Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Rhys

A long time ago, in 1973, I published a book entitled Boston’s Priests, 1848–1910: A Study of Social and Intellectual Change. One of Boston’s earliest bishops was Jean Cheverus, a native of France. In 1826, he returned to France, taking up duties at Montauban. From there, he wrote to mayor Josiah Quincy about his lingering love for Boston. In conversations here, he wrote, residents say, “You love Boston more than Montauban.”

We in Australia often had reason to think, “Oh, Rhys, you love Virginia and Williamsburg more than Melbourne.” Again and again, he would return from Williamsburg with excited tales of teaching at the College of William and Mary, following Cary Carson’s renovations for historic Williamsburg’s restoration, taking a participant’s pleasure in the many projects of the Institute. Mostly, it was relationships that Rhys enjoyed: exchanges with other colonialists and listening carefully (as he always did) to the conference papers of colleagues (and especially students.) Talk and (all the meanings of) storytelling were Rhys’s Virginia.

But Rhys’s bonhomie and his joy in performing history in conferences and conversations as much as in writing was only one facet of his brilliance. He was a probing, serious, and indefatigable scholar. He was an entrant in a particularly demanding world of scholarship whose contours and textures will never cease asking for reflection and immersion of the whole person. I think this is the case because of two features to which such scholars of American colonial life have to attend and which, each in its own way, causes wonderment to Americans and others across the globe. The first is, of course, the great achievement of the American Revolution. The second—so different from that achievement but intertwined with it—is slavery. Rhys made himself into a unique speaker on the Revolution. I watched him take an increasingly confident position on its intensities, foibles, and, still in the end, remarkableness. He did not need to make himself knowledgeable about slavery. South Africa did that. Documents—such as Landon Carter’s diary—were only performances-on-paper that elicited the emotional knowledge he already had. Rhys despised slavery because in his bones, as I would say, he had a devotion of its opposite, brotherhood.

Here in Melbourne we did not have the tavern, the governor’s mansion, the rutted roads of historic Williamsburg. But—using Rhys’s language—we had venues where identities were thickened by narrating one’s ideas. We had the American Studies conferences, the Australasian Journal of American History, and the frequent Melbourne seminars for colleagues and students where Rhys’s agile interjections could take ideas in new directions.

I last heard Rhys speak publicly in 2008. It was at a daylong set of seminars honoring my late husband, Greg Dening. (Don’t talk too long, we told him!) May I end my tributes to Rhys by quoting the dedication of a book Greg wrote in 1996: “To Rhys Isaac. The most generous man I know. For many years he and I have celebrated discovery and knowledge together. He will celebrate this celebration of mine with joy.”

Donna Merwick,
Australian National University