In Memory of Joyce Appleby (1929-2016)

Historians in the News
tags: Joyce Appleby, obituary

Interview with Bill Moyers

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On December 23, 2016, Joyce Appleby, professor emerita at UCLA, passed away. She was 87. Her long list of accomplishments included stints as the president of both leading history organizations in the United States: the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. As a tribute, we surveyed her colleagues for their best memories.

Lynn Hunt

Lynn Hunt is the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Among the many things that could be said about Joyce Appleby – her incredible loyalty to family and friends, her unfailing elegance (she could make a plaid shirt shine), her ability to set and reset historical agendas, her wonderful cooking, her boundless energy — I want to emphasize just one: her remarkable gift for conversation. When you talked to Joyce, no matter who you were or where you stood in the world in the eyes of others, she was all yours, in the moment, a passionate, sometimes irritating, but always insightful dialoguer. She loved the back and forth, whatever the topic, and she made the most of this perpetual engagement in her life and in her work.

Gary B. Nash

Gary B. Nash is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA.

Many contributors to these reflections on the life of the remarkable Joyce Appleby have  dwelled on her stellar scholarship, her gritty activism on behalf of those in the lower ranks of Los Angeles society, her mentorship of many students, and her cheery outlook on the human condition.  But I want to remember her role in developing the National History Standards (NHS) and her defense of them when they were under attack from the Conservative Right.

Joyce was appointed in 1992 to the National Council for History Standards, barely surviving a veto from Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who had been misinformed that Joyce was part of the New Left cadre of historians. Cheney had reason to regret not exercising her veto power when Appleby debated her on a radio show after the standards were published in November 1994. Very few won arguments with Joyce, and Cheney was one of those flustered by Appleby’s sweet reasonableness cloaking saber-like thrusts at Cheney’s Wall Street Journal fire-spitting op-ed piece attacking (and misrepresenting) the standards. After that, when selected defenders and opponents of the standards gathered in January 1995 at the Brookings Institution to discuss criticisms of them, Joyce was one of the four representing the National Council that had approved the standards.  President of the Organization of American Historians that year, she defended the standards as the work of a consensus-building endeavor among thirty-one participating organizations and displayed all the attributes of her distinguished career:  imperturbability when under fire, perseverance, absolute conviction of her position, optimism, and dedication to her friends and her profession. She didn’t satisfy critics of the standards (which from the beginning were understood to be guidelines, not prescriptive or mandatory standards), but she demonstrated the qualities for which she was so widely admired.

James M. Banner, Jr.

James M. Banner, Jr., a historian in Washington D.C., is a co-founder of the National History Center. His latest book is "Being an Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History."

Although initially scholars and teachers of the same subject—the history of the early American republic—Joyce Appleby and I didn’t meet until we were both in our fifties. The occasion was some lunchtime meeting, where we found ourselves sitting next to each other. We hit it off immediately with gossip, laughter, and serious talk about the state of political history, then as now being best and most inventively pursued by historians of the first century of American politics after 1765. Joyce being on one coast, I on the other, that single meeting seemed fated to be it. But when, as president of the American Historical Association, Joyce called for new efforts to convey historical knowledge to the general public, I answered, “How about an op-ed service to place current events in their historical contexts?” her response was swift: “Let’s you and I do it.” Thus was born, in 1996, the History News Service (HNS).

With the help of many others, we made HNS up as we went along. In the heyday of op-ed pages, HNS proved a quick success. Shaping, editing, AP-styling, and distributing pieces written by historians to well over 100 metropolitan dailies and wire services in North America, HNS elicited submissions from, and developed the skills of, countless historians, most of them young and not yet practiced in the op-ed arts. Of this altogether satisfying endeavor, the most fun and greatest success we had—embarrassingly enough—was our own, which was really Joyce’s doing. After George W. Bush’s 2000 election thanks to the Supreme Court, she suggested that we try twinned op-eds—one against, one in favor of, the Framer’s Electoral College. “I’ll take ‘against,’ you take ‘for,’ ” she proposed with characteristic slyness. Game for having been a high school debater, I gave the “pro” position a brave shot but only obliquely by arguing that it would be impossible, given political realities, ever to get three-fourths of the states to ratify an amendment ridding the Constitution of its strange electoral mechanism. Out went both pieces; at our insistence, they had to appear together or not at all. To our astonishment, they ran next to each other in more than 50 papers—a record for HNS. Joyce’s idea!

Joyce and I were also frequently in touch with each other about scholarly matters and often exchanged drafts of our writings. But from a collegial, professional, business-like relationship, ours progressed into a deep, trusting friendship. To whom could this superb scholar of simple bearing not be appealing? Of a beauty that only changed but never diminished over the years, she was always stylish in her own way but never à la mode. Tough and firm of view, she was also breezy, light-spirited, and, in her often brilliant written history as well as in person, always informal. Pure California! Whenever we could, we sought each other out, she western and with a light touch, I eastern and more formal, an unlikely but quick and easy fit. She came to know my wife and daughter, I her son, and we visited her Westwood home, and she our Washington one. Throughout our friendship and exchanges (sometimes numbering ten or more a week at the height of HNS), we always signed off “Joyce” and “JMB.” No need for more. Three or so years ago, I closed impulsively with something new: “Affectionately.” Quick came the reply: “Affectionately. I like that.” And so it became as it long, unacknowledged, had been. While deeply saddened by her death, I’m also deeply gladdened that, nature having taken its inevitable course, we parted from each other in this warm key.

Margaret C. Jacob

Margaret C. Jacob, is Distinguished Professor at UCLA, where she and Joyce were colleagues from 1998 until Joyce’s retirement in 2001. Along with Lynn Hunt, Joyce and Peg wrote Telling the Truth about History.

Joyce Oldham Appleby died peacefully in her sleep on Dec. 23, 2016. Born in 1929, Joyce knew the Depression as a girl growing up first in Omaha, Nebraska. Her family had been among the lucky few, yet she never forgot the lessons learned in the 1930s. They informed her life as an activist for social justice and she became a leader in the movement for a living wage for workers in Los Angeles. After graduating from Stanford in 1950 her early career took her to Mademoiselle magazine in New York where she honed writing skills that served her well throughout her long academic career. Like so many women of her generation, Joyce came to scholarship later in life after having had her three children. Her historical career also took her back to Claremont Graduate School where she earned her Ph.D. in 1966. It would be true to say that she burst upon the academic scene in her 40s. When I served as first reader for her book manuscript she was totally unknown, at least to me. A year later when we were both on sabbatical in Cambridge, England we formed a close friendship that lasted these many years.

Throughout Joyce’s intellectual life, capitalism gave her a focus. Its contradictions and its allure, and the variety of responses to both – from Marx to Weber - led to her first book, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (1978). It was controversial but widely praised by reviewers from C.B. Macpherson to Christopher Hill. Although trained and first published in American history, Joyce made an almost unprecedented move for her first book, and ventured into the lion’s den of 17th century English history. Almost every great British historian had made his reputation (then an almost entirely male set of luminaries) by tackling aspects of its political history. Yet when Joyce wrote almost no one had sought to recreate the intellectual history of capitalism’s impact, to assess how contemporaries made sense of wealth and the market, how they naturalized both.

Mary A. Yeager

Professor of Business and Economic History, History Department, UCLA, past President, Business History Association, author of COMPETITION AND REGULATION,  3 volume edited collection, WOMEN IN BUSINESS, including “Will There Ever be a Feminist Business History,”  and articles on technology, trade protection, and business women.   

In many ways, over many years at UCLA, Joyce Appleby served as an emotional rock and unparalleled role model.  She cared about others.  She connected.  She collaborated.  She gave  of herself and her intellect.   She flattened academic hierarchies.  Gently hard-hitting in scholarly debates, she effortlessly conveyed the fun and joy of intellectual jousting without losing sight of the emotional threads that bind historical actors to historians.   Equipped with a wide-ranging and sparkling curiosity,  she never took refuge in specialized niches of knowledge.  Neither economist nor economic historian, Appleby tackled the history of capitalism in a single book, The Relentless Revolution, which expertly wove multiple strands of culture, politics and economics into a compelling whole. 

These combinatorial talents extended to people and to food, which she mixed in generous proportions across a lifetime.  She was the first to issue invitations and the first to send thank you notes. A mother and grandmother , a wife and widow as well as a scholar, she understood how pregnancies, births and deaths, and sometimes bad luck mattered to scholarly careers.   She worked to change man-made tenure clocks and promotional ladders. 

She demonstrated by example how the personal informed the professional.  She cared about people, about their situations and circumstances, about what they thought and how they managed their lives.  She remained puzzled about many things, including the election of Trump.  But she never doubted history’s ability to illuminate the past. 

Stephen Aron

Stephen Aron is professor and Robert N. Burr Department Chair at UCLA and the current President of the Western History Association.

Joyce Appleby enjoyed occasionally going to the racetrack. Not that Joyce was much of a gambler. In fact, I remember on our first trip to the track together, Joyce beaming about a wager she had made on a winning long shot. But then, I discovered that she had only bet the horse to show. And so I chided her that at the racetrack, one needed to have “the courage of one’s convictions.” There was, of course, more than a little irony in this criticism, for Joyce Appleby was the most principled and resolute person I have ever known.

She was also exceptionally curious, which is why it’s so fitting that her last book, Shores of Knowledge, dealt with the human imagination that prompted “new world discoveries.” Like the scientists and explorers about whom she wrote in that book, Joyce possessed a broad imagination. All who read her books, articles, and op eds know that Joyce was a remarkable scholar, with a deep commitment to bringing her vast historical knowledge and perspective into the public realm. Those who were privileged to be her students know what a transformative teacher she was. And we who were fortunate to count her as a colleague will forever miss her dazzling intellect, her passion for spirited debate, her immense integrity, her grace, her generosity, her hospitality, her kindness, her wit, and, let's not forget, her perfect posture. Indeed, by her example, she inspired us all to stand straighter, both literally and metaphorically.

Joan Waugh

Joan Waugh is a professor of history in the UCLA History Department and researches and writes about nineteenth-century America, specializing in the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age eras.

The death of my cherished friend Joyce Appleby has brought a flood of memories dating back more than three decades. In 1978 I enrolled in her U.S. Colonial History and Early Republic classes at UCLA, an experience that changed my life. Her elegantly constructed lectures, her brilliant career as a scholar, and her style of leadership provided me with a needed role model in an academic world still unaccustomed to striving women. She was an incomparable mentor, but also a close friend to whom I turned again and again for advice, consolation, and intellectual comradeship. Significantly, Joyce was a wife and a mother, and she helped me to navigate some of the inevitable clashes of career and family. It was not easy to measure oneself against her, and I confess that I came up short! Joyce has been described as a “contrarian,” and that label fits her scholarly style, but also her sharp and sometimes painful observations delivered with gusto regarding sloppy thinking or other missteps. It’s difficult for me to do justice to the many powerful intersections of my friends, my colleagues, and my family with Joyce. She nourished a community within the UCLA history department that will never be equaled. I miss her terribly.

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