In Memoriam: John A. Garraty

Mark C. Carnes, May 2008

AHA vice president and editor of American National Biography; presided over the Society of American Historians

John A. Garraty, Gouverneur Morris Professor emeritus at Columbia University, died on December 19, 2007, of heart failure at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. He was born in Brooklyn on July 4, 1920. After earning his BA from Brooklyn College in 1941, he served as an instructor in the Merchant Marine during World War II. After the war he studied at Columbia University, receiving his PhD in 1948. His dissertation on Silas Wright, governor of New York in the 1840s, was published in 1949. That same year he began teaching at Michigan State University. In 1959 he returned to Columbia, where he remained for four decades, chairing the department during part of the 1970s. From 1969 to 1971, he served as president of the Society of American Historians. He was vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division 1983–85.

In an era of increased specialization within the historical profession, Jack Garraty moved in the opposite direction. In The Nature of Biography (1957), he called on historians to make use of psychoanalytical insights, an early call for interdisciplinary work. After writing biographies of political figures of the Progressive Era—George Perkins, Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, among others—he undertook major works of synthesis, including The New Commonwealth, 1877–1890 (1968), a balanced treatment of what had long been caricatured as the Gilded Age, and The American Nation (1966), an influential college text. (The 13th edition was published in early 2008.)

His Unemployment in History (1979) surveyed economic thought from the ancient Greeks to the aging Greenspan. The Great Depression (1987) showed how similarly (and ineffectually) governments throughout the world responded to the calamity. Especially controversial was his assertion that Roosevelt's depression policies resembled those of the Nazis: "Roosevelt and Hitler, the one essentially benign, the other malevolent, justified far-reaching constitutional changes as being necessary for the improvement of economic institutions in a grave emergency" (p. 207), Garraty wrote.

Garraty's increasingly synthetic approach to history was reflected in his editorship of Supplements 4 through 8 of the Dictionary of American Biography, covering the years from 1946 through 1970. By the 1980s, however, Garraty regarded the original volumes of the DAB as irreparably outdated. He then campaigned for a new biographical foundation for the nation. In 1999 his goal was realized in the American National Biography, a 25-million-word collection of 17,500 scholarly essays published under his general editorship by the American Council of Learned Societies and Oxford University Press. "Not since putting a man on the Moon," declared the Times of London, "has an American organisation undertaken such an ambitious logistical project" (April 8, 1999). The ANB won numerous awards, including the Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association.

Garraty's expansive approach to history was reflected in his own life. In his late 50s, he took up distance running. While in his 60s he completed six marathons, mostly in New York but also in Paris. He also loved music, especially Mozart, but in art he favored modernists, collecting paintings by Jean DuBuffet, Georges Rauault, and Robert Indiana, and sculpture by Alexander Calder and Fernand Leger.

Never doctrinaire, Garraty specialized in teaching the craft of history, especially the concise style that characterized his own writing. He viewed adjectives with skepticism and adverbs with contempt. He slashed so much verbiage that he regarded himself as an environmentalist. He especially scorned the encomia that so often surfaced in biographical writing—and in the obituaries on which biographers relied. "Don't put labels on people," he declared. "Tell the reader what they did."

With his first wife, Joan Perkins, he had three children: Katherine (deceased), Sarah Kerr Garraty of Concord, Massachusetts, and John A. Garraty Jr. of New York City. They divorced in 1964. In 1965 he married Gail Neilson, who died in 1992. In 1995 he married Rita Angelo, who died in 2001. His son and daughter, Sarah, survive him.

—Mark C. Carnes
Barnard College/Columbia University