Carl Degler, 1921-2014

A Pulitzer prizewinning American historian who made major contributions to the study of women, African Americans and the poor has died

January 22, 2015

Source: Corbis

Carl Degler, whose father was a fireman, was born in Newark, New Jersey on 6 February 1921. After serving as weather observer for the US Army Air Forces in India from 1942 to 1945, he secured a first degree in history from Upsala College in New Jersey, followed by a master’s (1947) and a PhD (1952) in American history from Columbia University. Although he combined this with teaching first-year classes at New York University, Hunter College, Adelphi College and City College of New York, his first permanent post was as assistant professor at Vassar College, New York State, where he remained from 1952 to 1968.

Unlike many other universities, Professor Degler once recalled, Vassar didn’t expect its young scholars to turn their narrow PhD dissertations into a book, so instead he produced a wide-ranging and radical survey titled Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America (1959). He continued for the rest of his career to favour big, cross-disciplinary themes and groups that had been hitherto neglected by historians.

His existing interest in feminism, Professor Degler wrote, was greatly enhanced by “the substantial collection of books and studies in the Vassar library about and by women” and by the college’s “lively young women seeking to learn about themselves and their future from the American past”. This would eventually bear fruit in At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (1981), one of the first books on women’s history to be written by a man. It also meant he was one of only two men among the founders of the National Organization for Women, set up by Betty Friedan in 1966.

From Vassar, Professor Degler moved to Stanford University. He would remain there until his retirement in 1990, when he became the Margaret Byrne professor of American history emeritus. While at Stanford, he wrote his bold comparative study, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1971), which won him a Pulitzer Prize for history the following year. He went on to produce The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the 19th Century (1974), Place Over Time: The Continuity of Southern Distinctiveness (1977) and In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (1991).

Professor Degler died on December and is survived by his second wife, Therese Baker-Degler, two children and four grandchildren.

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