Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A visit to Leland Stanford Junior University

Ambrose Bierce has never been a great fan of Leland Stanford Junior University, that institution whose name forever honors the son of the most repulsive $tealand £andford whose railroad “conducted the business … of promoting dyspepsia and disseminating death, hell, and the grave.”

But to my present happiness, old Leland's history department has itself been somewhat derailed, though not quite enough for my full satisfaction. Stanford is home to one of the greatest historians of his generation, the inestimable Richard White, as imaginative and supple a mind as one will ever meet. White's work defies easy categorization: he is a colonialist, a historian of the American west, a premier scholar of native American history, a biographer and experimenter with the art of narrative, and, arguably, the single most important influence on the new environmental history. Now the splendid Dr. White is turning to a topic near and dear to Professor Bierce's heart: the history of political economy and, indeed, corruption in the nineteenth century. White is also a mentor par excellence, someone whose legion of extraordinary University of Washington students now occupy positions of prominence at top universities including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Brown.

Stanford has benefited from the wages of White-ness, but in other respects it has suffered mightily. In February, the modest but brilliant George Frederickson, another of Stanford's mighties, sadly and unexpectedly passed on, a death as untimely but more devastating than that of young Leland more than a century ago. David Kennedy, another formidable historian, he of the Pulitzer and Bancroft, is nearing retirement, though still young he seems. Jack Rakove brings scholarly distincton to his department, should you be attracted to his sort of scholarly pursuit, but rather less by the way of collegiality. Clayborne Carson and Barton Bernstein both possess quite fine minds, but neither has entirely lived up to his youthful promise. Estelle Freedman has a rather small band of followers, having never quite become the nucleus of a group of young, revisionist historians as have some of her peers at comparable East Coast universities. And Al Camarillo, while a pioneer, has been surpassed in visibility and originality by many younger scholars, several themselves Stanford products.

Many universities laden with riches comparable to Leland Senior's ill-begotten bequest have endeavored to rebuild their troubled history departments. But Stanford has not quite succeeded. Its ranks of junior faculty are thin, though a few of its youngsters, like the delightfully-named and luminously intelligent Latin Americanist, Zephyr Frank, and the fine historian of French imperialism, J.P. Daughton, are scholars of great promise. But Stanford's efforts to attract rising stars like Kate Masur (now at Northwestern), the intellectual powerhouse Sven Beckert, and the ever-flirtaceous Walter Johnson, came to naught.

Alas for the memory of poor typhoid-strickened Leland Junior.


Ari said...

I'd comment. But what is there left to say after what you've said? Regardless, I'll be reading.

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III said...

Thank you kind sir.