Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

I was an undergraduate at La Trobe University, Melbourne, during the years that Rhys was researching and writing The Transformation of Virginia. I did not meet Rhys in my first year, but I heard things about Rhys that characterized him as an extraordinary academic: that he could rock-climb high mountains with out fear of heights, that he could skipper an ocean going yacht in mountainous seas, that he would wear a cravat rather than a tie to formal functions, that his master at Oxford University was Christopher Hill, and that he rose at 4:00 a.m. to begin his day’s work! Some scholar!

Early in my undergraduate years, I had been invited to undertake honours in politics, but I was keen to learn more about the exciting new approach to doing history that viewed history as a cultural and social system. Rhys was a leading pioneer of this new field of history that moved across the boundaries of disciplines in search of meaning, and material culture, rather than objectified social structures. Landscapes to Rhys were accordingly places of change that were appropriated with meaning by people; they located in time and place and circumstance a cultured order of things.

So one day, I went to Rhys’s office to make an appointment to see him about reading his second third-year undergraduate history subjects. I spoke to Rhys’s secretary about my purpose. The door to Rhys office was open. Little did I know that Rhys was listening to our conversation. As soon as I had finished speaking, an authoritative voice called out, “No need to make an appointment—come on in and let’s talk now.” In I went. “Sit down,” he said, “What about a cuppa?” Much to my surprise, I was greeted warmly by a man of small stature sporting a neatly cropped beard and dressed in green Hard Yakkas looking as though he had just walked in from checking his sheep! As a pastoral worker, I was at home.

We sat down, and Rhys spoke enthusiastically of the improved methods of eighteenth-century agriculture still pertinent to my occupation. Then, like a dramatic series of cinematic shots that pan and zoom to preview an epic film, Rhys introduced me to the recalcitrant slaves, the proud men on horseback, and the prophets pointing skyward that paraded through his life as a scholar. Finally, as we finished our mugs of tea, Rhys linked these things to the subjects he taught. I sat in awe, as I listened to a scholar who knew how to pursue excellence. I was mindful that I may soon need to learn to climb and sail if I dropped politics and read history with Rhys! Knowing how to ride a nimble stock horse and muster cattle and sheep in difficult terrain during inclement weather was not sufficient.

Indeed, Rhys expected his students to mountain climb in his subjects—their reach needed to always exceed their grasp until they reached the summit. Rhys also expected his students to sail in the deep blue—to steadily tack a windward course to port when neither land, nor sky were in sight. But he trained and equipped us to do this. Instrumental in this process was the barring from his tutorials and workshops all students who did not present ahead of time a précis of the prescribed primary documents and secondary readings.

However, Rhys was not a harsh taskmaster. He was caring and understanding of our abilities and circumstances. Sometimes he would lighten the load and let students choose a document or a reading to précis and present to the class. At other times, Rhys would allocate readings and documents to individuals so that all students had achievable opportunities to grasp the nature of the project and the objectives of the assigned topic. Even when a student presentation was clumsy or had gone astray, Rhys would always encourage them to climb on or to stay on course by highlighting the pertinent points, and praiseworthy aspects of their contributions before he offered a telling, yet constructive critique. He also employed this method in his marking of our undergraduate essays and later on, in his comments on our postgraduate papers.

Yes, it was hard going. There were many times when it would have been easy to give up. But for those of us who were able to persevere and take fresh courage, we learnt lifetime skills, because Rhys taught us a craft. He did not just facilitate our learning; he instructed us. He taught us as a scholar to be apprentice historians in-the-making.

Consequently, Rhys’s undergraduates learnt how to make and deploy historic models to understand others and to explain the familiar and the foreign. He challenged us to wrestle with conceptualizations in order to understand and engage in the reconstruction of past and present transformations. He trained us to become skilled at searching for the reported actions and episodes, the customs and rituals, and the range of meanings that would enable us to grasp interpretatively the public and private landscapes of daily life, especially those worlds of experience that both characterize and separate communities within a larger society.

The result was that Rhys imbued in his undergraduates a propensity to focus on cultural discontinuities and social transformations, a readiness to expose evidence to the discipline of historical context, and an ability to organize evidence by both broad historical concepts, and the metaphors that the historical actors used in their foreign fields to make sense of themselves and each other in times past.

Years later, I returned to La Trobe University to undertake postgraduate studies. Rhys was my postgraduate mentor and was then working on Landon Carter’s diaries. It was apparent that he had shifted his focus from his ethnographical search for the particulars of reported actions and patterns of behaviour to a deeper anthropological approach that attended to the enduring beliefs by which action is known and directed rather than to action itself. Since Rhys diligently attended postgraduate seminars, read and commented on our papers, and answered our every question with enthusiasm and insight, this deepening of his focus and historical engagement influenced our work as aspiring historians.

Accordingly, Rhys encouraged us as postgraduates to be far more attentive to cultural continuities, to heed larger narratives, and to consider long-term, recurrent patterns without neglecting discontinuities and local particulars. He emphasized our need to take seriously the beliefs of past mental worlds and their links to the material culture of daily life, especially to those small things forgotten. He also challenged us to be more focused on the ethics of our historical research, writing, and teaching, and to examine very carefully the taken-for-granted assumptions that both guide and make problematical our contemporary interpretation of the historical record. But above all, he challenged and encouraged us to be steadfast in working diligently towards hopeful outcomes by applying the lessons of the past to the present and by being mindful that the old is always transformed into something new.

As I look back on those years and remember Rhys as a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend, I can now see why he was so passionate about such matters: he ardently desired all of us to become skilled at understanding the past so that, like the sons of Issachar, those mighty men of King David in the first book of Chronicles who understood the times with knowledge of what Israel should do, we would know how to act wisely in our present. [I Chronicles 12:32]

The key he said, was to ask just two questions. Firstly: What is the project? In other words, What is the person trying to do or accomplish? And secondly: What is the strategy? Or, in other words, How does the person set about accomplishing their objective?

Rhys always asked the “What?” question before the “How?” question. He used these two key questions to shape the argument and his telling the story of Landon Carter’s diaries. These questions also structured his undergraduate teaching and informed his mentoring of postgraduates and tutors of history. They also, he said, enabled him to understand more fully the pattern of the unfinished story and thereby to be more focused about relating the struggles that are common to humanity to the making of a better historical understanding that leads to a better future.

That, of course, was one of the key objectives of Rhys’s last major project, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom. Our close reading and application of Rhys’s masterly unfolding of the story of the timeless issues and circumstance that surrounded Landon Carter will serve mightily to nurture and enrich the attainment of Rhys’ hope had of a better world in the making. Indeed, an understanding of the public storms and the private furies that undermined the foundations of Landon Carter’s patriarchal world and plunged it into revolution should encourage us all to examine and attend to the changes and continuities of our own stories and of this earthly life. After all, as Rhys exhorts us in the “First Words” of his last book, “We must know where our world comes from, if we are to plot for it a better future.”

Therefore, let us be encouraged and inspired by the role of Rhys, the scholar and teacher, and our mentor and friend, to shape a better future.

Angus R. McGillivery, La Trobe University