In Conversation with Historian Thomas D. Clark

David Hamilton, February 2004

Thomas ClarkEditor's Note: Thomas D. Clark, who was honored at the 118th annual meeting of the AHA by the conferral of the Award for Scholarly Distinction, is distinguished not just for his scholarship. Born in 1903, Clark is perhaps the oldest member of the AHA and probably also holds the record for being the member with the longest standing. For his many years of public service and teaching, the Kentucky state legislature named Clark Historian Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1991. As part of the occasional series that was recently launched, we bring you an edited transcript of a conversation—that had been specially arranged for Perspectives—between David Hamilton, professor of history at the University of Kentucky, and Thomas Clark.

David Hamilton: You were born in Mississippi on July 14, 1903. Can you describe your early education?

Thomas Clark: My mother was a teacher, and I suppose I learned to read and sign my name at my mother's knee. I went to a very ordinary school taught by a man in the neighborhood until about the 2nd or 3rd grade. And then I went to about the 7th grade in my mother's school. I left school about the 7th grade. On my 16th birthday I went aboard a dredge boat. I spent two years on that boat digging mud and water and grease. Roaring engines all around me. I just suddenly realized that was a dead-end way of life.

Hamilton: Then what?

Clark: I left the boat in September 1920. Without a job. Without a future, really. I accidentally met a boy who told me about an agricultural high school [Choctaw County Agricultural High School]. I went down and within 10 minutes of getting off the train I'd registered. The old superintendent didn't ask me one thing about my education. He didn't know if I could read or write. Said you look like a big stout boy. You look like you'd make a good football player. So I was admitted as a football player. I went to that school for four years [and obtained] reasonably basic preparation.

Hamilton: What about college?

Clark: I arrived at the University of Mississippi in September of 1925. I discovered that there were a lot of things in my educational background that needed correcting. One of them was the English language. I fell into the hands of a hard driving freshman English professor. I took four of his courses. His name was Hudson. A. P. Hudson; and he . . . required students to write a paragraph everyday on something. And I did. I did it religiously. And I discovered that I liked it. Then I met a man who was to have a real impact on me and remained a lifelong friend. Charles S. Sydnor. I never had any courses under him but I had the best course of all. I used to talk with him. Long conversations. And throughout our lives we had a father-son relationship.

Hamilton: You were born on July 14th. How old were you when you realized that this a historically significant date?

Clark: Not until I got to Ole Miss. All I knew [until then] was that that was about the time watermelons got ripe.

Hamilton: How were you able to afford college?

Clark: I had no money when I graduated from high school. Absolutely no money. My father allowed me to take 10 acres of the best land on the farm. In April, late April—that's late to plant cotton—I got a cotton crop in the ground and fertilized it, lived with it night and day. I produced a good crop of cotton, which gave me a basic financial support to go to Ole Miss; but I didn't have enough money to see me through. [So I] made application to keep up a golf course. For three years I kept up the course. [William] Faulkner played on the course and he also worked with me on the course to keep it up and for three years, in and out, Faulkner was out there with me.

Hamilton: Did you discuss writing with him?

Clark: No. I didn't know he was writing. He'd just been fired from the post office. He would disappear. What I didn't know then [is that] he'd go down to New Orleans, you know, for those stays with that literary group down there and [then] he'd come back. He was writing. . . . When I got to Duke, I saw a copy of Scribner's or the Atlantic Monthly or some literary magazine on a table. I turned it over and there was Bill Faulkner's picture on the back and I thought "Good God!" There was Bill Faulkner staring at me (laughs). That's the first I knew that Bill had arrived. (laughs again) That's the first Bill knew he had arrived.

Hamilton: You took an MA degree at Kentucky.

Clark: [At Kentucky] I got an introduction to the profession. I went to the American Historical Association meeting in Indianapolis [December 1928] and it was a cardinal meeting. Two things happened. I didn't have sense to realize either one of them fully. The major program was centered on Ulrich Phillips and his article in the AHR ["Slavery: The Central Theme of Southern History," American Historical Review 34 (October 1929)] I sat as close to him as we're sitting now. And then I sat down and talked to him a long time [afterwards]. Can you imagine a greenhorn graduate student coming up with a man who was to be such a name? The other thing was I heard James Breasted deliver his famous presidential address ["The New Crusade," American Historical Review 34 (January 1929)]. . . . I came home thoroughly convinced I wanted to be a historian.

Hamilton: You took a doctorate at Duke. I understand your initial train ride to Durham was an eventful one?

Clark: Yes, a historic moment. I took the old southern train from Meridian, Mississippi. Rode it up to Atlanta and Spartanburg and up to Gastonia. And there was a tremendous mob of people around the station [at Gastonia]. The train was stopped. We sat, as I recall, almost an hour. That was the strike. That was the beginning of the breaking of the old feudal system of textile labor relations. That was an historic moment in the South. And I was there. Right in the middle of it without knowing what it was all about.

That December the AHA met in Durham and I went. Duke used its graduate students as guides and so forth. I took E. Morton Coulter of Georgia, John Oliver of Pittsburg, and Professor Lynch of Indiana out to see the new campus rising out of the ground and they became lifelong friends of mine. I heard James Harvey Robinson deliver his presidential address ["The Newer Ways of Historians," American Historical Association 35 (January 1930)]. I came up close to the Association . . . [for] the second time, which had an impact on me.

Hamilton: It was unusual, was it not, for graduate students to go to these meetings?

Clark: It was. It was. And I became a member of the American Historical Association. I'm not certain of the precise year but from 1929 I attended pretty regularly the meetings of the Association. And I am a life member of the Association. An emeritus member of the Association, I guess you could call me—of all the associations.

Hamilton: As a student in high school or college, what were you reading and what did you find most interesting?

Clark: In high school, I read Twain's books. I was especially interested in those. I read some general history. When I went to the University of Mississippi, one book that made a special impression on me was Leaves of Grass. I read some general histories. I read John Spencer Bassett's A Short History of the United States. The joke was, you know, it was a very thick book. Students were always scoffing at the "short" in the title. I read in the field of English history and English literature. I read all of [Spenser's] Faerie Queen and that's some reading for an undergraduate student. I took a course in Ibsen. I took a course that stimulated my interest in local history—a course in folklore.

Hamilton: You were hired at Kentucky as both a member of the history department and with assignment to build the library's manuscript collections. How many courses did you teach when you returned?

Clark: Five courses—all in British History.

Hamilton: Eventually, you became head of the department and served as head for 23 years.

Clark: Too long. Too long. I was on leave doing research when they made me head.

Hamilton: Why did you stay on for so long?

Clark: Because my pride was hurt. When we went out to meetings this department had no representation and no standing really and that hurt my pride terribly. And then I suffered some battering in overloading and I fought to build a respectable department and I think we did have a good department.

Hamilton: How did you find time to do the research and writing that you did?

Clark: I worked at nights. Not many of those nights did I go to bed before midnight. I was up early the next morning attending to my university responsibilities.

Hamilton: Did you try to keep a regular schedule?

Clark: I did. I never could have done it if I hadn't kept a regular schedule. In 1942 when I became head of the department, I dropped the teaching load down to three courses [a semester].

Hamilton: You were head of the department and taught three courses a semester?

Clark: That's right. [Being chair] made very little difference in my time or my salary.

Hamilton: All of your career, you have been active in building library and archival collections—here at the University of Kentucky and also throughout the state. Why this passion?

Clark: I sometimes asked myself that question. If I'd spent the time writing, I don't know that I would have been any more productive. Wouldn't have been as productive, maybe. It gets in your blood. Just the challenge. In the last two months, I've had the thrill of my entire career, the biggest thrill. I landed the Calk Family Papers. I got it in [the Kentucky History Center]; after 70 years of dealing with that, I finally got it.

Hamilton: You were also instrumental in saving state records and urging the organization of the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives.

Clark: What happened there was when Happy [Governor Albert "Happy" Chandler] came into office the state records were in horrible condition. Piled up in windrows in the basement of the Capitol. Happy ordered these greenhorns to clean up the state capitol. They sold the records for scrap paper. Two truckloads had gone to Louisville. J. W. Martin [a Chandler aide] called me in the night and said, "Don't take time to dress. Just go as you are." And, well, [I said] "I can't go to Frankfort in my pajamas." We got down there and there were two trucks loaded, ready to go to Louisville. Well, I stayed by the trucks and J.W. went over and got Happy out of bed. Happy realized what was happening and he ordered them to unload the two trucks and to bring back the other two. We brought them over to the University and kept them for several years. We saved the state records.

Hamilton: You have always lectured throughout the state and still do. Why have you done so much of this?

Clark: David, I go to bed at night wondering if I'm a sane man (laughs). First place, if you were collecting material, you might get leads that way, and I did. Second thing, I was teaching the state history and that got me into it, and once you get on that slide there's no end to it. And then there are the old students out there—can't turn them down very well. I have one speech tomorrow, and I believe that's it. I can't stand up through a speech any more. My knees hurt. I'm afraid I'll fall down.

[Note: Dr. Clark has not stopped lecturing or making public appearances.]

Hamilton: More than any historian I know, you have always been—and are—involved in public issues and public debates such as improving K–12 education or urging Lexington to buy its local water company.

Clark: One big fight I got in—I was actually president of the group—was to revise the state constitution. And I got into one hell of a spat with the superintendent of schools and the dean of the College of Education. I got called before a legislative committee on the teaching of history. I told them it was horrible. . . . I spoke my mind. I've been foolhardy, maybe, but I've never been afraid to say what I thought and then to fight . . . afterwards. I spoke my mind on the low quality of training students had when they came to us and the teachers went back with poor training. The education college required one course, that Western civilization course, which would supposedly equip them to teach. Well they went out to teach everything but that. You didn't have television in those days but you did have radio. The radio crackled with vitriol. . . . But that didn't bother me. I was ready to stand my ground.

Hamilton: Do you think this is a problem with the profession? Should more historians be involved with public issues?

Clark: Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir. Why be a historian? I've asked myself that question over and over. First of all, a good historian will know something about his factual background. To that extent, I think I follow the von Ranke theory and the Herbert Baxter Adams theory. The second I think is that not all historians can write with grace but historians should write something [that] the public can read and understand. And then I think a historian is duty-bound to play an active part in his institution and the associations. And I also feel that way about the public, being out in the public. Presenting history, on one side, and protecting its ramparts on the other side and I'm thoroughly committed to this. But after all is said and done, a good historian never slights the classroom. That comes first. If he is a teaching historian.

Hamilton: You found the teaching of the history of the United States and the history of Kentucky gratifying?

Clark: Indeed. Since I was collecting [folklore] and becoming deeply involved in Kentucky history, I took that course over [History of Kentucky] and kept it throughout my whole career. I've never been sorry that I did. It would be a rare, rare thing that I don't go out anywhere, I don't recall such a case, that I don't have old students come up and greet me and maybe that's an ego ride. I hope not. But it's so satisfying.

On the teaching of history, I had moments in the classroom wondering what I was doing. I think I can say I never lost the zeal for teaching, but I wondered how much impact I was having on students sitting out before me. I think I can answer that in a partial way. I used to tell students, always, that you're young; you're not focused right now on the past. Your eyes are on the future, but as you grow older, this will come to have more meaning and now I see hundreds of old students who express their appreciation for their growing interest in history. I can say this: I had a genuine heartfelt commitment to the classroom and I loved the classroom. I loved the give and take of students.

Hamilton: Do you recall when you first met C. Vann Woodward?

Clark: Yes, I do. Vann was a graduate student at the UNC working on Tom Watson and he turned up at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Later on he went as an instructor to the University of Florida. Next thing I knew about Vann he published that Watson book which made him some reputation. Still does. But then he made the big contribution in the Origin of the New South in that series. Vann was a very interesting personality. He could be the most hapless creature in many respects you ever met. But he had a masterful style and was a thoroughly—thoroughly—devoted historian. No question about that. And with style and with a high degree of courage.

Hamilton: In addition to writing and teaching, building the department and libraries and archives, you have been actively involved in several professional associations.

Clark: I've been involved with the AHA longest of all. I was most heavily involved with the Organization of American Historians, which began as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. I served on nearly all of its committees plus its executive committee for six years. I was also president. Then I was chairman of the special committee, you know, of the reorganization. I'm especially proud of two accomplishments. One was my work to effect the change of the name of the journal to the Journal of American History. We were having trouble with the libraries and with the old Mississippi Valley Historical Review being too local. I got the name changed without any fur being knocked off. The second was building its national headquarters at 112 North Bryan Street [at Indiana University].

The professional associations have gone on beyond anything I could have imagined, really, when I was neck deep in their affairs. The associations have grown considerably—in strength, in coverage, in every aspect of the profession except [they] never really improved reaching out to the seed crop of history— to the public schools, to teachers in general; I see in the journals [and newsletters] that they're still wrestling with that problem.

Hamilton: Is there a book you wanted to write and haven't?

Clark: Yes, I've always wanted to write a biography, and I still toy with the idea, a biography of George Prentice, who had a real voice in the American newspaper press in the first half of the 19th century. That's one I'd like to write. I would like to write—I think right now I'm not up to doing the research, the travel research—but I would like to write on the changed South since Brown v. the Board of Education. By that I mean it would be very interesting to follow up my Emerging South to see what has happened in the region.

And I think I would love to go back and start from square one with my History of Kentucky.

Hamilton: What are you reading now?

Clark: This new book on [Samuel] Pepys's diary, which I find exciting. And I'm reading some biographies of Franklin. Ed Morgan's and the more recent one [by Walter Isaacson]. I found the book on Lewis and Clark by Ambrose exciting. It is dramatically written. I had read the [Lewis and Clark] journals from cover to cover and [Bernard] de Voto's Across the Wide Missouri but Ambrose pretty well drew it all together. I read as much as I have time to read. I see so many books that I'd like to read that I don't have time to read.

I read the journals when they come out. I don't read all the articles, but I read selectively [in the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and the Journal of Southern History].

Hamilton: How much of your day is spent at a typewriter now?

Clark: Oh, not as much as I want to spend right now. But I spend some—not every day—but I spend parts of many days at the typewriter. Sometimes long stretches of time.

Hamilton: Do you ever regret not having learned to use a personal computer?

Clark: No! I use an L.C. Smith and a Remington. I alternate between the two. A lot of people joke about my using a [manual] typewriter but I'm simpatico with it. I have a rather heavy touch and the typewriter just comes natural to me. And [laughs] at my age I don't see any real reason for change.

Hamilton: What would you advise a graduate student today?

Clark: Get busy and don't drag around until you wear yourself out. Get it over with. Get through your courses. Get through your examinations. Write your dissertation. Get out and become a historian on your own.

—David Hamilton is the chair of the Department of History at the University of Kentucky.