Michael Kammen, Pulitzer-winning historian, dies at 77

December 4, 2013

Michael Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Cornell University whose many books explored the Constitution, the concept of American identity and sweeping views of cultural and social history, died Nov. 29 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 77.

His death was announced by Cornell, where he had taught since 1965. His family declined to provide the cause of death, saying he had been in “poor health for several years.”

One of the most prolific and distinguished historians of his time, Dr. Kammen wrote or edited more than 25 books. He began as a scholar of the Colonial period and later branched out to publish incisive studies of American art and popular culture.

He was known for his thorough research, his stylish writing and his oft-stated belief that, after more than two centuries, the Revolution remained the essential formative event in American life.

“He was an extraordinary scholar and one of the most wide-ranging historians I’ve ever known,” Gordon S. Wood, a professor at Brown University and a former graduate-school classmate of Dr. Kammen’s, wrote in an e-mail.


Michael Kammen, Cornell University historian, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and was the author and editor of more than 25 books on American history and culture. (Robert Barker/Cornell University)

Dr. Kammen won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1973 with “People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.” In that book, he identified a fundamental and volatile duality that had defined the American character throughout history: “the innocence as well as the evil in our natures.”

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, historian Marcus Cunliffe said that “others before him have been struck by oppositions and doublenesses in American behavior,” but Dr. Kammen had “taken the idea further than anyone else . . . shown more intellectual curiosity, and written with greater gusto.”

Another of Dr. Kammen’s important works, “A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture” (1986), won the prestigious Francis Parkman and Henry Adams prizes.

In that book, Dr. Kammen described how the Constitution had been both revered and misunderstood by generations of Americans, who “have taken too much pride and proportionately too little interest in their frame of government.”

He showed that ignorance of history and the nation’s federal structure was hardly a recent phenomenon. He cited an opinion poll from World War II showing that 60 percent of Americans could not identify the Bill of Rights. In 1975, a quarter of the American people did not know what key historical event occurred in 1776.

“He explodes the notion of an unchanging, always venerated Constitution,” historian Stanley N. Katz wrote in The Washington Post in 1986, “in a series of intriguingly detailed revelations of the historical ways in which Americans have perceived constitutionalism.”

At Cornell, Dr. Kammen taught generations of students and served as head of the history department. He received many prestigious fellowships, was a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and was president of the Organization of American Historians in 1995-96. During the Bicentennial, he took part in a year-long NPR series about the history of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Still, he was under no illusions about how history was portrayed and understood by the general public.

“Not enough people pay attention to scholarly history,” he wrote in “Mystic Chords of Memory” (1991). “They never did, and I don’t believe they ever will.”

Michael Gedaliah Kammen was born Oct. 25, 1936, in Rochester, N.Y., and grew up in Washington. His father was a social worker and a small-business owner.

Dr. Kammen graduated from Coolidge High School and, in 1958, from George Washington University. At Harvard University, he studied under renowned historian Bernard Bailyn, and in 1964, he received a doctorate in history. He joined the Cornell faculty a year later.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, historian Carol Koyen Kammen of Ithaca; two sons, Daniel Kammen of Berkeley, Calif., and Douglas Kammen of Singapore; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Dr. Kammen published his first book, “A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution,” in 1968. In later years, he turned to the 20th century in books about literary critic and editor Gilbert Seldes and artists Andrew Wyeth and Robert Gwathmey.

In “Visual Shock” (2006), Dr. Kammen explored the nation’s history of disputes over works of art, saying freedom of expression had long been in conflict with tradition and taste.

In one of his final books, “Digging Up the Dead” (2010), Dr. Kammen described the peculiar tendency to exhume famous Americans — including outlaw Jesse James, author Edgar Allan Poe and architect Frank Lloyd Wright — and bury them elsewhere.

In history as in life, Dr. Kammen knew, reality is often trumped by perception. Even historians, he wrote, often disagree and view the past through prisms of their own creation.

“What people believe to be true about their past,” Dr. Kammen wrote in 1991, “is usually more important . . . than truth itself.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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