Monday, August 18, 2008

Princeton follies: or fleas on a tiger's back

The History Department at Princeton, once great, has fallen onto troubled times. That’s not because of its stellar cast of European historians, ranging from the Renaissance Man Tony Grafton to the polymath Steve Kotkin, the erudite Brooklyn-born Russianist who also has a regular column in the business section of the New York Times. And it’s not the dearth of superb historians like Gyan Prakash or Jeremy Adelman who have written defining work in their respective subfields.

Rather Princeton’s woes are the result of the near-collapse of its American side. In the last several years, Princeton suffered great travails. Three prominent Americanists--John Murrin, Jim McPherson, and Nell Painter--have retired. Elizabeth Lunbeck decamped for the up-and-coming Vanderbilt, finally reunited with her husband Gary Gerstle (who, as the result of a prior Princeton folly, spent a decade and a half commuting to Catholic University and the University of Maryland). The last remaining senior Americanist of the feminine persuasion, Christine Stansell, left her husband (but contrary to popular rumor not her marriage) behind and headed to Chicago, a place attempting through a quirky set of hires to remedy its own travails in American history.

The remaining senior Americanists at Princeton include two revered mentors, Daniel Rodgers and Hendrik Hartog, but they alone are not enough to carry a whole program. Sean Wilentz, never much of a presence, had a tragic year. The audacity of his hope to be the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the Hillary Clinton administration was so unceremoniously dashed on the rocks of Obamamania, at least for the next four years.

Princeton has tried—and mostly failed—to rebuild. The roster of luminaries who have turned down Princeton would comprise one of the best American history departments in the country. Phil Morgan, Daniel Richter, Richard White, Walter Johnson, Stephanie McCurry, David Gutierrez, Robin Kelley, George Chauncey, Alan Brinkley, Tom Sugrue, and Lizabeth Cohen. And that’s probably not a complete list. Most tellingly, two senior Americanists, Morgan and McCurry each spent one year at Princeton before returning home, prodigal son and daughter, to their respective home institutions.

Princeton has not totally failed. Last year, Tera Hunter (whose second book we are eagerly awaiting) and Julian Zelizer (who is vying to be the next Michael Beschloss or Richard Norton Smith) joined the faculty. And Princeton tenured one of its own Americanists, Kevin Kruse, after a long string of ushering its junior faculty worthies to the door. A few younger scholars, their fate most uncertain, inhabit the ranks of junior faculty at Princeton, including the most promising Margot Canaday. But surely their sense of insecurity was heightened this spring, when Princeton, reverting to its old ways, sent the rather monastic Peter Silver packing, just as he picked up the Bancroft and a slew of other honors for his book. He joins many other young worthies who will not retire wearing the Orange and Black.

There are other plans afoot at Princeton this very moment, including ongoing efforts to replace the venerable McPherson, but I will save that delicious gossip for another day.

But let us say that it will be a long time before Princeton provides any serious competition in American history to its one-time peers: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Penn, Johns Hopkins, Chapel Hill, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Stanford.

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