Remembering H. Wayne Morgan, Pioneer of Gilded Age Studies

tags: Gilded Age, H. Wayne Morgan

Lewis L. Gould is professor emeritus of American history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans.

Professor H. Wayne Morgan, George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus, at the University of Oklahoma, died at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, on January 29, 2014 after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife Anne Hodges Morgan and a brother Richard Morgan, and other relatives.

When Morgan received his Ph.D from UCLA in 1960 for his dissertation on the congressional career of William McKinley, there was not an identifiable field of Gilded Age studies within the historical profession. Between the Civil War and Reconstruction and the popular topic of progressivism, the late nineteenth century languished as an area for scholarly interest.There were robber barons, politicians in the mode of Matthew Josephson, and a comic-opera war with Spain that Walter Millis had covered twenty-five years earlier, but otherwise a kind of dead-zone existed between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Into that void stepped Morgan, known to one and all as "Wayne." Born in Oklahoma and raised in Arizona, he graduated from Arizona State University and pursued further studies at Claremont College and then at UCLA where he studied with George E. Mowry and Brainerd Dyer. Over the next decade he burst on to the national historical scene as an exponent of a new view of the Gilded Age. He published in 1962 a volume on Eugene V. Debs as a presidential candidate, based on his master's thesis. His real impact came with the appearance of William McKinley and His America, published with the Syracuse University Press in 1963. Finding a publisher had not been easy. One reader for another house had turned down the book because McKinley, a wartime president, had violated the commandment "thou shalt not kill."

The first full life of McKinley since Charles S. Olcott's two-volume biography in 1916, William McKinley and His America, featured the hallmarks of what would become the Morgan style -- extensive research in manuscript sources, a deft use of language, and a sense of redressing the historical balance for a neglected politician and his period. On the issue of McKinley and the war with Spain, Morgan was more deferential to the older view of the president's leadership than he would be two years later in America's Road to Empire (1965).

Morgan's most important contribution to defining the late nineteenth century as an area worthy of study in its own right occurred with the collections of essays entitled The Gilded Age (1963, 1970). An acute spotter of new historical talent, Morgan reached out to such emerging voices as Herbert Gutman, Ari Hoogenboom, Vincent de Santis, Paolo Coletta, and Paul Boller to analyze what Morgan called "an age in need of reappraisal." The volume was a success and instilled in younger Gilded Age historians of the 1960s a feeling of involvement in a common enterprise.

Seven years later, building on the positive reception of the first edition, Morgan invited more scholars to contribute to a revised and expanded edition of The Gilded Age. Additional chapters from Geoffrey Blodgett, Walter T. K. Nugent, Paul Holbo, and R. Hal Williams brought deeper analysis to the project.While Morgan could not include all the talented historians who were entering Gilded Age studies, he had identified many who were now, in the words of R. Hal Williams, seeing the late nineteenth century as "a period to take with seriousness and a scene of fresh exploration, fresh ideas, and fresh interpretations." By 1970 Morgan could see that ten years of missionary work on behalf of the Gilded Age had made a field that the rest of the profession had to look at in a new way. As Paul Holbo remarks, Morgan "restored respect to the field."

In 1969, Morgan published From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896, again with the Syracuse University Press. Based on Morgan's command of the manuscript sources and contemporary newspapers, his narrative, as Charles W. Calhoun says, "overthrew the stale polemics of Matthew Josephson and others" in a work that showed "a fine eye for the telling detail and apt quotation." Appearing when historians were turning to quantification and ethnocultural interpretations of voting behavior, From Hayes to McKinley was underrated when it came out but remains the only synthesis of the era's politics on the national level. It merits reprinting.

It was said of James G. Blaine that people went crazy about him in pairs, one for and one against. Though the proportion was much more in Wayne Morgan's favor, reaction to his work and personality presented a similar picture. He hated pomposity and often skewered pretentious colleagues with a phrase. As a result there were those in the profession who derided him as more lucky than good.To paraphrase words once applied to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, the harder Morgan worked, the luckier he got. For his friends, Morgan was a witty conversationalist with an ever-expanding knowledge of art, opera, movies, politics, and American culture. His students at the University of Texas from 1962 to 1972 and at the University of Oklahoma from 1972 to 1999 found him a dynamic lecturer with a platform style that combined what he called "speeches from the throne" with rollicking insights into American history.

Marriage to Anne Hodges in 1971 and a move from Texas to Oklahoma the following year saw Wayne Morgan leave Gilded Age politics for prolific writings on the history of drugs in America, pioneering essays on environmental history, and most of all, the American art in the late nineteenth century that he loved so much. He revised and reworked his biography of McKinley into a new edition with the Kent State University Press in 2003.

One reason Wayne Morgan had such an impact on the Gilded Age field was his generosity toward his fellow researchers and writers, especially junior colleagues starting out. His friends would get his notes on out-of-the-way books he had read that could help them in their own careers. Yellow copy paper with his typed directions to a new source or an obscure volume would come in at periodic intervals as a welcome surprise. He plugged the books he liked, assisted up and comers with fellowship recommendation letters, or a quiet boost behind the scenes. When he was at his best in an informal moment, the ideas came tumbling out in a manner that invigorated his listeners and made them realize they were part of a noble calling of writing and research. Charles Calhoun is right. "It was altogether fitting" that Morgan was selected as "the first Distinguished Historian of SHGAPE. "He was not the only historian who helped us see where the Gilded Age belonged in American History, but his impact on the field was indelible and enduring.

The family has asked that donations be made to the Anne Hodges and H. Wayne Morgan Fellowship Fund at the University of Oklahoma Foundation, 100 Timberdell Road, Norman, Oklahoma 73072. A fuller personal obituary may be found at "In Memory of Howard Wayne Morgan, June 16, 1934-January 29, 2014" at DignityMemorial.com, Primrose Funeral Service, Norman, Oklahoma.

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