In Memoriam: Bernard Semmel

Mrinalini Sinha, November 2009

Expert in British and British imperial history

Bernard Semmel of Stony Brook, New York, passed away on August 18, 2008. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for some years before his death.

Semmel was born on July 23, 1928. He earned his BA (magna cum laude) from the College of the City of New York in 1947 and an MA (1951) and a PhD (1955) in history from Columbia University. He began his teaching career in 1956 in the history department at Park College in Parkville, Missouri. From 1959 to 1960, he attended the London School of Economics, where he studied with Lord Robbins on aspects of 19th-century British economic history. He came to the history department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1960 where he spent the bulk of his career, including a stint chairing the department from 1966 to 1969. On retirement from Stony Brook, he served as distinguished professor of history from 1991 to 1996 at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York. He received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation (1959–60), the American Council of Learned Societies (1964–65), the Guggenheim Foundation (1967–68, 1974–75), and the National Humanities Center (1986–87). He was the editor of the Journal of British Studies (1969–74), a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a member of the Council of the American Historical Association (Professional Division, 1984–86), and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and the Cosmos Club.

Semmel made signal contributions to the study of both British history and British imperial history. His doctoral thesis, which was published in 1960 as Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895–1914, was a pathbreaking study that continues to be a classic on the importance of British imperialism for British society. He went on to author a number of other equally pioneering studies, including Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience: The Governor Eyre Controversy (1962); The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism: Classical Political Economy, the Empire of Free Trade and Imperialism, 1750–1850 (1970); The Methodist Revolution (1973); Marxism and the Science of War (1981); John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue (1984); Liberalism and Naval Strategy: Ideology, Interest and Sea Power during the Pax Britannica (1986); The Liberal Ideal and the Demons of Empire: Theories of Imperialism from Adam Smith to Lenin (1993); and George Eliot and the Politics of National Inheritance (1994). He also published Occasional Papers of T. R. Malthus, edited with an introduction (1963) and Elie Haléy, The Birth of Methodism, translated and with an introduction (1971). He had few equals in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the Victorian and Edwardian intellectual milieu.

Semmel was a genuine master of his craft, both as a scholar and as a mentor. I had the great privilege of studying under him as his doctoral student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Of the many things that I learned from him, the most enduring, perhaps, was through the example of his intellectual integrity. He taught me by example that disciplinary boundaries were themselves historically contingent. In his principled traditionalism lurked a radically liberating view of the historian. She need not be constrained by any artificial boundaries, whether between different fields of history, as between British history proper and what was still then the discrete field of British imperial history, or between disciplines, be it history, literature, political science, or philosophy. Without sacrificing depth, he boldly—and presciently—transgressed such boundaries without much fanfare in his own scholarship. Yet he never let this expansive notion of what it meant to be a historian eclipse either the joy he so obviously derived from the practice of the historian’s craft or the importance of disciplinary history’s contribution, both substantive and theoretical, to the advancement of interdisciplinary conversations. That joy is another aspect of his example that has remained with me. Semmel had a gift of participating in such interdisciplinary conversations, moreover, by means of a profound and admirable listening—a quality that extended across all sorts of disciplinary and ideological spectra. He was likewise willing to risk committing himself, in talks and publications, to the complexities of such enlarged and multilayered conversations.

Semmel was also an exemplary teacher of history for undergraduates. His undergraduate lectures on British history were indeed legendary. He always lectured without notes; and his lectures were notable both for their content and style. His lectures were wonderful performances, each one crafted expertly in narrative terms with a recognizable beginning, a middle full of complications, and a persuasive end. As a bit of casual virtuosity, he had the additional knack of timing his lectures perfectly to fit each class period. As graduate students, we considered ourselves lucky to be able to see first-hand a master at work.

Semmel’s own hero was the 19th-century English philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. He was himself a worthy disciple of Mill, not least in sharing with the latter an uncompromising belief in a shared and common humanity. His principled convictions could sometimes run afoul the commonplace political pieties of the time; but he was undaunted at the prospect of courting unpopularity. Just as he was fearless in championing what he believed, he also enjoyed the give-and-take of vigorous intellectual debate. I remain especially indebted to him for doing me the honor, even as his student, of taking my ideas seriously enough to disagree with many of them and, by the same token, also of constantly alerting me to my own unearned complacencies. To be his student was a special privilege that I shall always cherish.

His wife, Maxine, with whom he shared a rare and enviable companionship, survives him. He is also survived by a son, Stuart Semmel, senior lecturer in history at Yale University; a daughter-in-law, Tina-Lu, also at Yale University; and four grandchildren, Tovah, Natalie, Eli, and Ada. Bernard Semmel’s family, friends, colleagues, and students will remember him as a tough-minded, but always generous and compassionate, teacher, intellectual, and human being. Although it is sad to mark his death, it is a joy to reflect on a life lived with such distinction.

—Mrinalini Sinha, Pennsylvania State University