Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

C. Dallett Hemphill (1959–2015)

C. Dallett Hemphill

C. Dallett Hemphill at the Center of Philadelphia

  • Richard S. Dunn
  • Michelle Craig McDonald
  • Roderick McDonald
  • Cathy Matson
  • Daniel K. Richter

Daniel Richter (DR): When Martha Howard asked me to write a short piece about my good friend and colleague Dallett Hemphill, I of course said yes. But immediately I began to get cold feet. How could I begin to sum up what she meant to the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Philadelphia scholarly community more generally? I then recalled that community really was the operative word, and so it seemed appropriate to call on a few of those who worked most closely with Dallett in Philadelphia to join me in writing a communal piece. Except that, when each of us began writing, it became impossible to separate Dallett the member of the community from Dallett the intensely personal friend and collaborator. The paragraphs everyone submitted invariably included first-person pronouns and stories impossible to reduce to collective authorial voice.

So these comments are presented less as an essay than a conversation, but one with many common themes. None of us, for instance, can remember precisely when we first met Dallett. She just always seemed to be there at the heart of the McNeil Center, embodying some of its most important qualities.

Richard Dunn (RD): I cannot give the exact date when Dallett first attended a Center seminar, but I believe that she joined in as soon as she began teaching at Ursinus in 1987. Speaking as the founder in 1978 of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies (as it was then called), I see Dallett as an essential contributor to the formation of a vibrant ongoing scholarly community at the Center. During our first two decades we appointed only a small number of dissertation fellows each year, replaced annually by a different small contingent, so it was difficult to establish continuity and comradeship, and we depended upon active participation from the Early American specialists in neighboring Philadelphia-area colleges in order to help build a sustained communal environment. From the beginning my Penn History colleagues were terrific supporters, and senior historians at Temple, Swarthmore, Princeton, and other colleges came to our Friday seminars whenever they could. But Dallett brought something wonderfully fresh and new to us. She was straight out of graduate school herself and not much older than our dissertation fellows; she had a hunger for lively debate on scholarly issues that she couldn't fully satisfy via her undergraduate teaching; and she pitched right in and became a vigorous regular participant.

Michelle & Roderick McDonald (MM/RM): We got to know Dallett over years of coming to McNeil Center for Early American Studies seminars and brown bags, conferences and salons, parties and soirees. This, of course, is where so many other memorialists and readers of this memorial would have spent time with her too. But the McNeil Center was a special place for the three of us and folks like us, since it became very much our academic haven. As Early American/Atlantic/Caribbean scholars (pick your subfield) at undergraduate institutions in and around Philadelphia, we work within small history departments, and while our colleagues could offer us vibrant cross-field conversation of breadth, less often could we engage in discussions of depth and detail in our areas of research. That is what the McNeil Center provided. It was an opportunity we looked forward to, a time we carved out of busy course schedules and heavy teaching loads, when we could engage, reflect, debate and discuss, share thoughts, laughs, and a glass of wine (or two).

Cathy Matson (CM): Dallett was one of the first people I met when I came to the University of Delaware in 1990; she was already at Ursinus College and completely plugged into the McNeil Center (not yet called that, of course). At those Friday seminars that I attended in Penn classrooms and the ol’ moose-headed room on campus, Dallett was a solid presence—practical and direct in her questions, always insightful and willing to turn discussions from abstractions toward meaningful connections.

DR: That presence in the McNeil Center Seminar is also something none of us will ever forget. From my perch at the head table, I would see her looking up from her knitting, squirming in her seat and waving her hand like some over-eager student, but always understanding that I needed to call on graduate students and others in the queue first. When her time came, the question would often be long and looping, chatty and supportive, but finally it would sneak right up on the core weakness of the author’s argument. One fellow dubbed her “the Columbo of the McNeil Center,” and I always thought the comparison to the old TV show was apt. Although Dallett would never allow herself be seen in a rumpled trench coat, her unassuming manner and chatty ways masked a fierce intelligence able to solve any mystery and utterly unwilling to put up with obscurantism.

But somehow her comments always came out as supportive of the author and centered on what mattered most to her as a scholar. Thus she never asked anything as bluntly unkind as “So what?” Instead, one of her trademark lines was “How is this stuff going to change the way I teach my classes?” That indirect approach was always somehow both more devastating and ultimately more constructive—and a perfect example to graduate students of how to think and how to act. I can’t count the number of times in recent weeks that younger colleagues—particularly but certainly not exclusively younger women colleagues—have told me that Dallett was their role model, their hero.

RD: The young scholars at the McNeil Center are inevitably in a vulnerable position, shaping their first major research projects while living away from friends and mentors, and competing with the other dissertation fellows for scarce jobs. Dallett understood this, and from the beginning she stepped in to help. She had an uncanny ability to relate to the dissertation fellows at first acquaintance, and to take an active interest in all their projects. And of course her steady attendance at the seminars, her shrewd and funny commentaries, and her upbeat enthusiastic volunteerism made her an invaluable counselor.

CM: Dallett was a formidable contender, deeply read and clearheaded about the convictions she held based on her research, and these qualities made her a magnet for the kind of collegial discussions that can really make another senior historian scratch her head and vow to shore up her views better before the next encounter. When she told me once that a paper I had presented was “for the most part convincing,” but that there were “still connections missing,” I was thrilled to prod her for details—and she was kind and generous enough not only to have read the paper but to have written out a few challenging questions as well—what an unexpected and most welcome collegial act!

But Dallett was also always approachable, which made it easy for undergraduate and new graduate students to seek her advice or the favor of a conference comment or a recommendation letter. And she made it a regular feature of her teaching to send students out to Philadelphia-area institutions to interview civic and cultural leaders, which she was hoping to someday integrate with the rich intellectual opportunities offered by the McNeil Center’s seminar, conferences, and publications. For the fellows at the Center, Dallett was a regular e-mailer in the circle of current researchers, answering questions ranging from getting around in Philadelphia to securing admission into archival collections to interpreting important historical monographs. She was always generating new ideas: what about a few of us getting together to produce a series of brief documents that explain how to write a job cover letter, or interview for a job, or get a first article published? Not least of Dallett’s many astounding qualities, as a scholar putting women at the center of historical interpretation, she was also a champion of scholarship by women; she was enormously generous to rising female historians with her time and close interest.

MM/RM: We had no graduate students back at our own colleges, but at the Center we had the opportunity to work with the best and brightest young early Americanists who filtered through as fellows and associates over the years and who now make up the vast web of McNeil Center members across the nation and beyond. And Dallett was in her element here, invariably at the middle of things, supporting colleagues and counseling fellows—the Center’s center.

CM: In fact, Dallett was one of the most valuable and valued colleagues of the McNeil Center, far beyond the Friday seminars. Along with several other colleagues, most notably Lisa Rosner, she was instrumental in launching the annual Undergraduate Research Workshop, which brings students from an array of Philadelphia-area institutions to share their undergraduate research with Center fellows and senior scholars. Ever a champion of undergraduate teaching institutions like her own Ursinus, she also worked steadily to find ways for the Center to reach out beyond the graduate student and faculty circles typically at Center events.

DR: One topic Dallett’s seminar comments almost never circled back to was her own formidable scholarship. She would never toot her own horn, but her two Oxford University Press monographs, Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860 (1999), and Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History (2011) are carefully crafted masterpieces of cultural history, with none of the too-precious jargon that so often infects that field. They were, like their author, plain-spoken, unassuming, and brilliant, and they have left an enduring mark on the field.

CM: When I met her, Dallett was still hard at work on her first monograph, a profound study of how, historically, people have used manners to do much of the heavy lifting of cultural systems —how we can study the ways that people behaved toward each other in the past in order to understand the ways that early North Americans established and reinforced the boundaries of power, class, and gender. The book took a few years to write largely because Dallett insisted on reading every advice and etiquette publication she could get her hands on; and then, as she would say, there was the long and difficult process of intellectual “sifting and winnowing” in order to “help the argument about all those little rules” emerge. We had many discussions about how it might seem at first that Dallett was claiming too much for a slippery notion of “culture,” and my own tendency to resist using “culture” to do so much of the work of constructing power, class, and gender. But Dallett was a formidable conversationalist, deeply immersed in a huge array of sources, and feisty about her point of view, and it didn’t take long for the two of us to pick up right where we left off, from one Friday seminar—or conferences held in cities hither and yon every June and July—to the next. And she was always a hoot; quick to laughter, easy to rib, and quick to retaliate with a light tease of her own.

DR: Dallett remained a supportive hoot to the very end. During her penultimate hospitalization, lively emails continued to emanate from her computer. “Hear, Hear! You guys make the journal look very good!” she wrote to the junior co-editors of a recent special issue of Early American Studies. “Damn, Dan,” she complained when I subbed for a much-anticipated talk she was to deliver at the Center. “You weren’t supposed to substitute with something I’d really like to attend!” As for her health issues, she pulled no punches but admitted no defeats. “It’s been an interesting week,” she observed; “I’m still in the hospital and have undergone a lot of really fun tests. . . . Meanwhile [my husband] John promises to deliver a perky chardonnay via IV.”

CM: I’ll just add that I was working on a special issue of EAS with Dallett right to the end. It was a wonderful collaboration involving vetting and editing articles, and shaping the themes of the issue. I had no idea that her cancer had taken a turn for much worse, that she was suddenly not going to be there at Friday seminars, or there for our little pow wows at receptions, or able to take our “urban exploring” walks at conferences any more. Dallett simply asked me to take over a few of the last chores of proof reading articles and contacting authors, without explaining how weak she had become. She was like that.

RD: Living mainly in Cambridge in recent years, my attendance at McNeil Center events has become irregular, but, every time I came to a seminar or a conference or a salon, I saw Dallett in action and enjoyed another glass of wine with her. The last time we met, less than two months before she died, she came to a big party at our Philadelphia apartment to help celebrate my new book. She was at the top of her form, and like everyone else at that party I had absolutely no idea that she was seriously ill and that I would never see her again.

MM/RM: When Dan Richter approached the three of us one Friday a few months back to thank us in his own inimitable way for our stalwart attendance at Center events, and emphasizing the importance of participation by senior faculty to the McNeil Center experience, we looked at each other, and then around us to see if we could figure out who the old codgers were that he was talking about, this older generation, the sage and the serious.

We can still hear Dallett laughing.

Richard S. Dunn
University of Pennsylvania, emeritus

Michelle Craig McDonald
Stockton University

Roderick McDonald
Rider University

Cathy Matson
University of Delaware

Daniel K. Richter
McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the University of Pennsylvania