U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael Kammen (1936-2013) [Updated]

News began circulating online yesterday that Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, had passed away on November 29, 2013. As of this writing, I can find no obituaries to confirm this report or offer more details.  I’ll add links to this post when major obituaries appear. (Updated 12/3: Obituaries are now appearing; links are below the fold- BA)

As most readers of this blog no doubt know, Kammen was one of the major intellectual and cultural historians of his generation, who received the honors that go along with such a career: a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for People of Paradox; the Francis Parkman Prize and Henry Adams Prize for A Machine That Would Go of Itself (1986); the Presidency of the OAH (1995-1996); and the AHA’s Scholarly Achievement Award (2009) for his lifetime of work. Follow me below the fold for some reflections about his work and legacy.

A Machine That Would Go of Itself was one of the first works of American intellectual and cultural history that I read. For some reason, I picked it up during my senior year of college or shortly thereafter…at any rate, before deciding to pursue American history professionally or entering graduate school.  During graduate school, his next book, The Mystic Chords of Memory (1991), helped encourage in me (and I suspect a lot of other Americanists) an interest in questions of public memory.  It’s been several years since I’ve read either book (and I haven’t read any of his more recent books: American Culture, American Tastes (1999), A Time to Every Purpose (2004), Visual Shock (2006), or Digging Up the Dead (2010)).  But I loved Machine and Mystic Chords….and deeply appreciated his edited primary-source collection Contested Values (1995), which focused on arguments over major social transformations in American life, but was, in many ways, a kind of teach-the-controversies-from-the-past response to the Culture Wars.

A Machine That Would Go of Itself and Mystic Chords of Memory share many characteristics. Both are long and extraordinarily learned.  The sheer volume of information in them is, at times, almost overwhelming.[1] Yet they are also a joy to read.  Kammen was a genius at discovering fascinating stories from the past, conveying them effectively, and assembling them in ways that made the whole more than the sum of his books’ considerable parts.  Though he had strong arguments, they seemed to emerge organically out of his material. And because of the fair-mindedness and plain-spoken quality of his work, as well as the broad, significant, and interesting topics he pursued, Kammen reached and impressed much wider and more diverse audiences than serious historical scholarship usually does.[2]

Kammen’s work represents a kind of historical scholarship utterly different from what I tend to set out to do.  My own work involves more close reading and foreswears the encyclopedic dimensions that Kammen’s work often assumes. So I never exactly looked to Kammen as a model for my own scholarship. And given the extraordinary quality and volume of work that Kammen produced over the years, I would imagine that anyone who did look to him as a model might soon feel inadequate to the task.  But reading A Machine That Would Go of Itself opened up to me the possibilities of U.S. intellectual and cultural history. It was one of many things that made me decide to pursue a PhD in U.S. history.

I never met Michael Kammen. And I don’t even have much second-hand knowledge of what he was like as a colleague or a teacher. Perhaps some of our readers have greater personal experience with him. As is always the case with these obituary posts, I hope that comments will be used as an open thread to discuss Kammen’s work and Kammen himself.

UPDATE [12/3]:

Obituaries for Michael Kammen have appeared in the following places:

The Organization for American Historians


[1] Thinking about Kammen’s work reminds me of a story that a professor of mine in grad school told me about his meeting Keith Thomas (author of, among other things, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Man and the Natural World) when my future professor was an undergraduate at Cambridge University.  At a nervous loss at what to say to Thomas, whose books feature a Kammen-like density of detail, my professor remarked, “you must have had marvelous notecards!”

[2] In searching unsuccessfully for an obituary online, I came across Walter Berns’s review for Commentary of A Machine That Would Go of Itself. Despite the vast political differences between Berns (a Leo Strauss student) and Kammen and the potentially hot-button, culture-war inflected topic of the book (the U.S. Constitution), Berns wrote admiringly of Kammen’s work.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree with your assessment. To me, Kammen has always been the most intimidating of early American (or just American, for that matter) cultural historians. In some ways, he reminded me of Richard Hofstadter in the sense that his books seemed more like extended essays culled from an encyclopedic knowledge of American history and culture.

  2. Ben Alpers: Thank you for providing some additional information about this sad passing. I have “Mystic Chords,” and as you say, they are dense works and at the time I acquired it, could not devote the time it demanded. But I appreciate the introduction to some of the other titles that I might now consider as well.

  3. Michael Kammen was my graduate advisor at Cornell and a model teacher-scholar. Generous, witty, kind, and enthusiastic, he helped his students (both undergraduate and graduate) appreciate the richness and complexity of historical study. His eagerness to share stories and ideas was often overwhelming, to the point that it wasn’t always easy to see the forest for the trees. (My father, also an academic, once said fondly that Michael Kammen never met a fact he didn’t like.) But Michael was also a sharp and perceptive analyst of American history, and his range across chronology, methodology, and theme was truly inspiring. He was deeply committed to his Ph.D. students and unfailingly supportive of their work, even if it lay outside of his own areas of expertise. He was also a charming host, a marvelous storyteller, a proud citizen of Cornell and Ithaca, and a devoted husband and father. I’m honored to have worked with him and wish I’d thanked him more for all of his encouragement over the years.

  4. I took only one seminar with Michael Kammen during my graduate years at Cornell, and my research interests were in many ways far from his own. But he unfailingly remembered what I was doing and where I had been, and consistently left reading suggestions for me in my mailbox, gleaned from his own wide and voracious reading. He was demanding in class, but you knew any praise from him had been truly earned. A generous, quirky, accomplished teacher and scholar.

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