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.

   


John L. Larson

Drew and Mary arrived at Brown in the 1970s, a couple years after I did. They both impressed the graduate community as people we wanted to know and from whom we could learn. And so it was. Mary dug into the Sage of Concord while Drew ransacked the “backcountry” looking for ways to connect the worn legends of the “westward movement” to the exciting new work on the Atlantic in the age of republican revolutions. And he found them in the most unexpected places.

Mary and I used to tease Drew about his brisk productivity. He wrote beautifully and efficiently—and fast! Then he played golf. In the time it took me to assemble these memories he would have written an article. It was one of his gifts. He had several others worth noting. Drew was committed to family in a way that is rarely honored any longer. His love for Mary and his daughters he shared openly with everybody. He loved his students—at Ball State, at Miami, at Ohio State. He mentored young people with an open hand, he readily shared his experience, influence, and insights with his peers, and he respected the elders on whose shoulders we all stand. I hope it will be a reminder of what makes a lasting impression on the world. It is not publication records or citation frequencies but the number of real people who were brought to their knees by the news of Drew’s death.

Three things (for me) marked Drew’s scholarly personality: 1) he deeply understood the discipline of history; 2) he respected his audience—any audience—absolutely; and 3) he always looked at things from a slightly different perspective.

#1. Drew appreciated history—historical understanding—more richly than anybody I know. He understood that, like the soil on which we all depend, historical understanding grows from layer-upon-layer of different materials, laid down at different times by different processes, stirred and tilled by natural forces and cultivators, until the resulting mixture sustains life itself. As a result, Drew saw new things but he never forgot our debt to the strata of material laid down by our predecessors. He plunged into Turner’s forest, not to discredit a century’s scholarship but to build upon it and help bring it into the light of a new century. He looked west and saw, not the inevitable United States, but a patchwork of intruders jockeying with native people in a process of conquest that consumed most of a century. He looked east and saw not the “tyrant Britain” crushing “freedom-loving” Americans, but a complex circulating world of empires, commerce, romance, sentiment, and bloodshed. He nudged us all toward recognition of transnational perspectives, yet he never condemned those of us whose work kept us closer to the ground, more narrowly focused in time and place. He showed little interest in policing the latest methodological fashion and preferred to see what we could learn from all attempts.

#2. Drew approached his audience—any audience—as a servant. I watched him interview at a small liberal arts college, where his disarming lecture style had them eating out of his hand in fifteen minutes. I watched him dazzle an audience in the fabled Old Senate Hearing Room at one of Ron Hoffman’s Capitol Historical Society conferences. I watched him in his presidential address treat the membership of SHEAR to an extraordinary exposition of sentiment and imagination “In an Age of Wonder.” He and I discussed this matter of audience once: we both learned from Jack Thomas that the secret to being heard was to imagine the audience correctly, and then prepare as if your life depended on it. The most apparently casual Cayton performance was not really casual at all but carefully constructed to look effortless. Over time it became habitual, and well into the last year of his life you could find him working for audiences in classrooms, seminars, professional settings, and public gatherings all over the state of Ohio.

Tributes from Drew’s students all make the same point: open door, helpful, generous, kind, interested in them, determined to help them understand what he had to offer. The same generous sensibility is shown in Drew’s published legacy, where works of top monographic scholarship sit comfortably surrounded with state-history texts, high school materials, historiographical interventions, extended thematic essays, synthetic period surveys, and edited collections aimed at several different communities of readers. Writing and teaching were one and the same business. For Drew knowledge, like love, was nothing until you gave it away.

#3. After fifty years of “valley of democracy” scholarship, Drew intuitively recognized that the Ohio Valley was a contact point between the colonial/revolutionary story and the rest of American history. At times his insights were disarmingly simple. For example, he once explained to me that Stephen Austin and his followers were EMIGRANTS—that is, they left the United States for what they thought was a better country. Besides being unthinkable in the generation before, Drew’s simple assertion opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about the westward movement. Of course he was right: children of the first exercise in self-creation were not shy about doing it again. They did not “know” the global giant “United States” of the 20th century expected them to stay the course. Through that crack I, for one, saw everything about the West in a profoundly different light.

With Fredrika Teute, Drew edited a collection of essays, Contact Points, that further cemented our new ways of thinking about the North American interior. An immensely peaceful man, Drew published (with Fred Anderson) some of our best historical writing about war. Asked to write a simple narrative history of frontier Indiana, he produced the most novel take on state formation in the Old Northwest in several decades. Together with Peter Onuf he tried to set the agenda for new research on the Midwest and the Nation. They organized a conference on the Northwest Ordinance, and Drew (with Susan Gray) did another on the Midwest at Miami a decade later. In his last single-author masterpiece, Love in the Time of Revolution, Drew managed to incorporate his love of novels, romance, and human relationships into his rich understanding of the age revolution and wonder, producing a unique and incredibly moving piece of history.

Drew was a gem of a historian, a friend, father, teacher, human being. It is deeply painful to let him go—but it was such an incredible treat to know him at all.

John L. Larson, Purdue University