Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., AHA President in 1992, Dies at Age 68
Frederic Evans Wakeman Jr., eminent historian of China who served as president of the American Historical Association in 1992, died of cancer on September 14, 2006, at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, at the age of 68.
Born on December 12, 1937, in Kansas City, Wakeman received a polyglot early education in a variety of schools in different continents, from New York to Bermuda and Cuba to France, thanks to his peripatetic father, a well-known novelist who loved traveling. As he describes it in his presidential address, “Voyages,” delivered on December 28, 1992, at the Washington, D.C., annual meeting of the AHA, he was even taken out of school once just so that he could accompany the family as it retraced—on the family’s ketch, Chalene—the second voyage of Columbus.
Wakeman received his BA in 1959 from Harvard University and turned, while at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris, from his early interest in European history and literature to a new love, the history of China. He went on to receive a PhD in Chinese history from the University of California at Berkeley, where he started to teach in 1965. As if to make up for his multilocal childhood, Wakeman remained at Berkeley for his entire career; even when he served as president of the Social Science Research Council in New York from 1986 to 1989, he continued to fly in to advise graduate students at Berkeley.
Wakeman became a full professor in 1971, and was the Walter and Elise Haas Professor of Asian Studies when he retired.
Wakeman’s several books (see a select bibliography) are considered among the most influential that have been written about Chinese history, and also the most readable, a quality not surprising in a scholar who limned his narratives with a novelist’s sensitivity to detail and lucidity. In an e-mail message, Prasenjit Duara, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago and a historian of China, calls attention to Wakeman’s capacity to evoke a world in the telling detail of his books. “Wakeman’s oeuvre is by any standard a formidable one,” Duara writes, and adds:
It not only has breadth and depth; it is driven by a passion for the historical moment—a passion that is rare to find today. Wakeman was no stranger to analysis and argument and was equally formidable when he turned in that direction. But his works can be read with as much pleasure for their footnotes as for the text. Let me cite one example from his magisterial two-volume work, The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China. Wakeman describes—in a footnote—Li Zicheng, the contender for the Ming throne who was later celebrated as a man of the people:
“Li Zicheng was not personally majestic, nor did he enjoy the rituals of kingship. . . .When the time came (he) rushed abruptly through the ceremonies, prostrating himself and getting up at the wrong time. The libationer told the ‘dashing prince’ that he would have to take his timing from the rhythm of the ritual itself and deliberately slowed the pace of the ceremony while drilling Li Zicheng. . . .The ceremonies were never held and in the literati’s eyes Li remained ‘a monkey washed and dressed up [like a man]’.”
Yale University’s Jonathan Spence (AHA’s president in 2004) also found Wakeman’s rich and detailed narrative style enchanting. As he told UC Berkeley News, Wakeman “was a total story-teller,” who was “quite simply the best modern Chinese historian of the last 30 years.”
A detailed “In Memoriam” essay about Frederic Wakeman Jr., written by Joseph Esherick, will appear in the November 2006 issue of Perspectives.
© American Historical AssociationLast Updated: February 26, 2008 2:04 PM