Peggy K. Liss (1927–2023)
Historian of Spain and Latin America; AHA 50-Year Member
Peggy K. Liss, a historian of Spain, Latin America, and transatlantic empires, died on March 17, 2023, at 95 years of age. She was a trailblazer for women in the discipline who made groundbreaking contributions to both history and historiography.
Liss attended Syracuse University as an undergraduate and transferred to the University of Chicago. She left before completing her degree for a career in journalism and public relations. In her early 30s, now married with two children and a bustling suburban social life, she returned to school to satisfy a latent intellectual hunger. As she would later reflect, “I was good at chatting about any number of topics, but all of them superficially, none in depth.” She chose history because it was “a profession that emphasized rationality, nuance and fairmindedness,” and offered insight into the human condition. Liss earned her BA from Beaver College (1961) and her MA (1962) and PhD (1965) from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was mentored by Arthur Whitaker as his only female student. Among other accomplishments, she learned Spanish to pursue archival research. Her dissertation focused on Miguel Hidalgo, the failed Mexican independence leader and subsequent hero.
Having earned her PhD, Liss turned to further research on the Mexican independence movement, which became Mexico under Spain, 1521–1556: Society and the Origins of Nationality (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975). Having explored the Mexican independence movement, she was left wondering about the end of Spanish domination in Mexico. As a result, she broadened her scope with her second sole-authored book, Atlantic Empires: The Network of Trade and Revolution, 1713–1826 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983). Liss was an early pioneer in looking at transatlantic trade as an interrelated commercial and cultural ecosystem. The book’s contributions are attested to by the scholarly activities it inspired; sessions were held on Atlantic Empires at both the 1983 and 1984 AHA annual meetings, and Choice selected the book as one of its Outstanding Academic Titles of 1983.
Subsequently, Liss turned her attention to Spain, ready to go “narrower and deeper” into a single topic. With the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she wrote her third book, Isabel the Queen: Life and Times (Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), which launched a new phase of her career, including further publications (invited book chapters and encyclopedia entries), speaking engagements, and conference presentations. She was awarded the Cruz Oficial de la Orden de Isabel la Católica for distinguished cultural service, bestowed upon her by King Juan Carlos of Spain in 2000.
One of the greatest adventures of Liss’s academic career was her work as originator, co-producer, and historical advisor on The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, a five-hour PBS documentary narrated by Carlos Fuentes and sponsored by the Smithsonian as its 1992 contribution to the Columbus Quincentenary. Liss traveled the world with the production crew, putting in long days on and off set to ensure historical accuracy. Completed in 1994, it aired on both PBS and the Discovery Channel and was used as a pedagogical resource in many classrooms.
Liss served the historical discipline in a number of roles, including terms as vice president (1986) and president (1987) of the Conference on Latin American History; membership on various boards and committees, including the executive committee of the Conference on Latin American History (1978–82), the AHA Council (1985–88) and Ad Hoc Committee on History and Film (1987–92), and the NEH fellowship selection committee at the John Carter Brown Library (1993). She also served as director of the Project on Historical Documents for Bahamas, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent (1984–85). Liss’s papers are archived at Johns Hopkins University.
About five years before her death, Liss reflected on her long life as a historian: “Is doing history—a lifetime spent teaching and writing as accurately as possible about the past—worthwhile? Yes, it is, especially in considering that the human past seems indispensable to anchoring the present, and that without a reliable history, the resulting vacuum inevitably invites nostalgia for a past that never was. The past we know is sloppy; what we historians do is straighten up a selected part of it as best we can.”
Liss is survived by her children, Peter Korn and Margaret R. Hawkins, and three grandchildren.
Margaret R. Hawkins
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