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Memorials: Charles E. Clark

Charles E Clark

Photograph courtesy of UNH Photographic Services


Charles E. Clark was a Commonwealth Fellow at the Omohundro Institute from 1990–1991.

Charlie Clark: A Remembrance

Charles E. Clark, distinguished historian of colonial New England, died at the age of eighty-four on December 3, 2013, near his home in Durham, New Hampshire. For more than forty years, Charlie was a pillar of the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire. When he arrived in 1967, the department had recently started a doctoral program in American history. Working with a cohort that included Darrett Rutman and his own former student Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Charlie helped turn UNH into one of the top early American programs in the country. Even after his retirement in 1997, Charlie’s influence continued to be felt both through his own considerable accomplishments and through the many students and colleagues whom he mentored. In the latter group were winners of the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, two Bancroft Prizes, finalists for the Pulitzer and George Washington prizes, and recipients of numerous other awards and commendations. With his exacting scholarship, his impeccable editorial judgment and his perennial good cheer—Professor Clark’s jovial whistle and hearty laugh could enliven even the bleakest day—Charlie played a central role in making the UNH Department of History a place where good things happen.

While Charlie compiled an impressive list of national honors and awards, including fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Huntington Library, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (twice), he was first and foremost a New Englander. Five of his six books were about the history of New England or, to be more precise, the history of northern New England. The first of these, The Eastern Frontier: The Settlement of Northern New England, 1610–1763 (1970), focused on the early history of Maine and New Hampshire and is still the definitive work on the subject—and still in print. Given the central role that Boston played in the early development of the newspaper, New England also figured prominently in Charlie’s other scholarly interest in the history of early American print culture. In 1994, he published The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665–1740, taking the story from James Franklin’s ill-fated Boston Gazette to the far more successful ventures of James’s younger brother Benjamin in Philadelphia. He also contributed a chapter on the popular press to Hugh Amory and David D. Hall’s volume of the History of the Book in America (2000). Charlie’s other books included Maine: A Bicentennial History (1977); a co-edited collection, Maine in the Early Republic: From Revolution to Statehood (1988); Printers, the People, and Politics: the New Hampshire Press and Ratification (1989); and The Meetinghouse Tragedy: An Episode in the Life of a New England Town (1998). Never at a loss for things to write about, Charlie also authored numerous book reviews, articles and essays, including nine entries for the American National Biography.

Although writing was one of Charlie’s great passions and joys, his devotion to New England extended well beyond the printed word. Whether the beneficiary was the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the American Antiquarian Society, both of which he served with distinction, or a local historical society, he was a generous and dedicated servant to his state and region. The organizations on whose boards he served included the Maine and New Hampshire historical societies, the New Hampshire Humanities Council, Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Tip-Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, among many others. In a story that Charlie loved to tell, he and a historian from Maine were once called as expert witnesses to testify in a court case on the historic location of the Maine-New Hampshire border. To Charlie’s amusement and delight, he and his cross-border colleague came to opposite conclusions, with each supporting the location that favored the other’s state. In 1993, UNH recognized Charlie’s contributions to New Hampshire history by naming him the first James H. Hayes and Claire Short Hayes Professor of Humanities. He held the appointment until his retirement.

New England was not an unusual topic for a colonial historian of Charlie’s generation; however, he had deep and lasting ties to the region that he studied. Born in Brunswick, Maine, Charlie grew up in the New Hampshire mill town of Newport, where his father was a Congregational minister. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Bates College and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, he worked as a reporter for newspapers in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. He also spent four years as a naval intelligence officer, followed by 20 years in the Naval Reserve. Although he and his wife Marge had already started a family, Charlie embarked on doctoral studies in American civilization at Brown while he was at the Providence Journal. Working under the supervision of Carl Bridenbaugh, he completed his Ph.D. in 1966. Charlie briefly taught at Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute, now the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, before coming to UNH in 1967. He and Marge bought a house several blocks from campus, and Charlie threw himself into the life of the university and community.

If Charlie seemed like the quintessential Yankee—in my twenty years at UNH, he was the only member of the department with a pronounced New England accent—he had none of the parochialism sometimes associated with the region’s inhabitants. In his own scholarship, Charlie betrayed little nostalgia for the communitarianism that many New England historians of his generation found attractive. Instead, his sympathies were with the proponents of free expression and with figures like the Franklins, James and Benjamin, who sought to protect the rights of the individual from the demands of the group. Time and again, those sympathies carried over into Charlie’s relations with colleagues and students. As his many friends will attest, Charlie was not shy about stating his own opinion, even when that opinion was the minority view. I don’t think anyone ever had to ask, “Charlie, what do you really think?” Yet far from insisting that his was the only correct position, let alone one that everyone else should take, he freely extended the liberty that he claimed for himself to others. Standing well over six feet tall, Charlie Clark was a big man in the literal sense of the word. But he was figuratively big as well, with broad shoulders, a contagious laugh, and an enormous heart.

Nowhere were these traits more in evidence than in how Charlie responded to the two major changes that swept the field of early American history during his years at UNH. The first of these was the growing importance of women’s history, which was related to the growing presence of women in the history profession as a whole. Today, a majority of the department’s tenured faculty are female. Charlie would not have described himself as a feminist—some men of his generation did—but that change was well underway when he retired fifteen years ago and had his full support. The second change on Charlie’s watch was the displacement of New England by Virginia as the centerpiece of early American history. There, of course, the struggle for individual liberty was a struggle not with Puritan communitarianism but with the institution of slavery. As Charlie’s immediate successor, and as one of several non-New England specialists whom he welcomed to UNH before his retirement, I can say that Charlie’s graciousness in embracing this second change was extraordinary. With his inimitable laugh and smile, Charlie never tired of noting what he liked to term the “awkward” fact that three of the department’s five early Americanists had earned their PhDs from Johns Hopkins, a leader of the movement to study regions other than New England. (The other two culprits were Bill Harris and Jeff Bolster.) In the next breath—invariably punctuated by another chuckle—he would make clear that this was an awkwardness that he welcomed and supported.

Despite his long and accomplished career, work was never the sum total of who Charlie was. I’m sure that helped immensely as he faced the vagaries of life’s changes, in his personal health as well as in his profession. As Charlie never tired of saying, family came first. A committed moderate in matters of belief, he was also an active member of the Congregational Church (UCC). (As a historian of Puritan New England, Charlie knew exactly what the parenthetical qualification meant.) What I remember and cherish most about Charlie are not the abstract principles that he stood for, but the enduring principles that he lived. At Charlie’s memorial service, the scripture, which I assume Charlie requested, was from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13—the famous passage about love. That reads in part: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” From what I saw during the five years that he was my colleague and during the decade and a half that followed, Charlie Clark understood that we all see through a glass darkly, that none of us has all of the answers, and that in the face of that reality, we trust to the bonds of affection and friendship.

Eliga H. Gould
University of New Hampshire