American Historians’ Erik Barnouw Award Committee and twice chaired the AHA’s John O’Connor Award Committee, both awards for historical films. He published a steady stream of articles and essays in collections, many of which focused on American movies during World War II or the use of film in Nazi Germany. The latter included articles on Leni Riefenstahl, whom he interviewed twice.
David also employed films to explain history. With Peter Rollins, he made a documentary, Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of Visual Images (1982 and 1985), a version of which was shown at the White House and broadcast on PBS. He served as associate producer and director of historical research on the Ken Burns documentary Huey Long (1986), for which he located much of the film’s archival footage. In subsequent years, David consulted on a host of other documentaries.
David incorporated film into his teaching, pioneering its classroom use in LSU’s history department. Students responded to his infectious and expansive intellectual curiosity, his seemingly exhaustive command of historical detail, and his wry, often irreverent sense of humor. Undergraduate and graduate students alike remembered the time he devoted to them. He had numerous students who wrote theses or dissertations on 20th-century political and diplomatic topics as well as on media history. At the time of his far-too-early death, one PhD student had just defended her dissertation and three others had begun work on theirs. They and other LSU students will miss his influence.
Through his legacy of research and teaching, David Culbert’s scholarship on the history of film and propaganda will remain important for years to come.
Gaines M. Foster
Louisiana State University
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