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Remembering Roy Rosenzweig

Roy was a friend for thirty one years. He was a fourth year graduate student at Harvard when I arrived as a rookie in the fall of 1976. We were drawn together initially by our common interest in American labor history. We were both working with Stephan Thernstrom; we both wrote labor and social histories of small New England cities whose names began with the letter W—Worcester, MA, and Woonsocket, RI. Each of us has been asked many times: why those cities? Well the truth can now be told: Oscar Handlin, the czar of Harvard social history for half a century, had decreed that his students and the students of his students could only study New England cities and towns and that they had to study these cities in alphabetical order. And so they (we) did: Dedham, Fall River, Lawrence, Lynn, Haverhill, New Bedford, Newburyport, Pawtucket, and Providence. By the time Roy and I came along, Handlin was an old man and the W’s were the only unstudied towns left in New England. We dutifully did our research on Worcester and Woonsocket, published our books, and, in the process closed out the community studies era of social history. So friends, here you have a novel answer as to why social history came to an end. Forget Geoff Eley and A Crooked Line. Forget the cultural turn. Forget the fall of communism. There were simply no more towns left in New England for Harvard grad students to explore.

What kind of friend was Roy? If I had told him the story I just told you, he and I would have had a great laugh about it and spent an hour tweaking the story to make it as plausible and yet as hilarious as possible. What kind of friend was Roy? He read and critiqued everything I ever wrote, beginning with my first little article in the Rhode Island issue of the Radical History Review in 1978 and finishing with a manuscript of mine on the American state that he read while receiving experimental treatment in Boston this past summer. What kind of friend was Roy? No major event in my life or my family’s life passed without a visit or a long conversation with Roy. Only my mother has sent me more birthday cards than Roy did, and hers were not nearly as funny. Inevitably the subject matter of Roy’s cards was politics, inevitably the cards skewered some pompous Republican politician, inevitably the card made me laugh and gave me a moment of respite from the sobering knowledge that I have lived virtually all of my adult life under Republican or near-Republican rule.

Roy loved long, rambling, and imaginative conversations with his friends. Few things could be as good as those conversations about the vagaries, complexities, and nuttiness of life, work, and politics. These conversations occurred on the phone late into the night at Tony Chen’s Seafood Restaurant in Washington’s Chinatown; during overnight visits by me to the Rosenzweig-Kaplan manse on Lincoln Avenue in Arlington, Virginia; at the annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the American Studies Association, where Roy and I often roomed together; at the annual summer picnic for past, present, and future radical historians in upstate New York, a tradition that is still thriving 35 years after Roy and Jean Agnew invented it as graduate students in the late 1970s.

I mention these details of our friendship not to claim a unique relationship with Roy. To the contrary, there are scores of people, and maybe hundreds, who have received annual birthday cards from Roy, drawn from the now famous electronic Rosenzweig rolodex with its 1500 plus names and birth dates; there are scores of people who have spent the night at the Rosenzweig-Kaplan manse and encountered the “Dirty Bathrooms Breed Bolsheviks” poster hanging over the toilet in the guest bath when they got up in the morning; there are hundreds of people who have talked with Roy from lunch until dinner or from dinner into the wee hours of the morning. There are now hundreds of people mourning the passing of this man who gave so many so much.

The energy that Roy had for these conversations was exceeded only by the energy he had for his work. Most people, myself included, have never been able to figure out how he did so much. He wrote and co-wrote, edited and coedited, a large number of important and prizewinning books on social history and on the popular uses of history. He directed countless public history projects. He produced films. He consulted on other films and on numerous museum projects. He established and directed the premier center in the world for history and the new media, overseeing its growth from a hobby in the corner of his office to a forty-five person organization with an annual budget in the millions. I liked to call it Roy’s empire, the only true empire of liberty in the world. Roy served in positions of major responsibility at his university and in many professional organizations including the American Historical Association (AHA), the OAH, and last, but not least (because he would insist on this), the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization. He sat on numerous editorial boards, chaired more searches for faculty and for editors of the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review (AHR) than even he could recall, and he wrote hundreds of letters of recommendation and evaluations for tenure and promotion. If you needed something done and done well, with integrity, creativity, and good judgment, who you gonna call? Roy, of course. That was his blessing and, on occasion, his curse.

While there is no precise way to measure this, I would venture to say that Roy was probably the best collaborator of my generation of historians. Early on in his career he began to ask: if he could write a book or produce a public history project by working with someone else, why do it solo? If he could share a hotel room at an AHA convention with a friend, why get his own room even if his university was footing the bill? And most un-American of all, if he could find someone to share his car with him on his daily 20 minute commute from Arlington to the George Mason campus, why drive that distance alone?

Now, collaboration with Roy, especially in his car, did carry risks. I still remember the hair-raising tales that David Jaffee, another graduate student buddy of ours, used to tell me about driving with Roy in Roy’s car from Cambridge to Worcester in the 1970s. You see, Roy back then had a reputation for not sleeping at night. This created a certain problem if Roy and David were driving out to Worcester after one of these nights, as they often did. Once in the car, David would ask himself: Was Roy actually asleep behind the wheel? Or did he only look as though he had closed his eyes and was driving off the road? David was never quite sure. And then last month, at the first memorial for Roy at George Mason University in Arlington, another of Roy’s car collaborators, Michael O’Malley, told an equally hair-raising tale about Roy’s car habits, this one from the last few years. Here the issue was not sleep, for Roy was wide awake. But apparently he sometimes used his time in the car with Mike not only to drive and to talk but to shave. Yes, to shave. One hand on the shaver, the other hand on the wheel. Oh my goodness.

Roy’s hunger for collaboration reflected in part Roy’s love of people. He loved to be with them, loved working with them, learning from them and about them. His curiosity about people was bottomless. He delighted in putting people in touch with each other. He was a master networker, a maestro of the annual meeting of the AHA, not because he saw it as an avenue of self promotion but because he so enjoyed being in the mix and wanted to maximize his opportunities to learn from others about all manner of things, large and small.

But there was more than love of people, love of networking, and love of knowledge at work here. There were a set of political ideals to which Roy had dedicated his life, and from which he never waivered. In their broadest form, these were the ideals of the Left. From the Old Left, he took a passion for equality and an opposition to elitism in any form—social, corporate, academic. From the New Left, he acquired a passion for democracy, for diversity, for openness and transparency, and for ordinary people taking charge of their own lives and their own history. The term socialist may not sit comfortably on Roy’s shoulders, but the term radical democrat suits him quite well.

We can find Roy’s commitment to radical democracy everywhere in his intellectual and pedagogical work: in his early essays on unemployment politics in England and America; in his books on the efforts of common people to control their own parks, recreation, and lives; in his determination to bring the finest fruits of historical scholarship to the attention of broader publics through museums, schools, CDs, and the web; in his commitment to involving those same publics in the making of their own history.

Radical democracy is what fired Roy’s passion for and deep commitment to digital history. Roy discerned in the Internet an extraordinary moment in the history of democracy. He dreamed about creating a series of globally interconnected digital databases about history, politics, and society that would put more information in the hands of more people than had ever been the case in human history. He wanted so much to seize this democratic moment, and to use it to strike a blow for democratic empowerment. He was not blind to the challenges of this moment. He understood well the dark, demagogic side of populism and how it could and did flourish on the web. He worried about the efforts of corporations and guilds to end open-sourcing and impose “gated communities” on the landscape of internet knowledge. So he became the implacable foe of these corporations and guilds, of Bill Gates, Google, and Bell and Howell, and of our very own AHA. Yes, Roy led the fight to make all the articles in the AHR universally accessible on the web, available to all users whether or not they had paid a subscription fee. In this small struggle he emerged victorious. The larger struggle, or course, has yet to be won. In that regard, we must acknowledge that we have not only lost a friend. Democracy has lost a believer and a fighter.

Roy would not want us to mourn his passing too much. He was not a sentimental man. Far more important to him would be the willingness of other people to step forward to take his place and to stay the course.

In preparing these remarks, I have found comfort and inspiration in the words of another believer in and fighter for radical democracy, Irving Howe. In 1966, Howe published a volume of essays entitled, Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism. Here is the epigraph with which Howe began the book. I think Roy would have enjoyed having himself associated with it. Indeed the reading of these words has helped me to see again the glint in Roy’s eyes and to hear again his soft chuckle. The epigraph:

Once in Chelm, the mythical village of the East European Jews, a man was appointed to sit at the village gate and wait for the coming of the Messiah. He complained to the village elders that his pay was too low. “You are right,” they said to him, “the pay is low. But consider: the work is steady."

Actually, Roy once delivered the same message but in his own ironic way. I am referring to the slogan that he and Jean Agnew put on matchbooks and t-shirts against a caricature of Karl Marx in the background. Roy and Jean’s slogan read: “Earn Big Money. Become a Historian.”

Roy, we miss you.

Related Links

  • In Memory of Roy Rosenzweig (1950-2007)