Alan Brinkley: A Life in History

AHA Session 76
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
David Greenberg, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
David Greenberg, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Sharon Ann Musher, Stockton University
Moshik Temkin, Harvard University
Mason B. Williams, Williams College

Session Abstract

For four decades, Alan Brinkley has been one of the most acute and influential observers of American politics. His writings on populism, liberalism, and conservatism have reshaped the thinking of historians; thousands of high school and college students have learned about the past through his textbooks. As a prolific and prominent public voice, he has elucidated for general readers and television viewers the intricacies and ironies of history and politics.

This roundtable, consisting a range of Alan Brinkley’s students and peers, will examine his contributions to American history. Few historians can claim to have published four major, influential books. Voices of Protest, Brinkley's first book, remains a key study of Depression-era populism, casting light on the sources and limitations of populism’s appeal. His next monograph, The End of Reform, reconfigured historians’ understanding of the New Deal and the transformation of liberalism from earlier statist conceptions to a focus on Keynesian economics, consumer culture, and individual rights. Liberalism and Its Discontents traced the vicissitudes of liberalism emerging from World War II, including its struggles after the 1960s to maintain broad public support.The Publisher studied the Establishment conservative Henry Luce, investigating the role of mass media in a democracy, the nature of the midcentury consensus, and the intersections between elite journalism and presidential politics. Not least, his 1994 essay “The Problem of American Conservatism,” from the American Historical Review, launched a wave of research into the conservative movement and how its ideas moved from the margins to the center of American politics.

Besides taking up Brinkley’s writings, the panel will consider his role in shaping the tenor of his generation of historians’ work. A liberal who came of age in the 1960s, Brinkley had sympathy for the New Left and the social history that prevailed during his early career. He led the way in integrating its methods and outlooks into the liberal tradition of more straightforwardly political historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, and Henry Steele Commager. He also was a pioneer in bringing the so-called historical institutionalism of political scientists like Theda Skocpol and Ira Katznelson to bear on his own interest in the transmission—within society, through media, and across generations—of political ideas. The newfound interest in policy history and the history of the state owes a debt to Brinkley. Finally, he served as a model to younger generations of how to combine rigorous scholarly history with a desire and ability to reach the public—a double goal that is increasingly gaining respect among hiring and promotion committees and other academic arbiters.

In all, we hope to shed light on the life and thought of a leading working historian, on the development of historical scholarship in our own time, and on the role that history plays in our public life. At a moment when Americans are pondering the bases and resilience of their democratic politics as rarely before, this panel will offer a timely overview of the contributions of one of his generation’s greatest students of the American political tradition.

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