To the Editors:
The distinguished historian John Higham died on July 26 at the age of eighty-two. He was the author of greatly admired and influential books, from Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, published in 1955, to Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture, published in 2001. He contributed to The New York Review over the years and was the subject of an article there by the historian George Frederickson dealing with his work generally in the February 28, 2002, issue.
Since he was always measured in his use of language, I was surprised at the vehemence of a letter he sent me last February. John wrote that he was deeply disturbed by the shift in US politics and culture “in the direction of world domination and away from constraints on individual acquisitiveness.” He then added: “I feel that everything I have stood for is being undermined and that I must get back to work instead of brooding about what seems like a long-term failure of the promise of America.” With his usual succinctness, in a single sentence John had summed up the despair and anger that many of us feel today about American society and politics while proposing the only personal course of action that makes any sense: getting “back to work,” each in our individual way, instead of just brooding about it.
As anyone familiar with his work would have known, this is not the first time he set himself against the dominant tendencies in American culture. He had a consistent moral vision that he brought to bear on a wide variety of historical issues over the half-century that he was active as a scholar and teacher. He leaves a major legacy of scholarship and reflection on American identity from which there is much to be learned.
October 23, 2003