Blogs > HNN > John A. Garraty: A Great Life in Brief

Dec 30, 2007 6:45 pm

John A. Garraty: A Great Life in Brief

Born on the fourth of July (1920), died a week short of Christmas Day (2007). Between those dates, John Garraty personally touched the lives of thousands of students and through his writing communicated with millions.

I had come to Columbia University in the fall of 1960 to do an M.A. in American history and expecting to write a thesis on as recent a topic as feasible. I quickly discovered that the M.A. seminar on the U.S. since 1920 was taught by a professor who was a much-loved undergraduate teacher without a professional profile. Even then, I knew enough to check on the alternatives. I discovered that the 1877-1920 seminar was handled by someone named Garraty, who had published five books. I spent a year in that seminar with about a dozen other people.

John Garraty had just turned forty then, was also chairing the history program in Columbia’s School of General Studies, and had his sixth book in press. A busy man, he was nonetheless unfailingly helpful, affable, and good-humored in guiding a motley group of inexperienced pupils through the business of selecting researchable topics for a thesis and developing chapters that passed the basic literacy standard. I could not have asked for a better mentor. I learned a lot about writing from him.

A good many graduate students at Columbia could not get past the fact that Garraty was the de facto third-string 20-century U.S. historian at Columbia—that he was not Richard Hofstadter or Bill Leuchtenburg. Perhaps not, but his professional accomplishments were large all the same. His New York Times obituary [ ] emphasizes his last big project—American National Biography—and tosses in an incomplete list of his books.

In fact, he wrote standard accounts of three important, if peripheral, figures in American history—Silas Wright, Henry Cabot Lodge, and George W. Perkins—authored a little gem on Woodrow Wilson, and produced a thoughtful guide to writing the lives of others, “The Nature of Biography.” He did a fine survey of Gilded Age America, “The New Commonwealth,” for the “American Nation” series. Later in his career, he grappled with big issues in two small books—“Unemployment in History” and “The Great Depression.” It is the latter book that features the important essay that compares the America’s New Deal to Nazi Germany’s economic program. All this adds up to a life of remarkable accomplishment.

He also served a term as a Vice-President of the American Historical Association. I had something to do with his nomination, but it was an easy sell to the nominating committee and his election an easy choice for the voters.

Garraty was a dynamic classroom lecturer with real empathy for undergraduate students. He once told me that he had turned down a visiting appointment at Berkeley in which the main assignment would have been to teach U.S. survey as a television class; he needed to be in the same room, however large, with those to whom he spoke. His major teaching impact, however, was through his textbook, “The American Nation,” of which he was sole author for many years. Mark Carnes became his collaborator for the later editions.

Few people today understand just what a landmark “The American Nation” (1966) was with lavish color portfolios unlike any that ever had been included in a college text before. It was written with one voice by an individual who understood the capabilities of average students. I used it for my U.S. survey classes; students loved it. Garraty, who acted as his own agent, told me that he negotiated a $30,000 advance, a very large sum for an academic author in those days, from Harper and Row and agreed to a lower than standard royalty rate to cover the high multicolor printing costs. Both parties had made shrewd decisions. The text sold about 100,000 copies in its first year and, more recently published by Longman, is about to go into its 13th edition. I have no idea about total sales. When I last saw Garraty several years ago, he would only say that he had lost count.

I appropriated the subtitle of John Garraty’s short life of Woodrow Wilson as the subtitle title for these thoughts. One might argue about whether his life was really “great.” I thought it was a splendid example of professionalism carried through by a fine person.

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Robert W. Cherny - 1/21/2008

Thanks to Alonzo Hamby for this accurate and moving account of John Garraty. I first encountered Garraty when I was a second-year graduate student in the fall of 1966 and, as part of the War on Poverty, was hired to be his research assistant. My chief task that year was to double-check every footnote in The New Commonwealth. It was a great education in how to write history, maybe as important as anything I learned in a classroom. The next year, I was his teaching assistant, and I still have the first edition of his text that he gave me. All the comments above about the significance of that text are on target. I was his teaching assistant during that chaotic spring of 1968. Once, shortly after the occupation of Fayerweather ended, he said, "Bob, I don't understand why the students want to be on departmental committees. We spend most of our careers trying not to be on committees." By the fall of 1968, I knew that I wanted to do a quantitative analysis of Populism for my dissertation, and Garraty was the logical person to direct it. He admitted from the outset that he understood little of quantitative analysis, but he was excellent, as Hamby notes, in matters of organization and writing.

Michael Green - 12/31/2007

I had the honor of taking Garraty's first-year seminar for Columbia history grad students in the fall of 1988. Not only did he write history as it should be written--with the general reader in mind, not the colleague stuck on jargon--but he was simply a nice guy.

Professor Ebner mentions Interpreting American History. That also is one of my favorites. He spoke with just about every big name of that period, from Morris to Schlesinger. It should be required reading for all of us in this line of work.

Michael H. Ebner - 12/31/2007

I enjoyed Alonzo Hamby's recollection of and tribute to John A. Garraty.

I've always thought of the American Nation as the first of the new-wave survey textbooks. Not only for its use of color in illustrations and maps but also for its sensibilities that transcender the presidential synthesis of an older generation of textbooks. I think Garraty set a standard, during the mid-1960s, that other survey textbooks emulated.

My favorite John Garraty book, published in 1970, was Interpreting American History: Conversations with Historians. I can no longer recall whom he had those conversations with, but I do know that I consulted this book avidly and frequently as I was beginning my own career.

James W Loewen - 12/31/2007

Working on LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, I interviewed various authors and editors of H.S. U.S. history textbooks, including John Garraty, author of AMERICAN HISTORY (Harcourt 1982). Among my queries, I asked him why he had omitted "the plague," that series of epidemics that decimated Native Americans between 1493 and the present (they continue in the Amazon). Specifically, the epidemic that swept coastal New England c.1617 enabled the Pilgrims' settlement at "Plymouth" (heretofore "Patuxent"), and none of this was in Garraty's book.
"Because I did not know of it until now," was Garraty's straightforward reply. The next year, one of the first items in his "1,001 Things Everyone Should Know about American History," was the plague. I was impressed. He was still learning.
Although now 25 years old, Garraty's AMERICAN HISTORY remains the only HS textbook in my ken that treats the "Nadir of Race Relations," 1890-1940, a terribly important topic to omit.

vaughn davis bornet - 12/31/2007

A lovely tribute. I only wish he could have read it.

I had no idea it was so late here.

The work scholars do on the big sets is often forgotten. I think of George Knoles for Colliers; Levi for Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, and Edgar Eugene Robinson for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

By the way, I well remember you fine essay on my The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Thanks so much.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/27/2007

I was one of those undergrads who had Garraty's text in the early 1970s. I remember reading ahead in it, just for the joy of it.

I did not know then that his use of visuals was path-breaking (and by the time I was reading it, I'm sure that many other surveys had followed down that path). Still, the visuals were very well chosen (and also reproduced well enough that I could read the quips in the antebellum political cartoons.)

His work isn't the reason I became a historian, but surely it must have helped.