Paul Samuel Boyer
What They're Famous For
Paul Boyer, a U.S. cultural and intellectual historian (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1966) is Merle Curti Professor
of History Emeritus and former director (1993-2001) of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has held visiting professorships at UCLA, Northwestern University,
and William & Mary; has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships; and is an elected
member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American
Historians, and the American
Antiquarian Society. Before coming to Wisconsin in 1980, he taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Family stories were my first introduction to history-not articles or books, but lived experience: a great-uncle killed at Antietam; grandmothers' tales of late-nineteenth-century Ohio farm life; my father's account of losing his job during World War I for refusing to salute the flag when co-workers demanded that he do so. My paternal grandfather was a great repository of stories about the past, including his boyhood memories of President Garfield's assassination in 1881.
Paul Boyer is seated in the front row, second from left, next to his grandfather.
My future perspective as a historian was influenced, too, by my very conservative religious upbringing. The Brethren in Christ church, an offshoot of the Mennonite church, took seriously the biblical injunction"Be not conformed to this world." The members did not vote, generally refused military service, and dressed very plainly-no neckties for the men; head coverings, cape dresses, and dark stockings for the women. They avoided the movies and other worldly amusements, and viewed the secular power of the state with profound skepticism. I'm no longer a part of that subculture (which in any event is very different today), but its influence has shaped my life and work.
A grade-school teacher in Dayton, Ohio taught me that history is something people can feel passionate about. A southerner, she informed us in no uncertain terms:"If you get nothing else out of this class, just remember that slavery was NOT the cause of the Civil War." But I can't claim that the study of history initially gripped me very deeply. My copy of David Saville Muzzey's A History of Our Country, assigned in a high-school class, is full of my scribbled drawings and witticisms (e.g.,"In Case of Fire, throw this in"). The teacher called him"Fuzzy Muzzey," signaling us that even textbook writers need not be viewed with total reverence. Now a textbook author myself, I appreciate Muzzey a little more. He writes in his preface:"Boys and girls have sometimes said to me that they have 'had' American history, as if it were measles or chicken pox, which they could have and get over and be henceforth immune from. … Do not for a moment think that you are `going over' American history again in high school in order to add a few more dates and names to your memory. You are studying a new and fresh subject, not because American history has changed, but because you have changed. ... You are getting new outlooks on life,--new ambitions, new enthusiasms, new judgments of people and events. Life broadens and deepens for you. So history, which is the record of former people's ambitions and enthusiasms, comes to have a new meaning for you."
After high school I enrolled at Upland College in California, a small denominational school that has since closed. Wendell Harmon, who had written his Ph.D. thesis at UCLA on the Prohibition movement in California, taught U.S. history at Upland. Wendell had a skeptical turn of mind and a dry sense of humor. His classes, including a seminar on American Transcendentalism, jolted me into realizing that studying history could be intellectually engaging, even fun. In June 1955, preparing to leave for two years of voluntary service in Europe with the Mennonite Central Committee, I asked Wendell for reading suggestions. His list included Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition (1948). I devoured the book, writing on the flyleaf words that were new to me (salient, milieu, inchoate, sinecure, ubiquitous). Hofstadter's cool-eyed revisionist look at America's political heroes was eye-opening. There is no canonical version of history-all is up for grabs! My copy of this 95-cent Vintage paperback, now falling apart, is still in my library.
My two years in Europe-mostly spent in Paris on loan from the Mennonite Central Committee to an NGO at UNESCO--ended with a world trip via ships, trains, buses, and bicycles. On a train in India I met Gloria Steinem, just out of Smith College, also on a Wanderjahr. A comment she later made about how the trip affected her summed up my reactions as well: Eisenhower's America, rich and complacent, she said, seemed like a sugary cupcake perched atop a suffering world where most people struggle merely to survive. Practicing my writing skills, I wrote a series of travel essays for the Evangelical Visitor, the Brethren in Christ denominational paper. The editorial board voted me an honorarium of fifty dollars. Another eye-opener: writing could actually produce income!
Those two and a half years abroad proved transformative. In 1955 I had expected to go into my father's religious-supply business. By 1958, when I entered Harvard as a transfer student, I knew I was not cut out for business. Journalism and teaching seemed appealing, but in a fairly inchoate way. What to major in? I considered English, but History soon won out. The department had a tutorial system for majors, and in 1958-59 I took both the sophomore and junior tutorials. My sophomore tutor, Stanley Katz, was a terrific mentor. We discussed and wrote papers on historians from Herodotus to Marc Bloch, executed by the Gestapo in 1944. Rereading those papers, I'm impressed again by Stan's blend of encouragement and shrewd criticism. My junior tutor, Manfred Jonas, although busy writing his Ph.D. thesis on American isolationism in the 1930s, carefully read my weekly essays on U.S. historical topics, offering perceptive comments. William R. Taylor's stimulating course in American historiography introduced me to Prescott, Parkman, and other classic historians and prose stylists.
My senior-thesis advisor, Roger Brown, steered me to a fascinating topic: the Federalist party's reaction to the Louisiana Purchase. Research at the Massachusetts and Connecticut historical societies gave me a first taste of using primary sources in a milieu redolent of the past. (One elderly lady at the Connecticut Historical Society asked where I was from. When I told her Ohio, she replied,"Oh yes, Western Reserve country.") To my great excitement, Roger Brown mentioned my thesis in a footnote in his 1964 book The Republic in Peril: 1812.
Finishing college in 1960, I entered Harvard's graduate history program that fall. In Frank Freidel's seminar on the 1920s, I choose book censorship in Boston as my research topic. That in turn, led to my first published article (American Quarterly, spring 1963); my Ph.D. thesis on book censorship in America (with Freidel as advisor); and my first book, Purity in Print. Freidel returned my thesis draft with a few stylistic suggestions on the first few pages."You see the kinds of changes I'm suggesting," he breezily told me;"You can apply them to the rest of the thesis." I'm fairly sure he never read beyond those early pages. (On one page, he had marked a sentence to be cut and then changed his mind, scribbling"stet" in the margin: a printer's term meaning"restore this copy." In dismay I misread it as"shit," concluding that my dissertation director considered my work beneath contempt.)
Inviting the seminar to his home for our last meeting, Freidel offered us career advice. Our first job would probably be at some obscure school, he told us, and our sole objective must be to move to ever-more prestigious institutions through our publications."Your students will want your attention, and your wife will ask you to do things with the family," he warned,"but you must ignore all that and concentrate on publishing."
In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s course in American intellectual history, Schlesinger read his lectures from what appeared to be page proofs, pausing occasionally to correct a typo. When he departed for Washington after the 1960 election, newly-hired Donald Fleming inherited the course, delivering erudite, beautifully crafted lectures. (My paper on Andrew Carnegie in that course became a lecture that remained in my own intellectual-history course until I retired.) I later graded for Fleming, reading blue books far into the night.
The European intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes strongly supported SANE, the nuclear-test-ban organization. When I took his course in fall 1962, he was running as an independent for the U.S. Senate on a nuclear-disarmament platform. (Ted Kennedy won.) Sitting in Hughes' class on October 24, as the U.S. blockade of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba went into effect, we all eyed the clock nervously. Hughes' example as a politically engaged academic probably influenced my own later small-scale participation in Vietnam War protests and the early-1980s' nuclear- weapons freeze campaign.
We graduate students flocked to Bernard Bailyn's lecture course and seminar in American colonial history. At the first seminar meeting, Bailyn proposed a list of research topics. By chance, I got the last choice: a 1754 Massachusetts excise-tax controversy. It seemed unpromising, but actually proved engrossing, particularly the pamphlets describing how lecherous tax collectors would ravish the wives and daughters of virtuous yeomen. The pamphleteers also made ubiquitous references to a 1733 excise-tax controversy in England. When I reported this to Bailyn, he responded with a chuckle that he, too, had noticed that connection, and had put his notes aside for future attention. That seminar paper became my second published article (William and Mary Quarterly, July 1964). Years later, after I had published three or four books, I encountered Bailyn at a convention and he greeted me with:"You know, I see citations to that William and Mary Quarterly article of yours all the time."
Especially salient among these formative influences were Edward and Janet James, the editor and associate editor of a biographical reference work on American women launched in 1955 at the impetus of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. (Today the positions would likely be reversed, with Janet as editor, but this was the 1950s.) Ed was a very methodical editor, and by 1961 a large back-log of essays had built up. Ed hired history grad students as fact-checkers, and I became one of his minions. I enjoyed roaming Widener Library in quest of elusive facts, in the process learning about the history of women in America-a subject mostly ignored in my undergraduate and graduate training. As I drafted revisions to correct errors or incorporate new information, and sometimes even ventured to rewrite an entire essay, Ed expanded my duties and gave me a desk in his office. Here I edited hundreds of essays (typing and retyping them in that pre-computer era) and wrote twenty-one myself, from Helena Blavatsky to Frances Wright. Ed and Janet generously appointed me assistant editor, so when Harvard University Press published Notable American Women in three volumes in 1971, my name appeared on the title page along with theirs. This editing and writing experience, immersion in women's history, and exposure to Ed James's meticulous attention to detail made my time at Notable American Women an important part-perhaps the most important part-of my graduate training.
By 1967, with Ph.D. in hand, it was time to find a teaching job. Notable American Women was fun, but obviously no lifetime sinecure. I had married Ann Talbot, then a student at Radcliffe College, in 1962, and now our first child was on the way. We hoped to stay in New England, so on a map I drew a semicircle around Boston with a radius of about a hundred miles and sent letters to history departments where I thought I might have a shot. Soon after, Howard Quint, the head of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, phoned and invited me out. Howard rounded up a few department members and I gave a"job talk" that consisted of summarizing my Ph.D. thesis. He took me to meet the dean, and after they chatted briefly, Howard offered me a job at the munificent salary of $10,000 a year. That's how things worked in those days.
Antiwar protests and a factionalized department made those early years of teaching the most intense of my career. With campus strikes, moratoria, and marches on Washington, every spring semester from 1967 to 1970 ended with classes disrupted or cancelled entirely. Rashly signing up to give a workshop on Vietnamese history, I crammed the evening before from a book by Bernard B. Fall (killed in Vietnam in 1967). I expected ten or twelve people; the hall was packed. Another evening, several of us led a teach-in on the war in a campus dormitory. As the discussion went on, a young woman said tearfully:"My brother was just killed in Vietnam. Are you telling us this war is wrong?" Again I was reminded that"history" is not just something that we write about. History happens to people.
Just as I was becoming resigned to a life of departmental feuding, cancelled classes, and campus protests, the activism suddenly ended in the fall of 1970. The departmental conflict subsided as well, and my remaining years at UMass brought much satisfaction, with great colleagues, interesting research (including a collaboration with Steve Nissenbaum on Salem Possessed), and rewarding teaching. My graduate training had included no classroom experience and indeed no attention to pedagogy at all, so these years involved a lot of on-the-job training. Fortunately, I found that I loved teaching, whether lecture courses, seminars, or one-on-one meetings with students. (Grading blue books I could have done without.)
New experiences, new projects, and many changes lay ahead, but a course had been set, and I've never regretted how it all turned out. I can't imagine a more satisfying life, and seeing one's students set sail on their own, in history or other fields, is perhaps the greatest reward of all.
By Paul Samuel Boyer
[P]eculiarities in my background ... might plausibly be seen as having particularly 'sensitized' me to issues of war and peace. Reared in the pacifist beliefs of the Brethren in Christ Church ..., I had early heard stories from my father of the harassment and even physical abuse he had experienced as a war resister in 1917-18.... Yet ... I suspect it is not my particular upbringing, but experiences that I share with most Americans of the postwar generation, that are relevant here. Even a few random probes of my nuclear consciousness have made clear to me how significantly my life has been influenced by the ever-present reality of the bomb: ... [T]he afternoon of August 6, 1945, when I read aloud the ominous-looking newspaper headline, mispronouncing the new word as"a-tome," since I had never heard anyone say it; ... Standing in a darkened room early in 1947, squinting into my atomic-viewer ring, straining to see the"swirling atoms" the Kix Cereal people had assure me would be visible; ... Coming out of a Times Square movie theater at midnight on New Year's Eve, 1959, having just seen the end of the world in On the Beach, overwhelmed by the sheer aliveness of the raucous celebrators; ... Feeling the knot tighten in my stomach as President Kennedy, in that staccato voice, tells us we must all build fallout shelters as quickly as possible; ... Watching the clock in Emerson Hall creep up toward 11 A.M. on October 25, 1962—Kennedy's deadline to the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis—half expecting a cataclysmic flash when the hour struck; ... Overhearing my daughter's friend recently telling how her little sister hid under the bed when searchlights probed the sky a few nights earlier(a supermarket was having a grand opening), convinced that the missiles were about to fall. ....
Even my sense of ancestral rootedness is now interwoven with images of nuclear menace and danger. In the summer of 1978, my brother Bill and I, finding ourselves together in Pennsylvania, took a little excursion to find the cemetery where some of our forebears who had migrated from [Switzerland] in the 1750s were buried. As we drove southward from Harrisburg along the Susquehanna, the looming concrete bulk of a nuclear power plant—Three Mile Island—suddenly hove into view. Almost literally in the shadows of those squat, hideous—and soon to be famous—towers, we found the small burial plot we were seeking. ...
I have been repeatedly struck ... at how uncannily familiar much of the early response to the bomb seems: the visions of atomic devastation, the earnest efforts to rouse people to resist such a fate, the voices seeking to soothe or deflect these fears, the insistence that security lay in greater technical expertise and in more and bigger weaponry. I gradually realized that what I was uncovering was, in fact, the earliest version of the themes that still dominate our nuclear discourse today. All the major elements of our contemporary engagement with the nuclear reality took shape literally within days of Hiroshima. ... By the Bomb's Early Light, then, is an effort to go back to the earliest stages of our long engagement with nuclear weapons. Unless we recover this lost segment of our cultural history, we cannot fully understand the world in which we live, nor be as well equipped as we might to change it. ...
As is appropriate, this book will be read and judged by my professional peers as a piece of scholarship like any other. I hope it will not seem presumptuous to say that it is also intended as a contribution, however flawed, to the process by which we are again, at long last, trying to confront, emotionally as well as intellectually, the supreme menace of our age. Henry Adams once wrote,"No honest historian can take part with—or against—the forces he has to study. To him, even the extinction of the human race should merely be a fact to be grouped with other vital statistics." I readily confess that I have not achieved Adams's austere standard of professional objectivity. This book is a product of experiences outside the library as well as inside, and it is not the work of a person who can view the prospect of human extinction with scholarly detachment. --
-- Paul S. Boyer from the introduction to"By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age" (1985)
"By Paul S. Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum
It was in 1692 that these men for the first time attempted (just as we are attempting in this book) to piece together the shards of their experience, to shape their malaise into some broader theoretical pattern, and to comprehend the full dimensions of thoses forces which they vaguely sensed were shaping their private destinies. Oddly enough, it has been through our sense of" collaborating" with Parris and the Putnams in their effort to delineate the larger contours of their world, and our sympathy, at least on the level of metaphor, with certain of their perceptions, that we have come to feel a curious bond with the"witch hunters" of 1692.
But one advantage we as outsiders have had over the people off Salem Village is that we can afford to recognize the degree to which the menace they were fighting off had taken root within each of them almost as deeply as it had in Salem Town or along the Ipswich Road. It is at this level, indeed, that we have most clearly come to recognize the implications of their travail for our understanding of what might be called the Puritan temper during the final, often intense, and occasionally lurid efflorescence which signaled the end of its century-long history. For Samuel Parrish and Thomas Putnam, Jr., were part of a vast company, on both sides of the Atlantic, who were trying to expunge the lure of the new order from their own souls by doing battle with it in the real world. While this company of Puritans were not purveyors of the spirit of capitalism that historians once made them out to be, neither were they simple peasants clinging blindly to the imagined security of a receding medieval culture. What seems above all to characterize them, and even help define their identity as"Puritans" is the precarious way in which they managed to inhabit both these worlds at once.
The inner tensions that shaped the Puritan temper were inherent in it from the very start, but rarely did they emerge with such raw force as in 1692, in little Salem Village. For here was a community in which these tensions were exacerbated by a tangle of external circumstances: a community so situated geographically that its inhabitants experienced two different economic systems, two different ways of life, at unavoidably close range; and so structured politically that it was next to impossible to locate, either within the Village or outside it, a dependable and unambiguous center of authority which might hold in check the effects of these accidents of geography.
The spark which finally set off this volatile mix came with the unlikely convergence of a set of chance factors in the early 1690's: the arrival of a new minister who brought with him a slave acquainted with West Indian voodoo lore; the heightened interest throughout New England in fortune telling and the occult, taken up in Salem Village by an intense group of adolescent girls related by blood and faction to the master of that slave; the coming of age Joseph Putnam, who bore the name of one of Salem Village's two controlling families while owing his allegiance to the other; the political and legal developments in Boston and London which hamstrung provincial authorities for several crucial months in 1692.
But beyond these proximate causes lie the deeper and more inexorable ones we have already discussed. For in the witchcraft outburst in Salem Village, perhaps the most exceptional event in American colonial history, certainly the most bizarre, one finds laid bare the central concerns of the era.
-- Paul S. Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in"Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft"
About Paul Samuel Boyer
Boyer and Nissenbaum have provided us with a first-rate discussion of factionalism in a seventeenth-century New England community. Their handling of economic, familial, and spatial relationships within Salem Village is both sophisticated and imaginative. But the dynamics of witchcraft, not only in Salem Village but also in other Massachusetts towns affected by the outbreak of 1692, still remain a mystery. -- T. H. Breen, Northwestern University in"The William and Mary Quarterly," reviewing"Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft"
The Salem Witchcraft Papers is an important addition to the growing body of primary and secondary material dealing with the Salem witchcraft scare. Boyer and Nissenbaum have done a great service to all students of early New England history by publishing an important collection that has lain dormant for more than forty years. The ultimate value of the work, however, will be its use as a source book by future historians who seek a better understanding of the Salem witchcraft episode. -- Paula A. Treckel in"The New England Quarterly" reviewing"The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692"
A wide-ranging historian who has written important studies of both the Salem witch trials (with Stephen Nissenbaum) and 19th-century urban reform, Mr. Boyer has closely studied the responses earlier Americans made to perceived threats to their well-being. And he does not omit pointing out"how the early discussions of the bomb's implications often moved in well-worn grooves." Among these grooves was the fear of concentrations of power (Who will control atomic energy?), worry about mass leisure (What will the masses do when the atom does all the work?), hostility to the city (Ruralization is the answer to atomic threats) and warnings of apocalypse (Repent before the fire consumes us all)....
In an epilogue, Mr. Boyer brings the story up to date. When the fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing became apparent in the mid-1950's, it brought about a new round of public concern. This faded away in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1963 test-ban treaty only to reappear in recent years in the form of hostility to nuclear power, and distress at the Reagan Administration's lack of enthusiasm for arms control. The current nuclear debate, Mr. Boyer writes, afflicts him with a"sense of deja vu." Virtually"every theme and image by which we express our nuclear fear today has its counterpart in the immediate post-Hiroshima period," he writes. It is a depressing thought, for why should what proved ineffectual before not prove ineffectual again? But perhaps the old themes and images are the best we can summon. They may not succeed in removing the threat of nuclear war, but at least they tell us something about who we are. -- New York Times Review of"By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age"
University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Asst. Prof. to Professor of History, 1967-1980;
department chair, 1978-80
Area of Research:
American cultural and intellectual history; American religious history; Prophetic and apocalyptic belief in America; Censorship and First Amendment Issues; nuclear weapons in American culture, Salem witchcraft.
Harvard University, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1960, M.A., 1961, Ph.D., 1966.
Byer's upcoming projects include an article on nuclear themes in the work of the poets and writers of the Beat Movement, with Professor William Lawlor, and revisions of college and high-school American history textbooks (ongoing).
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Also, general editor of the"History of American Thought and Culture" series, University of Wisconsin Press, 1984-94.
Contributor to reference works and collaborative projects, among them Encyclopedia of American History, essay on Bernard Baruch, Frank Kellogg, and Henry Stimpson, Dushkin, 1974; Notable American Women,Supplement 1: The Modern Era, essay on Dorothy Thompson and Blanche Knopf, Harvard University Press, 1980; Encyclopedia Americana, essays on Carrie Chapman Catt, Henry Blackwell, and Antoinette Blackwell; Dictionary of American Biography, Scribner's, Supplement III, essays on John Macrae and John Woolsey, 1973, Supplement IV, essays on Frank Buck, Frank Crowninshield, Paul Harris, James McGraw, Barney Oldfield, Charles M. Sheldon, Harry Thaw, and Charles Towne, 1974, Supplement IV, essay on Franklin D'Olier, 1977, and Supplement VI, essay on Duncan Hines, 1980; Dictionary of American History, Scribner's, 1976; Encyclopedia of American Political History, Volume 1, edited by Jack P. Greene, Scribner's, 1984; Encyclopedia of American Social History, Volume 1, edited by Mary R. Cayton, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams, Scribner's, 1993; A Companion to American Thought, edited by Richard W. Fox and James T. Kloppenberg, Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1995; History of the United States, Volume 5, edited by Donald T. Critchlow and Andrzej Bartnicki, Polish Academic Press (Warsaw), 1996; Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Volume 3, edited by Stephen J. Stein, Continuum (New York City), 1997; A History of the Book in America, Volume 4, edited by Carl Kaestle and Janice Radway, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming; as well as World Book Encyclopedia,American National Biography, and Oxford Companion to American Military History.
Contributor of numerous chapters in coauthored works, scholarly articles, book reviews, and review essays to periodicals, among them American Historical Review, American Quarterly, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Diplomatic History, Historian, History Teacher, Houston Review, Journal of American History, Journal of the American Medical Association, New Republic, Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research in History, Reviews in American History, Virginia Quarterly Review, and William and Mary Quarterly. Also contributor of essays and commentary to periodicals, including Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Chronicle of Higher Education, Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Messenger Magazine, Nation, New Republic, New York Times Newsday Books, Policy Review, Tikkun, Washington Post Magazine, and Wisconsin Academy Review.
National Book Award nomination in History, 1975 (for Salem Possessed);
Boyer has made numerous television appearances on nationally broadcast programs including:"The Menace of Nuclear Weapons," History Channel"20th Century with Mike Wallace"
comments powered by Disqus
- ‘No Vacancies’ for Blacks: How Donald Trump Got His Start, and Was First Accused of Bias
- New Yorker profiles activist who's drawing attention to lynchings
- Wisconsin GOP senator wants to replace history professors with Ken Burns videos
- UT removes Confederate inscription that it previously said would stay
- The man behind the Smithsonian’s new African-American history museum
- NYT publishes historians' plea for the revival of political history
- Some Ohio University professors ditch the textbooks, and the prices
- Renowned Israeli Holocaust Historian: ‘If I Were a British Jew, I’d Be Worried’
- Heather Ann Thompson pries loose the long-kept secrets of Attica in her new book
- Lonnie Bunch remembers his first day on the job as director of the new black history museum