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Remembering Joyce Appleby

Following the passing of renowned scholar and former OAH President Joyce Appleby last month, we asked a few of her former colleagues to offer their remembrances of her.

Lynn Hunt:

Joyce sparkled with enthusiasm for life, family, friends, celebratory dinners and most of all conversation, whether personal, political, or intellectual. She was passionate about social justice and always devoted a substantial chunk of her time to political and social good works, whether delivering meals on wheels, agitating for a living wage in Los Angeles, pushing historians to write for a broader public, or gathering books for foreign university libraries. She was never a follower, and by seeking her own way, she set all of us historians on to paths we might not have seen so quickly: the need to put the U.S. in a larger context, whether in relation to France (her dissertation) or Britain (her first book and those on liberalism and republicanism), and an ever expanding horizon of curiosity (her more general books on capitalism and curiosity). Joyce could never serve as a model for me: she was too thin, too perfectly dressed, too unflappable—it would have been depressing to want to be like her because I couldn’t hope to be. Instead I marveled, argued with her about everything from wine to Max Weber, and loved her as an inimitable paragon and irreplaceable friend.

Carole Shammas:

Joyce Oldham Appleby wrote many fine books. Inheriting the Revolution, a fascinating study of autobiographies composed by the generation born immediately after the American Revolution, remains my favorite. What she captured in that very original book was a sense of the opportunity felt by the postwar cohort and the effect their activities had over the course of the nineteenth century.

Interest in the subject of opportunity came naturally to Joyce. She possessed boundless energy and a “can-do” attitude toward life.  After a couple of other careers and three children, she obtained a Ph.D. and then quickly built a distinguished career as an Atlantic world/early American historian, holding an endowed Chair at UCLA and serving as Presidents of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

But Joyce did not confine her “can-doism” to the academy. She believed strongly in social justice and the importance of exercising one’s rights and obligations as a citizen. Joyce worked on campaigns and authored many an op-ed piece.  LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) honored Joyce several years ago for her activism.

I remember a number of dinners and receptions she hosted at her home on Westholme Avenue near UCLA. The conversation was always lively and not confined to academics. When she left Los Angeles a few years ago for Taos New Mexico to be with her children, we were all saddened to see depart such a vital force in our community.

Gary Nash:

Many of those reflecting on the life of the remarkable Joyce Appleby will doubtless dwell on her stellar scholarship, her gritty activism on behalf of those in the lower ranks of Los Angeles society, her mentorship of many students, and her cheery outlook on the human condition.  But I want to remember her role in developing the National History Standards (NHS) and her defense of them when they were under attack from the Conservative Right.

Joyce was appointed in 1992 to the National Council for History Standards, barely surviving a veto from Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who had been misinformed that Joyce was part of the New Left cadre of historians. Cheney had reason to regret not exercising her veto power when Appleby debated her on a radio show after the standards were published in November 1994. Very few win arguments with Joyce, and Cheney was one of those flustered by Appleby’s sweet reasonableness cloaking saber-like thrusts at Cheney’s Wall Street Journal fire-spitting op-ed piece attacking (and misrepresenting) the standards. After that, when selected defenders and opponents of the standards gathered in January 1995 at the Brookings Institution to discuss criticisms of them, Joyce was one of the four representing the National Council that had approved the standards.  President of the Organization of American Historians that year, she defended the standards as the work of a consensus-building endeavor among thirty-one participating organizations and displayed all the attributes of her distinguished career: imperturbability when under fire, perseverance, absolute conviction of her position, optimism, and dedication to her friends and her profession. She didn’t satisfy critics of the standards (which from the beginning were understood to be guidelines, not prescriptive or mandatory standards), but she demonstrated the qualities for which she was so widely admired.