What They're Famous For
One of the most distinguished historians of the American South, Wyatt-Brown is the
Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History, University of Florida.
Under the guidance of C. Vann Woodward,
he earned his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1963.
Before arriving at the University of Florida, he taught at Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, University of Wisconsin (as a visiting assistant professor), and Case Western Reserve University. Wyatt-Brown mentored
many Ph.D.'s in his long career. He chaired 6 students to their doctorates at
CWRU and 29 at the University of Florida. In addition, he served on
110 graduate students' committees at various institutions during his career.
In October 2005 his former students and the University of Florida put on a retirement symposium"Honoring a Master," in honor of his career as a distinguished educator, historian, and
Just before retiring, he served as the Douglas Southall Freeman Professor at the University of Richmond and as the James Pinckney Harrison Professor at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of nine books, 93 essays, and nearly 150 book reviews. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982, 1983) is a classic the best known of his work. It was a finalist for the American Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. A fellow of the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of Humanities, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center, Princeton, he has served as President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1994), St. George Tucker Society (1998-99), and Southern Historical Association (2000-01). He is currently writing Honor and America's Wars: From the Revolution to Iraq. Wyatt-Brown has appeared in a number of television documentaries, and serves as series editor of the Louisiana State Press' Southern Biography Series.
How to Lose Your First Job Teaching History: A Cautionary Tale
In August 1962, my wife Anne and I headed from Maryland for the Far West in a newly
painted bottle-green Volkswagen Beetle. It had been an ugly tan color until the ministrations of Earl Schreib's paint shop at $29.95 brightened its appearance. We passed through Tennessee (to visit in my mother in Sewanee), Arkansas (where"white" and" colored" rest rooms confronted us at every rest stop), the vast spaces of Oklahoma, and eventually our destination. Just married on June 30, we were heading from Baltimore to Fort Collins, Colorado, seat of Colorado State University. It was known locally--or at least so we younger instructors liked to laugh--as the Harvard of Larimer County.
It was my first teaching job in the field of Jacksonian and Southern history. David Donald, newly arrived at Johns Hopkins, advised me by phone to seize the appointment. He assured me that he knew personally how dynamic a faculty was being constructed there. My own advisor, C. Vann Woodward, was out of reach for consultation. Lily Lavarello, the departmental secretary, told me that Dr. Woodward was in Houston, with only a" c/o Postmaster" address and no known phone number. He had already left for Yale the year before his sabbatical. For his last student at Hopkins, however, he did return in January 1963 to preside over my final dissertation exam. Thus, in lieu of any other advice, Donald's seemed wise. The position would include tenure at some point, but all new faculty contracts at CSU were limited to only one year with expected renewals thereafter. For both Anne and me, it seemed at the time quite adventuresome, even thrilling, to leave the familiar East Coast for the unknown desert West.
Sheltered under the Rockies, Fort Collins, we quickly discovered, was at that time a typically American small town. Apart from CSU, its economic life depended upon the sale and processing of sugar beets, wheat, and other agricultural products. Conservative, devoutly Protestant, and wary of undergraduate inclinations, the town fathers required that to buy anything more potent than 3.2 beer you had best Harry Hoffman's, a discount store near the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. The Fort Collins restaurant scene consisted primarily of the International House of Pancakes ("IHOP") and a Chinese establishment run by a Jewish New Yorker. There was also a cheap but satisfying Mexican restaurant on the edge of town. Hotels? I cannot recall a single major chain or first-class set of accommodations. In those days, I am sure that at times the townspeople still regretted that the state penitentiary had been conferred by the legislature upon Golden instead of Fort Collins, which received the consolation prize of unchecked adolescent students and professors from heaven knows where.
Until 1957, only five years earlier, CSU had been Colorado State Agricultural and Mechanical College, so named in 1944. The body of oversight was still the State Agricultural Board. While pontificating about the rationale for the American Revolution in the first half of the U.S. survey, I was somewhat disconcerted by the seemingly endless parade of Union Pacific Railroad freight cars rattling and screeching under the lecture-room windows. Crossing campus, the passerby could sometimes hear pigs squeal as they were getting slaughtered in a nearby Ag building.
The first disappointment was my introduction to the university library. According to the brochure I had read before arrival, the library boasted over a million volumes. While this may have been true, a first-hand inspection of the stacks revealed that at least 60% of these consisted of agricultural pamphlets, dry-wheat farming being a specialty. Another 20% or so was devoted to veterinary medicine. I disclaim the accuracy of the figures, but, truthfully, the size of the history collection was upsetting, especially for a young instructor preparing classes for the first time. Each professor, though, was allotted $100 to fill gaps. Even in that non-inflationary time, the allotment was not much. The library is now justly named for William E. Morgan, who was the university president during that period. It is a quite impressive edifice compared with the pleasant but relatively bookless facility that preceded it. Old Main in the handsome and popular Dutch style, built in the 1880s one would guess, was the only notable ornament on campus. My wife taught English composition there; sadly it burned down a few years later.
Class sizes were huge. Like the other professors, I had 100 students in two sittings, along with 36 in the upper-level Jacksonian course. Foolishly, I had the students write a midterm essay exam in the freshmen survey. I had disdained to adopt what my more experienced colleagues offered--multiple choice. Chastened by the countless hours of toil, I soon submitted to the department's more comfortable exam arrangement. For the second term, I was assigned a course in economic history about which I knew practically nothing. But was I popular! My grades were extraordinarily high since I could not judge the real quality of the papers. The students rejoiced.
Pay in those days was as meager as classes were large. Nonetheless, the university had its hopes for the future. Governor Steve McNichols, a stalwart Democrat, had determined to improve higher education throughout the state. He promoted higher faculty salaries and instituted improved finances for education even though these reforms meant higher taxes. The senior faculty, the president, and administrators were also determined to make CSU a genuine institution of higher learning. It began seriously to reach that goal after our departure.
At the time, though, a serious letdown across the campus affected everyone. In the fall election of 1962, the state had gone very Republican. McNichols lost his bid for reelection. His successor, John Arthur Love, the business candidate, took the gubernatorial chair in January 1963. At once, he announced a large tax reduction and a drastically steep cut in the state budget for higher education. At that time, we younger faculty members labeled him a Far Right extremist, but in retrospect by today's criterion he would seem simply a moderate. In any event, it was as if only Democrats were foolhardy enough to pay for such a frivolous waste. Incensed, in my naiveté I spoke to the matter in class.
If you are young and insecurely arrogant, it would be best not to follow the example about to be described. I announced that Governor Love was the"enemy" of undergraduates in so cruelly shrinking the funds for their education. The term was ill-advised. The son of an Agricultural Board member, whom Love had recently appointed, sat in one of my survey classes. He reported the remarks to his father, who then informed the governor. Love immediately called President Morgan to inquire what action he was taking on so blatant a violation of classroom decorum. Being a shrewd and resourceful academic leader, Morgan called me on the phone and asked if he could come by my office. Of course, I was flattered, but quite flummoxed about as to why so lofty and distant a figure would wish to visit a lowly assistant professor. But the president's tactic was not merely gracious but also disarming--in case I was some Eastern firebrand primed to initiate a sensational political scene. The President knew that Love would have welcomed the chance for popular applause by rooting out a left-leaning zealot from a university faculty. Quite plausibly such an uproar would thoroughly humiliate the Democratic university president and force him into resigning.
Seated in a chair usually occupied by a wheedling undergraduate seeking some act of mercy, the president told me the circumstances. He asked if I would be willing to write an expression of regret to him that he could forward to the Governor and the Board. Relieved that no worse fate was about to descend, I readily replied,"Yes, of course. I will do exactly as you suggest." Moreover, it was clear to me what Love's partisan intentions were. With the letter of apology soon on his desk and sent on to the state authorities, that ended the business.
Alas, if my troubles had only terminated at that point. By the beginning of the second year of teaching, I had learned the rudiments of the academic craft but was hardly well-seasoned. Trying to complete the doctoral dissertation for C. Vann Woodward with every available moment, in preparing for the survey course, I came to rely on Morrison and Commager's Growth of the American Republic for anecdotes and information. (In those days, most Hopkins graduate students were not allowed to face an undergraduate class, even as assistants to a senior professor.) We moved from a dormitory-like university apartment for underpaid faculty ($75 per month) to a much more pleasant duplex nearer the campus. The rent of $95 a month (plus gas) that we paid horrified the senior history faculty, used to years of near penury. But, with Anne expecting our first child, the extra sum seemed worthwhile even if money for entertainment and book-buying had to be severely cut.
In 1962, I was only one of six new Ph.D. hires in the CSU History Department. We were not a happy crew the following year. Salary increases had been minimal. The senior faculty members, while quite academically respectable, had been there during the still more depressing times of the early 1950s. They had learned from cheerless experience to resign themselves to whatever changes of fortune there might be. The younger history teachers grew impatient with their seeming timidity and backwardness. On later reflection, though, I have to confess that we were scarcely above reproach in our ill-disguised disrespect. Some of us from larger cities we suffering somewhat from culture shock. That state of mind did not help. In addition, we thought we were indispensable. It was not so. While most of us left at the end of that year, our replacements proved no less enterprising and ambitious than we were, and they were probably more sensible, too.
On some weekends, we junior historians and political scientists and our spouses took R & R trips to Denver's Brown Palace and dinners at the hotel's swank and reasonable Ship Tavern. It was only five dollars for perfectly grilled rainbow trout, and ten dollars got you a well-appointed hotel room. The excursions, sometimes through heavy snows, helped momentarily to shake off the parochialism of Fort Collins. There the churches far outnumbered the mediocre eateries and movie houses. Yet, as a spirited controversy developed in the fall, winter, and spring of 1963 and 1964, we young instructors developed what might be called a definite case of small-group neurosis. It all seemed rational at the time, but, on reflection, our bonding was not altogether reasonable or sound.
One of the six new professors was a Ph.D. who had come from Berkeley, the Parnassus of the West. He grew certain that he had landed in the midst of unsanctified barbarism. In a senior honors class, the Californian discovered that one of the students had plagiarized her entire term paper. He gave the senior an F, a grade that effectively prevented graduation. Had the student been an ordinary undergraduate, no more would have been heard of the matter. She was, however, the wife of the only endowed chair-holder in the university, a professor of veterinary medicine whose forte, as I recall, was equine science. His college was the only branch of CSU with national standing at that time.
The chair of the history department, some senior history faculty members, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences urged the instructor to exercise some discretion. In small college towns, these things matter more than elsewhere. Robert Barnard's satirical mystery story, Death of an Old Goat, explores a similar academic episode in the Australian outback. With much flare and flourish, the young assistant professor refused to change the grade. (If memory serves, the veterinarian's wife did win her degree at some point. Not surprisingly, the stubborn instructor was not re-hired. The department and college would certainly handle similar circumstances quite differently today.)
The dean was a botanist known statewide for his slide lectures at women's garden clubs. On this matter of instructional autonomy and ethics, however, he was not up to form. At a hot meeting with the dean and others, I announced my frustration that it was even taking place and declared my intention to resign. That move was nearly disastrous. The department decided that my services would not be needed the following year and so officially informed me. Recognizing my impulsiveness, I tried to take back my hasty words. That change of heart, though, won no change of minds in the department and administration. Be advised never to resign your first job if there is no fall back position. On the Diane Rehm show (30 January 2006), the Southern novelist Gail Godwin told how she was fired as a fledging reporter, even though she had had six by-lines and the lead story in that same day's paper."It's terrifying to lose your first job," she observed. How true.
By then our first child was well on the way. Under considerable strain, Anne was teaching two sections of Freshman Comp and taking graduate courses toward a Masters' degree, after she had earned her B.A. at Radcliffe and her M.A.T. degree at Johns Hopkins. I went to the history conventions, where friends helpfully rounded up various possibilities, an even dozen, as I recall. 1964 was a rare year in the annals of the profession when demand was greater than supply. None worked out. I remember one interview for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, during a Philadelphia American Historical Association meeting. My sole examiner was in the shadows of the hotel room, while I nervously sweated under a blazing light. It was like a scene out of a bad movie, in which an intelligence agent suspects espionage and other skulduggery. I was not hired. Ed Yoder, a distinguished journalist, took the post. I doubt if he had been subjected to a similar interrogation.
Another appointment opened at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I flew in from Denver and was rushed from one restive faculty member to another, while I grew increasingly uneasy. The dean was equally indifferent, periodically checking his watch. The late Jack Roth, chair, manfully did his best to arouse his superior's enthusiasm. I returned home in a blustery storm, barely able to navigate the VW against the wind and snow drifts that nearly pushed the underpowered vehicle back toward Denver. When I arrived, Anne told me that the telegraph wires were down. But apparently, the last message to reach Fort Collins was from Roth, who announced that the position had been filled. He later called to explain that the Roosevelt department had hired August Meier. Later a good friend, Augie, now deceased, had first turned down the position, but, just as I was flying to Chicago as his substitute, he changed his mind and accepted.
In April, our baby Laura was born, but I still had no job for the fall. The OAH met in Cleveland, and things were looking grimmer than ever. But on the last day, I noticed a position in Jacksonian history at the University of Colorado posted on the meat-market board. Racing up the staircase to his room, I caught Fritz Hoffman, a Latin American historian and chairman of the department, bent over his suitcase. He was about to leave for the airport. I introduced myself, and he replied that he had been frustrated the whole convention. No one who came up to his room for an interview was really a Jacksonian. They all belonged in some other field of U.S. History. When I explained that my doctoral dissertation was a study of two abolitionists, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, he brightened at once."Well, where are you teaching now?" he asked. I responded,"CSU in Fort Collins.""Oh, we never raid other schools in the state system.""But I will not be employed there next fall.""In that case," Hoffman allowed,"Come on down for a meeting with the department next week."
When I arrived at the Boulder campus, it was lunchtime. Fritz and the search committee hustled me toward the cafeteria. During the meal, we discussed very little history. Instead, I was peppered with gossipy questions about the goings-on between the junior and senior history faculty at Colorado State. One professor, Carl Swisher, a Chinese specialist, asked if I would be interested in renting his house while he and his wife went on a year's leave."I would be only too happy to rent your house," said I, having no idea where he lived or what the rent might be. That was one departmental vote for sure. I ended up paying for my own Coke and ham and cheese sandwich, which I had barely managed to finish amidst all the animated discussion of the sins of junior faculty members.
Actually, I got the job--but on a vote of thirteen to twelve. Fortunately for my already bruised ego, I did not learn about that outcome until much later. Needless to say, the senior faculty members at Colorado State were utterly dismayed. Not only had I found another position, but it was at the state flagship school. They would have done anything to teach there themselves. It turned out that, like CSU, the University of Colorado at Boulder was riven with departmental infighting far exceeding anything at Fort Collins. Had they known how gloomy and solitary the next two years were going to be for us, they would have been quite gratified. But the story of that experience must await another time.
As a postscript, it is worth mentioning that in the year 2000, I was asked back to Fort Collins to deliver the annual Norman F. Furniss Lecture. It was named for the most prominent scholar on the history staff of the 1950s and 1960s. Norm Furniss was an outstanding intellectual and exemplary teacher. He also had the kindheartedness and sense of proportion that none of us on either side of the junior-senior dispute could match. His efforts at departmental reconciliation, however, failed. Tragically, during the troubles, he contracted hepatitis, ignored medical advice, and continued teaching at full throttle. He died during the winter term.
The return to Fort Collins that Arthur Worrall, recently retired, and his colleagues arranged was most enjoyable. Anne and I were surprised to discover that after thirty-six years, memories of those unhappy events had vanished as if they had never occurred. The surviving faculty members present were most gracious, and the bitter feelings were replaced by expressions of good will all round. The occasion was as gratifying as our departure so many years earlier had been troubled. Moreover, we discovered a quite different town and university. There are over a score of decent and even upscale hotels, whereas the dingy hostelry of earlier times, where my mother had unpleasantly stayed on a visit, might have been the hangout for Wyoming desperadoes. The restaurants, too, now offer better food and decor and more diverse menus, from French and Greek to Middle Eastern and Japanese than the tasteless fare offered in our day. The urban population on the Poudre River has more than tripled. Larimer County boasts well over a quarter million residents, with a proliferation of professionals in medicine, law, and other fields to lend variety to the region's demography. New and well-appointed housing suggests that much wealth has materialized. On the CSU campus, artistically designed buildings now grace an campus that always had its simple charm.
Still more impressive, though, is the size and quality of the student body, over 22,000. The faculty currently consists of over 1500 well regarded members. With reference to the latter, most memorable was a lively and wide-ranging luncheon with some liberal arts professors. Among them was a recently retired philosopher, who reminded us of mutual acquaintances from the old days. He told great stories about his first experiences there. One, Anne and I both remember, concerned a former chairman of the Philosophy Department, an old Westerner who had seldom ventured out of the state. He once had interviewed a candidate from New York for an assistant professorship. Self-deprecating, the young man replied to some question by announcing,"Well, I'm a mischugana." Unfamiliar with the Yiddish expression, the chairman thought he was referring to some obscure Eastern Native American tribe. The newly-minted Ph.D. was appointed at once as a gesture of racial equity long before there was an affirmative action mandate. (In those days, any hire was the sole responsibility of the chair.)
Finally, the current CSU history faculty members, both seniors and newcomers, appeared most enterprising and earnest. They were immersed in their subjects more than in small-town gossip. It was all an amazing revelation to Anne and me. Yet, I must add that those senior historians, whom we had unfairly disparaged, can take credit for the remarkable transformations over the years. They had laid the foundations for the department's present degree of sophistication and promise.
But now, back to the purpose of this account. The moral of the narrative is: be careful not to lose your first job.
By Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Furl that Banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently - it is holy -
For it froops above trhe dead.
Touch it not - unfold it never,
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people's hopes are dead!
Tom Watson's"reply" to Ryan's poem, cited in the epigraph for this chapter was closer to the mark. At the time of this writing, the Rebel flag still flies over the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually the flag will be lowered never to be returned to the flagstaff. At that point, Southern honor, particularly its racist aspect, will have been chastened once again. But those who claim that the Stars and Bars represent gallant tradition, a reverence for local governance, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution should read what their post-Civil War ancestors thought that flag symbolized. For them the Rebel banner stood for a sacralized determination to keep African Americans underfoot. Any means to do so were deemed honorable. The ethic that so long has sustained the racial prescriptions of the white South required no respect or humanity toward those outside its moral boundaries. As the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers has remarked,"Honor has caused more deaths than the plague." -- Bertram Wyatt-Brown in"The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s"
Very often, honor is manipulated. It's an appeal that people respond to. In Vietnam, President Johnson told us that we could not lose face or the communists would take advantage of it. Suppose we did not remain involved in Vietnam. You can ask yourself, what difference would it have made?
I think honor is an awful code, except in some circumstances. Honor has a double face: There is this primitive, hierarchal, prejudicial, unjust aspect to it. You want to avoid shame yourself but to impose it on someone else. But there is the other side of honor, which has resulted in soldiers performing great deeds of valor." -- Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Interview with William & Mary College News, 2004
About Bertram Wyatt-Brown
The result has been lauded as the most comprehensive study of pre-Civil War white Southern culture since W.J. Cash's"The Mind of the South" captured a generation of readers in 1941. Indeed, Dr. Woodward (who last year garnered a Pulitzer for"Mary Chestnut's Civil War'') sees Wyatt-Brown's book having a"monumental impact" far more significant than the Cash work. Cash's was a more popular history which, Woodward says, misled a whole generation of scholars.
"This code he analyzes and describes," says Dr. Woodward,"shaped and influenced the people living under it from the cradle to the grave. It very strongly influenced the process of child-rearing, relations of parent to child, spouses, courtships, social hierarchy from planter class to slave - every aspect of family, its integrity and protection."
"He attempts to divest himself of modernism in order to explore the South on its own terms," says Woodward. This avoids great risks of distortion that have figured in the"paradox, irony, scorn, and attribution of guilt (that) have figured prominently in the modern picture of the pre-modern South," he says.
"And he is right in reproving historians who label the darker features 'tragic aberrations,' deny that they were integral parts of a cultural pattern, or forget that the nobler claims were put to the service of primal honor - especially when honor cried out for secession." -- Christian Science Monitor feature on Bertram Wyatt-Brown's"Southern Honor: Behavior and Ethics in the Old South" with comments by the late C. Vann Woodward
University of Florida, Gainesville, Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History, 1983-2004;
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, associate professor, 1966-74, professor of history, 1974-83;
University of Colorado, Boulder, assistant professor of history, 1964-66;
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, assistant professor of history, 1962-64.
University of Richmond (the Douglas Southall Freeman chair, 2002-03);
James Pinckney Harrison Professor at the College of William and Mary;
Visiting professor, University of Wisconsin, 1969-70;
Associate, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1974.
Area of Research: Antebellum and Civil War South, Southern Honor
University of the South, B.A., 1953; King's College, Cambridge, B.A. (with honors), 1957; Johns Hopkins University, Ph.D., 1963.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Winner of a Phi Alpha Theta Book Award,
Pulitzer Prize nomination, American Book Award nomination,
and Ohio Academy of History prize,
all 1983, all for Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South.
OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program, 2005-2006;
University of Florida Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner, 2002-2003;
the Henry Luce Foundation Fellowship, 1989-90 NEH Fellowship at the National Humanities Center, 1998-99; Shelby Cullom Davis fellow, Princeton University, 1977-78;
Guggenheim Foundation fellow, 1974-75.
Wyatt-Brown has won teaching awards and graduate student mentoring awards at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Florida.
Wyatt-Brown has appeared in television documentaries for Discovery, A&E, and PBS.
He has served as President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1994), St. George Tucker Society (1998-99), and Southern Historical Association (2000-01).
Editorial Advisory Board, Ohio History, the Scholarly Journal of the Ohio Histirical Society, 1978-1986; Series editor of the Louisiana State Press' Southern Biography Series.
He served in the U.S. Navy, 1953-55, and became lieutenant junior grade.
comments powered by Disqus
- Fake News and Fervent Nationalism Got a Senator Tarred as a Traitor During WWI
- Debunking Viral Story, Art Historian Says ‘Allah’ Does Not Appear on Ancient Viking Garment
- Will Trump Be Remembered as the Worst President in History? Almost Half Think So
- Thank This Man For Your Last-Minute Halloween Costume
- Letters from young Obama show a man trying to find his way
- Thomas Childers says we’ve got the Nazis wrong in 5 different ways
- National security expert Tom Nichols: “Hey, I’m unstable” is a bad look for the president
- Fake news? It’s nothing new, says Trinity College Dublin historian
- Historian discovers early Reformation writings “hiding in plain sight”
- Victor Davis Hanson says we shouldn’t be rushing to war with North Korea