Remarks of Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

    I first met Larry a little more than 20 years ago. I had interviewed for a job at Berkeley—unsuccessfully – and he was on the search committee. But, in the process, Larry learned that I planned to write a book about the strange career of populism in America —and he thought that was a good idea. So we made a date to have lunch. Well, having lunch with Larry was not like having lunch with most professors – which usually involves a little gossip about students and colleagues,  an inoffensive chat about your next research project or your last one, and ends after an hour or so with a friendly battle for the check.

    Having lunch with Larry was like listening to a Beethoven symphony – all his intellectual and emotional talents blended together to produce an extraordinary experience. I don’t remember what we ate or where. But I do recall that we met at noon and didn’t stop talking until well after three. Larry told funny, smart, eloquent stories about his father and about Richard Hofstadter and about William Jennings Bryan, he reflected on various theories about why Ronald Reagan was such a popular president, he analyzed the plots of several Amos & Andy shows and Frank Capra films. And he listened to my ideas and sent me away with a dozen better ones to think about.  

    I couldn’t believe my good luck: I had met this immensely learned man with a volcanic passion for the ideas and details of American history. And he seemed to like me! His sensibility reminded me of my father’s; they were born into the same  New York Jewish working-class world, albeit 18 years apart. When I talked with my father, the conversation was often contentious.  But with Larry, it was sheer joy – and remained so whenever we spent time together. I last saw him at his house in Berkeley, just about a year ago. Despite his illness, we talked once more without a pause for three hours, with Cornelia reminding him of a name or a detail from time to time. To know that we will never do that again is painful to endure.

     Now, the organizers of today’s gathering have doled out their own kind of cruel and unusual punishment: How can I say anything meaningful about Larry’s work in just ten minutes? The man didn’t just contain multitudes; he wrote about them!

 

2            I want to talk a little about the most important thing that Larry taught me – and that he taught countless others who took his classes and read his work: I want to talk about empathy. Soon after the publication of his incomparable study about Bryan, Larry was asked to write an article reflecting on what led him to choose that subject and to write about it the way he did. His article- entitled “The Historian and the Culture Gap” begins like this: 
“At some point in his studies (for many historians at all points), the historian is faced with a situation where there is little continuity or connection between his own cultural conditioning and expectations and that of his subjects. He is faced with a culture gap that must be bridged both by painstaking historical reconstruction and by a series of imaginative leaps that allow him to perform the central act of empathy – figuratively, to crawl into the skins of his subjects. This situation is a familiar one, which any good historian has had to face and overcome. It is, in fact, the primary function of the historian and gives the study of history much of its excitement and importance.”

I can’t think of a more useful, more humane observation about our craft. And Larry wrote that when he was still in his mid-30s. Empathy is easy to proclaim but quite difficult to practice consistently. For all our good intentions, we invariably slip in a few paragraphs, or sentences,or turns of phrase that put down our subjects for failing to think and act as they should have—to be as  enlightened as we imagine ourselves to be. 
    Larry understood that historians who have insufficient empathy for their subjects are not just guilty of condescension. They produce flawed history: either they view their subjects as inhabiting one small, cramped dimension of existence or they see them as crushed beneath structures far too mighty for them to understand or change.
     Larry’s work demonstrates the profound error of this way of thinking. In glorious detail and vivid prose, he proved that the small town folks who admired Bryan, the black men and women who turned their suffering and their hopes into great music and humor, the audiences who turned William Shakespeare into a popular American playwright, and the millions who listened to FDR’s Fireside Chats were creative and complex individuals. They were capable of bigotry and violence, to be sure, but they also knew how to make sense of their lives in cultural terms and the cultures they built became vital resources for democratizing America.

As you know, Larry’s work has had a tremendous impact, one attested to by the numerous awards he received and the high offices he held in our profession. But he was never working alone.  He was acutely conscious that he belonged to a new generation of historians, trained in the 1950s and 1960s, who transformed the way we understand the American people and their constantly evolving past. Larry and his intellectual comrades eagerly explore and debated the impact and meaning of the diverse cultures of America, in part because they represented that cultural diversity themselves. They weren’t the first historians to come from immigrant and non-Protestant backgrounds. But they were the generation that shaped the way history is taught in most colleges and many high schools today --- and, I would bet, for a long time to come.

 

 3                Larry’s perspective is particularly common among people who teach in urban and suburban schools that are packed with students who come, literally or figuratively, from all over the world. On the website set up to honor Larry, I was struck by a comment sent in by Mari Matsuda, the distinguished professor of law at Georgetown. Matsuda writes:
“It was Day of The Dead in 7th grade Spanish class at Alice Deal Middle School, a public school in the impoverished city of Washington DC. Our daughter took in roses from the garden, and Larry's obit out of the Post, to add to the shrine her class was making that day. How did it come to pass that a brand new young teacher, an Anglo straight out of Kansas, thought that erecting this shrine was the appropriate way to proceed in her classroom, that parents would support it, that kids would embrace it? Somewhere in her education she had picked up this thought: the culture and practices of the ordinary people who make up America are part of what we should teach and what we should learn. Indeed, it was a shrine to Larry. And it is alive in classrooms everywhere.”
That story suggested that Larry didn’t just practice empathy in his writings. He was also an empathetic teacher.
- In a 1997 interview with Sheldon Hackney, who was then head of the NEH, Larry confessed:
“I am a person of very strong beliefs. I suppose I am decidedly left of center. I am interested in civil rights and other things. I have very strong feelings and I have acted on them, probably not as often as I ought to have…But I decided a long time ago that…my function in the classroom was not to promulgate beliefs. You learn as a scholar and teacher that if you argue with the dead and you don't win the argument, you're a fool, so I decided that arguing with the dead wasn't what I wanted to do. And the same thing is true of arguing with the living when the living have less power than you. You can force your ideas on them -- that wasn't my goal. So, always admitting what my own ideas were, I tried to teach them with balance and to leave room for other ideas.”
-That piece of wisdom is the essence of good teaching. What’s more, it’s the core of what makes good citizens – men and women who not only feel confident about expressing their own opinions and needs but who show respect and empathy for the needs and judgments of people who have less power than they do.
-Larry is no longer here. But I am quite certain that, to paraphrase a great abolitionist, his truths go marching on.

 

Levine, “The Hist and the Culture Gap,” in The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History (New York, 1993), 14-15. The article was originally published in 1970.

www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1997-01/levine.html