Tyler Stovall Was a Groundbreaking Historian of Modern France, Colonialism, Race and Empire

Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, colonialism, European history, Tyler Stovall


Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University and the author, with Liz Clarke, of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam.

On December 10, 2021, Tyler Stovall suddenly and unexpectedly passed away in New York City. In addition to being one of the most prominent American historians of France, Stovall, my academic mentor and close friend, was deeply committed to fighting for labor rights, gender equality, and racial justice. He is survived by his wife, Dr Denise Herd, and his son, Justin.

Tyler Stovall should be remembered as a scholar who firmly believed that the writing and teaching of history was a political act. Throughout his vibrant career, he used pathbreaking research, critical analysis, and engaging lectures as weapons in the fight for social justice. Despite studying some of the worst aspects of human behavior, he always remained optimistic and held that a better world was possible, and that education was central to that goal.

Stovall published ten books and scores of articles in a range of leading journals. Throughout his career, his research on the French working class never strayed from his commitments to class politics. As his work evolved, Stovall increasingly engaged in a critical study of race in France. He also challenged the stale notion that history should be confined within the framework of the nation-state.

The historian’s analysis of race in French history questioned that nation’s self-congratulatory attitude that racism was an Anglo-Saxon problem. It ruffled the feathers of many North American scholars of France, who were frequently privileged white Francophiles.

Stovall’s 1990 work The Rise of the Paris Red Belt was a sociopolitical history of the City of Light’s impoverished and neglected suburbs. The book explains how in the interests of capital, nineteenth-century urban renovation pushed the Parisian working class to the city’s northeast margins. Angered by the lack of basic infrastructure such as reliable water and gas, these neighborhoods voted for the far left. Desperate material conditions turned these suburban municipalities into reliable bases for the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, PCF) for most of the twentieth century.

The Rise of the Paris Red Belt was based on Stovall’s 1984 doctoral dissertation, which had been supervised by the legendary Marxist historian and Jean Jaurès biographer Harvey Goldberg at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It rejected Cold-War-era ideological explanations for the rise of the PCF, restoring political agency to the French workers. As E. P. Thompson did with his classic study of the English proletariat, The Making of the English Working Class, Stovall sought to save its French counterpart from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” The book’s argument resonated with the Upper Midwest’s tradition of “sewer socialism.”

While he had been trained as a traditional social historian of white industrial workers, in the 1990s, Stovall pioneered the history of race in France. His focus shifted from housing crises and food riots to the experiences of people of color. Two important articles, “Colonial Labor in France During World War I” in Race and Class, and “The Color Line Behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France During the Great War” in The American Historical Review, questioned the cherished transatlantic myth of a color-blind France.

Read entire article at Jacobin

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