Remembering David Jaffee
David Jaffee was always kind to me. I suspect I am but one of many historians who could begin words of remembrance about him with that phrase. David Jaffee was always kind to me. Although I had of course read his work in graduate school, I didn’t meet him personally until I began my career as an Assistant Professor of History at CUNY. David, of course, was formerly a CUNY faculty member himself, although when I met him he had moved on to the Bard Graduate Center. He came up to introduce himself one evening after we’d both attended an Early American History Seminar at Columbia in 2010. The act of bothering to introduce himself to the junior newbie in town was gracious enough on its own. But the conversation that ensued was pure David: good-humored, wryly witty, and, of course, kind.
“How are they treating you at CUNY?” he asked. I answered something suitably positive but vague and he leaned in closer, and sotto voce said, “No, I mean, how are they really treating you? Are they letting you do material culture?” I laughed and assured him that, yes, I had been encouraged to let my material culture flag fly in my courses. He looked as if he didn’t quite believe me, and noted his happy relief at being at Bard, where he could do all material culture all the time. But, he told me, CUNY had its merits, and I would find allies at CUNY in people like Josh Brown. “And if,” he ended, “the traditional historians give you trouble for not doing traditional history, you can always come talk to me.”
Now, in 2017, material culture studies has made—it seems to me—great strides in the historical field, gains that are noticeable even since that conversation David and I had seven years ago. It would be odd indeed to attend a history conference now and not find at least someone presenting on material culture or using it as evidence. Early Americanists, for our part, seem to be embracing it more and more. But that has not always been true, and it’s not universally true now, either. David’s own extraordinary work added immeasurably both to the content and reputation of material culture studies in our field. His books will, I have no doubt, always be found in my footnotes. But, perhaps as importantly, his work—like his memory—will persist through the mentorship and leadership he provided to the rest of us doing history through material culture. It saddens me to think that, if the traditional historians give me trouble for not doing traditional history, I no longer can go talk to David about it. But I am honored that I had the chance to do so once. Not only through his great contributions, but in such small things, he’ll not be forgotten.
University of Delaware