George M. Fredrickson: Remembered as a great scholar
The picture I would like to show you of George Fredrickson is a picture I don’t have but remember well, a picture I hope some suitably-situated obituarist will retrieve from the original dust-jacket of The Inner Civil War, a picture of a square-jawed George in 1965 with the Kennedy haircut and a straight-stem pipe, looking as if he had just stepped out of the ExComm. That was the George who wanted to punch his weight with the greats, the George who could write
I am convinced that the few who have a genuine interest in ideas and a powerful urge to find meaning and coherence in their experience are able to tell us more about a crisis of values, with its inevitable confusion and ambivalence, than the many who avoid difficult issues and are content to speak in outdated clichés.
His intellectual journey took him far from that statement, which he later said left him feeling “slightly embarrassed,” because he had chosen his “few” without reflecting on their position in an “elitist canon.” He did not make that mistake again. He transformed himself into the major historian of American racial thought with The Black Image in the White Mind. In 1980 he examined the field of comparative history and concluded that it “does not really exist yet.” In 1981 he remedied this defect with his incomparable White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, which he followed in 1995 with Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa.
George was my Doktorvater, as they say; I believe he was the one who taught me the word. In college I took Joel Silbey’s class on the Civil War and Reconstruction, which fit me to read The Inner Civil War and The Arrogance of Race, and with the arrogance of youth I wrote a personal statement saying I wanted to write books like those, and I wished George would please teach me. In the spring of 1991 there was a message on my answering machine from George Fredrickson saying he would do that very thing. It remains one of the greatest honors of my career.
By the time I met him George was a big man, stout as well as tall, in an office that was tall as well as big, with high windows, windows like the windows that overlook the canals in the Low Countries, with low Valley sunlight coming yellow through them. By one of these windows George had stationed an electric fan so that the room would not fill with smoke while he puffed on his pipe. He would ask a question, which I would answer inadequately. He had no problem letting silence then fill the room, silence cut only by the whir of the fan and the rush of pipe-smoke through the stem. I would fidget, then invariably start to amplify my humble reply at exactly the same time he chose to begin explaining why I was wrong. More than slight embarrassment comes over me now when I think how callow I was then. The longest pauseless conversation we had covered the merits of Garrison Keillor, whom I twice went to see perform during graduate school, and whom George rather liked. Apart from Keillor the only other non-intellectual matter for which I believe we shared a definite appreciation was a drink.
If he was taciturn he was not dispassionate. Everyone who read his writing knew how strongly he felt the cause of justice. And he had a temper, and he was not above the occasional Anglo-Saxonism, deployed especially choicely on one occasion in the cause of an advisee who had been mistreated by his employer.
George taught me intellectual history for my comprehensive exams. When I asked him what I should read, he said, “Well, traditionally you’re supposed to master the field,” after which there ensued an even longer pause than usual. At the oral examination itself, in the so-called War Room of Stanford’s History Department, George asked me if I would for his benefit please distinguish between premodern, modern, and postmodern modes of thought.
He was honest enough in criticizing my books, too. When I asked him what he thought of one of them, he said, “It was very well written.” Silence. Fortunately for me, he said he very much liked a couple of others, especially some of the comparative work, so I felt I had done all right by him. And he took delight in hearing about my children.
And last, perhaps, in his phrase, “slightly embarrassed,” we shouldn’t slight the “slightly.” To the end he wanted to punch his weight with the acknowledged greats. Throughout his career, he circled Lincoln, who disappointed and fascinated him, and last year he wrote me that he concluded—I know with intellectual, and I think with personal, disappointment—that Lincoln would never have supported the Fourteenth Amendment—unless, George wrote, perhaps because he was unwilling to write off hope altogether, he had “a radical change of heart.”
Today I received the sad news that George Fredrickson died unexpectedly yesterday. I miss him.
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