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Norman Fiering, John Carter Brown Library

Menu: Remembering Rhys

It was always a joy to be with Rhys Isaac—so much energy and effervescence packed into a truly diminutive physical frame. In spirit, he was a giant of a person and had a nice loud voice to match, although it could sink to a muffled whisper by the end of a sentence. He spoke with what I suppose was a South African accent, from the land of his birth. He was one of the few people I have met who regularly sported a cravat, rather than a necktie or an open collar, yet without a trace of affectation. A recent reminiscence about Rhys that I saw on the Web referred to him affectionately as “twinkly” and “elfin.” That evokes his charm pretty well but omits the sternness of his intellect.

It goes without saying that he had a keen, penetrating mind. He took the practice of historical writing extremely seriously, both in the sense of wanting to be a craftsman and also to get the theory right. He was much inspired by what historians could learn from anthropologists or ethnographers—Clifford Geertz being a major influence on him—but he was open to the potential of new and intelligent work in any discipline, such as sociology or dramaturgy. His beloved twin brother, Glynn, who predeceased Rhys, was a distinguished paleoanthropologist.

Rhys approached the study of early Anglo-American history with a deliberate, missionary zeal, once he had decided that he would devote his working life to that field. At Oxford, where he went as a Rhodes Scholar from the University of Cape Town and studied with the celebrated biographer of St. Augustine, Peter Brown, he was mostly a medievalist. His description of how it was that he turned sharply to early British America, and Virginia in particular, is complicated—it can be found in his wonderful autobiographical essay, “Toward Ethnographic History”—but I do remember his telling me that he felt a bit like a colonial himself as a child in South Africa, with London as the faraway alluring metropolis.1 Rhys believed he had an insider’s understanding of what it was like to be a Virginian, culturally, in ca. 1750.

It was my good fortune that our lives intersected as they did, and with unexpected major consequences not at all foreseen. I met Rhys initially in early summer 1970, in Williamsburg, Virginia, toward the end of his first trip to this country. He was beginning his novitiate as a U.S. colonial historian and went to Brown University in 1969 to sit in on Gordon Wood’s seminar—a prescient and astute choice since Gordon was still quite junior and the Creation of the American Republic was just out. Rhys could not yet have seen it. Jack Crowley, a new Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins under the tutelage of Jack Greene, also joined Gordon’s seminar. Crowley was in Providence mainly to do research at the John Carter Brown Library, and of course Rhys also took advantage of that mine of colonial sources.

As it happened, the JCB, Brown University, and Gordon were all to be a part of my future, but in June 1970 I had not the slightest premonition of that and had never even been to Providence. I was at the Institute of Early American History and Culture as a postdoctoral fellow, and Rhys, on that first American foray, made a mandatory stop at the Institute and at the research library of Colonial Williamsburg. I don’t recollect his itinerary in any kind of detail, but I know that at Gordon’s strong urging, Rhys also introduced himself, fatefully, to Jack Greene on that trip. Rhys was later to say of Jack that he “tirelessly organized ways and means for the advancement of my work.”

Fast-forward a couple of years. At the end of my fellowship at the Institute in the summer of 1972, I was offered the job there of Editor of Publications, succeeding Jim Hutson, who had departed for the Library of Congress. Suddenly my acquaintance with the promising Virginia colonialist Rhys Isaac, who was based in faraway Australia, turned into a professional relationship, which is either less or more than a plain friendship, depending upon one’s point of view. In any case, Rhys’s brilliance becoming increasingly apparent, in 1974 the Director of the Institute, Thad Tate, and I offered him a contract for what would eventually be published in 1982 as The Transformation of Virginia and win a Pulitzer Prize. Rhys and I never got over the joy of that news. We became brothers in success, and I have ever since bathed in reflected glory. Rhys gave birth to the book, but I was the obstetrician, so to speak. In any case, always generous with praise, he thereafter called me his collaborator, an honor I accepted out of the fun of camaraderie, knowing it was a vast exaggeration of my minuscule contribution to the project, which consisted mostly of the expression of confidence an early book contract represents.

It would be revealing to calculate the relatively small number of months in total that Rhys had access to the Virginia archives and libraries he required to do the research for the Transformation. Although he usually had grant support of some kind to get over here, it was no easy hop, and the time was never enough, with every hour precious. The accomplishment is a measure of his dedication and skill. On one trip in the 1970s, desperate, before heading back to Australia, to complete his reading in the extraordinary microfilm collection of Virginia-related material to be found at Colonial Williamsburg, he worked until the wee hours, literally sleeping on a library table. He told me about this one morning after, looking bedraggled and unshaven, and that image, of Rhys curled up on a plank of oak, has always stayed with me. On these visits to America he sometimes out of necessity left behind in Australia his wife, Colleen, and two daughters, intensifying the difficulties. He described Colleen as his “constant source of encouragement in dark hours.”

Leaping ahead once more, in 1982–1983 I applied for the job of head of the John Carter Brown Library and eventually was offered it. When Rhys heard about the appointment, he wrote to me, in June 1983: “The dear old JCB in beloved Providence. It was one of the first places in which I ‘discovered’ an earlier America in its documents—as well as learned, over lunches with Gordon Wood and Jack Crowley, to ‘talk history.’ Blessed be it!”

By then Rhys was already hard at work on what would be published in 2004 as Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom. Once more I had a chance to offer Rhys something, on this occasion not only encouragement but time and money, via the JCB fellowship program. I invited him as early as 1998 to be the Mellon Senior Fellow at the Library, and finally he and Colleen came in the spring of 2001.

Seeing him every day at the JCB, I know it was a productive period for him. He entered into the life of Sabine Hall, the big plantation house as depicted in Carter’s diary, with a depth that probably has few equals in the annals of historical writing. He virtually moved into Sabine Hall and interrogated all of the characters until they cried mercy. On the bulletin board in his office he had huge charts plotting every encounter, every interaction, in the household from day to day, insofar as it could be gleaned from the diary, over a period of some twenty years. So close was the detail of his investigation that by a kind of quantum magic the particular became the universal, which was what he was after. He had gone beyond ethnography to the art of the novelist, or he would say to the dramaturgist, but with no invention.

In the five or six months at the JCB he also took evident pleasure in a mentoring role with the younger research fellows in residence, some still graduate students. Rhys regretted that at LaTrobe University he had little opportunity to oversee doctoral dissertations, a drive that for a brief while at the Library he could satisfy.

But what brings this saga full circle is the fact that when Rhys returned to Providence in 2001 for an extended stay, Jack Greene and his wife had by then made Rhode Island their permanent home; Gordon Wood with increasing eminence remained at Brown; and now I was there, too. So as it happened, Rhys found gathered in one place by coincidence three of the people who thirty years earlier, at the very beginning of his career as a historian of Virginia, had enthusiastically embraced him.

At the end of Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom, recording Carter’s death, Rhys quotes the Latin lament of his son Robert—“Eheu, mortuus est quem nunquam obliviscor”—and translates it as follows: “Alas he has died, whom I shall never forget.” The thought applies well to the passing of Rhys Isaac, a man so vibrant and affectionate, he is impossible ever to forget.

Norman Fiering,
John Carter Brown Library


1. Isaac, “Toward Ethnographic History,” in Becoming Historians, ed. James m. Banner, Jr., and John R. Gillis (Chicago, 2009).