Ken Cmiel (1954-2006)

John Peters, Colin Gordon, and Shel Stromquist, March 2006

Ken CmielKen Cmiel, a leading scholar of modern cultural and intellectual history, died suddenly on February 4, 2006, in Iowa City, from a previously undetected brain tumor. A professor of history at the University of Iowa, and director of the university's Center for Human Rights, he was 51. As a scholar and a colleague, Ken Cmiel's sound judgment, imagination, and personal touch made him indispensable to any community of which he was a part. He knew the meaning of friendship as well as anyone who ever lived. His family, friends, and colleagues will miss him beyond measure.

Ken Cmiel was a brilliant scholar whose capacious interests ranged from pop music to global human rights, but without pretense or posture. And Cmiel was smart about so many things, able to move from Metternich to Eminem in a single conversation and make sense of it all. The author of two books and scores of articles and essays (interpreting intellectual debates in many fields), he made major contributions to understanding the moral and political contradictions of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was particularly fond of the review essay as an artful form of close intellectual engagement, and he elevated it to a high plane. His distinctive voice—direct, plain-spoken, warm, jargon-free—embodied the "democratic eloquence" about which he wrote.

His first book, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth Century America (1990), showed how democratization changed the ways people talked—and thought about talking—in 19th-century America. The new forms of public address—vulgar rather than ornate, personal rather than formal—marked the beginnings of the loud, vibrant, and often crass media culture that has since triumphed in the United States and elsewhere. Unlike others, Cmiel found in this development something neither to denounce nor celebrate. While no fan of pandering or commercialism, he believed that democracy's appreciation for common things promised, potentially, to "call us back to our best possibilities as human beings and citizens." A "learned, imaginative, and very important work of cultural history," as one review noted, "the most sophisticated and most revealing exploration yet into the complex and tangled relations of 'high' and ‘low' culture in the United States." His continuing interest in the history of public communication also bore fruit in path breaking essays on the fate of image and information in the 20th century.

His second book, A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare (1995) was a "militantly minimalist" shot across the bow of the scholarship on the welfare state; an incisive and heartbreaking examination of social policy as it played out in one institution. From Victorian "child-saving" to late 20th-century welfare policy, Ken Cmiel showed in concrete detail how interests and institutions entangled people who set out to change the world. It was an ultimately bittersweet story about what can happen, for good and ill, to the best intentions. The book's appearance, coincidentally, in the middle of a Newt Gingrich-inspired revival of interest in the "orphanage" gave the work an important, if somewhat ambiguous, place in kind of civic debate which he both valued and found amusing.

More recently, Cmiel had turned to the global idea of human rights—an intellectually and geographically expansive project that, though now tragically unfinished, has nevertheless made an important impact. This work marked an international turn in his scholarship and sharpened his long-standing interest in making the modern world more just and humane. He told again of activists and advocates building institutions whose idealism led both to real gains and spectacular disappointments. In conflicts about drafting the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he revealed the seeds of contemporary global tensions and ongoing debates about the substance and meaning of human rights. These studies also pioneer new methods for moving the craft of history beyond its traditional focus on the nation to the global setting. He brought to this work the same sophisticated interest in language and communication that threads its way through virtually all of his scholarship.

Ken Cmiel was, in the fullest sense of each word, a scholar and a citizen. As eirector of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, he provided inspired leadership to a nationally-recognized institution through his own particular talent for integrating the work of human rights activists and scholars. His leadership and his scholarship underscored a determination to understand the world around him, and to change it for better.

As a friend and colleague, Ken Cmiel was a man of unbridled generosity and extraordinary humility. Always alert to folly and blindness in human beings but never unkind, his work sought to humanize us by puncturing our pride and lust for utopia. His tragicomic vision shone through in his writing, his teaching, and his conversation. Behind his Cheshire-cat grin lay both a boundless enthusiasm for the human elements of academic life, and a deep cynicism for the "chore of professional posturing." When asked to respond to a "state of the profession" survey by the Journal of American History in 1994, Ken cut right through all the hand wringing about professional drift or fragmentation and offered instead this coda:

Teach classes that are meaningful to you and that engage that portion of your students that are reachable. Ignore, in other words, the very idea of professional wisdom. Only write what you want to write. Once you have job security (which I know is a huge barrier) don't write if you don't want to. Write for media directed at non-historians, whether that be the local newspaper or fancy national magazines. Write for other academic disciplines. Explore other media than the printed word. Ignoring what the profession rewards might very well be a mark of sanity at the close of the 20th century."

True to character, he listed no publications or professional identification in the accompanying author's note—which simply read: "Ken Cmiel lives in Iowa City." He did, and in our hearts he still does.

Ken is survived by his wife Anne Duggan, and their children Willa, Cordelia, and Noah. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to a charity of choice or to a memorial fund for Ken's children: Cmiel Children Memorial Fund, UI Community Credit Union, P.O. Box 2240, Iowa City, IA 52244-2244.

—John Peters
—Colin Gordon
—Shel Stromquist
University of Iowa