Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Memorials: Michael Kammen

Michael Kammen served on the Council of the Omohundro Institute from 1978 to 1981.

Michael Kammen

Photograph courtesy of Cornell University

Goodbye, Michael

Michael Kammen was an extraordinary historian whose many books and essays themselves constitute a rich and enduring chapter in American intellectual and cultural attainment. I was most fortunate to be among his Ph.D. students who knew him as an inspiring, generous, and deeply caring mentor whose example spread broadly from Cornell University where he taught from 1965 to 2008. At Cornell he was Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture.

Michael Kammen, who studied under Bernard Bailyn at Harvard, was only thirty-seven years old when he won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972). Even before then he had built a solid reputation by writing on the political and economic relationship between Great Britain and its North American colonies. His books in this area include A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (1968), Deputyes & Libertyes: The Origins of Representative Government in Colonial America (1969), and Empire and Interest: The American Colonies and the Politics of Mercantilism (1970). Professor Kammen subsequently wrote the highly readable Colonial New York: A History (1975).

Following People of Paradox, Michael Kammen’s creative energies burst forth in a virtual library of works on the interplay between history and memory across centuries, interpreting how Americans have conveyed their historical remembrances through political debate, public education and commemoration, and through art and literature. Among his books in this sphere are A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978), A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991), Meadows of Memory: Images of Time and Tradition in American Art and Culture (1992), and A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004).

Professor Kammen was one of the most eloquent writers on the historical profession’s evolution in the United States. A number of his liveliest essays on this subject are in two collections: Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture (1987); In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture (1997). Professor Kammen also wrote on the divergence between popular and mass culture in modern America. See American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century (1999). Michael Kammen was ever alert to public debates over art and iconography—as exemplified in two of his recent books: Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006) and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010). Given the quality of these many works, it is most fitting that Professor Kammen received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2009.

What made Michael Kammen such a masterful historian? Here I would suggest several qualities—boundless curiosity, lucid literary expression, and a capacity to share his discoveries directly with readers. Professor Kammen had an astonishing ability to discern major historical problems and to translate his understanding in a learned way accessible to the educated public. He enlivened his books and essays with salient quotations, interspersed seamlessly in his textual analysis, and inviting readers to think and explore for themselves. He taught humanely and often wittily as he wrote. His sensory magnet caught the small detail telling some larger truth. And he was as gifted in citing poetry as historical novels—or art, architecture, and film—whatever sources illumined the many historical visions he brought into view.

Michael Kammen’s early writings as a colonialist discerned major tendencies within a labyrinth of governmental and societal institutions. In Deputyes and Libertyes, he illustrated “unity born of diversity” in the emergence of representative assemblies. In People of Paradox, Kammen turned bold insight into art: “American colonial history, which had begun with a quest for purity and homogeneity, ended with a sophisticated rationale for pluralism and heterogeneity.” This observation was characteristically offered as a spur to reflection rather than as definitive judgment. Michael Kammen was empiricist and freethinker, savant and muse. He illuminated central cultural themes that were previously neglected or unexplored. Witness his erudite critique of the deeply embedded popular view of the American Revolution as rite de passage—the apparent movement of colonies from youth to adulthood during the struggle for independence.

Michael Kammen’s acute knowledge of the colonial and revolutionary periods was a foundation of his insights into American culture over the longue durée. He was fascinated by “the tension between liberty and authority,” which in his words, were “counterpoised” qualities, as compared to “liberty and justice,” which Americans have commonly understood to be “complementary values” (Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture, p. 7). He distilled cultural ambivalences into pithy phrases. The Constitution “occupies the anomalous role” of being “swathed by pride yet obscured by indifference” (A Machine That Would Go of Itself, p. 3). Professor Kammen broadens our cultural compass through unexpected insights drawn from sociology, psychology, and science. Good stories abound in his telling—both to instruct and amuse. Take but one brief example from A Machine that Would Go of Itself. When J. Franklin Jameson entered the State Department Library as a young researcher in 1882, he was startled to see the original Constitution folded into a little tin box while the Declaration of Independence was elegantly mounted and displayed for all to view. Vintage Kammen one might say!

Michael Kammen’s work continually brings to life the dialogue between past and present—not only as shown in American culture writ large but also as expressed by particular voices such as African American artist Jacob Lawrence and the social realist painter Robert Gwathmey. We learn from Professor Kammen how American art and literature found distinctive pathways while being shaped by Graeco-Roman traditions, the Italian Renaissance, and cultural tendencies in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. James Thomson’s epic poem “The Seasons” is captured brilliantly in A Time to Every Purpose. In Meadows of Memory, Michael Kammen quotes English poet William Cowper on his recurrent theme of history as contingent on time: “History, not wanted yet,/Leane’d on her elbow, watching Time, whose course/ Eventful, should supply her with a theme.”

The passage of time is the historian’s métier, though difficult for nearly all of us to accept or grasp in our own lives. I entered the Ph.D. program at Cornell in 1973, just as People of Paradox was winning well-deserved accolades. Though not initially planning to work with Professor Kammen, I was soon a grateful recipient of his learning, wit, and unmistakable interest in his students as individuals. And my experience was the norm, not only for those preceding me but also for the many others that would follow. Professor Kammen engaged the graduate students of my era in a weekly lunch at the law school cafeteria. The food was hardly memorable but the conversation was lively and inspiriting. Whether there or in the library or classroom, Professor Kammen would dispense little notes to us with the titles of books, dissertations, or articles that we should incorporate into our research. Each student was the recipient of these favors. Astonishingly our mentor was thinking of our incipient projects with the same interest that he gave to his own work. I cannot imagine a mentor who was more keenly attuned to academic currents and whose eye and ear were more alert to job opportunities when we approached that time. And Professor Kammen’s interest in his students continued after they found positions in academia. He boosted our spirits, took pride in our accomplishments, and offered counsel as we asked. He lent the same generosity to scores of others in the profession, and he treated individuals with the same respect whatever their rank or status. His wife Carol Kammen, a distinguished historian and teacher in her own right, greeted us with friendship and kindness over the years.

Michael Kammen had joy in life and in historical discovery, ever learning by travels abroad and at home. He was a teacher and scholar of immeasurable gifts. Most thankfully, he has left a legacy of leaning for generations to discover anew in their season.

David E. Narrett
University of Texas at Arlington