Edmund S. Morgan, David Brion Davis, Howard Lamar, C. Vann Woodward, David Montgomery, and Nancy Cott. These six accounted for nearly all of Yale’s Ph.D. degrees in American history in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Together their students redefined their respective fields. Collectively, it’s hard to imagine a more diverse, yet more influential group of historians. The soft-spoken but highly literary Morgan had only one peer in early American history, Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn. Davis practiced an erudite combination of cultural and intellectual history and trained a whole generation of scholars who went on to redefine nineteenth-century cultural historiography. Only Berkeley's Lawrence Levine was more influential. Lamar brought the history of the west to the east (something that Yale’s Ivy League peers still have not done). Woodward was possessed of an extraordinary mind that made him a magnet for talented graduate students, even if he had the reputation of being a less than engaged advisor. Montgomery was so charismatic that his disciples, now in their mid-careers, are collectively known at the Montgomeryites for their distinctive shop-floor centered labor histories. And even though Cott commuted to dreary New Haven from self-important Cambridge, she trained a veritable who’s who of women’s historians who defined a field and remain some of its most important practitioners.
When this stellar cast of characters retired (or in Cott’s case decamped to Harvard to run the Schlesinger Library), Yale faced the crisis that besets most major history departments at some point in their life cycle. It lost the great historians whose scholarship and mentorship defined the program. In the mid-1990s, when the contours of that crisis became clear, Yale, like many departments, did not have a deep bench of younger historians to take over. But Yale’s potentially tragic story had a different outcome. It struggled for a few years, but not for long, and then rebuilt itself into a department arguably as mighty as any in its past. And it managed to reconstitute itself despite its location decidedly outside the East Coast metropole. And it did so in the most effective way, by making smart junior hires and tenuring them from within, while also recruiting senior historians in their mid-careers. Some universities go after trophy hires, hoping that a senior scholar past his or her prime but remunerated lavishly will restore its luster or give it a gloss that it never had. That’s a strategy that almost always fails. By contrast, Yale went after the one-book wonders and two-book rising stars within its walls and extramurally.
By pursuing this strategy, Yale stands mostly alone. Of top-ranked departments, only Michigan, Penn, and Wisconsin have been as ambitious and successful with junior and mid-career hiring. By contrast, many other big departments lost their bearing when they lost their most prominent senior faculty. Harvard, long mired in dysfunctionality, struggled for years before reinventing itself. Chicago and Leland Stanford Junior University have quirkily half-rebuilt. Berkeley has never recovered from the loss of Leon Litwack and Larry Levine. And UCLA has hoarded its greatness in European and Asian history, while letting its American side languish (although its recruitment of Washington’s James Gregory is most promising).
The next department that will face a major crisis is mighty Columbia. The top-heavy department recently poached the most important immigration historian of her generation, Mae Ngai, from Chicago. It bolstered its otherwise non-existent strength in cultural history with Indiana’s Casey Blake. But still Columbia lacks a senior colonialist after a series of failed searches to replace Richard Bushman. And it must ponder an uncertain future with Eric Foner, Kenneth Jackson, and Alice Kessler-Harris all well into their sixties. The department’s best hope is that revered teacher and mentor Alan Brinkley may return to the classroom from his stint as Provost.
That leads us back to Yale. While most of its peers struggled, Yale aggressively rebuilt. After decades of sending its young talent packing, Yale’s history or American studies programs (the two overlap considerably) tenured colorful North Carolinian Glenda Gilmore, slightly too prolific Matthew Frye Jacobson, and one-book wonders Joanne Freeman, Stephen Pitti, Jonathan Scott Holloway, and Jennifer Klein. And it built its senior ranks selectively, hiring mid-career scholars with several books left in them, beginning with David Blight from Amherst in the wake of the publication of his field-defining book on the Civil War and memory. Just as impressively, Yale recruited two of the three top historians of sexuality in American history: Joanne Meyerowitz of Indiana and George Chauncey of Chicago (the third is Penn’s Kathy Peiss). Of them, Blight, Gilmore, and Chauncey have the best chance of filling the shoes of their esteemed predecessors. Much credit for Yale’s rebuilding must go to senior faculty like the erudite and marvelous Jon Butler, who refused to let a great department languish for too long.
Yale’s reconstruction strategy has been smarter than that of most of its colleagues. What Yale has learned is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It is arguable whether most of the young faculty Yale has tenured will ever singly be magnets for graduate students. Most of them, at least to date, do not have the star power of a Morgan, Cott, or Montgomery or books that are as field-defining. But in combination, the Yale department is truly formidable. If Professor Bierce has the good fortune this year of advising a smart undergraduate who is foolish enough to want to go to graduate school in history, he will encourage her to apply to Yale. (Professor Bierce’s next choices will be the subject of future postings).