2015 David Levering Lewis, Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at New York University

Lewis has accomplished enough for two lifetime awards. He has published eight books and edited two more; has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize; has been awarded the National Humanities Medal; and  has been honored with fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and many other organizations. He served as president of the Society of American Historians in 2002-03.

His reach as a historian is truly global: he has written biographies of Martin Luther King and W.E.B. Dubois and is currently working on a life and times of Wendell Willkie. His published work includes critically acclaimed studies of the Dreyfus Affair and of Fashoda and the African resistance to European colonialism; a cultural history of Harlem; and, in 2008, a history of Islam and the making of Europe, 570-1215. Whatever the subject, Professor Lewis’s writing—and lectures—are distinguished by his intelligence, integrity, passion, wit, and magnificent prose style.  

Born in Little Rock, David Levering Lewis was educated at Fisk, Columbia, and the London School of Economics.                                                                                                                             

David Levering Lewis's remarks on receiving the Society of American Historians' Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award

The Century Association, Monday, May 11, 2015

The problem is what to say and how long to take saying it when one receives a prestigious award recognizing distinguished professional service. Finding one’s time in service honored is all very well, even though it may risk the perception that one’s time has expired. When a recent issue of The American Scholar titled an otherwise welcome article “The Story of David Levering Lewis’s Life,” I notified editor Robert Wilson that the story’s conclusion was still being written. Indeed, that one has accomplished enough to be honored by a society such as ours---many of whose members have reshaped the contours and reframed the narrative of the national experience---should be a great incentive to accomplish even more in the time remaining. In its original iteration, this evening’s lifetime achievement prize or distinguished service award was posthumously named in 1984 for Charles Bruce Catton, the immensely popular historian of the Civil War whose Pulitzer prize-winning Stillness at Appomattox remains a model of the superior history writing honored through the decades by the Society of American Historians.

lllustrious recipients of the Catton Prize precede me: C. Vann Woodward; John Hope Franklin; Richard Morris; David Donald, to mention those from whose professional commendation I had the good fortune to benefit.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., received the Catton Prize in 1996. His acceptance speech, published abridged as a New York Times op-ed, characteristically created quite a splash.  “Monday night, 29 April,” a diary entry reads, “Bruce Catton award, including a much needed $5,000, for lifetime achievement. . . .  “I don’t think I deserve it, but I did not complain.” Figuratively standing tonight where Arthur Schlesinger stood nineteen years ago, I find reassuring his diary’s aside. Arthur’s Catton prize op-ed needled fellow professional historians that the firestorm over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay atomic bomb exhibition was, he wrote, “an involuntary tribute to the significance of history for which historians should be duly grateful. “It would be far worse if no one gave a damn what we said or did.” A typical late-career professional insouciance from a prolific interpretive virtuoso who’d described entire ages of American history (Jackson, FDR, the Kennedys), located America’s vital center, identified the cycles of American history, and profiled the imperial presidency while accumulating two Pulitzers and cultivating the best and brightest personalities from Harvard to Hollywood and Georgetown.

Arthur’s critics, of which there was a good number, reproached the alloy of hubris and humor that made the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at CUNY such a formidable, yet generally agreeable, adversary. To read his The Disuniting of America, a critically reckless attack on multi-culturalism, could arouse feelings of both indignation and reluctant congruence, as I discovered when writing a rather biting critique of that book on the occasion of Arthur’s posthumous 90th birthday appreciation.  

Which brings me to a personal admission about accuracy and irony concerning this evening’s tribute. I stood with a determined minority, eloquently, philosophically opposed to this elite body’s decision to retire the Catton Prize after 2006 on grounds of economic expediency. Radix omnium malorum est cupiditas we protested despite a depleted Catton endowment. That was the principled unreality of then; the functioning of a sufficiently endowed Arthur Meier Schlesinger Distinguished Service Award is the reality of now. And like the prize’s namesake, I, too, am most grateful for the purse. Of much more consequence are the professional ruminations aroused by this Schlesinger award.

As one reaches the end of his seventh decade, still reasonably sentient, he confronts the inevitable anxieties inherent in finishing the next big book. Arthur was not only prey to such anxieties, I think many of you will find, as have I, a degree of incentivizing solace in the lighthearted candor of his professional advice to distinguished service historians about the ways of coping and keeping up.  Let him speak a bit to us. “Does a time come when archival research seems a disproportionate investment of remaining time,” a late octogenarian Arthur pondered in his dairy? He hadn’t at all begrudged the output of a day in the boxes  “twenty five years ago.” But now he did. Once he had a gift for “impressionistic, as against voluminously detailed, history.”  He cited the example of The Crisis of the Old Order and savored a judgment from the AHR that the book was “the most perfectly sculptured work of historical art produced in this country, a book distinguished for it novelistic use of time, its symphonic organization, its vivid scenes and graphic vignettes, its telling quotations and dramatic native sweep.” “Can I return to that mode,” Arthur asked his diary? “Why did I abandon it?  Because of a desire to guard myself against academic criticism by providing all the evidence,” he admits. He needs, he decides, “to figure out a fresh structure in which to contain the material, eschew fanatical detail and strive for pattern and distillation” in order to finish his FDR. “This will require a massive shift of gears. . . . OK: back to sculpture, symphonies and novelism.”[J-467-8]

 Lately, I find Arthur Schlesinger’s retooling scenario increasingly appealing, all the more so as his bombshell 1941 essay appearing in the Nation while a 23-year-old assistant professor---“Can Willkie Save the Republican Party”---serves as a constant reminder that my editor has been waiting patiently at W.W. Norton for my answer to that question. Because I believe that the contemporary significance of  Wendell Willkie’s public career exemplifies one of the last century’s great lost efforts to hold American exceptionalism to its liberal promise, I find myself these days on the cusp of despairing over the cruel mischief long wrought by the exceptionalist paradigm. I ask myself why should I not conclude that what has been exceptional about our exceptionalst national narrative are the historic exceptions to it----notably, people of color?

Down the long corridor of interrupted progress from slavery to freedom, Africans in America have been unique victims and unimpeachable critics of a nation corrupted at its inception by a political economy anchored to race. Manumitted by war, politically empowered under Reconstruction, betrayed, disenfranchised, and re-subjugated during the 50-year nadir of Plessy versus Ferguson, African Americans emerged from the Second World War a national people, urbanized, G.I. Bill literate, occupationally diverse, but a people still forced and favored by history to pursue the role of redeemers of their nation’s founding dogma. Their great decade in the sixties was an epic breakthrough. If ever an era belonged to a single people, the racial, abortion, gender, immigration, gay, and handicapped rights won in the Sixties and Seventies were black people’s gifts to the nation. Even so, yet another great American deception for people of color was already in the making, as C. Vann Woodward John Hope Franklin, famously forecast---a “Second Reconstruction,” ending, like the first, with hard won social and economic progress undermined and reversed as the ideology and economics of Reaganism nullified what survived of progressivism until the majority population itself recoiled from the consequences.

Against a bleak backdrop of indebtedness, unemployment, and rapid decline in traditional jobs and the non-affordability of the essentials of health and education, 53 percent of the electorate wagered in 2008 that it could deny race by affirming its non-importance and thereby audaciously reinvigorate the exceptionalist narrative. As the Obama presidency ends with much to its credit, the vision of a national post-racial reset that defined its historic debut seems is belied by worsening disparities now almost irrevocably color-coded, by Supreme Court majorities disingenuously mocking African American and Latino voting rights, by reborn nativism more virulent than its mid-nineteenth-century parent, and by criminal justice system irregularities perceived as outrageous enough to spark corrective riots from Ferguson to Baltimore with summer coming. It is certainly possible that when this decade ends it will have confirmed the relevancy of W. E.B. Du Bois’s grim prophecy about America’s everlasting racism.

Can historians help, and if so, then what is the Chernyshevskian question? In his fairly recent, smart book, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, NYU historian Nikkil Pal Singh asks: “What if the political lesson of the long civil rights era is that we advance equality only by continually passing through a politics of race, and by refusing the notion of a definitive ‘beyond’ race?” Moderately good news are those definite signs of a historical revisionism that upends the hoary master narrative of Herrenvolk democracy, unrivaled industrial takeoff, robust middle classes gloriously replenished by hardworking immigrants, Jeffersonian laissez-faire matched with Hamiltonian finance.

For too long we have looked in the wrong place and race for the a priori genesis of the American story, as Craig Wilder’s rum and sugar archaeology of the ivy league documents, as this evening’s Parkman laureate’s troubling parsing of the Declaration suggests, or as revealed by Walter Johnson’s grim close look at capitalism and slavery in the trans-Mississippi----Mr. Jefferson’s soi-disant “empire of liberty.” Sven Beckert’s Bancroft prize monograph, Empire of Cotton brings things into sharper focus because cotton, as he rightly says, “is the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it of the modern world.”

With Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Capitalism we may have arrived by way of Eric Williams, David Brion Davis, James Oakes, and others of the profession’s vanguard at the frontier of a new meta-narrative that upends exceptionalism. If that proves accurate, we will comprehend how the institution of American slavery functioned as a vast concentration camp from which flowed the enormous wealth that made the industrial north possible and the surplus capital upon which the commercial and industrial paramountcy of New York and Philadelphia were built. This is the dreadful reality of a vaunted national success story inconceivable without the enforced indispensability of four million black lives that mattered.    

Thank you.