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Historian Louis R. Harlan

Matt Schudel

This seems to be quite a week for obituaries of historians (Howard Zinn) and writers named Louis (Louis Auchincloss). One important figure who qualifies under both standards is Louis R. Harlan, a distinguished historian at the University of Maryland who has died at the age of 87.

Harlan was an important scholar of the American South, and his two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington (published in 1972 and 1983) was called by no less an authority than C. Vann Woodward -- the acknowledged dean of Southern historians -- "the best study we have of a black American." (That statement was made in 1984 before Taylor Branch's series of books on Martin Luther King Jr.)

Harlan won the Pultizer Prize and two Bancroft Prizes (the highest award in the study of American history), but he seems to have been somewhat forgotten. I ran across many interesting things about Harlan that I didn't have space for in the obituary....

... I did, however, make note of his striking appearance -- he had penetrating eyes, long, brushed-back hair and the bushy mustache of Old West cowboy. When he shaved it off, his wife told me, she didn't recognize him and asked him to grow it back.

When Harlan began his career-long study of Booker T. Washington in the 1950s, it was considered a daring thing to do for two reasons. First, Harlan was a white Southerner, who might not have been expected to write sympathetically about a black leader. But, as Harlan well knew, people are more complex and interesting than the sum of (and assumptions about) their backgrounds.

Second, Booker T. Washington was a complex and difficult figure who was considered something of a sellout and accommodationist by later civil rights leaders, who sometimes described him as an "Uncle Tom."

"I'm not trying to write a biography of a hero," Harlan told The Washington Post in 1973. "I'm trying to resurrect him as a historical figure, but not with the idea that his thought was a prescription for his day or ours."

In the biography, Harlan wrote of BTW and his "lifelong habit of duplicity, secretiveness, and mendacity. Deception had become for Washington almost a reflex action, much as a squid inks the waters."

In addition to the two-volume biography, Harlan spent 20 years editing BTW's papers. He published them in 14 volumes in an effort that the historian August Meier wrote "comparable in importance to the editing of the papers of Jefferson, Wilson and other national leaders."

Washington was married three times and widowed twice, but among those 14 volumes of letters and other writings, Harlan noted, "not a single love letter, not a cry of joy."

Harlan was a major force in the field of historiography, which I suppose we can call the the study of the study of history. He was the fifth person to be president of the three major organizations of historians -- American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians and Southern Historical Association -- and the first to be president of all three at the same time.

He had many interesting things to say about the use and misuse of history. When asked in 1973 whether any modern-day lessons could be drawn from BTW's life, Harlan told The Washington Post:
"You're asking me a question that historians don't like to answer as historians. Historians have been fighting against the misue of history to teach some simple lesson. Historians tend to regard history as a succession of unique events that occur only once and not something that repeats itself."

When Harlan accepted his second Bancroft Prize in 1984, he used the occasion to extoll the importance of biography and narrative history, which were then at a low ebb with the rise of the methods of social science and a focus on ever-narrower fields of study. Biography, he said, is "a reminder that it is human beings history is happening to."

In a 1996 memoir about his experiences as a Navy officer in World War II, "All at Sea: Coming of Age in World War II," Harlan wrote with humor and a distinct lack of sentiment about the glories of war.

"With the optimism of youth I embraced World War II at the time," he wrote, "but I have not felt that any war since then was worthy of my engagement. Both the Korean and Vietnam wars seemed to me betrayals of what we had fought for."

Harlan also had a bit of fun with his own family heritage, and in a very entertaining essay that he delivered at a family reunion in 1997, spoke about the Harlan family heritage in America. It seems that 20,000 Harlans in the United States descended from two brothers who came to this country in 1687 (and a third brother's children, who followed their uncles over from England).

Louis Harlan, who was born in rural Mississippi, noted that his great-grandparents were first cousins who were both named Harlan.

"Thus, I am doubly a Harlan, which probably explains my extra large nose and prominent ears," he wrote. "Among other things, my ancestors raised jackasses and mules -- maybe that's where my ears come from!"

By Matt Schudel  |  January 29, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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