New Left historian Norman Pollack has died

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Norman Pollack

I’m reeling over this news sent to me by Nancy Pollack. Norm brought to Yale in the early 1960s the thriving culture around Harvard Square. He showed up in his blue work-shirt, bringing us news of Joan Baez’s coffee-house performances. More than that, he was the first leftist to take on the godawful Yale History Dept. I had been at Yale for almost ten years, where Andre Schiffrin’s tepid .John Dewey Society passed for a left. Norm was the real thing.

Norm was a New Leftist before there was a New Left, both in lifestyle and in scholarship. His 1962 POPULIST RESPONSE TO INDUSTRIAL AMERICA broke through the political attacks on the Populists from Handlin, Hofstadter et. al. and offered a rehabilitation which saw coherence to the Populist critique and found them progressive, not retrogressive.. Had the book appeared a few years later, it would have been seen as part of a movement in the profession that would re-examine all of American history and would undermine the then dominant Consensus school.

I assume that Yale hired Norm because he had been certified as clean by his time as a graduate student at Harvard. And he had a book coming out from Harvard University Press. What could go wrong? But as he published his stunning close critiques of the saints of the day – including the above-mentioned H & H – John Blum, Ed Morgan and the rest began to awaken to the radical and ungetlemanly presence in their midst – worse yet, he was both a radical and a scholar.

I cherish my memories of Norm teaching History 20 in 1962-63. Did he really tell the 600 (?) students gathered in S-S-S that somebody in John Winthrop’s colonial Boston wondered what the noise was about and was told, “They are holding the Governor’s Ball”? In January 1963, as Norm lectured in the last class of the semester, he announced my cue: “One night, with the cares of office heavy on his shoulders, Lincoln went to the theater, when…” I stood up in the balcony and, amidst smoke and flame, fired the Ruger starter pistol, and shouted “Sic semper tyrannus .”A wave of head-turning passed through the assembled Yalies. Norm slapped the ketchup pellet concealed under his jacket and fell to the stage. The semester was over.

Morgan called me in. The Chair, the grotesque anti-semite George Wilson Pierson --who wore his blue tux to Yale smokers at the AHA and warned Staughton Lynd against seeking housing in an area of New Haven populated by those he called “the sons of Abraham” -- found this conduct unbecoming a member of the History Department, and I was off to Chicago, genteely “let go.”. Shortly, Norm and Staughton were also thrown out: another chapter in Yale’s hiring of credentialed deviants and belated discovery that we were a threat to Judeo-Chirstian Civilization (as it was called). My premature departure was due to the faked assassination (and perhaps due to my work rehabilitating what was called “the mob” in Early America); Norm’s and Staughton’s firings were clearly political. With Norm there was an element of anti0semitism. That noted liberal, C. Vann Woodward was particularly vocal in his disapproval of Norm and Staughton. (and I’ve always held it against Vann that when the literature turned somewhat favorable to the Populists, he could not bring himself to credit Norm’s important role.)

Norm was an important figure in my life and scholarship, helping me to overcome the effect of my ten years at Yale in those Dark Ages and helping me to define new directions in left scholarship.And he was antic and playful. I’m so terribly sorry that he’s gone.

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