Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Memorials: Richard Beeman

Richard Beeman by Wayne Bodle

I came to Penn as a graduate student in 1970, two years after Rick Beeman joined the faculty there as an assistant professor, but I didn’t really know him for at least a decade after that. I came to study American society and politics in the Progressive Era, so for me, “early” America would have been anything from about 1870 until 1900. “Recent” America was the 20th century. My failure to have even asked whether Penn had any specialists teaching or supervising graduate work in the Progressive Era (it did not) suggests much of the obtuseness needed to explain my ignorance of the presence of such a bright young scholar. The rapid collapse of the academic job market and the distracting drumbeat of the Vietnam War and domestic politics explains the rest.

Penn’s history department swarmed with bright young scholars, and mid-career and senior ones as well, and I probably knew or could have identified barely even a quarter of them. Coursework, teaching “recitation” sections (as Penn still calls them), and writing seminar papers preoccupied my consciousness. A three-month job in the still nascent realm of “public history” became extended to almost four years, and it supplied me with the accidentally-written draft of a dissertation that happened to be situated squarely in the middle of the American Revolution. (Public History impels such field-shifts with regularity). My advisor, Michael Zuckerman, an early Americanist who advised creatively and effectively on dissertations as late as the 1930s, apprised me of what I could barely believe: that you could combine class work with a thesis separated by over a century and earn a Ph.D. But academic job openings were still practically non-existent in the early 1980s, and this is what brought Rick Beeman onto my radar screen.

Mike sent him a draft of a chapter on Valley Forge to read while he was summering in Maine. The verdict relayed back was that while it was not exactly what he would have done, or even how he might have advised it to be done, he could imagine signing it as a second reader—with some revisions. It took me longer than I can imagine now to embrace that generous offer. When I first went up to talk to Rick he was at a desk at the old Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies at 38th and Walnut Streets. I had earlier received from him a very kind rejection letter/note for a wild card application to the Center when he was directing it; as he occasionally did in those days. Of revisions for my manuscript, he asked “what do you think it needs?” I said, “umm …. a historiographical introduction?” He said “that’s what I think too—now go do it.” It took all of a long hot summer for me to do it, but by December I was a doctor!

Even before that, when I began attending the Friday seminars of the Philadelphia Center, Rick made significant impacts with very small gestures. In 1985, sitting at my first seminar in a cavernous room at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with Rick moderating the session, I wondered “are there any question marks at the end of these ‘questions’?” some of which seemed almost like speeches to me. Nevertheless, I put my hand up and offered a tentative observation. Two or three questions later Rick interceded from the chair to say “Wayne Bodle’s point a few minutes ago is very well taken,” and he paraphrased that point to slightly modify the subject on the table. I was astonished, but affirmation is affirmation wherever and however it arrives. A couple of years later, in College Hall at Penn, with Richard Dunn back in the moderator’s chair, I asked a longer question with a small play on words embedded in it. Rick burst out laughing, and said “Wayne, you must have written that one down before you came here!” Again, small tokens of acknowledgment can have substantial effects. It wasn’t long before I felt at home in the seminar that has since become for me just that—a truly sustaining intellectual home place.

In fact, I felt so “at home” at the Center that I moved in and stayed there for six years, something that the enterprise was not really designed for, but which a series of the Center’s operating authorities kindly saw fit to ignore while I played historiographical catch-up around a dissertation that had really written itself by spontaneous combustion. Slowly the ground shifted. I began to understand the “Progressive era” less in terms of struggles over meat plant inspections or child labor laws and more as a period when historians began asking difficult new questions about America’s colonial and revolutionary pasts. Rick was not a paradigmatic example of a scholar who became radicalized around “New Left” historiography during the 1960s, but he was not dogmatically dismissive of that approach either. In the spring of 1991 he allowed a group of fellows and fellow travelers from the Philadelphia Center to “audit” his undergraduate course on the American Revolution. He is known for the amount of scholarly attention that he paid to Founding Founders and other “great white men.” But the lecture from that class that made the biggest impression on me—and I think on the rest of the auditors and students too—was an almost (in retrospect) “Hamilton-quality” dramatic recounting of “Captain” Ebenezer McIntosh and the sacking of Thomas Hutchinson’s house in Boston by very poor men in August of 1765.

The next summer, once again from Maine, Rick sent word that he had accepted a belated request to become a dean in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences. He needed someone to adopt one or more of the courses that he was scheduled to teach in barely a few weeks. I was thrilled to receive his freshman seminar on the American Revolution. On the phone he said that he had ordered enough books for half of the semester’s work. I was free to use them or not as I saw fit, but I would have to order more, and I should organize the course in any way I wanted to. At about the mid-point of the semester, as ideological origins and constitutional imperatives (Rick’s books) gave way to episodes of race, clash, and gender (mine), Rick accepted my offer—my earnest appeal, really—to visit the class. The students—smart, motivated, and some of Penn’s best admits in any given year—had discovered that the seminar actually belonged to a dean, and they demanded to meet him in their class. Rick genially complied, and he stayed for an hour (years before a conveniently buzzing cell phone might have summoned an administrator away). When we took a break they surrounded him, pummeling him with questions, almost as though he was the front man for the Smashing Pumpkins (a band that they all really liked).

Two more emergency teaching opportunities came my way during the next couple of years at Penn, but the job market continued to be cruel. I secured a book contract, worked on revising the dissertation, and published a few tentative articles gesturing toward that always invaluable “second project.” Richard Dunn even gave me a chance to “run” the Center during a semester when he was on leave and the following summer. I enjoyed it immensely, but all the while I nervously tried to gauge the likelihood of ever being able to join the actual professoriate. Richard and Rick wondered, or worried, about that too, and they came separately to think that I was not doing myself any favors by getting too comfortable, or certainly by staying, at Penn. The now very apparent logic of this point was understandably much less clear to me at that time. Richard offered a few delicate hints, which I contrived not to quite comprehend. Then he decided that we needed to have a man-to-man-to-dean talk, for which he called in Rick Beeman.

We met by appointment at the nearby New Deck Tavern at 5:30 p.m. on a weeknight. A pitcher of beer arrived at the table, and we exchanged some sports talk. Then Rick got to the point. (Deans do this every day). Look, he said. You need to see it from the perspective of a search committee. If you get your degree somewhere, and then teach there long enough, off the tenure track, only part time, mixing it with whatever else you choose—revising a dissertation, publishing articles, anything—someone on any committee is going to wonder “what’s wrong?” He wasn’t looking for a dialogue. This was not a tenure denial. He moved quickly from the preamble to the user’s manual. You should call the chair of the history department, he said, at {nearby research university}. Or the dean of the college of arts and sciences at {regional public comprehensive university}. Someone is always looking for somebody to teach something around here. We’ll be glad to follow up your calls. “You can even stay here next year,” Richard Dunn interjected, “and direct the Center again next spring when I will be on leave.” This was indeed starting to sound like a tenure denial, which really would have been a fantastic way to conclude an uninvited seven year stay, off the tenure track, at an academy that didn’t even have tenure!

Another pitcher arrived and we returned to the real item on the agenda, the Phillies’ bullpen situation. It ended very nicely. It would be months before the next round of job ads appeared, and those god-awful cover letters had to be written. Something would happen this time around, too, I just knew, which would prove that I was right but that my bosses had been kind and generous to have readied a back-up plan. Besides, I already had a flight booked for the following week to London, for a combined holiday and archival trip. Let the research resume.

It turned out exactly the way I imagined, too, only different. On my return from Britain three weeks later, a visiting—rather than an adjunct—position more or less found me, at a state flagship research university a thousand miles away. A one year appointment there turned into three years, just as in the public history gig the decade before. Rick stayed in the picture, if at a distance, and now by e-mail. At the cost of hours of dean’s time, he fixed a bureaucratic and electronic snag so that I would get the credit for the mostly good evaluations in the freshman seminar, rather than some Smashing Pumpkins front man impersonator. He wrote letters for several tenure track jobs. The fellowship bazaar sweetened more quickly than the job market did, so I holed up in a variety of tantalizing archival places opening up new lines of research. From one of these places a “real” teaching job finally emerged, almost a generation after I first went to Penn, in a field in which I had never taken as much as an undergraduate survey class.

During this long strange trip I had other and more important mentors than Rick Beeman. Michael Zuckerman, from the very start, and ever since that very start. Linda Kerber, from literally the first day that I took up residence at the Philadelphia Center and long after that. Richard Dunn, who let me stay at the Center for what amounted to a second run through graduate school, and then as a post-post-doctoral research base from which to wait out the depressing job market while learning something new every day. Stephanie Wolf, who got me attending the Center’s seminars in the first place, and then critically facilitated an early fellowship application. But Rick’s intermittent combination of small, deft gestures with a couple of blunt injunctions—from “now go do it” to “go somewhere else for a while”—wove those sustained interventions together and helped to make them work as well as they did, or could have. That combination of practices, big and small, intermittent and continuous, helped to create, and it continues to exemplify, what makes Philadelphia’s academic community such a magnificent place to be.

Wayne Bodle
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Author’s note: This essay began with, draws upon, and in a few cases incorporates material from my September 7, 2016 invited post on the blog Historiann: History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present. It is used gratefully with permission from the blogger, Ann M. Little.