Oral History: Robert Nye

Narrator: Robert Nye
Interviewer: Skye Doney
Videographer: William Tishler
Date: 8 May 2019
Transcribed: Teresa Bergen, Skye Doney
Format: Video
Editing: Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop
Total Time: 1 hour, 13 minutes

Robert Nye biography:
I was born Robert Allen Kruschke in Concord, California in 1942. My dad was an office worker then and then a salesman for most of the rest of his life. When I was four and my brother Rich, two, my dad changed our last name to Nye, a shorter and less German-sounding name. My parents were high school graduates, my mother’s parents had only grammar school. Thanks to the postwar expansion of publically supported higher education, I was able to imagine going to college. I attended high school in Walnut Creek, CA where I had an extraordinary group of science, literature and social science teachers. I went to college at San Jose State College on a basketball scholarship, which paid room and board and the $200 annual tuition costs, which I could have paid from my summer job earnings. I gave up the scholarship my junior year to concentrate on my studies.

I arrived in Madison in 1964 to study European history and was placed in my second choice seminar (I had wanted to work with Mosse), but that worked out fine because I took all George’s lecture classes and he was on my dissertation committee. I also met my wife of 53 years, Mary Jo, who was taking her PhD. in the History of Science. I got a job at the University of Oklahoma in 1969 and shortly thereafter Mary Jo was given a tenure-track job there in the History of Science Department. I was given a George Lynn Cross Research Professorship in 1992. We stayed there until 1994 when we left to take joint endowed Professorships, funded by The Horning Endowment for the Humanities, in the History Department at Oregon State University. We retired in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Our daughter, Lesley Nye, is Associate Dean of Students at Caltech.

I have been a resident Fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, The Australian National University, Churchill College, Cambridge, and I have taught at Harvard University. I have received Fellowships from The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Science Foundation, The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and I have also received best article prizes from Isis and The Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and a book award from The American Sociological Association. My service on editorial boards includes The American Historical Review, The Journal of Modern History, French Historical Studies, and The Journal of the History of Sexuality.

I have published over 50 articles and chapters in refereed publications and edited Sexuality, an Oxford Reader on the history of sexuality from the Greeks to the present (1999), and, with Erika L. Milam, a volume of Osiris on Scientific Masculinities (2015). My work has generally focused on the intellectual and cultural history of the social sciences and medicine, and, more recently, the history of sexuality. George L. Mosse’s lecture courses and work inspired my first two books and laid the groundwork for the later ones, The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave LeBon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic (London: Sage, 1975), and The Anti-Democratic Sources of Elite Theory: Pareto, Mosca, Michels (London: Sage, 1977). I studied social science and medicine again in Crime, Madness, and Politics in Modern France: The Medical Concept of National Decline (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1984), then medicine, gender, and sexuality in Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), paperback edition, University of California Press, 1998. I was honored by the publication of a volume of essays edited by Elinor Accampo and Christopher Forth, Confronting Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle France: Bodies, Minds, and Gender (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010).



Nye: Before I took this trip here, I did something I had not yet done, although my friend Jimmy Fisher, you must know Jimmy Fisher told me he had attended the 50th reunion, [19]68 reunion. And had gone to all the usual panels, Goldberg panel, the Mosse panel and the Dow Chemical panel. And I looked at them. I looked at them. And I just could not believe how extraordinary it was because the people, some of whom I had known but didn’t recognize had wonderful memories of things that jogged my own memory and it was an extremely useful thing to do. I have a lot of, I might have did a lot of thinking about this sort of Mosse – Goldberg relationship. I’ve learned some things I didn’t know, I hadn’t known. Namely that George requested to be buried next to Harvey. One of the most extraordinary things because, you know, they were friendly rivals. They were, it’s not as if they had any trouble filling up the auditoriums.

Doney: Right.

Nye: Because that was it. That was, it goes without saying that they packed them in. A lot of these kids who came into the lectures weren’t even signed up for the courses. You know, they just heard about this and they wanted to come and bathe in this sort of atmosphere. It was wonderful and it was interactive. Those lectures were interactive. And George accosted people in the audience, pointed them out and “don’t you think so?” “Yes or no?” And they would say something and he would then he’d go off on some tangent. Harvey didn’t do that. Harvey had a more structured and formal lecture, which seemed to all of us as if he had committed it to memory. And there’s some evidence that that was the case, that he was so obsessed with how he presented himself and that he did that. George was way more sort of loose canon in his lectures, although he did stick to his themes. Yeah.

Doney: Well we’re going to back up a little bit. So those are the videos from the Madison Reunion?

Nye: Yeah.

Doney: Yeah. I’m glad I was very happy that they put those up. The Mosse panel I thought came together well.

Nye: I thought so.

Doney: And had a lot of different perspectives on Mosse.

Nye: I thought so.

Doney: But we’re going to start actually at the beginning, which was where were you born and what milieu were you born into?

Nye: Okay. There you are. I was born in Concord, California, although my family lived at that time in Berkeley.


My dad was a native Californian and my mom was a native Californian. I’m a fourth generation, fifth generation Californian. So I’m a native son of the Golden West. And we lived there until I was four years old. And then move to the east to the East Bay and then finally to Walnut Creek, where I went to grammar school and high school, which is about 30 miles east of Oakland. I had, I think, a very good high-school education and that’s all my mother or father had. My mother’s parents had only eighth grade educations. So my dad was, did various things in his life. He was a salesman, he was a truck driver, he was decidedly kind of a lower middle-class. We had, we owned a house and he did okay. There was always food on the table. But he had an up and down occupational life. And there’s a certain sense in which this uncertainty and this shall we say, errant occupational life that he had made me want to do something secure. And I was lucky to be born when I was born and came of age and college age it when I did. Because that was the time when higher education was expanding everywhere. California university system was expanding. The state college system in California was expanding. And as a consequence, I was able to get go to college and have a good college education.

Doney: And what you do your undergraduate work?

Nye: I did my undergraduate work. Well, the thing that decided me on where to go to college, my brother went to Berkeley because that was the logical place for him to go. Because he wanted to be an engineer. I was very, very interested in history, had some very, very good social science and history teachers when I was a high school student. But my main skill and in those days was basketball. And this is one of the reasons that George and I hit it off because I was a sportive man and he was a non-sportive man. He he and I had some good conversations about sport. In any case. I had a basketball scholarship offers from San Jose State and from USF. USF had just won the national championship about eight years earlier (1955, 1956). And I was a little creeped out when I visited the campus though, because of all the guys in the long cassocks, robes. I thought, I don’t know about this. So I went to San Jose instead. And I was very lucky, very, very lucky there to have had access to some absolutely first-rate faculty who were scholars and teachers in small classes.


It was kind of a golden age, I think of higher education. Money was being pumped into the systems. It costs me precisely $75.00 a semester tuition to go to San Jose State. And as long as I was an athlete, which was true for the first two years, I was able to pay my room and board and all of that and they had, I could buy a car and pay my car insurance and go out on dates, that stuff sort of thing by having summer jobs, which I did every summer. It was just taken for granted. I was going to, my parents gave me nothing. My dad, he didn’t have any extra money to give me for my education. So that was just a lucky break. And then my last two years I was a resident assistant in the dorms and that that paid my way even though I did have to have summer jobs. So it was a lot easier to get and pay for higher education back in those days than it is now.

Doney: Go ahead.

Nye: Do you want to talk about graduate school?

Doney: Well, I was curious more. You said that there were certain teachers that you had in high school and then in university. Are there, were there classes or instructors that really stood out, and pushed you toward history? Nye: Well, now here’s here’s the thing. If you come from the kind of background that I did, there was nobody who was going to say, oh, you’re smart or you’re this, or you’re that, say to you, give you encouragement and say well you need to do more, or do that. I, I read books and I was interested. I did very well in my high school classes. But there was some kind of an exam that I took. I think when I was a senior, maybe I was a junior in high school. And it was some kind of a knowledge exam like the SATs. And it was just, they were just trying to track the students to find out how they were doing. At the beginning of a class, my favorite teacher, his name was Robert Pape, who was my world civilization teacher. And he said, “Well, we just got the results back on that test. And guess what? Guess who was the best student?” Everyone kind of looked around like this. “Who did the best on the test? Bob Nye.” And you know those are the kinds of things that change everything. Not only was it interesting to me, but I was good at it. And I thought to myself, This is very encouraging. And at that point, I desperately wanted to be a high-school teacher because I wanted to say what Bob Pape said to other students. And because I loved going to school, I loved classes, and I love reading books. So that was my aim. But when I got to college, I had some pretty serious scholars as teachers who were wonderful in the classroom and who in a similar kind of way sought me out because they knew I was writing good essays and I was doing well in class. One of them was Charles Burdick (1927-1998). B-U-R-D-I-C-K who was a very, very famous military historian.


And there was a time when I thought, oh, I want to do this. And in fact, I published something even as an undergraduate in military history that he had put me on to. And, but my favorite teacher was, Irma Eichhorn (1926-2017) who taught European history. I was in love with her like a lots of undergraduate men are in love with their teachers of either gender. And I just wanted, I just, I loved the way she blended literature and philosophy and intellectual life, in the social and political history. I just thought it was wonderful that sort of mesh and decided that I really very much wanted to do European history. And so I thought I’d better get busy on the language front. So I had had four years of Latin in high school and I cannot tell you. it’s not taught anymore. I don’t think in high schools or hardly ever taught any more in high schools. What a leg up that gave me on language learning for modern European languages. And I was able to achieve, by the time I got to graduate school, I was reading Italian, German, and was more or less able to get around orally in French. No question about trying to understand the structure of language from Latin. And then using that as a building block structurally for European languages. Extremely important. So by the time I was a senior in college and started applying for graduate school, I applied to European history graduate programs. And I got a one-year fellowship to come to UW. And in those days, shall I just keep talking about this?

Doney: Yeah, that’s fine.

Nye: Okay. In those days because I’ve been thinking about a lot of these things recently. There were 200 to 225 or 230 graduate students in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin. And what you did was you, I learned later what you had to do. And people who were in the know did this. You had to get your application in early, because there was, if you didn’t, you had to apply for a particular seminar to work with a particular professor in a certain field. Of course, I put Mosse’s seminar down because I wanted to do intellectual history, cultural history, and I wanted to do this big picture stuff, you know? And if you, if it filled up then you went into, you need to put a second choice down. I put my second choice down as French history, because I really like French history and I can speak a little bit of French and can read it.


And so I thought, well maybe I’ll, that’ll be my backup. Well as it turns out, Mosse’s seminar was full. I got into Henry Bertram Hill’s seminar. Henry Bertram Hill (1907-1990) was not much of a scholar, but he did left live next door to George on Glenway. They were neighbors. And I heard some George stories from Henry over the years. Anyway. So I ended up in French history. And because I’d had a little background in military history, I decided to do my master’s thesis. This is the other thing you need to know about the program back then. And others will have been telling you the same thing. It was sink or swim. They didn’t expect to graduate. All 200 people who came in every year or whatever it was, 75 or 50 or whatever it was. They didn’t intend to graduate them. They expected attrition. And they expected a lot of these people would simply disappear either they would not be able to finish their master’s degree on time, which was one year. You had precisely one year to write a 75-page master’s thesis and take all your other courses. And if you were a TA, although I think most first year people didn’t do TAing. You had to wait until your second year to do TAing. So there was a big, a lot of pressure on, I mean a lot of pressure. And then halfway through your second year, you took your preliminary exams. That weeded out a whole bunch more. So the pressure was on and once you got to on-campus and tried to figure out what your next move should be. You realized that you’re going to spend 12 to 14 hours a day with your face buried in a book. That there was no other way to negotiate the system. That having an alliance, having a protector, or a mentor, or something wasn’t going to help you. You had to jump, jump these hurdles. Well, to make a long story short, I jumped the hurdles. Wrote a master’s thesis on 18th century, late-18th, early-20th, early-19th century French military history. Luckily enough, there were, the books I needed were in the library, the UW library because, you know, what would I have done otherwise?

Doney: Yeah.

Nye: Drive down to the University of Illinois or I mean, there weren’t many alternatives. And it was acceptable. Not sure how good it was, but it was acceptable. But I got to know lots of George’s students at that point. And by that time, I was in his class. I’d taken all his classes, all the classes he offered that first year. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do intellectual history in the worst way. And I thought, well, I can do it in French history. So that was the deal. I worked with Henry Hill and I would do in French history, once I finished the military thing and I got that out of the way because it was something I could do fast.


I’d find a topic. Well, the topic, I found a topic, as I said in my, in my introduction to the lecture. I found a topic in George’s class. It was a Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) who was the original, was the most popular theorist of crowd psychology, that’s what, what do people do in collectivities and how do they behave and how are emotions, what’s the relationship between emotion and reason and so on. George loved Le Bon because he thought that Le Bon had it right about the way people were in mass politics. Which is only part of the story as it turns out. And I read the book that George had in class, Le Bon’s “The Crowd.” Big popular book went through 50 editions or something like that from the time that it was published in 1895. And I read the introduction by Rob, no less a person than Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), America’s greatest sociologist from that period. And I thought this is all wrong. He’s got this all wrong. And so I went in and talked to George. And it was, I think probably the first substantive discussion that I had with him. And I said George, Merton iswrong about this, that, and the other thing, and I gave him this little speech. And he said, Well, why don’t you do it correctly? And I had been inclining in that direction, but I think I needed just a little bit of a push. So from that moment on, I knew what my dissertation topic was going to be. George and I did not really stay in touch very much about that until somewhat later, after I had come back from France and we’d done, done my basic research. Another story in connection with this however, which is I think interesting and useful, it tells you something. George encouraged me. The other person I admired the most, of course, was Harvey Goldberg. And I knew Harvey a little as well. And Harvey was going to he had left his office, was going to class and I walked with him wherever he was going to lecture after that. And I said “Harvey, I said I want to try out on you my idea for a dissertation topic.” And he said, “Sure.” And I said, “Well, I read this book “The Crowd” in one of George’s classes and there’s been nothing on him, no scholarship at all. And I’m just very much want to do a dissertation on this guy. He’s a guy who was Mussolini read him and, and Hitler read him and that all of these sort of right-wing guys, were inspired by him. And all the anti-democratic thinkers of the nineteenth century were inspired by him.” And Harvey said, “why would you want to study someone who has ended up on the dust- in the dustbin of history?”


I was shocked. I was shocked. And I realized at that moment that Harvey’s ideological commitments ran so deep that he could not even imagine a real historian who also had to have the activist component in his or her nature could actually want to study that. And that was the last time I ever talked to Harvey Goldberg. I had nothing more to say to him after that, really. After I came back from France, I George and I had more conversations about it. He was very excited about what I had found. I got some personal papers. I had read all his work and found lots of interesting biographical materials from him and then had studied the sort of social science context.

Now, the other part of the story is a love story. I had met Mary Jo, my wife in 1964 because she lived in the apartment building that I lived in. And she was an undergraduate at that point still, she had transferred to UW from Vanderbilt, where she was born and raised in Nashville. And she was a chemistry major. But she took a history of science course her senior year. She’s two years younger than me at that point. And she fell in love with history of science. And she said, “I don’t want to go into a chemistry lab. I want to be a scholar.” And so it was about that time, I think after my first year of graduate school that she entered the program. The history of science program was interested in getting into the history of science program. And in those days you had to take a minor field as a graduate student. And so and take 12 credits, I think it was, and take a seminar. And so I said I’m going to be a history of science minor field. And because the Le Bon thing, history of the social sciences was under the general rubric of the history of science. I decided that I was going to take classes with Mary Jo. So I would be able to do two things at once. I’d be able to do by minor field, and be with Mary Jo. And as it turns out, very fortunately, there was a new faculty member in the History of Science department whose name was Victor Hilts. And Victor Hilts had studied the history of genetics and the history of gender, application of early genetic knowledge to the social sciences, [Karl] Pearson (1857-1936) and [Francis] Galton (1822-1911) and those people.


And I learned a lot from his classes and he encouraged me as well. And that was very useful information, structural information, trying to think about the social sciences as a historical topic. That set me on my, on my way when I went to France, I had all this material that and ideas and slots in which to fit all this stuff. And then there’s another story. Wrote my dissertation. My wife and I were both working on our dissertations at the same time. I was a little ahead of her. Because she was a little bit behind me in the graduate school program. And we lived at that time up on Gilman Street in an apartment that we couldn’t afford now. As we were just talking about earlier. And I finished my dissertation and I think there was a deadline of some kind and I had to, I had to give it to them for three weeks or something like that in advance. So it was 400 pages or something big. I gave copies to George and copies to my major professor Henry Hill. And to, I can’t remember who the other people on the committee were. Bob Koehl (1922-2015), maybe oh Ted Hamerow (1920-2014) was on the committee. And then the oral came. And George looked around like this and said, “does anyone mind if I start?” And he just, he just engaged in this wonderfully enlightening and stimulating discourse. And we had a nice discussion. My major professor did not ask one question. Why do you suppose that was? Because he hadn’t read it. So he. Now, you have to you have to understand where we were back in the late [19]60s. He probably had 25 people in his seminar. There was at least 25 people in the seminar. I took it from him. He had Masters theses and things to read. And he thought to himself, this is in George’s area anyway, let him handle it. For all I know they actually discussed that. But George had read it very carefully and had lots of wonderful suggestions. And it was, I felt very good about it afterward, after it was all over. It was quite wonderful. And I think by that point, yeah. Yeah, by that point I had a job. So I was one of the very lucky ones who actually ended up getting a job that year because all the people who were finishing up their dissertations that year, 1969. Weren’t getting any jobs. It was just full up everywhere. I was lucky.

Doney: Can you talk a little bit more in your cohort and who else made it through? And whether, did you have reading groups? Or what was the graduate student life like?


Nye: Well, I’ll tell you. Here’s the problem with the so-called graduate culture. I’ve already touched on some of this. It was sink or swim. Once you got past the first two big hurdles, then you could actually invest in learning something about somebody else because they weren’t going to be casualties later on down the line. And there was, there was a lot of that, a lot of grief, there was a lot of tension. There was a lot of should I cultivate this relationship with this person? You know it’s an investment of some kind, an emotional investment, a time investment. There were no reading groups. What there were was political activism and a really strong sense of agreement about the atrocities of the Dow [Chemical] experience. The war in Vietnam. Harvey’s classes were a very important meeting place for that kind of thing. And yet, George had his little coffees out on the terrace. And students who wanted could go talk to him and he would, he was anti-war. He was, he had the same positions on the war as Harvey and the rest of us. But I didn’t get to know his students all that well until actually later, we used to meet at the American Historical Association meeting. Sy Drescher and all those people. Andy Rabinbach, got to know all those guys very, very well.

I know one little quick story about Harvey and George stuff. I took I took one of George’s. I think my second-year of graduate school, I took a course, one of George’s courses. I can’t remember which one it was. And his TA was Joan Scott. Well, Joan was a flaming Marxist in those days. A loyal Harvey student. Yeah. And she was fiery and she was articulate. And she would spend a lot of each class highlighting the dubious aspects of or encouraging us to also find the criticisms of some of the things that George would say in class or something from one of his books we would read. The point about all that was, it was enormously fruitful because there were two sides to many of these issues and she, she adhered very strongly to one side. She has become the most splendid, and amazing historian. But in those days she was more of an ideologue than not.


Although brilliant. And it was so useful to think about this dialogue between George and Harvey which took place. And it was all about politics. It was about actual activism. That was what it was about the origins of class consciousness. It was about where ideas came from, how the culture worked. And all we did was talk about those things in our different discussion groups or our friendships or going and having a beer or whatever it, whatever it happened to be. Those were the ways in which our arguments were organized. And it was, and I’ve said this to other people for years and years. We read all the key texts in Harvey’s and George’s courses. There were other courses. The modern British historian, who’s, I’ll see if I can remember, [John Fletcher Clews Harrison, 1921-2018] his name later, wonderful stuff also with theory in it and lots of good social history. And we learned a lot about theory and about what was happening really almost contemporaneously in the theoretical world because that’s what they were interested in. George was especially good about this. He was especially good. The young Marx for instance, I mean he just, it was just illuminating the neo-Hegelians and all that stuff. You know, we didn’t study classic Hegel’s texts. We, but we learned about him through the way in which his 20th-century acolytes, were applying it to radical politics and historical interpretation. And that, that was what was really exciting and moving about it all. And you felt like you were on a cutting edge of some kind. That this knowledge was going to be useful to you in whatever you did, whether you became an activist or just a voting Democrat or a teacher, or a scholar, that this was going to be useful to you. This was not just something you learned. So you could pass the graduate exam. This was useful knowledge. And everything we were taught, we were, we were encouraged, everything that we in our entire environment had to do with making use of what you learned so that you could become more insightful about the nature of historical change and have some influence on it. Everybody I knew thought the same thing and we could not escape it. There was no Hermeticism, there was no hermetic knowledge that was not somehow related to other things. If you took a literature course and my friend Jimmy Fisher used to take Germaine Brée’s (1907-2001) course. It was all about activism, it was all about the politics. It was all about, you know, what can I do to make the world change.


And it marks, it, marked us all, every one of us has been marked by it. Because if you, if you do other interviews of other people from that cohort and that generation, you’re going to hear them say the same thing over and over and over again. It’s simply inescapable. It was a time like unlike any other, I’m sure it persisted on into the 1970s for a while longer. It’s not there anymore. There is, there is activism. There are strong activist communities on college campuses nowadays. Any group, graduate schools of renown. But it’s what we call social justice activism, which is not the same as a world, historical activism, which was what we were thinking about all the time.

Doney: Yeah, economies of scale.

Nye: Yep.

Doney: Were you involved?

Nye: Yes, I was.

Doney: To what extent?

Nye: Well, not to the extent. Here’s the thing. This is just me.

Doney: Yeah.

Nye: When I listen to Bernie Sanders talk, now, what do I see? I see some of the blowhards who were “our leaders” back in the late 1960s. Bernie happens to be stuck in that narrative and he can’t get out of it. He can’t grow. He can’t see any other side. That’s the way those guys were. And there was always debate and we everybody debated. But there was some point at which a group of guys and women would scream down objections to what they planned to do. I didn’t like that and never liked it. George didn’t like it. George hated it and constantly preached against it. He said, build consensus, but don’t do it by force and by coercion or by moral blackmail or any of that business. It was just after the Dow (October 1967). I was a teaching assistant teaching for John O’Connor, who was early modernist. I was teaching early modern history, but that was good for me too. And after the Dow events, the Graduate Student Union, which had only formed a month or two before that or something, decided to have a strike. We were going to not teach our classes and we were going to bring our students out. Oh, no, that was the discussion. We bring our students out for a mass rally. And a bunch of, us said, “no, let’s had to teach-in.” Let’s talk about politics. Let’s talk about the war in Vietnam. Let’s talk about the use of the National Guard to suppress demonstrations at the Social Science Building. Let’s talk about that. And the activists wanted to go out and demonstrate and confront the National Guard who were all over campus by that time, occupying the campus essentially.


And we said, let’s have a teach-in. And most of us did. I think my memory is that most of us had the teach-in. The other guys went out to do their confrontational stuff. And it was enormously useful. Enormously useful. It was a consciousness raising moment for the students, I think, but also for the TAs who were doing this. I think a lot of the faculty of course didn’t teach, or did teach-ins too. I know the left-wing faculty did. I know George did. And the point was that this was good for the students, but it was also good for us. And it was useful knowledge. Because when Kent State happened (4 May 1970), when I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma, we had, it was my idea. And lots of other people who had gone through events in the 1960s, to have teachin-ins after Kent State as well, which we did. And it was extremely useful those with the times we lived in. And I did some, I did some marches back then and utterly sympathetic to the anti-war movement. And just as a sort of side issue. And this is kind of important because all of us in graduate school then had to face what to do about the draft. Many of us came from districts, as I did, recruiting districts which had a shortage of men. And they could, they could annul your student deferment and request for you to come for a medical exam, which would in my case, have been in Milwaukee. And this, this was happening to a lot of the people in my cohort. And of course it made us, it helped make us more radical against the war. it certainly spurred us on. But it also made us think about strategies about what to do. And my strategy, I had two strategies. The first strategy was to go into traction. Literally go into attraction, attach weights to my feet on pulleys, and then to lie flat on a rented car to go to Milwaukee and be measured as over six foot six, which was at that time the cutoff. And I tried that a few times that I could be six foot seven and a quarter. When in traction for 24 hours beforehand. That was option number 1. Option number 2 was go to Canada. I would not, was not going to go to the war. Mary Jo and I had long discussions about it.


She said that she’d go to Canada too, we had all these talks. It was very important. People had to make that decision. You had to, I was getting ready to finish my dissertation and you know go out on the job market. But that was the, that was the choice we had. We had no other choice and they didn’t have the lottery system until, I don’t know, 1970-1971 (1 December 1969) something like that. So that was after my time. So I was an activist in that sense, not an activist who was going to go underground or fight with the SDS or something like that. But I was going to leave. Anyway. That’s, that’s my activism and of course, my whole political world view has never really changed from those years as it turns out.

Doney: Yeah. Formative times to forge it.

Nye: Yeah. Very much so.

Doney: I have a question about basketball actually.

Nye: Sure.

Doney: And you said you played as an, an undergrad for the first two years.

Nye: I did, I did.

Doney: Did you continue to play when you came to Madison?

Nye: Well this is…

Doney: Because you talked about being a man of sport and George as a man of sport, and a man of non-sport.

Spartan Daily (11 December 1961), p. 5.
Robert Nye featured in the Spartan Daily student newspaper, (11 December 1961), p. 5.

Nye: George, he thought it. He thought he was a great tease. George was the greatest teaser ever. He’d find out something about you. And then he’d exaggerate wildly, make wild claims about things that you did or accuse you of saying something, bragging about yourself or something that he was just, he was impossible. But he would laugh at his own jokes. But he’d make everybody else, I guess, this is something I was going to say earlier that I have two faces for George. One is his laughing face. The other one is “I’m talking about Nazism here” face. And they couldn’t be more different. And yet he could go from one to the other pretty fast. Anyway, the basketball. I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of sports stuff, but I will say this that I played freshman basketball, you couldn’t play varsity basketball until your second year in those days. And I was on a basketball scholarship, well in those days, what did that mean? I mean, after all that meant it was a grant in aid. So they paid for my tuition, $75.00 a semester, and room and board, which couldn’t have been more than $75 a month, you know. Chicken feed. And so it occurred to me after a while that I didn’t have to do this. Well, I was a very successful player my freshman year and then I played in my sophomore year as a varsity player and I started, oh 4 or 5 games. So I’m, I was doing okay. You know, I was making my contributions. And then something really terrible happened, which I found so offensive that it was one of the things that caused me to quit playing.


One was racial tension on the basketball team. Not between me and the two other Black, there were two Black players on the varsity team. At. But two or three of the white players were engaged in racial difficulties, racial tensions with two of the Black players. One of the Black players was Harry Edwards (b. 1942). You ever heard of Harry Edwards? Harry Edwards is a very famous sociologist of sport. Ended up teaching at Berkeley, and was an activist when he was a graduate student at Cornell. Led the sit-ins at the chancellor’s office. Harry knew all the Black Panthers. And when he was in Berkeley, he was the head of, he’s a sports activist. Look him up, you’ll be quite amazed at that he has managed to do. Harry and I were the only players when we’d get on the team bus to go down to play Santa Clara or go up to play USF. And that was our league, the central California area, who had books with us on the bus. We were the only ones that end up getting PhDs. We were there and we were the only ones who got involved in active politics during our graduate school years, as far as I know, anyway.

The coach, his name was Stu Inman (1926-2007) kind of let this happen. This racial tension. And there were some fistfights and some other stuff that went on. And it was deeply unsettling. And then it turns Stu Inman had falsified some academic records. So he’d get a couple of players, transfer players from USC. And this was found out and we forfeited, we had had a very good season, my sophomore year. We had won most of our games and then came the news that the coach had falsified records and we had to forfeit all our games. These were games that we had worked hard to win we had kind of an identity and a sort of pride at having done so, he just took them away from us. And I didn’t decide it at that moment. But I thought this is the end of my playing career. One way or the other. I’m going to do this anymore. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t like the racial tensions on the team. And I thought that I held him partially responsible for it.


And so that spring I looked for a teaching, I mean a resident assistant job and they hired me. And so that was my segue. Yeah. Then when I came to Madison, I was, you know, I didn’t have this sort of exercise regimen I have now as an old guy. You just, it was too busy. I’ve tried to explain already that I had all these books to read, library time to spend. So I didn’t get much exercise in. But by the time I was past the hurdles, I joined the intramural, actually it was not the intramural, it was the city league. And I played basketball with Badger Sports, which used to be on State Street but no longer exists. Well maybe it does exist and just has moved its venue somewhere. Anyway, it was a sporting goods store. And Badger Sports had always sponsored a team in those days. And I had the greatest time it was really fun because I was still enough in shape that I could run up and down the floor and play. And we had some great, I had some great teammates. And we won the championship that year, the year I played. It was great fun. And I think George teased me about that as well. Your greatest accomplishment to date. Something like that.

Jimmy Fisher has a story. He claims, of course he lived with George. He and his wife Clarice, he has a story about George that George had wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to be able to argue that he was outside looking in on male bonding and masculinity in sports. And so he had this detached, objective view. But he couldn’t resist saying that he also played a few sports when he was a young guy. Jimmy Fisher actually believes that, I don’t really believe it because George was, he knew nothing about sport. He, he couldn’t have told you the rules of baseball. If he, if his life depended on it, or any other sport for that matter. He used to make fun of, that, what was the coach’s name. The coach who lost every game, [John Coatta 1929-2000] I think was my junior, my second or third year in graduate school (1968). He lost. Wisconsin football team lost every game they played, or 0 and 13 or 12 or something like that. And George used to make fun of him.

Doney: I know Mosse told a story about playing soccer going up and being removed from the team after he kicked it in to his own goal.

Nye: I think I remember that story or it’s possible. Some of those things are possible.


I know that in his memoir he talks about how he didn’t like team sports and he wanted to do things individually, and on his own. Well that’s because he just didn’t like being around this, this masculine atmosphere. He didn’t want to be a part of it. He didn’t mind observing it and trying to understand how it functions. He just didn’t want to be part of it. Because he always, he was the little guy.

Doney: Yeah.

Nye: Or even, ought to say little Jewish guy.

Doney: Yeah.

Nye: Even worse, so, anyway.

Doney: It’s true. Then I also, but related to what you’ve already talked about. There’s this interesting point that you brought out, this intersection of activism, reading theory, and the European seminars. And one thing that I’ve noticed, with everyone who finished their Ph.D. at UW in European history around your time, is that there’s the books endure in ways that works that get too involved in theory, can’t. And so there’s, there’s an interesting group of scholarship that I mean I was just reading your book again this week. But also Joan’s work and Steve’s work Andy’s with the human motor that it’s, it is, it is in dialogue with theory, but it’s not subsumed

Nye: That’s right.

Doney: into theory.

Nye: That’s exactly right.

Doney: I wondered if you might, just comment on how did this come about. Because I think it’s pretty unique to UW during this decade.

Nye: Well, I think a lot of that had to do with Marx’s early writings and with the neo-Hegelians that we all, we all read during that period of time. Many of whom were more or less contemporaries post-World War II, fairly recent stuff. And it was all about praxis. The whole point was, yes, you need theory. Yes, you need to, because you need to understand how history works, how class divides form, how economic structures create class formations, and then how that has political ramifications. But then you need to understand when the time is ripe for change. You need to understand studying the past given what was going on at any given time, whether the time was ripe for change, or whether your analysis can explain why change did not occur. So in other words, this understanding of the relationship between theory, analysis, and practice, mass movements or political movements of various kinds. And George was right on the cusp of all that, all the time. He never could ever think about theory or an aesthetic theory, or architecture, or statuary, or male movements of any kind without thinking about its immediate political implications or possibilities. He taught us it. So did Harvey. See that’s the other thing.


Harvey also wanted to know why the hell hasn’t that revolution happened yet. Or when it happened, why did it happen in Russia of all places? So Harvey was always trying to figure that out. George could care less about the Russia business. But it’s pretty clear that we were all because of our experience. And because of what we had been going through ourselves, what we were reading, this, it was indispensable. When you were talking about, for instance, my first book on Gustave Le Bon and crowd psychology and mass politics and was the beginning of democratic politics in the Third Republic. And so this is exactly where my frame of mind was. As it turns out who could mobilize the masses better, the left or the right? George taught me something about that. He said that the right knows how to use symbols and images that draw on national experience. And people who are uneducated and haven’t thought through what their personal interests are and how they stand to profit from this or that political alternative. Will go with that set of images. And so this is what George was teaching us. That’s what I learned from teaching, from learning about late-19th century French history, that it was the right. And of course Le Bon was advising people on the right to use these symbols. And during World War I, this was, he did the same sort of thing. So this was the first lesson that I had, and the second lesson from George that I learned had to do with activism. And this is, I’m not being critical of George, I’m just saying he didn’t really care about science. He knew science was important. And I’m sure that when I read the annotations to my book, he will he will have noticed times when I whatever he’s reading there’s generalizations from science. I know that I did, I did read the Foucault-Mosse annotation and he was aware of that there.  He knows how to use generalizations about what science was teaching. But he also understood history of science well enough to know that science didn’t always get it right. That there were scientific theories out there that survived for a very long period of time like degeneration theory or something like that, that had absolutely no foundation in fact whatsoever, people believed it though, you see. And so this George, very early on understood that scientific ideas, even the wrong scientific ideas, use the prestige of science and scientific reputation and knowledge to, for practical purposes. And politicians who were, who were able to do so used those, those characteristics to make hay. And George understood that.


He understood that from the very beginning because George was, if nothing else, the most extraordinary pragmatist with respect to how to use knowledge. He used knowledge the way people historically used it for one purpose or the other. And he understood what those purposes were even if he didn’t understand the logic or the science or the, or anything behind it. He understood how it worked. He was brilliant and intuitive about that. And he, of course, he would tease students in class, the left-wing students in the class who are going to go out and do this and do that. He would tease them about this, magnet. He would tease them about what they thought they knew.

Doney: Yeah.

Nye: And try to poke holes in it, but not so much epistemologically, but rather indicating that they’re just swallowing down something they know nothing about.

Doney: Yes, he has another great one that says my students love to talk about Marxism, that is, until I assign Karl Marx.

Nye: Oh, that’s, that would certainly follow. I mean, I learned as much about Marxism from Mosse’s courses as I did from Goldberg, where it sort of pre-packaged and made to serve a certain purpose. So there you are.

Doney: Let’s chronologically go to as far as we’ve gotten, which is you’ve defended your dissertation.

Nye: Yep.

Doney: And you’ve gotten your first job. And if I wondered if he just talk about the trajectory of your career.

Nye: Sure.

Doney: You mentioned that you stayed in touch with Mosse and saw him after leaving Madison.

Nye: Yep.

Doney: Maybe we can talk about

Nye: Sure.

Doney: How your scholarship has developed and I mean, it’s a lot. I know it’s a lot.

Nye: I’ll try to condense it. But I can’t, I can’t tell the story of my scholarly career without talking about Mary Jo, who, as it turns out, became relatively early on, a very distinguished historian of science and president of her society. And I just want to at least three big scholarly awards, including the main one that her organization gives: the Sarton Medal. I got the job at Oklahoma and set about the business of doing what everybody should do, try to publish their first book as soon as possible. In those days, there were no tenure requirements. Tenure requirements were a development of the late 1970s. Nobody understands that anymore. It didn’t exist, they didn’t. What happened is people would judge you on the basis of whether or not you were a good colleague, were effective in the classroom where there were no complaints about drinking or molesting women. And then you got tenure. I’ll never forget. It was the end of my third year at Oklahoma. And I got a note in my mailbox I had published, I think at that point a couple of three articles maybe. My book didn’t come out until 1975, and this was 1973, It said, “Congratulations, you’ve been given tenure of the University of Oklahoma.”


That’s what it was like. At least it, at least at you know. At non-mainstream universities, that’s the way it was or what it was like. Just didn’t don’t raise a fuss, don’t rock the boat, you’ll get tenure. But I think Mary Jo and I always thought that we really wanted to make a mark as scholars. And so we published and we, we tried to get grants and fellowships and she eventually got a position in the history of science department. After the most amazing sort of resistance on the part of her old guard colleagues there who, who saw it as nepotism that she should, and “she was a woman after all doing history of science. I mean, come on, this was not a woman’s field.” It was, the resistance she got was simply extraordinary. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She quickly showed what she was made of and published her dissertation very quickly, started on another project, published that quickly and so on. And we both did that. So we were at Oklahoma for 25 years. And I’ll try to make this a little bit shorter. And during that period of time, I went to most American Historical Association meetings. George went to almost all of them for one reason or another, but not least because all his former students would come and people who were part of his coterie. And we would go and there would always be some kind of, there would be a reception for Mosse, a Mosse reception for former students. And it would be usually held in tandem with the grad with the Wisconsin graduate student thing. Or maybe it maybe Mosse students were the only ones who came. I don’t remember, it was. But you’d, we’d all see one another. And I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of these guys over the years. And everyone would be gathered around George and he’d be laughing and telling stories and joking. He was so proud of everybody, it was clear. He was so proud of them. And I always was very grateful for the fact that George, even though I wasn’t his student, that George stayed in touch with me. That we met at least two occasions in London for dinner. My wife, and I think his sister and himself on one occasion. And then once in Paris after he had just, he’d been on some kind of a research trip to Germany and met me in Paris, told us all about his new project had to do with toys, and toy soldiers and all that stuff. He was so excited. And this is the thing that was so extraordinary about him is that he was on something new, something, and he was learning about it, he was like a, a, a young boy, his eyes would light up. He tell stories. And of course he had a habit late in life of spitting a little bit when he talked. So he would cover you when he got excited.


He always picked up the tab. When we went out to dinner. It was very sweet. And then I sent him, yeah my books as they came out. And I think I don’t know if he commented, I don’t know if any of my other books are in his collection.

Doney: They probably are, it’s just that the collection is in disorder.

Nye: Yeah. Yeah. But anyway, I’m delighted to be able to look through these annotations to see what he has to say. Of course, the thing which you know, and maybe not everybody else knows is that I think, I, I think I got interested in something that was called History of Sexuality before George did. Although George was interested in the subject, as I said in my interview, from the early 1960s. He was interested in sexuality, but the idea that sexuality had some kind of a history is not something that he really articulated strongly until the 1990s. And I understood it had a history, I think maybe slightly earlier than George and then we kind of tracked each other in the work that we did on masculinity and sexuality throughout the 1990s and late-1980s. And I guess I started publishing on sexuality probably in 1983-1984, something like that. And of course he was also, the Nationalism and Sexuality came out in 1985, so he was also well into it by that point. And, you know, I sent him my off prints and he must have off prints stored away somewhere. And I think I think he learned something for me because I was doing more sort of nitty gritty research. Looking at texts, to see what the psychiatrist said and see what the doctors said. And I think George always wanted to look at the big picture more than I did. I think he profited from some of the things that I was doing over the years, but of course, I was just wonderfully encouraged by the fact that he was moving into this field. He was actually, when you think about the fields that George has gone through in the course of his scholarly career from, early modern church history and theology. To where he ended up it’s really quite extraordinary. And he was just like a meteor shooting across the sky. Maybe everybody, all of his former students, we were just amazed at how he kept up, how he found the energy, how he got continued to be interested in new projects and was willing to learn. Definitely.

Doney: I think there’s no question that he learned from you. He mentions your work  in the lecture for the course.

Nye: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.

Doney: And you’ll see in the annotations, there’s a deep dialogue there.

Nye: Yeah. Yeah.

Doney: And then I wondered, related to the time period that we’re on. If you might talk about the classes that you developed and the courses that you’ve taught in your career.


Nye: Sure. Because I, because I was doing the history, the social sciences, and the history of medicine and biology by the time the 1980s came, I became an adjunct member of the History of Science Department at Oklahoma. And then when we moved to Oregon State in 1994, I became a full-fledged member of the graduate faculty in the History of Science Department group there. It was actually part of the History Department. So I was, I spent as much time doing history of science stuff as I did regular intellectual history stuff. And I did teach some history of science courses, history of biology, history of medicine courses over the years. But I really, my bread and butter, or the courses I liked the most, I taught French history too and that sort of thing, was the intellectual history survey. And I taught intellectual history, intellectual history survey from 1700 to the present, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century. I loved those courses. I think probably I felt I was channeling George, at least when I got to the 20th-century courses, I used the writings of the young Marx, I used books that students couldn’t even begin to read today. You know. And here’s the other thing I taught semester, semesters when I was at Oklahoma and then quarters when we got to OSU and I had to change my whole schedule change my whole syllabus. I used 12 paperback volumes when I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma in each intellectual history course. Every course was full, the students read the books and they wrote well enough to be able to understand what was going on and to answer exam questions. It was simply astonishing. And when I tell colleagues, my younger colleagues today about this, they just shake their heads like this. No, we can’t do that. The students will protest if you use more than three or four books. And if a book is too difficult, a student will raise their hands and say I can’t understand this. This is all the gobbledygook. Anyway, that’s what I hear. I haven’t been teaching. The last course I taught was I think about five or six years ago. But anyway, that’s my, those are the courses that I, I loved the most, and those were my bread and butter courses. And then when I started teaching. I started studying sexuality. I started a course on the history of sexuality. The first time I taught it was at Harvard. When we were invited, Mary Jo remembers dates better than I do. It was, I think it was late-1980s, mid-1980s, something like that. And I taught a history of sexuality course. Nobody had ever taught it there before. And there was some doubt about whether or not this was really “history of science.” But I think I proved it, that it was. And then I worked up a course at Oklahoma and started teaching it.


And that became my favorite course because students were engaged in a way that they never were in any other course I ever taught. Because it was somehow personal. Because even though we all have histories, they’re short for students, but they all know about their sexualities. And they were all thinking about how their experience squared with historical experience in the past, it was so easy. Teaching those classes was like, you know, going downhill. It was all students wanted to have something to say. There was lots of discussion. They were wonderful classes and I used lots of books in those classes too. And they read them. Now in the old days, when I started teaching it in the 1980s, all the, all the students except two or three were men. All straight men. Frat boys, sometimes.  “Oh, yeah. Sex? Oh. Yeah. I can handle it.” Women didn’t say anything. They kept their mouths shut. The sources that we were reading, were not shall we say strictly heteronormative off-the-shelf stuff. It was challenging, it was, we’re talking about, we’re talking about homosexuality and we’re talking about the oppression of women, and we’re talking about all of this stuff. And over time, what has happened to my history of sexuality courses is that the men are the minority, sometimes a great minority. Sometimes I only had one male student in a sort of seminar of 15 or 18 students. It, it became clear that the history of sexuality is a history of oppression of women by men, of sexual minorities by heterosexual men. And of the most awful kinds of characterizations and character assassinations and violence and the rest of it. That’s, it took a while for that to get established in the history of sexuality literature. But once it did, men were less comfortable in the course than they had been. And I actually worry about the future of the discipline and of the field now, given that the majority of students that take them are transgender kids, gay and lesbian students, and women, and feminists. And men even nowadays feel creeped out about that, I think. And so I’m really wondering how to get to teach that subject in a way that reintegrates men who are not knowledgeable about this stuff. Or who are frightened of it, or uncertain about it. I taught intellectual history up to the very end.


I enjoyed it enormously. I have just, I’ll just be quick about this to this day. And I learned this from George, some of Mary Jo’s and my very best friends, are our former students, undergraduate students, in almost all cases, some graduate students are still good friends. But undergraduate students are very good friends. We always made an effort to try to get to know our smartest students. And the ones who seemed most keen on making a profession out of learning. And all I can say is that it’s a blessing. And I think George must have felt that way. About, I mean the times when he got together with his former students. He was, he didn’t have any children of his own. So they were his children. And I have a child but I still feel the same way about all these kids. Not kids anymore. Some of them are retired. But it’s, it’s been the greatest life. And it’s because I think your intellectual peers are also your social peers. And you have so much in common and you exchange so much. And there are also that it starts off as a mentor relationship of kindness. It’s just a relationship of kindness and consideration and mutual respect. And those things have all endured in my personal relationships with my former students and with some of my former professors, and certainly like with George until the end of his life. And it was, shall we say, UW, and the year 1964 to 1969, marked me enormously. I’m a little moved here. I found the love of my life. I found to do what I wanted to do. I found my best friends. Oh, Jimmy Fisher, by the way, was one of my graduate students, one of my students, an undergraduate student in one of my TA classes. And he said to me one day after class, he said, “how does a guy like me get to know a guy like you?” I said, “buy me a beer asshole.” And the rest is history. He’s been my oldest and closest friend for over 50 years.

Doney: Perfect.

Nye: Yeah.

Doney: Did you know that Mosse was gay when you were a student here?

Nye: Oh, you should have asked me that, do you want me to add that in?

Doney: That’s, if that’s okay. If you have time?

Nye: Yeah sure. I’m yeah, I do. The issue of gay, of course, the reunion videos all sort of integrated, had integrated that knowledge. But the question did come up in some of the references.


You know, in those days there were such things as lifelong bachelors. And everybody just took them to be men who were single-minded or didn’t get along with women very well. The idea of thinking about them as potentially gay just didn’t come up. This was the mid-1960s. I had no idea, in short. Not a clue. Somebody said something to me, I think before I left town about George being gay. Oh, we didn’t use that term, that’s later: homosexual. And Jimmy Fisher, I think, knew, he wasn’t talking much about it, even to his friend me. But he knew that Harvey was gay because he lived in Harvey’s apartment. He rented Harvey’s apartment in la Rue du Pont-aux-Choux in Paris one year, when he was doing his, some research. So he knew about Harvey, but he respected George’s privacy until George already came out, ready to come out. Of course I know from Harry  Oosterhuis when that happened. And the thing that’s extraordinary is that a closeted gay man who was afraid of being found out would not, as George actually did, have talked all the time about otherness, persecution, and of gay people, and of effeminacy. But he was not afraid to do that. And what everybody thought of him as a consequence he didn’t care about. He wasn’t trying to hide anything, and he didn’t have what do you call it when you have a girlfriend? Beard. He didn’t have a beard. He never went in for that at all. And of course, unlike Harvey who apparently went to this jazz club downtown in Madison every night with a different young man, which I didn’t know about until I saw the video. George was home reading books every night, which is why George published 15 books and Harvey published one.

Doney: There’s something to that.

Nye: Did it make a difference once we found out he was gay? No. But it explained a lot. And it put everything into proper focus and gave me and of course, he came out initially in the Netherlands, Gert Hekma and  Harry Oosterhuis and a bunch of other gay men. He felt comfortable there. And so he did it. And then that emboldened to him and he came back here and told his colleagues, and I guess the rest is history as it were. But anyway, I was. Here’s the other thing. I was so happy when I finally met John Tortorice.I’d known about him.


I thought ah! He’s the right guy for George.

Doney: Final thoughts? Any last?

Nye: I want to thank you, both of you (William Tishler) for  your commitment to this Program, for your commitment to getting all this information and recording people who may be six feet under in about three or four years. And, you know, I think it’s important to capture history while you can. This is the kind of history that God if George had only had these resources back in those days. Can you imagine what he would have been able to do with it? And I think, I really think it’s incredibly important. One of my old professors Charlie Burdick did military history, interviewed old Nazi officers. And he kept, he published his work. It was extremely important. It made a huge contribution to the history of the Second World War. So these things are important.

Doney: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you.

Nye: Thank you.

Doney: This has been a wonderful interview.

Nye: Thank you.

Doney: I appreciate you taking the time.

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