U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Henry F. May: 1915-2012

Henry F. May, one of his generation’s most distinguished historians, died Saturday, September 29, at the age of 97. May was Margaret Byrne Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley, where he had taught from 1952 until his retirement in 1980. He was a prominent campus citizen throughout his tenure at Berkeley, and served as Chair of the Department of History during the Free Speech Movement of 1964. He was honored by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate in 1981 as Faculty Research Lecturer.

 Two of May’s numerous books still help to define scholarly discussion of the two periods of American history to which they were addressed. The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917, published in 1959, argued that the cultural rebellions of the 1920s were well underway before World War I and that these rebellions were less dependent upon the that war’s impact than earlier scholars had assumed. The Enlightenment in America, a book of 1976 that won the Merle Curti Prize of the Organization of American Historians, persuaded a generation of scholars that the Protestant culture of late-18th century America rendered the American version of the Enlightenment strikingly different from its European equivalents. May was honored by the Organization of American Historians with its Distinguished Service Award in 1997. He was also an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

 May’s passing trigged an outpouring of appreciations from historians throughout the nation. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania described May as “the most prominent American intellectual historian of his generation, a caring mentor, and a gentleman of the sort that we sorely miss in today’s academic world.” According to Charles Capper of Boston University, “May virtually created the field of American intellectual history for the post-World War II era as well as trained more of its practitioners than any other historian of his time.” One of these many doctoral alumni, Berkeley’s David A. Hollinger, remembers May as “indefatigably conscientious and fair-minded.” Another of May’s students, Daniel Walker Howe of Oxford University, said “May’s most important and distinctive quality was his intellectual integrity–his determination to be accurate and fair, to get the story right, not only in its factual specifics, but to recreate and convey the authentic spirit, purposes, and values of the people whom he studied and taught about.”

 May was born in Denver, Colorado, on March 27, 1915, but spent much of his youth in Berkeley. He was a 1937 graduate of UC Berkeley, and a classmate of Robert McNamara, later Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson. In an autobiography published in 1987, Coming to Terms: A Study in Memory and History, May wrote extensively about his Berkeley youth and his experiences as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, where he was involved in the left wing political activities common in that era. In 1993 May wrote a detailed study of the cultural and intellectual life of the Berkeley campus in the early years of the twentieth century, Three Faces of Berkeley: Competing Ideologies in the Wheeler Era, 1899-1919. A legendary raconteur about local life and times, he liked to tell stories about Berkeley’s great Wimbleton tennis champion of the 1930s, Helen Wills Moody.

 May completed his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University in 1947, having first served as a Japanese language translator for the United States Navy during World War II and in the post-war occupation of Japan. He taught briefly at Bowdoin College and Scripps College before coming to Berkeley in 1952. His first wife, Jean, died in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Louise Brown of Oakland, by his two daughters Ann May of Berkeley and Hildy May of Guerneville, and by three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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Editor’s note: The above obituary notice was released this morning by UC Berkeley.  Our thanks to Prof. David Hollinger for helping us pass this notice on to our readers.  Hollinger notes that along with himself and Daniel Walker Howe, quoted in the obituary, Henry F. May’s doctoral alums included Samuel Haber, Laurence Veysey, Nathan Hale, Jr., Peter Gregg Slater, David Bailey, Donald Harvey Meyer, and William O’Neill.  

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Sad news. May was a real gentleman. When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, David Hollinger recognized that it was The End of American Innocence that really brought me to history, so David put me in touch with May. The Mays very kindly had me to their leafy house for lunch, where I embarrassed him by asking him to sign my copy of Innocence. But he signed it anyway, and was eager to help a student of a student. I sometimes play the academic lineage game and was always proud to have Henry May as a descendant.

  2. I love Kevin’s anecdote. It’s the way I imagined May after my reading *End of American Innocence*—the only book of May’s that I’ve fully explored.

    I distinctly remember reading the book over a tedious Christmas break spent at home, in Missouri, during graduate school. I used *End of American Innocence*, somewhat ironically given the modern penchant for ennui, to escape a lousy, boring visit with my Midwestern relatives. It was in that work that I first learned about the Chicago realist school of modern writing. That section alerted me to a new angle on Chicago’s cultural and intellectual history. Anyway, I loved it.

    A classmate of Robert McNamara?! Funny and interesting. – TL

  3. Henry May was a great historian, and a great teacher – of more mature students; he told me that freshmen and sophomores generally didn’t like the complexity and nuance of his lectures. In the ’60s and ’70s, when I was a student, May (a student of the senior Schlesinger in the “social and intellectual history” mode) would certainly have been ranked as a leading intellectual historian, whereas some of those retrospectively classified that way (e.g., Bruce Mazlish,John Higham) were not considered intellectual historians at all.

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