George Fredrickson, R.I.P.


The media is chattering today about the death of William Buckley. Since he came to public consciousness with God and Man at Yale, and pronounced on religious issues from his conservative Catholic perspective, perhaps this blog should comment since he is a presence in American religion. On the other hand, it always seemed to me he wasted his talent with too much writing about trivia and jousting with opponents using pseudo-erudition as his weapon, not to mention his staunch opposition to every single advance in civil rights legislation (this is not altogether a political commentary, by the way; I feel much the same when I see John Updike's overly precious essays about subjects of little note in the New Yorker).

Much more significant, to me, is the passing of the historian George Fredrickson, who most certainly didn't waste his time on trivial pursuits; one of his former students gives him an affectionately honest remembrance here.

Since I just this afternoon blogged about my use of Fredrickson's concept of romantic racialism to think about the Civil War and American Culture, reading of his death just a few minutes after that blog entry struck me forcibly. Along with Leon Litwack and Lawrence Levine (Levine passed last year), Fredrickson was a major intellectual influence, even though I never met or spoke with him, and even though he was not a religious historian, and even though he wrote some things on religion (for the New York Review of Books) that reeked of coastal elite snobbery. But no matter -- the body of his work is essential to anyone dealing with vexed questions of the history of religion and race in the U.S. (and elsewhere, esp. South Africa -- he was a consummate comparative historian), so I note his passing with a feeling of thanks for what he gave me; and I wish I could/would have told him that while he was alive. Fortunately, students of his, including James Campbell, author of the magnificient work Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa, carry on his legacy of comparative race history.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting on this, Paul. I never met Frederickson, either, but your earlier post on UTC reminded me of how deeply his work has been absorbed into American studies and American literary history. It’s funny how the loss of those who’ve influenced us the most can leave us so bereft, even when we didn’t know them that well. When Jenny Franchot died, at 45, I cried for days, and dreamed about our one face-to-face meeting for years afterwards. I think Frederickson found able students to carry out in legacy not only in James Campbell but in you and other readers of this blog.
Art Remillard said…
Along the lines of Tracy's Franchot comment, I had a similar sense of deflation when I learned of Peter D'Agostino's death. I came by _Rome in America_ in my research, then looked him up only to learn of his murder, which was random and senseless. A tragedy in every sense of the word.
Randall said…
Thanks Paul. I've always enjoyed Frederickson's illuminating essays in the NYRB.

A favorite Buckley clip from youtube:

Versus Gore Vidal in 1968:

Too bad Buckley's bizarre interview with a sloshed, bloated Kerouac is no longer on-line.
Anonymous said…
I agree with you about Frederickson, Paul.

I partly agree with you about Buckley's pseudo-erudition, but his significance was not in having particularly original ideas but in advancing a conservative political agenda with eloquence, wit, and usually good humor.

For instance, in God and Man at Yale, he portrayed his alma mater as an "institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists."

His shortcoming on civil rights was the shortcoming of most conservatives -- a major blindspot of which he only belatedly repented.

An AP story in my local paper referred to Buckley's "reptilian languor." I wasn't quite sure what that meant, particularly in a mostly laudatory editorial.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this. I hadn't heard of Frederickson's passing. An essay he wrote on 19th-century U.S. historiography that I read my first semester in grad school greatly influenced my approach to the century, and has stuck with me.

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