Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Working in a Tradition

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Working in a Tradition

Article excerpt

Distinguished historian Philip Gleason reflects on his work in American Catholic history, including influential mentors, research directions, publications, and other important aspects of his career.

Keywords: American identity; Catholic higher education; Catholic medievalism; ethnic revival; Central-Verein; German American Catholicism; romanticism

Baron Friedrich von Huegel has been described as a man who "loved to share, to be part of a tradition, both intellectually and spiritually; he wanted to be part of the past, and partner of the future too."1 These words came to mind as I contemplated the work to be undertaken here. For while they express a sentiment any historian might endorse, they are especially apposite when one sets out to review a career in historical scholarship. In the case at hand, such an effort demonstrated how profoundly my career has been shaped as "part of a tradition, both intellectually and spiritually." As to partnering with the future, that has been not so much a connection deeply felt as a goal devoutly hoped for. Whether, or to what degree, that hope has been realized is not for me to say. What follows will, therefore, be confined to sketching the path that led me into the tradition of scholarship on the history of American Catholicism and exploring how it intersected with other scholarly traditions and the more general tradition of Catholic thought in my own historical work.

Beginnings

None of this would have meant anything to me in 1953, when I began my graduate studies in history at Notre Dame. Far from aiming at a career in American Catholic history, I knew nothing about the subject and was completely oblivious to its existence as a field of specialization. Indeed, I did not see myself as prospective historical "scholar" at all. My goal - unconsciously self-limited by personal temperament and life experience - was simply to obtain the kind of advanced degree that would enable me to "teach at the college level." Although I liked history and did well in the subject in high school and college, the idea of actually becoming a writer of history (or anything else) never entered my head.

Coming from a farm and small-town background and being the first in my family to attend college, I took it more or less for granted that a bachelor's degree should lead directly to gainful employment. For me, that meant becoming a high school teacher of social studies, which allowed some scope for specialization in history. In those days, it had not yet become common practice - at least not at the University of Dayton, from which I received a BS in education in 1951 - for able students in a humanistic discipline to proceed directly from college to graduate school with financial support from the institution that accepted them. As a result, I spent two years in other employment - the first working in a civil service job, the second teaching eighth grade - before beginning my graduate studies.

In view of my modest aspirations, by far the most important result of my initial contact with the tradition of historical scholarship was the dawning realization that I could become part of it. From the outset, my professors at Notre Dame gave me to understand that their students were to become researchers and writers of history, as well as teachers of the subject. One who did so was Father Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C. , then head of the history department, who taught a required course in historical method and bibliography, the obvious purpose of which was to allow him to form his own judgment of new students. Nor did it take great sensitivity to discern that those who did not show promise of becoming historical scholars would not last long. M. A. Fitzsimons, James A. Corbett, and Marshal T. Smelser, from whom I also took classes in the first semester, tacitly conveyed the same point. To these men - and those encountered later as teachers, especially Aaron I. Abell, Thomas N. Brown, and Vincent P. …

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