May 27, 2015--Mark Carnes's Remarks on the Death of Ene Sirvet

Read at Ene's memorial service at Faculty House.


The Society of American Historians does not normally make note of the death of members.  The most fitting tribute for a writer is the words and books he or she leaves to posterity.

But the officers of the Society have asked that I share a few words on Ene Sirvet, who died last month.  For nearly fifty years Ene served as the secretary for the Society. 

Ene first became involved with the Society in the 1960s, when Richard Morris was an officer.   At the time Ene worked with Morris on the John Jay papers, and eventually succeeded him as their editor.     

Ene was the administrative secretary with Kenneth T. Jackson, who was executive secretary of the Society for nearly twenty years, and then she worked with me during my seventeen years in the same capacity, and more recently with Andie Tucher, the current executive secretary of the Society. 

Many members were puzzled over Ene’s unusual name, and over the years I learned that she was a committed Estonian nationalist.   Before and after that nation’s independence, prominent Estonian leaders often gathered at her apartment. 

Over her many years as secretary of the Society, some of Ene’s administrative functions remained the same—financial and membership recordkeeping, administering to the board, maintaining the archives, and the like—but others evolved.  Always a savvy observer of literary developments, she crafted press releases, which she delivered to her contacts at The New York Times.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the Times often reported on the winner of the Society’s Parkman Prize in its first section; on a good year, the Society’s prize dinner would occupy a column on the front page. 

When the Society later published an annual booklet on the Society’s prize winners, she took the photographs in addition to editing it. 

She continued with the Society well into her seventies, completing familiar tasks almost through muscle memory. 

Mere recitation of her many duties and activities would fail to convey her influence on the Society.  She was not exactly its heart and soul, because she was not a writer.  Nor was she the backbone of the organization, because its gossamer administrative structure never acquired such substantiality.  Perhaps a story can convey something of her subtle but profound influence. 

Like most enterprises of, by and for writers, the Society often ran a deficit.  Early in my tenure, I asked Ene to provide a list of members who were delinquent in their dues.  Though unenthusiastic about the initiative, she compiled such a list.  While reviewing it with her,  I noticed that an important historian had not paid his dues in five years. 

“I suppose we should do something about this,” I said.    

She didn’t reply immediately.  In response to my stare, though, she said, “But his most recent book was a masterpiece.” 

“What does that have to do with his dues?” I asked.

“In a few years, you’ll probably want him to serve as a juror for the Parkman prize,” she replied.

Whether that prominent historian ever paid his dues, I don’t know; but later he did serve on a Parkman jury and I was grateful for his insight and judgment.

For nearly a half century, Ene Sirvet was largely responsible for the special and even quirky character of the Society of American Historians.  She imparted to all of its functions a distinctive charm and literary sensibility that members cherished. 

As we celebrate the winners of this year’s prizes, we should recall the dinners, and the other Society functions, that she orchestrated with grace and loving attention.