Obituary

By Rauchway, Eric | The Journal of Southern History, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Obituary


Rauchway, Eric, The Journal of Southern History


In the photograph of George M. Fredrickson on the back flap of his first book, you see a young man with a Kennedy haircut and a straight-stem pipe, visibly the product of midcentury Harvard (where Fredrickson earned his A.B. in 1956 and his Ph.D. in 1964). He radiates earnest ambition, which is also apparent in the book's declaration of intent: "I am convinced," Fredrickson wrote in the preface, "that the few who have a genuine interest in ideas and a powerful urge to find meaning and coherence in their experience are able to tell us more about a crisis of values, with its inevitable confusion and ambivalence, than the many who avoid difficult issues and are content to speak in outdated cliches" (The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union [1965; Urbana, 1993], xvi). He set out to punch his weight with the greats--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.--the minds he knew worth the challenge.

Later, he confessed himself "slightly embarrassed" for focusing on a predictable "elitist canon" (Inner Civil War, ix). Perhaps he could be forgiven this leap to the acknowledged top without thinking about what other fields of inquiry beckoned. Born in Connecticut in 1934, Fredrickson grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; maybe his upbringing made it hard to see beyond the evident route up and out. But he did not himself admit such excuses: he regarded a failure of imagination as white Americans' greatest shortcoming. In The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York, 1971), he said he made his major contribution by examining the consequences of an insufficiently imaginative intellect: "previous scholars have largely ignored ... differing predictions made about the ultimate destiny of American blacks.... Taken together, they suggest the tragic limitation of the white racial imagination of the nineteenth century, namely its characteristic inability to visualize an egalitarian biracial society" (pp. xii-xiii).

Fredrickson next asked scholars of American history to likewise look beyond the boundaries of the familiar. Tasked in 1980 to assess "the status of comparative history," he found that it did "not really exist yet" ("The Status of Comparative History (1980)," in The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism, and Social Movements [Berkeley, 1997], 24). He helped remedy this shortcoming with the landmark White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1981) and its companion, Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (New York, 1995). …

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