Alan Brinkley, Leading Historian of 20th-Century America, Dies at 70

Historians in the News
tags: American History, Alan Brinkley

Alan Brinkley, one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation, with a specialty in 20th-century American political history, died on Sunday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 70.

The cause was complications of frontotemporal dementia, a neurological disorder, his daughter, Elly Brinkley, said.

Mr. Brinkley’s work spanned the full spectrum of the last century’s seminal events and influential characters, including the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

His “Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression” (1983) won the National Book Award. And his high school and college history textbooks “American History” and “The Unfinished Nation” were best sellers and frequently updated.

“For the 20th century, Alan set the agenda for most political historians, especially about the New Deal,” Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine, said in a telephone interview.

But his interests ranged widely, and he was devoted to teaching. He received teaching awards at both Harvard and Columbia and held the rare distinction for an American historian of teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge in England.

Eric Foner, a fellow historian at Columbia, wrote in a foreword to “Alan Brinkley: A Life in History” (2019), a collection of essays written in tribute, that the central themes of Mr. Brinkley’s scholarship were “the strengths, limits and vulnerabilities of the 20th-century American liberal tradition; the challenges to it, both internal and external; the connections between popular movements and partisan politics,” as well as the New Deal’s legacies.

Mr. Brinkley grew up in Washington, a son of David Brinkley, the longtime NBC News anchor, who died in 2003. His brother Joel was a reporter and editor for The New York Times and died in 2014; his brother John is a writer at Forbes.

Although journalism was the family business, Alan was less comfortable in that world than his brothers were and toyed with alternatives. After graduating from Princeton, he applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted, but his father’s loathing of lawyers intimidated him and he abandoned that plan.

Alan did not escape journalism entirely. He became a singularly public kind of historian, someone who reached out beyond his academic scholarship and engaged with the world at large through the media in an accessible style.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, a historian and later dean at Princeton who was Mr. Brinkley’s adviser on his senior thesis, said he had written with a grace and flair unusual for an undergraduate.

“Even then, he had an uncanny feel for language — a sense of pace, style, composition and felicitous phrasing all too rare among historians in general, let alone history students,” she wrote in the tribute book.

Read entire article at New York Times