Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Drew Cayton as a scholar and a friend

Two memorial funds have been created in Drew’s honor,
below are links to both funds should you wish to contribute.


Susan E. Gray

Drew and I became aware of each other’s work and began a correspondence not long after we finished our dissertations in the mid-1980s. We had good reason to seek each other out, since few scholars were then much interested in pursuing the history of the early republic west of the Appalachians, Drew in the Ohio Valley and me in Michigan. I suppose we should have regarded each other with suspicion; after all, Michigan once went to war with Ohio over Toledo, a rivalry that continues today on the football field. But we did not, because we just plain liked talking about the problem the Midwest posed for the national narrative, a problem first addressed by Drew in The Midwest and the Nation. So when Drew approached me in the late 1990s to help organize a conference of scholars interested in the Midwest and then to co-edit a volume of essays first presented at the meeting in Oxford, Ohio, it never occurred to me to say “no.”

Would that all decisions were so easy and led to such happy results. I could not have asked for a better collaborator, and having now engaged in other working partnerships, I value my experience with Drew all the more. Historians, as is well known, are by nature lone wolves; the lab model of collaboration does not come easily to us—as my unit at ASU ceaselessly tries to impress upon our STEM-smitten administration. But Drew was a natural partner; the ability to work closely with others was one of his gifts. Unusually for an historian, he sought out collaborators throughout his career, at least in part, I suspect, because they brought out the best in him as a scholar. I know that working with Drew brought out the best in me.

Drew was also a consummate professional. I used to tell him that he was one of the few academics I knew who, had he lived in the nineteenth century, could have supported himself with his pen. His historiographic and stylistic fluency was always a wonder to me. I remember, when we were working on the introduction to The American Midwest, presenting him with an article that I thought might solve a historiographic impasse into which we had written ourselves. Drew read it and quickly rewrote the paragraph in question, commenting modestly that “if you point me in the right direction, I generally get there.” Such fluency can easily be dismissed as facile, but Drew’s fluency attested to his seriousness as a writer. He was fascinated by narrative form, and we spent a lot of time talking about the limitations of the monograph and what to do about them. Unlike many academics, he was also a great reader of novels, especially nice fat nineteenth-century ones, and so am I. For quite some time, we enjoyed a long-distance discussion of “what we are reading now.” We also shared a love of opera, probably for much the same reason—the power of narrative and psychological complexity.

I think that Drew and I ended up collaborating on The American Midwest more for reasons of personal politics than anything else. As Midwesterners who had chosen to write local and state Midwestern history, we were simply tired of trying to shoehorn our work into categories, such as republicanism and the market, to make its interest legible to others, in effect apologizing for studying something that so many Americanists dismissed as marginal. If we did not, in The American Midwest, establish the American Midwest as a field on a par with the other regional historiographies, we certainly went some way toward that goal. As a rethinking of the politics and analytical power of place and region, The American Midwest was also an early, important contribution to present scholarly concerns with space and history, not only region, but borderlands and transnationalism. The volume has played some role in the present surge of interest in the history of the Midwest that has been for me, and was also for Drew, both gratifying and mildly embarrassing. This is because after The American Midwest, neither Drew nor I had much interest in the politics of organizing a field, a task that is presently underway. I say this even though Drew edited the encyclopedia of the Midwest and wrote the bicentennial history of Ohio, while I became immersed in the history of Great Lakes Indians and the Canada-U. S. borderlands. My guess is that we were both too intellectually restless to keep plowing the same field, to adopt a Midwestern metaphor. Drew’s last book, Love in the Time of Revolution (2013), shows him returning to the eighteenth century and the world of letters and emotional connection. It attests to his unflagging curiosity and drive, but I think that it also reflected an intellectual homecoming for him.

I want to close by emphasizing that Drew was wonderful example of growing and blooming where you are planted. He was always the man from Ohio, and as a result, he carved out a notable career not only as a scholar, but as an exponent of public humanities both in his own state and throughout the Midwest. We too easily dismiss such writing and speaking as service, failing to take it seriously as history. This kind of work is harder than it looks. If public audiences care little about the endless conversation among scholars that is the foundation of our discipline, they nevertheless demand and deserve a high standard of clarity, imagination, and intellectual honesty. Drew met this standard. People will probably be reading his bicentennial history of Ohio (2002) for years to come, while his The Frontier Republic (1989) (and my The Yankee West, 1996) sit on the shelf.

Susan E. Gray, Arizona State University