Honoring Jan Lewis

Jan Lewis served on the Omohundro Institute Council from 1996 to 1999.


From Diane Miller Sommerville

Our first meeting was entirely serendipitous. Odd, given that we were both part of the Rutgers family. I was a graduate student based in the New Brunswick program, Jan the Newark campus. We knew of each other and of our mutual interest in southern history, but our paths hadn’t yet crossed. Curiously, it was over a thousand miles away, in New Orleans, in 1991, I think, at an annual meeting of ‘the Southern’ where we finally met. I sat in a meeting room waiting on a slavery panel to begin, when a woman took the seat next to me. We glanced at each other’s name tags, in that furtive, inconspicuous way conference goers do, then smiled at the fortuitous coincidence. Afterwards, Jan took me out for drinks where we discussed my proposed dissertation topic, trials of black men for the rape of white women. She wasn’t exactly confident I’d find enough material, but she was intrigued and encouraged me to plow ahead and offered up some leads. We met and spoke regularly after that, more so after I was assigned to TA on the Newark campus. And when my original adviser left Rutgers, and I was left in the lurch, I turned to Jan who graciously and unhesitatingly agreed to step in as my dissertation adviser. What a stroke of luck that turned out to be!

In the weeks since I learned the shocking news about Jan Lewis’s death, I have been thinking about her a great deal: as dissertation adviser and mentor, as historian, and as my friend. The stirring tributes written by her pals Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf and others speak to the many wonderful qualities Jan possessed. Below I share a few thoughts on Jan’s life and legacy from the perspective of an indebted former student.

Jan was one of the wisest people I knew. You could approach her with a thorny problem and rest assured she would give you sound advice about how to move forward: a negative review, fractious departmental politics, negotiating with a cranky dean. Sure, she drew on her many years of experience as a scholar and administrator. But she possessed an innate capacity to quickly discern the competing and conflicting factors, assess fairness and risk, and then recommend a course of action. I got a less-than-positive reader’s report after submitting my first book manuscript. Devastated, I turned to Jan, who, first, dismissed nearly everything negative the reviewer had to say and assured me the reviewer just didn’t ‘get’ what I was doing. Then she helped me craft a response that was at once confident and reasonable, that struck the right tone of respect but allowed me to push back on the criticism I/we thought was unfair. Jan the Troubleshooter!
Jan was surely one of the most generous scholars who ever lived. Nearly everyone who had a relationship with Jan was the recipient of that generous spirit. I certainly was. After receiving the invitation to write this memorial, I dug out the box of old dissertation chapter drafts I’d stashed in my basement. Her reading and editing of chapters — line by line edits — was painstakingly detailed. Her comments were astute and tough: “could be written more effectively.” “You need to clarify your themes more.” “Whoops – you should have told us earlier.” Her comments directly engaged the sources — “they’re deluding themselves, aren’t they?” – in ways that prodded me to rethink the significance of the evidence I had marshalled. I’m embarrassed, in hindsight, that I had to learn (relearn?) so much basic grammar and formatting from her. Most delightful were the witty quips in the margins. “Well, he’s a model of courage, isn’t he?” – a response from a wife who testified that she heard a noise in the middle of the night, so nudged her husband, who sent a servant to investigate. While the criticism was tough, and of course spot on, she made sure to offer equal doses of praise and encouragement: “This is very important!” “Super work!” All of this speaks to two things: 1) Jan taught me how to write. That I am at all a decent writer today is a reflection of the hard work Jan put into my early (sometimes poor) drafts. 2) While I’m certain Jan viewed mentoring as a labor of love, such dedication to and investment in students and their work came at a cost. She wrote dozens of job and fellowship letters for me. (I’ve been told they are pages long, single-spaced). She read and re-read countless proposal and article drafts. Multiply this same level of scrutiny and attention by myriad other graduate students, junior scholars, and colleagues, and you quickly deduce that Jan’s willingness to so liberally share her time and intellect assessing the work of others and advocating for them took a toll on her own work. Selfless and giving Jan!

Jan was a tireless advocate for all of her students. As Serena Zabin has written, she was fiercely protective of us all; our adversaries became her adversaries. She actively looked for ways to give us professional opportunities. I remember how thrilled I was as a graduate student when she offered to hand off a book review assignment to me that she had received. And, her encouragement that I, as a graduate student, submit an article manuscript to the Journal of Southern History (as well as her reporting back on a chance meeting with the editor whom she pumped for feedback!). Jan invited me to serve on an OAH panel commemorating the 30th anniversary of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black that included Jordan and other esteemed senior scholars. What a coup for a new PhD! She also sang my praises to faculty in the History Department at Princeton that I know was instrumental in helping me get my first job there. More recently, at the 2017 SHEAR conference, Jan and Barry attended a paper I gave on a topic from my new book. After the session, Jan came up to pronounce the paper brilliant. Later that evening we had dinner together and it was clear these were no mere platitudes. She had been thinking about and processing what I had said in my paper all day, and like those margin notes in my dissertation from over twenty years ago, she wanted to make sure I understood she believed my work to be very important. Jan the cheerleader!

I learned much from Jan about being a woman in the historical profession. As a loving and doting wife, mother, then grandmother, she showed us all, especially her female students, that, while difficult, we could succeed professionally while driving carpool and attending back to school night. When we emailed or saw each other at conferences, less frequently in recent years, Jan never failed to ask detailed questions about my kids. I had shared with her some of my parenting challenges and struggles, and she used those times to offer support, compassion and kindness. She cared deeply about her former students, not just as historians, but as people. Jan the compassionate!

Two weeks ago I received the first hard copy of my new book. Jan had read very little of the material for this project. Yet, I acknowledged the important role she played in this second book. “Jan Lewis, who served as my dissertation adviser and was central in shaping my first book, provided me with the skills, and confidence, to go without the adviser training wheels this time around. She continues to be my biggest cheerleader, and I will always cherish our friendship.” It’s commonplace, I suppose, to claim one’s success would not have been possible without one’s adviser. But in this case, it is most certainly true.

I can’t imagine the profession, indeed, the world without Jan. It pains me especially to think of her family – husband Barry, son James, daughter-in-law Aislinn and granddaughters Beatrice and Ida – living without vibrant, loving, adoring, lovely Jan. She was an irreplaceable treasure. I will miss Jan enormously.

Diane Miller Sommerville