THE MWCBS AT FIFTY: REFLECTIONS AND RECOLLECTIONS
By Walter L. Arnstein
(Ann Arbor, October 23, 2004)
We are currently located in the Kellogg Conference Center cornflake-flavored Heritage Room, and our purpose during this next hour and more is to salute the heritage of the Midwest Conference on British Studies. That organization is now fifty years old, and only a handful of members remains whose personal memories go back more or less that far. I first attended a meeting of the organization in October 1957 in a small auditorium on the campus of the University of Chicago, and I gained the impression at that time that comparable meetings had been going on for at least three years but not for much longer. Such meetings were then, I might add, fairly modest affairs. They generally involved a single Saturday morning session, a conference lunch, and a single afternoon session. Then we all went home again. I remember only two other things about the 1957 meeting: one of the speakers was Dr. Jacob Price who had just a year earlier begun his long and distinguished academic career at the University of Michigan. Jack Price’s subject that day was the career of the Sir Lewis Namier, who was then at the height of fame and acclaim as one of the living giants of British history and historiography. Another of the speakers was my youthful mentor, Professor Lacey Baldwin Smith of Northwestern University. He was also good enough to drive me to the University of Chicago campus from Chicago’s north side; I did not as yet own a car of my own.
What I should like to do in the course of the next few minutes is to speculate a little about the origins of the MWCBS, to talk about several of the leading specialists in British history in the Midwest during the decade during which the MWCBS began, to talk a little about the state of our profession at that time, and to reminisce further about some of the other meetings of the MWCBS during its first two decades. In so doing, I may well become afflicted by that hazard of the passing years known as anecdotage.
There is a genuine danger also that I shall engage in the practice of oral history. Although there are respectable historians who very much approve of oral history-even among consenting adults–I have remained something of a skeptic–if only because I have often been reminded that the human memory is a flawed instrument. It has been said, indeed, that oral history is not worth the very paper that it is written on. As Saki, the Edwardian Short-Story writer, once phrased the matter, “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.”
As it happens, my evidence is not limited solely to my unreliable memory. During those years, after all, and for several decades thereafter, I would provide my parents in New York City with a weekly report- composed on my manual typewriter–on the highlights of my familial and my academic activities. Today those letters are once again in my possession. In retrospect I wish only that I had, at the time, written in slightly greater detail and with marginally greater vividness about topics such as those annual meetings of the MWCBS that became part of my routine during most Octobers.
It has been said that the medieval English Parliament began as an occasion and that, in due course, the occasion became an institution, an institution that, even as it kept the same name all the way to the present, altered its rules and practices across the centuries. The earliest meetings of the MWCBS followed, I believe, just such a pattern.
The first five or six meetings of the Midwest Conference on British Studies, I believe, all took place on the campus of the University of Chicago, and this was a logical location if only because, at that time, most Big Ten universities and comparable institutions could boast only a single specialist in English or British history. [Lawrence McCaffrey, Professor of History Emeritus at Loyola University, feels certain that the (before my time) meeting off 1955 took place on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing.] That was certainly true, among others, of Northwestern University and of Indiana University; the University of Chicago, however, could boast two. In terms of student enrollment and of faculty size, most such universities were only half as large in 1955 as they were to become by 1970. The great academic boom of the 1960s had been preceded by some very lean years. The immediate post-World War II years, inspired by the G. I. Bill, were academic boom years, but the years 1951-1956 were a time of academic recession.
The giants at the University of Chicago in the 1950s were Charles Loch Mowat and Alan Simpson. Mowat had been born in England in 1911 at Oxford, the son of a history don and the grandson of the secretary of that significant Victorian philanthropic institution, the Charity Organisation Society; late in his career, he was indeed to write a book about his grandfather’s institution. Mowat earned a B.A. degree at Oxford University, but he then earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He first taught there, then at UCLA, and then, as of 1950, at the University of Chicago. There he, in effect, invented twentieth-century British history as an academic pursuit. In 1955 he brought out that modern classic, Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940, and a year later he was named editor of the Journal of Modern History. Mowat’s University of Chicago colleague was a fellow Englishman, Alan Simpson, born at Gateshead in 1912. Simpson was a fellow Oxonian, one who back in 1940 had earned a D. Phil. Degree at Oxford. In 1946, he moved from Scotland’s St. Andrews University to Chicago. He was a specialist in Tudor/Stuart England and the author of Puritanism, in Old and New England.
Another senior scholar active in the MWCBS during its early years was also English-born. Charles F. Mullett earned his university degrees (including a Ph.D. from Columbia University) in the United States, however, and he became a specialist in the history of Restoration England. Back in 1925 he had begun an astonishing 46-year-long career at the University of Missouri. William Aydelotte was born in the United States, but he earned his doctorate in England at Cambridge University. Later for more than four decades he was to serve as Professor of History at the University of Iowa, where, in a pre-computer age, he became a pioneer in the use of quantification in the practice of social and political history. He may also have advised more Ph.D.s in British history than any other Midwesterner of his generation; Lawrence McCaffrey was one of them. Yet another important member of the MWCBS during the 1950s and 1960s was Leo Solt of Indiana University, a specialist in the English Civil War era and MWCBS President from 1968 to 1970. Equally active during the 1950s and 1960s, as I have already suggested, was Lacey Baldwin Smith, the Tudor history specialist, who in 1955 had began a career well over four decades long at Northwestern University; in 1970 he was to succeed Leo Solt as MWCBS president. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a fellow Princeton Ph.D., Maurice Lee, upheld the cause of Scottish and of 17th c. English history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
By then the situation at the University of Chicago had altered abruptly, however. In 1958 Charles Mowat had moved back to Britain to become Professor of History at the University of North Wales at Bangor; there he was to die in 1970 at age fifty-eight shortly after his election as president of the Historical Association (of the United Kingdom). In 1959 Alan Simpson had moved to Poughkeepsie to become first college dean and subsequently president of Vassar College. The new British history team at Chicago as of 1960 was made up of a Victorianist, John Clive, and of an early modern legal historian, Charles Gray, who, if I am not mistaken, agreed soon thereafter to become the first MWCBS Secretary, a post that he held during most of the 1960s.
What was the atmosphere like at MWCBS meetings during the 1950s and 1960s and how did it differ from that atmosphere in more recent years? The biggest difference, I suppose, was that today very few people attend a meeting who are not presenting a paper. In those days, I would estimate, eighty per cent of the people who attended in an average year were not part of the formal program. A paper presentation was deemed a special honor, and the paper-giver was expected to speak on a topic likely to be of general interest to conference members, of whom a majority regularly taught survey courses in British history. Even as other regional conferences on British Studies began to sponsor parallel sessions at their annual meetings, the MWCBS took pride until well into the 1980s in having only one session at a time at each year’s program. As I recall, at our meetings we sometimes made fun of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies; there the number of speakers on a given panel often exceeded the number of listeners in the audience. Graduate students were not discouraged from attending MWCBS meetings in those days, but they were, I suspect, expected to listen rather than to speak. A major purpose of the annual conference was to give junior members of the profession the chance to meet in person the historians whose books and articles they might have read, and the social aspects of each year’s meeting were deemed at least as significant as the formally academic.
In the 1950s and 1960s the MWCBS was completely independent of the distinct Conference on British Studies that had been founded in New York City back in 1951 and of the other regional conferences that were springing up in the south and in the west. Only in the very late 1960s was the federal system created that gave rise to a North American Conference on British Studies with the seven regional branches with which the NACBS was expected to meet on a seriatim basis. The MWCBS in the 1950s and 1960s prided itself on not instituting a system of dues independent of each year’s registration fee. THE NACBS did institute a regular system of dues, however, and in consequence of a proposal that I made in the early 1970s as an elected member of the NACBS Council, a small portion of each year’s dues was remitted to the regional conference that a member checked off.
It is fair to add that, forty years ago, ninety percent of the annual attendees or more were students or teachers of history. Specialists in English literature were certainly invited- occasionally even as plenary speakers-but relatively few came. People who did come at the time were the Irish-American scholars such as Larry McCaffrey who a few years later were to branch off into the distinct and highly successful American Conference on Irish Studies. Although I have no wish to engage in ethnic stereotyping, I did gain the impression that a certain spirit of MWCBS conviviality and bonhomie departed with them.
In what kind of broader national and international atmosphere was the MWCBS begun? It was, as I have already implied, very much a post-World War II phenomenon. In the earliest editions of the Directory of American Scholars, a surprisingly large number of academics described themselves not as American or British or Russian Historians or, for that matter, as Economic or Social or Constitutional Historians but as Historians without prefix or suffix. The only scholarly journal to which many were likely to subscribe was the American Historical Review, a journal that printed articles and reviews on all time periods and on all facets of history. Before World War II, for historians specializing in American history, there existed also what was then known as the Mississippi Valley Historical Journal; it later became the Journal of American History. For historians specializing in European history since 1500 there existed also the Journal of Modern History. The great majority of specialized topical or national history journals in the United States were products of the post-World War II era. Thus the Journal of British Studies was not founded until 1962 and Albion not until 1970- more than a decade after several regional Conferences on British Studies had begun.
In one respect, English national history had long been a favored course in American colleges and universities. By the 1910s a strong awareness had developed in the United States that, in many respects, the history of England most of all and the British Isles in general constituted a type of pre-history of the United States. This was true most of all on the subject of English law. American lawyers of the late eighteenth century had been trained on Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and from the 1910s to the 1970s most major universities sponsored one or two courses on English Legal and Constitutional History. That fashion was beginning to decline in the 1950s and 1960s, and it has largely died out during the past two decades. At the same time, however, I would suggest that the Second World War and its immediate aftermath encouraged at least five overlapping forces that strengthened the cause of general British history courses in American universities, many of which were rapidly expanding during the later 1950s and the 1960s:
(1) First of all, there was the World War II alliance and the fact that Winston Churchill had become a great hero on American movie theater screens. Anglo-American diplomatic and cultural relations had often been strained during the 1920s and the 1930s, but the Battle of Britain and Britain’s defiant Bull Dog leader appeared time after time on the weekly ten-minute newsreels that accompanied feature films in American movie theaters during the war. And radio listeners had almost all heard Churchill speak more than once. In 1953 or 1954-when the Midwest Conference on British Studies was founded-Churchill, after a six-year interval, was prime minister again, and he had become the sole survivor of the wartime Big Three.
(2) During the six-year interval between the two Churchill ministries, the Labour Party had for the very first time won an overall parliamentary majority. It had then implemented its program of nationalization, and it had established the welfare state. During the pre-war era and during the war, some Americans had saluted the USSR as their ideal state, but they always remained a small minority. Now Britain, it seemed, had come up with what a sizeable number of Americans came to see as the best type of society, one that apparently placed the ideal of public service before that of private profit while at the same time retaining civil liberties and free elections. Post-war Labour Britain seemed to constitute socialism with a human face. The fact that this same government also granted independence to the British Crown Colony of India meant that most Americans felt it less necessary to continue to condemn Britain as the world’s greatest imperialist power.
(3) Thirdly, while providing wartime heroes and peace-time triumphs, the British were also confirming their status as masters of historic ceremony in the form of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the summer of 1953, the first such event ever to be seen on live television by millions of Britons and, a day later, after the film had been sped across the Atlantic by plane, the entire ceremony was to be seen by millions of Americans as well. 1953, as we were reminded not long ago, was also the summer of Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest and of Roger Bannister’s conquest of the four-minute mile.
(4) Fourthly, beginning in 1949, each year provided new American candidates for academic positions in the Midwest and elsewhere who had held Fulbright Scholarships in Britain to join that distinguished but far smaller number who had held Rhodes Scholarships. Erstwhile Fulbrighters were to play a leading role in the MWCBS.
(5) A final part of the context in which the MWCBS was founded involved immigration to the United States. There were so many immigrants in the nineteenth century and there have been so many more-both legal and illegal-since the mid-1960s that it is easy to forget how relatively few per year there were between the early 1920s and the year 1965. One significant exception to this generalization was the 70,000 British war brides who crossed the Atlantic right after World War II. By the mid-1960s their children were entering college, and a sizeable percentage of them chose to take a college survey course in British history. This was true, at least, at the University of Illinois.
For the last portion of these remarks, let me return to my patchy records of the MWCBS meetings that I attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1958 the MWCBS met at the University of Chicago again; the meeting involved both a lunch and a dinner, and some sixty people were in attendance. In 1959, the organization met on the Midway campus yet again, and I attended two sessions, but don’t ask me who spoke- because I failed to report any details.
In 1960 the situation was rather different. For the first time (at least in my experience) the conference met outside Chicago. Instead it met on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington. In a pre-Interstate highway era, this meant a six-hour drive from Chicago. It also meant that I missed Senator John F. Kennedy’s torchlight parade through downtown Chicago just three days before the presidential election of 1960, in which the state of Illinois granted the new president the narrow margin of 7,000 votes. Between 50 and 60 people gathered the meeting in Bloomington. There Professor Garrett Mattingly of Columbia University, the biographer of Catharine of Aragon and the author of Renaissance Diplomacy, proved to be a brilliant plenary speaker and there Michael Wolff, the editor of the newly-established journal, Victorian Studies, invited the entire conference to his home. A panel on Victorian morality chaired by John Clive of the University of Chicago helped determine the manner in which I would treat the topic a few years later in the first edition of Britain Yesterday & Today.
In 1961, the conference met on the University of Chicago campus again, and I noted that neither of the major papers presented was “outstanding.” I did, however, have my second opportunity to meet Professor William B. Willcox, one of the prospective contributors to the four-volume History of England that was to play so significant a role in my life. By 1962, the MWCBS had begun a pattern of meeting outside the Chicago area every second year, and that year the setting was Allerton House, the University of Illinois country-house conference center. For the first time I was invited to present a paper myself (at a session that I shared with the late Josef Altholz) and-as I wrote somewhat smugly to my parents-“…in a curious sense I have now become a member of ‘the club.'”
Thus the MWCBS provided me with my very first connection with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was the sole occasion on which I was ever to meet Professor Edgar Erickson, Illinois’s specialist in modern British history since 1931 and the person whose shoes, as matters worked out, I was appointed to fill five years later. It was only a year later, at the 1963 meeting in Chicago, that Maurice Lee took me aside after lunch to ask me whether I might be interested in teaching two courses in modern British history at Illinois during the following summer. “I may be,” I replied, and a week later I received a formal offer from Urbana without my ever having filled out a formal application form. The summer term of 1964 proved to be a prelude to a rather longer association with the University of Illinois on my part. Indeed, by October 1970, when the MWCBS University of Illinois’s Allerton House Conference Center again, I was in charge of local arrangements. That meant that I was granted the opportunity to introduce our plenary speaker, the redoubtable Sir Geoffrey Elton, who spelled out, in graphic detail, his recipe for dealing with doctoral advisees: throw them in at the deep end of the primary source manuscript pool and find out whether they sink or swim. Two years later, when the MWCBS met on the University of Iowa campus, the privilege of serving as plenary speaker was extended to me, and my topic was: “The Myth of the Triumphant Victorian Middle Class.”
It is not my intention this afternoon to provide a full play-by-play, year-by-year, account of the history of the Midwest Conference on British Studies. Suffice it to say, although the academic and social context may have altered, the MWCBS has now served for at least fifty years as an often stimulating, sociable, and rewarding annual setting not only for me but also for a great many other people. It is very much my hope that many more chapters in its history remain to be written.
Memories of the Midwest Conference on British Studies
by Walter L. Arnstein
1. Historians are often poor at recording their own history, and the same generalization holds true for historical associations. At the most recent meeting of the Midwest Conference on British Studies in Lawrence, Kansas, our current president, Barrett Beer, asked me to jot down my own recollections of the earliest years of the Midwest Conference on British Studies. I do so, very much conscious of the pitfalls as well as the virtues of “oral history,” but perhaps my reflections may call forth complementary reminiscences by other members of the MWCBS whose own memories go back to the 1950s and 1960s.
2. By the time I attended my first MWCBS meeting on the University of Chicago campus in October 1957, the organization must have been at least four years old. It had been founded at the University of Chicago by Charles Loch Mowat (that pioneer historian of twentieth-century Britain who returned to Britain a few years later) and Alan Simpson (a specialist in Tudor-Stuart history who later became president of Vassar College). During the early 1960s, Charles Gray, who by then had joined the University of Chicago faculty, served as MWCBS executive secretary. Other distinguished early members of the MWCBS included Charles Mullett (University of Missouri), William Aydelotte (University of Iowa), Lacey Baldwin Smith (Northwestern University), Leo Solt (Indiana University), and Lawrence McCaffrey (then of the University of Illinois, later of Loyola University, Chicago) at a time before his academic concerns came to be focused on the American Conference for Irish Studies. At that 1957 meeting, I remember Jacob Price (University of Michigan) speaking about the writings of Sir Lewis Namier at a time when that pioneering historian was still very much alive and active. Indeed I had run into him earlier that year in the corridors of the Institute of Historical Research in London.
3. By the late 1950s, the tradition had begun that the organization should meet in Chicago every second year and elsewhere in the midwest during alternate years. In 1958 we met on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, where Victorian Studies had been founded less than two years earlier, and where the youthful John Clive of Harvard University served as plenary speaker; his topic was Victorian morality. And, in 1959 and 1961 we met in Chicago. It was the tradition of the MWCBS until a decade or so ago that not more than one paper session should be scheduled at the same time and that graduate students should be encouraged to complete their dissertations before being invited to present a paper. At the same time, the host institution was strongly encouraged to secure a distinguished plenary speaker. Both in 1963 and in 1970 that speaker was the dynamic (not yet Sir) Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge University. [Josef Altholz adds that he is pretty sure the MWCBS met in l959 in Chicago; in those days we met at the U. of Chicago in alternate years.]
4. I retain distinct memories of both the 1962 and the 1963 meetings. The first took place at the University of Illinois’s Allerton Park Conference Center, and Josef Altholz (University of Minnesota) and I (then at Roosevelt University, Chicago) drove south from Chicago together on Route 45. Except for a short stretch around Kankakee, Interstate 57 did not yet exist, and two-lane highways had to suffice. At Allerton Park we both presented papers to a meeting of the MWCBS for the first time, and for the first and, as things turned out, only time I met and talked to Edgar Erickson, who had taught modern British History on the University of Illinois campus ever since 1931. The possibility that I might in due course become Erickson’s successor did not occur to me on that occasion. It became marginally more likely at the 1963 meeting of MWCBS at the University of Chicago. Maurice Lee (the then Tudor-Stuart History specialist at Urbana) took me aside after lunch and asked me whether I might be interested in teaching two summer session courses on the Urbana campus during the following year. I said “Yes,” and therefore spent the summer of 1964 in Urbana. Less than three years later I was offered the opportunity to become Erickson’s successor, and when the MWCBS met at the Allerton Park Conference Center again in 1970 (with Geoffrey Elton as plenary speaker) and in 1978 (with Martin Wiener of Rice University as plenary speaker), I was able to play the role of local arrangements chair. In 1970 Elton spoke of his policy of sending aspiring graduate students into the deep end of the academic pool by immersing them, without preconceptions, in a body of primary source materials and letting them try to swim. Martin Wiener provided us with a foretaste of his prize-winning Book, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980.
5. I retain memories also of other early annual meetings such as the one at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1968 with J. H. Plumb as plenary speaker and the one at Iowa City in 1972 at which I played that same role. In 1971 we met in Chicago at Roosevelt University. After retirement, I intend to look into some old letters and to open boxes in our attic that may hold relics of the first twenty years and more of the history of the Midwest Conference on British Studies. In the meantime, I encourage other veteran members of the MWCBS to provide their own recollections and thereby enable Newton Key to put together a reasonably comprehensive record of the activities of what will soon become a half century of professional fellowship.
6. [With additions from Joseph Altholz. To add to our history of the MWCBS prior to 1970, Walter adds the following list of Presidents: 1969-70 (Leo Solt, Indiana University); 1971-72 (Lacey Baldwin Smith, Northwestern U.); 1973-74 (John Glaser, Ripon College)]