John A. Garraty: The Scholar Who Popularized History





[Dr. Mieczkowski is chair of the History Department at Dowling College and author of Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005) and The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001). ]

The historical profession lost a giant with the passing of John A. Garraty, the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University.  The author and editor of numerous American history books, Garraty was one of the most prolific historians of his generation.  I worked as his last research assistant, and I once asked him the secret of his prolificness, as if expecting him to reveal some secret formula or regimen.  In addition to his writing, he had a family, taught classes, vacationed at a Paris apartment, and even ran the New York City marathon.  Amidst all this activity, he still wrote copiously.  “Where do you find the time?” I asked. 

“Time?” he responded.  “Time is a question of priorities.  Only the dead have run out of time.  They’ve met their final deadline.”  I began to laugh, because it seemed a curious way to answer my question.  But when I laughed, Dr. Garraty put up his hand.  “No, I’m serious,” he said.  “If something ranks high enough as a priority, you’ll find the time.”

Time ran out for Dr. Garraty on December 19, as he died at his Sag Harbor, New York, home of heart failure at age 87.  But he leaves a wealth of work for readers to contemplate.  The New York Times obituary on Garraty focused almost exclusively on a project he completed during retirement, the massive American National Biography.  With the rise of on-line encyclopedias, the ANB—available in the reference section of virtually every library—may be the last work of its kind.

            The ANB represented just one of many legacies that Garraty bequeathed the historical profession.  One of his most impressive achievements was his textbook, The American Nation, first published in 1963 and now in its twelfth edition.  An entire textbook was a mammoth undertaking, but even in the days before word processors, Garraty was a fast writer.  The American Nation became a best-selling college text, and Garraty published a version for high school students, too.  Through his textbooks, Garraty reached millions of students—far more than through his classes or scholarly work.

            Garraty had a knack for making history enjoyable.  A specialist in political and economic history, he could make the dismal science of economics lively.  The Great Depression, which Garraty published in 1986, has clear, simple chapter titles such as “Why It Happened,” “How It Started,” “What To Do About It,” and “How It Ended.” 

            General as well as scholarly readers were Garraty’s intended audience, and he helped popularize history.  In 1989, he began the “1001 Things” series with 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About American History.  The series has grown to comprise titles on the Civil War, the South, Women’s History, and Irish-American History, the last written by Edward O’Donnell of Holy Cross College, a Garraty student at Columbia who has emulated his former professor. 

            Biography was one venue by which Garraty made history come alive.  In addition to describing this craft in The Nature of Biography, he wrote volumes on the lives of Henry Cabot Lodge, George Perkins, Woodrow Wilson, and Silas Wright.  He was a master at capturing the right details about a subject.  The Great Depression mentions the emphasis that leaders worldwide placed on frugality and balanced budgets to ride out the economic downturn, using as an example Prime Minister William King of Canada, “a man who was so parsimonious that he cut new pencils into three pieces and used them until they were tiny stubs….”

            Garraty kept readers engaged with his sense of humor, too.  In The American Nation, recounting the first Thanksgiving after a tough year, Garraty wrote, “But if the Pilgrims had quickly secured themselves a safe place in the wilderness, what followed was hardly all cranberries and drumsticks.”  (He was witty in person, too.  He and Eric Foner edited The Reader’s Companion to American History, and while instructing graduate students on writing articles, Foner suggested including entertaining historical facts, like the first nineteenth-century basketball games being played using an apple basket as a hoop.  “It was a peach basket,” Garraty corrected his colleague, then added, “I was there.”)
As a writer, Garraty was a conscious stylist.  Knowing a writer’s responsibility to construct digestible sentences, Garraty liked to say, “Adverbs are bad,” explaining that they added unnecessary words to sentences while injecting little meaning.  Take out the adverbs, Garraty advised, and the sentence will read just as well—if not better. 

            Garraty wanted to use his writing to teach readers.  They learned American history, and they learned about writing itself.  Occasionally, he wove more complex words into his high school textbook.  Once, a student sent a letter complaining about words in the book that he could not understand.  Garraty wrote back, explaining that reading such words in a history textbook was an effective way to build his vocabulary.  Garraty also circled some words in the boy’s letter, pointing out to him that he, too, used vocabulary deftly, even if he might not have been conscious of it. 

            Garraty also knew the debt that every generation of historians owes to preceding ones, and he paid homage to those scholars who laid the foundation for today’s writing.  For his two-volume work, Interpreting American History:  Conversations with Historians, he interviewed twenty-nine eminent historians, including Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Link, Richard B. Morris, T. Harry Williams, and C. Vann Woodward; this work remains a classic recording of the profession’s best minds.  1001 Things book has a section on “Great Historians,” and his books are sprinkled with quotations from historical colleagues and predecessors.  In the classroom, Garraty asked first-year graduate students to write papers exploring the interpretations of nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft, one of his early favorites.

            As a professor, Garraty related to a wide range of students and nurtured their talents.  He received his undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College in 1941 and then worked during World War II as a Merchant Marine swim instructor.  In 1948, he earned his Ph.D. from Columbia and then taught for twelve years at Michigan State University before returning to Columbia, where he was a professor for thirty-one years until his retirement in 1990.

            At Columbia, Garraty ran the first-year seminar for American history graduate students.  In it, he hosted a different guest professor from the Columbia and Barnard History Departments every week, a parade of stars that included Mark Carnes, Eric Foner, Kenneth Jackson, Rosalind Rosenberg, and Alden Vaughan.  On the first day, the anticipation—and tension—among students were almost palpable.  Statistically, the odds are against any graduate student finishing a doctoral program.  The same thoughts ran through everyone’s minds:  How difficult would it be?  Who would survive, and who would not?  Garraty spoke with eloquence that first day, giving students the best gift a professor could offer—encouragement.  “Every one of you is capable of doing well here and completing the program.  You wouldn’t have been accepted here if you weren’t,” he said.  “You don’t have to be brilliant to write a good dissertation.  I’ve sponsored some students who weren’t—believe me when I say that,” he smiled.  “It does take persistence, though.”  For many of us, Garraty’s words were precisely the right touch, the gentle encouragement we needed to hear.

            When he was on campus, Garraty kept his office door open so that students could walk in to see him—although he had a playful French sign above his desk admonishing guests, “Soyez Bref” [“Be Brief”].  After talking to any visitor, he would return to work, showing the powers of concentration that were a key to his writing.  Students lucky enough to work under Garraty during his four decades of teaching emerged with gifts that he generously bestowed—friendship and an immense knowledge of American history.

            “In one sense the life of a great man ends with his last heartbeat, in another it goes on as long as people retain an interest in his accomplishments,” Garraty once wrote.  Much the same can be said for John A. Garraty.  His longtime friend and former student, Mark Carnes, Barnard College’s Ann Whitney Olin professor of history, now coauthors The American Nation textbook and coedits Garraty’s Historical Viewpoints volumes.  Other former students continue to build on what Garraty taught them.  Still more readers will indeed retain an interest in Garraty’s works, which beckon them in college courses and libraries nationwide. 

Related Links

  • Alonzo Hamby: John A. Garraty: A Great Life in Brief

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