Lawrence J. Friedman: Pledges to include OAH in his estate (Interview)

Historians in the News

Sometime before his retirement party two months ago, Indiana University History Professor Lawrence J. Friedman informed the OAH that he had made provisions to include the organization in his estate plans. Larry and I have lunch every month or so at a local Bloomington restaurant, so at our last noonday repast, I suggested that we do an interview and talk about his career as a historian, his lifetime of balancing activism and scholarship, and his feelings about the OAH.

The earliest influences in Larry’s life came from two very different sources: his activist parents and his scholarly grandfather. “Both my parents were very active in the Communist Party,” Larry remembers. “They were middle level party people, so it seems to me, as historiography has shown, that their intentions were fairly noble. So that’s very much where I picked up the activism.” This activism, however, was “balanced,” he recalls, by his grandfather, “an Orthodox Jew and a Talmudic scholar, who would always be at the kitchen table going through books, the Old Testament, everything else, and it was insisted that I would study with him, that I would be clear, be logical, be precise, and I could sometimes win some arguments against my folks by doing that.”

“So it was that combination, the scholarly life from my grandfather, the political activism from my folks, that was very crucial to my early life.” Larry’s mother “received a M.A. in chemistry and bacteriology and was pursuing a M.D. degree in the Depression and wasn’t able to complete it for financial reasons and remained pretty much a lab bacteriologist much of her life, coupled with political activism.” His father “worked in a family business making grave stones, sometimes he would work in auto plants, sometimes he’d work in other ventures—life insurance for awhile. The making money part was always very secondary to the activism.”

In the late 1940s, Larry’s family moved from Ohio to California, ostensibly for health reasons as Larry “was always getting sick. The real reason, as Dorothy Healy later explained to me, is the Party reassigned my father to California to organize.” His parents’ activism shifted after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Khrushchev revelations of what had happened under Stalin. They “never formally quit the Communist Party, but they became considerably less enthusiastic and at the same time became more and more active in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the point where my father was on the national board of the ACLU and my mother was the Southern California chair of the ACLU.”

“I remember once asking my father how he could reconcile basically a Marxism that never left him and a formal allegiance to Soviet Marxism to civil liberties, and his reply was that one day we academics will wake up to the fact that people are layers, and often contradictory layers, and that’s what makes us human.”....

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