Jesse Lemisch (1936–2018)
Historian of the United States; AHA 50-Year Member
Jesse Lemisch died in New York City on August 25, 2018. Trained at Yale University as a historian of the American Revolution, his influence rippled beyond that specialty and across generations. His dissertation, “Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution” (1962), challenged previous accounts of the war, demonstrated what careful attention to sources could reveal, and set a standard for writing “history from the bottom up.” And his 1968 William and Mary Quarterly article, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” inspired many historians to explore history through the eyes and ideas of a varied populace, making historiographical changes that are still underway.
Equally influential was his often abrasive but principled posture as a member of the profession. Charged with present-mindedness early in his career, he answered with piles of evidence that the disagreement was really about politics: his critics meant to say that he was too radical. By engaging them, he showed one way to challenge what he called “the shackles of consensus” that then dominated academic departments. Along with contemporaries like Staughton Lynd, Alfred Young, and Howard Zinn, he insisted that one’s responsibilities as a citizen were not abandoned at the door marked “Historian Within.”
He helped assemble a radical caucus within the Association that stood behind Lynd’s run for AHA president in 1969, offered a resolution opposing the Vietnam War, and inspired a continuing radical presence within the historical profession. A critic, responding to his work, objected to “how far he and his ilk are estranged from civilization.” For some historians, to be in his “ilk” was a badge of honor.
His was a welcome voice in 1969, when young women in graduate school (taught only by white men) imagined a future as historians. The authors of this remembrance, whom he introduced that year, both credit Lemisch with setting them on their lifelong paths, into women’s history for Ellen and historical editing for Ann.
At the start of his career, he taught at Yale, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. Positions at Roosevelt University, SUNY Buffalo, and Baruch College followed, and he retired from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Lemisch helped to transform how money trickled to historians through the National Historical Publications Commission. In 1971, the AHA Newsletter (now Perspectives on History) published his essay “The American Revolution Bicentennial and the Papers of Great White Men: A Preliminary Critique of Current Documentary Publication Programs and Some Alternative Proposals,” in which he pointed out that federal policy failed to reflect changes in historical scholarship. He was heard. By the late 1970s, new editors, with federal dollars, were assembling the papers of leaders who were not all white nor all male and reinventing models of editorial scholarship to include groups of actors, like the Black Abolitionists. Never one to let a liberal solution stand unchallenged, in 1975 Lemisch published “The Papers of a Few Great Black Men and a Few Great White Women.”
One Lemisch legacy is preserved in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives department: the Bicentennial Schlock Collection. Before studies of historical memory were fashionable, he worked with students in 1976 to amass and curate for exhibition commercial products that alluded to 1776. In the words of the finding aid, the collection “ranges from paper plates and beer cans to a pair of stuffed mice.” As Lemisch told the New York Times, “Nobody asked for Bicentennial schlock; nobody will take responsibility for it.” But he preserved the evidence.
One of Lemisch’s last clashes with professional power occurred in 2012, when he launched Occupy the AHA. Looking for a serious response to the weak academic job market for historians, he urged the Association to lobby for a new Federal Writers’ Project. It was a leap too far for the profession, but a new generation of historians saw Jesse Lemisch in action.
No remembrance of him is complete without acknowledging his 50-year dedication to his partner, Naomi Weisstein, a distinguished experimental psychologist and pioneer of women’s liberation. During her decades of suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome, he battled medical professionals and insurance companies to ensure her care. She died in 2015.
Ellen C. DuBois
Ann D. Gordon
Rutgers University (emerita)
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