William H. Goetzmann, 80

Pulitzer-winning historian William Goetzmann dies at 80

William H. Goetzmann
William H. Goetzmann (Courtesy Of Family - Courtesy Of Family)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, September 17, 2010

William H. Goetzmann, 80, who turned his Yale doctoral thesis into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that revolutionized the way historians viewed American exploration of the Western territories, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 7 at his home in Austin.

A history professor at the University of Texas for more than 40 years, Dr. Goetzmann said legends about six-shootin' outlaws, pan-handlin' prospectors and eagle-feathered Indian chieftains helped forge the West into America's "central national myth."

He wrote and edited more than two dozen history books, including his Pulitzer-winning "Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West" (1966).

In that book, Dr. Goetzmann used scores of diaries, official reports and scholarly studies to examine more than 100 journeys into America's interior during the 19th century. He concluded that contrary to popular conception, many of these expeditions were not haphazard or random sojourns but rather "programmed" and systematic explorations with scientific and economic objectives, including studies of the local geology, topography, botany and zoology.

As essayist William Kittredge wrote in a review, Dr. Goetzmann revealed that the West was "vastly more than a staging ground for the endless series of gunfights delineated in popular mythology."

For instance, Dr. Goetzmann wrote that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were under strict instructions not only to map transportation routes and trapping grounds, but also to note available natural resources and Indian communities that could be affected by future settlements.

"He knew how to animate historical scenes on the page, how to breathe life into the characters whose places in history he meticulously researched," Dr. Goetzmann's University of Texas colleague, Kay Sloan, told the Austin American-Statesman.

In a New York Times review of the book, historian David Lavender said Dr. Goetzmann had "achieved a feat of historical discovery as notable in its own way as were some of the physical excursions into the west that he describes so well."

William Harry Goetzmann was born July 20, 1930, in Washington. He grew up in St. Paul, Minn., where his family rented an apartment where bank robber John Dillinger once lived. Dr. Goetzmann said the enamel in the bathtub was eaten away in the spot where Dillinger and his gang poured acid over their fingertips to keep from being identified by their fingerprints.

He received a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1952 and a doctorate in 1957. He taught at Yale before joining the University of Texas faculty.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Mewes Mueller Goetzmann of Austin; three children, William N. Goetzmann of New Haven, Anne Goetzmann Kelley of Austin, and Stephen Goetzmann of Dallas; and five grandchildren.

According to Mewes Goetzmann, publisher Alfred Knopf was impressed by her husband's first book, "Army Exploration in the American West: 1803-1863" (1959).

Knopf traveled to Yale, where he took Dr. Goetzmann out to dinner to talk about publishing a second history text on Western exploration, a subject the professor had studied at length for his doctorate. The ensuing book became "Exploration and Empire."

At the University of Texas, Dr. Goetzmann helped recruit the first two black professors to the college of arts and sciences and start the first classes in women's studies and Hispanic American studies. He directed the American studies program from 1964 to 1980 and retired in 2005.

In 1986, Dr. Goetzmann helped create the PBS documentary "The West of the Imagination." A book of the same title, co-written with his son William, was published that year.

Another book on exploration, "New Lands, New Men" was published in 1987. His last title, "Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism," was released in 2009.

During his postgraduate years in New Haven, Dr. Goetzmann befriended classmate Tom Wolfe, who became a bestselling author. In an interview this week, Wolfe recalled how he and Dr. Goetzmann decided to spice up the social life for the doctoral students by organizing a "first annual" gin and jinrikisha race. As part of the event, the 20-somethings had to jury-rig their rickshaws for the competition.

Wolfe said that the race was a success among the competitors but that nobody was sober enough to determine whose rickshaw team crossed the finish line first. There never was a second annual race.

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