UCLA’s cultural and intellectual historian Eugen Weber died last week. He was 82. Weber is survived by his wife Jacqueline, to whom he was married for 57 years.
Weber concentrated on European phenomena, particularly events in France. I first encountered his work during my doctoral minor field studies – thanks to Loyola University Chicago professor Suzanne Kaufman. Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen proved particularly inspirational to me.
If a canon of Western intellectual history exists, it would seem incomplete if something from Weber wasn’t on it. I suspect Peasants into Frenchmen might be his great contribution. In that work he explained well the multifaceted process by which contentious diversity was transformed, often by force, into a more homogeneous nation state.
In U.S. history, historians today as a group generally revile the analogous happenings at the turn of the twentieth century. We call it “Americanization,” and ascribe to the process a fair amount of justified scorn. But if my memory serves me correctly, Peasants was certainly ambiguous about the process of making “Frenchmen.” Weber lamented some of the loss of diversity, the richness of variety. But he didn’t completely revile the process. Some measure of standardization (I remember well a chapter on language) was necessary to the process of constructing a common culture. I try to emulate Weber’s balanced view of things when teaching on Americanization: just as there were aggressive Americanizers like Frances Kellor, there were also those sensitive to immigrant traditions like Jane Addams.
With that, I can say that Weber’s example has proved important to me in my work and thinking. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. – TL