Michael Fellman (1943–2012)
Christopher Phelps, September 2012
Historian of the 19th Century, the Civil War, and American Violence
Michael Fellman, Professor Emeritus of History at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Canada, died on June 11, 2012, after a brief illness, at 69. A highly productive historian of the nineteenth-century United States, Fellman is perhaps best known for Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990), a book whose title offers a mere hint of its author's delight in upending conventional military history. His oeuvre was dedicated to the excavation of American political violence and the history of anger, which he carried out with a psychological probity born of self-examination, not social criticism alone. He conveyed his findings in a well-crafted, sprightly prose reflective of his view that "truly engaged history writing is anarchic or at least irreverent."
Fellman was born in 1943 in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, who taught constitutional law at the University of Wisconsin, was a good friend of historian Merle Curti. Being brought up in an accomplished Midwestern Jewish academic family with liberal politics and civil libertarian values was a formative experience, as was the post-war context, especially revelations of the scale of the Holocaust and the household's dismay at the power wielded by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
As a college student, first at Oberlin College where he saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak, then at the University of Michigan (BA, 1965), Fellman was inspired by the civil rights movement, although he second-guessed himself for declining to take part in Mississippi's Freedom Summer. At Northwestern University in Chicago (PhD, 1969), where he studied under Robert Wiebe, his radicalism was always more intellectual than activist, but he dissented from the Vietnam War. His dissertation became his first book, The Unbounded Frame: Freedom and Community in Nineteenth-Century American Utopianism (Greenwood, 1973), which held that freedom and community tugged in opposite directions at visionaries, with obvious pertinence to sixties counterculture.
In 1969, Fellman arrived at Simon Fraser University, where he taught many American draft resisters. Eventually becoming an American-Canadian dual citizen, he liked to claim that he was "equally alienated from two societies"—although cosmopolitan Vancouver, set amidst the natural beauty of British Columbia, in time made Canada where he most felt at home, especially given America's right turn. He remained at SFU for his entire career, with the exception of a Fulbright to Israel and sabbaticals at Princeton's Davis Center, the Stanford Humanities Center, and Huntington Library. At his retirement in 2008, he was SFU's director of Graduate Liberal Studies.
His outsider status defined Fellman's critical, if not iconoclastic, approach to the American past. He deliberately eschewed heroic, triumphal, or elegiac models. From an early focus on reform currents in social thought, including abolitionism, his research took a decided turn toward the Civil War with Inside War, followed by the biographies Citizen Sherman: A Life of William T. Sherman (Random House, 1995) and The Making of Robert E. Lee (Random House, 2000). In his Civil War writings, Fellman charted a course independent of either pro-Union triumphalism or neo-Confederate longing. His accounts were unvarnished studies in white supremacy and bloodthirstiness, North and South.
In the aftermath of 9/11, namely the invasion of Iraq and indefinite Guantánamo Bay detentions, Fellman produced In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History (Yale University Press, 2009). Spanning the second half of the nineteenth century, the book includes expectable "terrorists" such as John Brown and the Haymarket anarchists while also advancing the claim that violence practiced by the state ought to be considered terror every bit as much as that perpetrated by individual actors. Chapters on the Civil War, white redeemers, and American colonial atrocities in the Philippines hold that patriotism and religiosity permitted rationalization of indiscriminate state violence in American political history long before George W. Bush ever occupied the White House.
A liberal with an anarchist streak, a hippie at heart who had long ago shorn his hair and beard, a rebel who enjoyed success (particularly in the form of a fine pinot noir or succulent lamb shank), a man of steadfast convictions given to unpredictable spurts of spontaneity, a disturber of the peace on all levels who loved big hugs and laughter, an opponent of militarism who devoted a lifetime to the study of war, Fellman's impish earnestness and loving fulmination are perhaps best gleaned in his final book, the half-autobiographical Views from the Dark Side of American History (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
He is survived by his wife Santa Aloi, his sister Laura Fellman, his sons Joshua and Eli, and four grandchildren.
University of Nottingham