The New York Times has reported the passing of Paul S. Boyer on March 17 at the age of 76.
As readers of this blog know, Boyer was one of the most important U.S. intellectual historians of his generation. Unlike many others who have earned that title, however, I don’t associate Boyer particularly with any distinctive methodological, topical, metanarrativistic, or stylistic shift in the field or sub-field. To put this another way: I can’t think of any time that I’ve read someone else’s work and have thought “that reminds me of Boyer”… and I’m not sure what would remind me of him.
But Boyer is one of that small group of historians who wrote three books that have made a real difference to me. And in Boyer’s case, they are three books on very different topics: Salem Possessed (1974), By The Bomb’s Early Light (1985), and When Time Shall Be No More (1992).
Salem Possessed, co-written with Stephen Nissenbaum, applied the tools of the (then new) social history to the case of the Salem witchcraft trials and made an ingenious, if ultimately not wholly convincing, case that the witchcraft scare could best be explained by looking at land-ownership patterns and the distribution of wealth. By the time I encountered it in grad school in the late ’80s, Salem Possessed read as a kind of object lesson in both the possibilities and limitations of the kind of social history that had exploded onto the scene in the early 1970s.
But by then, Boyer had moved on to other things. By The Bomb’s Early Light was an extraordinarily well-written and fascinating look at American view of atomic weaponry and power in the years immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.* Boyer’s interest in this topic reflected his own lifelong pacifism (he had been raised in one of the traditional peace churches). Analyzing an extraordinarily broad range of materials, the book conveys both the hopes and the fears that Americans felt about the bomb from the start.
By The Bomb’s Early Light would eventually serve as a kind of preemptive strike (albeit an ultimately politically unsuccessful one) against the nonsense that befell the proposed Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian a decade later, when various politicians and veterans organizations attempted to suggest that only recently had a small group of pointed-headed revisionists questioned the goodness of the atomic bombings of Japan. In fact, as Boyer had told us, many Americans had been skeptical and fearful of the use of atomic weaponry from very early on.
When Time Shall Be No More grew out of By The Bomb’s Early Light, but concerns a seemingly very different topic: premillennial prophecy in U.S. culture since World War II. Boyer first realized the shear scope and significance of premillennialism while working on By The Bomb’s Early Light, as atomic weaponry quickly came to play a role in premillennial prophetic understandings of current events in the mid-20th century. In taking premillennialism seriously as a strain in American culture worthy of real historical attention (rather than dismissing it as a kind of cultural neurosis), When Time Shall Be No More anticipated both the enormous growth of interest in religion (and especially vernacular religion) among American historians in the last two decades and the growing interest in American conservatism.
Yet the book does not (as far as I remember; I read it when it first came out and used it several times since in a classroom setting, but haven’t taken a look at it for at least five years) present itself as boldly leading American historiography in a new direction. Boyer had simply found a fascinating and important topic and chosen to write about it. And like By The Bomb’s Early Light, When Time Shall Be No More has an almost effortless feel about it. In Boyer’s hands, the thought of modern premillennial Christians comes alive as historically important and intrinsically interesting in a way that is neither celebratory nor dismissive.** The book is an excellent work of history, but also a very good read.
When thinking about great historians (I almost put “great”…and then “great historians”… in quotation marks), I think we are most often drawn to revolutionary figures in a Kuhnian sense, authors who shifted the paradigm in one way or another. I don’t think Paul Boyer fits this model of historiographical greatness.
But I do think it’s fair to call Boyer a great historian. He wrote a number of significant and enduring works of history on a wide range of topics, some of which found themselves on cutting edges that had not even yet emerged when he started work on them. Both By The Bomb’s Early Light and When Time Shall Be No More are models of serious scholarship written in a way that might reach broader, non scholarly audiences; I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one of them to non-academic friends interested in their subject matters (and in fact have recommended both to non-academics over the years).
This is a career worth remembering and celebrating.
* In between working with Nissenbaum on Salem and publishing By The Bomb’e Early Light, Boyer wrote Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (1978), which was also a very important book at the time, but which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never read.
** The first time I taught When Time Shall Be No More, one of my students happened to have come from a premillennialist background and he found the book familiar, in certain ways, but fair, interesting, and accurate.