Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Memorials: Joyce Oldham Appleby

Joyce Appleby

Photo Credit: UCLA

Joyce Oldham Appleby was born in Omaha, Nebraska (9 April 1929) and died in Taos, New Mexico, on 23 December 2016, from complications associated with pneumonia. Professor Emerita of UCLA, from which she retired in 2001, Appleby, as she wrote in her faculty profile, spent a career pursuing questions relating to “the impact of an expanding world market on people’s understanding of the world and their place in it.” She will be remembered by those associated with the Institute for her many scholarly publications (both books and essays) and for her service to the profession, including Institute Council Member (1980–83) and its chair (1983–1986).

Appleby received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford; after graduating, she, along with her college roommate and lifelong friend Ann Hutchinson Gordon, went to New York City. Her first job was as a writer with Mademoiselle. This early career choice seemed entirely consistent with the elegance Joyce always displayed during the decades that I knew her. As one female colleague quipped, Joyce raised the sartorial bar unfairly high. From New York, she returned to California, still bent on a career in journalism, and worked for the Pasadena Star-News. Later she decided to become a historian.

Joyce Appleby joined the faculty at UCLA in 1981. She had earned her PhD from Claremont Graduate University fifteen years earlier and had been teaching at San Diego State University. Even though she worked at a school with an intense teaching mission at a time when that emphasis usually resulted in few faculty publications, she had authored one monograph—on a topic entirely distinct from her dissertation—and a number of essays.

I first met Joyce that year, as a second-year graduate student who waylaid her the moment she appeared on campus. Years later when Joyce told the story that I had been the first graduate student she worked with at UCLA, I had to admit that I had stalked her, stopping by her office daily, awaiting her arrival. I don’t think I knew at the time that she joined the faculty after her husband Andrew’s sudden death. I later learned that during his lifetime she declined offers from the UCLA history department because she and Andy enjoyed that ideal arrangement for an academic couple: two tenured positions in the same city (in their case San Diego). I only knew, selfishly, that I was eager to add her to my doctoral committee.

Together we schemed to have her direct me in preparing a field in early modern English history. Although hired for a position in U.S. History, she had recently published Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England, her first book. I recently ran across the ludicrous petition the department required me to submit, making the case for Joyce’s ability to teach early modern English history. It reads as if I was writing a letter of recommendation, a thought that I find even more mortifying now than I did at the time. Signing up to work with Joyce in this capacity meant I embarked on a serious study of economic thought, early modern price trends, and the impact of American silver on the world economy, along with the social and religious topics that most interested me. This was my first encounter with Joyce as the thorough and rigorous guide; I wondered if I had gotten in over my head.

During this period, Joyce made her mark as a leading theorist of republican ideology. She produced a number of significant essays on the topic, and after giving the Anson G. Phelps Lectures at New York University, published the book Capitalism and the New Social Order (1984). Younger scholars will not recall how galvanized early American historians were at the time by the early Republic and by the issues raised in the republicanism debate. Fittingly, she later served as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1999–2000).

After I passed my qualifying exams and moved to the dissertation writing stage, Joyce continued to act as an incisive and encouraging critic. Looking back on our relationship from the vantage point of a faculty member with students of my own, I realized how effortlessly she worked with me, displaying again the grace and sensitivity that were so characteristic of her. Where I came most to appreciate her, however, was as a mentor and a role model. When I returned to Los Angeles to launch the job search and finish the dissertation after two years of research and writing in New England, she greeted me with the advice that I needed to write a job talk, even though I had yet to apply for a single position, much less receive an interview request. As sheepish as I felt about doing it at the time, she was so right: far better to have something worked up before I needed it. She helped me craft a basic talk and warned me that I would still quite possibly find myself writing other versions on the fly, since schools might give me specific requirements. Her contributions went beyond the call of duty, and I was so glad I had returned to her for counsel.

Joyce also warned me that I would need to describe a second project at these-as-yet-entirely-hypothetical interviews. I came back to her office shortly thereafter with the most obvious of second book projects, one that followed directly from the dissertation study on sectarian religious groups in colonial Massachusetts. After I related my scheme in detail, she dismissed me with a few well-chosen words about breadth and passion. I came up with the plan for my second book, a far bolder project than I would have felt free to conceive without Joyce’s prodding. As I described it at job interviews that winter, I realized how insightful Joyce had been and how well she prepared me not only for the interview season but for what followed.

Beyond the direct advice Joyce gave, she was inspiring as a model. A woman in the academy who commanded the respect of the room, Joyce appeared unflappable. At one of her typically brilliant performances, she had to respond to one of those cringe-worthy questions that make clear the speaker had completely missed the point. Joyce ever so graciously responded by restating her main point, prefacing her response with “I am afraid I didn’t make myself clear.” Such a brilliant move, it was at once devastating and self-deprecating.

Another masterful moment occurred when Joyce commented on a session at the Institute’s Through a Glass Darkly conference, in which she took on the po-mo lingo that dominated the panel. Even those who were outraged that she made light of that intellectual turn—revealed by much muttering after the fireworks of the panel subsided—had to admit that she spoke from a position of strength: she wasn’t simply reacting to a viewpoint she did not understand or to theories with which she was unfamiliar. Rather, she attacked its intellectual underpinnings brilliantly (and, if memory serves, in verse). The following year, her interest in the issues raised by post-modernism were on wider display, in the significant rumination on the history and state of history that she wrote with colleagues Lynn Hunt and Peg Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (1994).

Not only intellectually but also personally, Joyce served as a model. Joyce was always supportive and encouraging to women scholars struggling with the issues of balancing life and career. She treated our presence in the profession as an obvious good, one that brooked no discussion. When I was a junior faculty member confronting the demands of starting a family while also working at a Big Ten school (in a department that had never before had a pregnant faculty member), it heartened me to remember that Joyce had been 49 when her first book appeared. I found that both amazing—given the heights to which she had soared in a relatively short time—and inspiring. She never shied from mentioning her own biographical details, including the late start to her graduate work and the challenges of responding to various demands. Her address to the American Historical Association in 1997—“The Power of History,” a brilliant piece of writing as both history and biography—speaks to these issues subtly and evocatively. I came to think of her trajectory as generational, as she was one of a number of extraordinary peers—Laurel Ulrich and Karen Kupperman best known to me among them—who came to the life of a scholar after having their families and seemingly setting out on another path. Thinking about their careers, I could better understand myself in the history of women in the profession. I came of age early in a new era, one in which a woman might go to graduate school with the alacrity of her male peers but not as a result forgo having a family. Joyce rose to the top of the profession, serving as the second woman ever to hold Oxford’s Harmsworth Professorship of American History (1990–91) and first woman to preside over both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. If Joyce could succeed to such an extent, despite her belated start, there seemed hope for the rest of us.

Joyce also inspired in her role as a public intellectual. Each of her presidential addresses—given at the OAH (1991), the AHA (1997) and SHEAR (2000)—engaged the needs of the public for intelligent and accessible historical analysis of problems of general concern. She was increasingly committed to making her scholarly work accessible to audiences beyond the academy. Her books in the last decade and a half in particular all reached out to an educated non-academic reading public: Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000), The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2010), and Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination (2013). She helped found the History News Service, which encourages historians to write about the events of the day; she contributed op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times. Joyce fought hard against Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative in California that outlawed the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in applications for state colleges and universities. She predicted correctly that its passage would undermine access to higher education for minority students. I had not spoken to her since the recent presidential election but I can well imagine her frustration at the role of fake news in contaminating the public discussion and the outcome of the election.

A few years ago, Joyce moved to Taos to be near family. She returned to UCLA regularly, including to participate in my installation as the first holder of the Joyce Appleby Chair of America and the World. Her being there proved to be the high point of the event, not only for me but for the department and audience that cherished her. As always she was gracious, her storytelling both amusing and inspiring. Receiving her blessing before my new colleagues helped pave my way into the department as nothing else could have done.

Joyce’s death deprives the profession of a great intellect and productive scholar and the public of a clear, passionate, learned voice. I will miss her most for her support and example. She was amazing—gracious, warm, with a wry sense of humor. Like so many others, I feel very fortunate to have had her in my life.

Carla Gardina Pestana
University of California, Los Angeles