Oral History: Patrick Hutton

Narrator: Patrick Hutton
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 27 January 2021
Format: Text only via email during the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic.

Patrick Hutton biography:
Patrick H. Hutton is professor of history emeritus at the University of Vermont, where he taught French history, European intellectual history, and historiography for nearly a half century.  He retired in 2003, but continued to teach part-time for UVM’s Honors College and for its Integrated Humanities Program until 2016.  He was the recipient of a number of national fellowships, including awards from the Danforth Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.  At UVM, he received awards for both his teaching and his scholarship. He served as chair of his department from 1992-1999.

Hutton remembers fondly his history courses as a graduate student at Wisconsin during the mid-1960s with Henry Hill, George L. Mosse, Harvey Goldberg, Ted Hamerow, Domenico Sella, Michael Petrovich, and his comparative literature courses with Stephen Nichols, Gian Orsini, and Dick Vowles.  He served as a teaching assistant for Mosse in 1964-65, and conducted doctoral research in France during 1966-67.  His doctoral dissertation concerned the Boulangist movement in Bordeaux, 1886-1890, a case study in the rise of mass politics in modern France.  He earned his M.A. in 1964 and his Ph.D. in 1969.

Much of Hutton’s scholarship deals with issues in historiography, notably historical perspectives on the workings of collective memory.  His books as author include The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition (University of California Press, 1981); History as an Art of Memory (University Press of New England, 1993), Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), and The Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).  As editor, he published an Historical Dictionary of the Third French Republic (Greenwood, 1986); Technologies of the Self; A Seminar with Michel Foucault (co-edited with Luther Martin and Huck Gutman), (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); and A Cultural History of Memory in the Eighteenth Century (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).  His c.v. may be found here.


Tortorice: Where were you born? In what kind of milieu were you born? What was your childhood like? Describe your family background and early schooling. Talk about any family members, teachers or others who encouraged you in your studies. Describe the trajectory of your young years.

Hutton: I was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1938, into an Irish Catholic family of modest means. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a childhood I remember as happy and secure. My mother, who had keen intellectual interests, nurtured my own, and she was the strongest influence in the patterning of my early years. I excelled in my studies at Princeton High School. I think of myself as having all my life been a scholar and consider myself fortunate to have found my way through ambition, diligent study, the benevolence of my professors, and a bit of luck into college teaching.

Tortorice: Did you have an early interest in, and passion for history? Why did you decide to major in history?

Hutton: I attended Princeton University on an NROTC scholarship (1956-60). I majored in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, whose undergraduate program was interdisciplinary. Most of my courses were in politics, though my favorites were in history and I wrote my senior thesis for the History Department. My intention as an undergraduate was to pursue a career in law.

Tortorice: Talk about any courses and/or instructors that stand out during your undergrad years? Did a specific undergraduate teacher leave the most memorable impression?

Hutton: At Princeton, I was deeply influenced by three history professors: E[lmore] Harris “Jinx” Harbison (1907-1964) (European Renaissance), Norman Cantor (1929-2004) (Medieval History), and Wesley “Frank” Craven (1905-1981) (American Colonial). Harbison and Cantor were “big picture” historians, canvassing vast eras of time. Harbison’s course was sponsored by the Humanities Program, and was devoted to major philosophers in the Western tradition, considered in historical context. Harbison loved teaching and was highly respected by the student body. He had a panoramic vision of the Western intellectual tradition, and a gift for a simple presentation of the history of ideas. His course would later serve as a prototype for one of my own that I taught at UVM for many years for our Integrated Humanities Program. Cantor was at once erudite as a scholar and conscientious as a teacher, sensitive to the way students learn. As a teacher myself, I later modeled myself on his style. Craven was my senior thesis adviser. He was an attentive guide for my research and skillfully supervised my progress on a thesis about a colonial governor during the mid-eighteenth century. I learned how to delve into primary-source research and to write a long historical study. I won a prize for it at graduation.

Tortorice: Why did you decide to attend UW-Madison? What year did you arrive in Madison? What was Madison like in those years? What were your impressions of the UW when you first arrived? What were your experiences after arriving at UW?

Hutton: Following Princeton, I served on active duty in the United States Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp for three years (1960-63). This experience, too, was important in my formation. Early on, the Navy sent me to the Justice School in Newport RI, and on my return I assumed responsibility as the ship’s legal officer. It was an extraordinary responsibility for one so young, and I was good at it. Had the Navy been willing to fund me for law school, I would likely have stayed in the service as a JAG officer. At the same time, I was reconsidering whether the law was the right vocation for me. In terms of my expectations about a vocation in life, I decided that it was better to help the young find their way than to catch them up in their mistakes, such was the judgment that led me to think about becoming a teacher. These were the Kennedy years, an era exceptional for the promise of opportunities in higher education.

All the while I was reading widely during the long nights at sea, canvassing modern European history and philosophy. At Princeton I had acquired the skills for a large measure of self-education. Over the course of my three-year tour of duty, I gave myself a solid background in these fields. I aced the Graduate Record Exam and decided to give graduate school a try.

I applied to Harvard and Princeton Graduate Colleges, but was not accepted. I was disappointed, but decided to persevere. On a second round of applications, I was admitted to several good programs at eastern universities, and I won a small fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. I planned to enroll there, but my wife Linda and I found Philadelphia to be a grim place in which to raise a family. I had been accepted at UW, which I knew only by its general reputation. In mid-summer 1963, we decided to drive out to Madison for a look. We fell in love with the city and the university, or at least the idea of them. We were young marrieds and the prospect of starting a new way of life in a new place was appealing. But I had no scholarship at UW, and by then one child and another on the way. We decided to embark on our plan anyway. My father thought I was crazy.

We arrived in Madison in the fall 1963. My initial impressions of grad study were idealistic and naïve. In preparation for my first semester, I had signed up for a seminar on the French Revolution. I figured it was a topic central to European history about which I should know something. Once I arrived, I found that in choosing this seminar I had committed myself to modern French history as a field of concentration.

I was in residence at UW for three years, 1963-66: two years concentrating on modern European history, the third in comparative literature as my minor field. With my family, I spent the following 18 months in Paris (1966-67) for my dissertation research, then returned to Madison for a final semester (spring 1968) to write my thesis. For most of my time at UW, we lived at Eagle Heights, an experiment in social living for married grad students. So many of us married young in those days and children abounded on the open spaces within this compound. In keeping with its progressive traditions, UW had wonderful provisions for our housing and medical care.

As I settled into my studies, I recognized that the key to success in earning a PhD is the speed with which one moves through its requirements. In this respect, I had some good breaks along the way. At the outset of my second year of study, the History Department changed its rules for the PhD qualifying exam. Candidates were given the option of sitting for an abbreviated version of the legendary exam, provided they did so toward the end of their second year of study and with the understanding that they could not try again, were they to fail. In deciding for this option, I saved myself a year of course work. Also during my second year, I won a national fellowship (Kent, funded by the Danforth Foundation), which insured me three years of funding and with it the opportunity for a year of research in France.

I had hoped to complete and defend my dissertation before taking my first job. I was offered one at the University of Vermont (UVM) for fall 1968, and so departed Madison for Burlington before I had my PhD in hand. Preparing classes at UVM during my first year of teaching was demanding, but I made time for writing on weekends and a long winter break. I returned to Madison to defend my thesis in the summer of 1969.

Tortorice: Were you politically engaged in your early UW years? What was the political climate like at UW? Discuss the trajectory of the political scene during your UW years.

Hutton: No. I was opposed to the war in southeast Asia, but remained focused on my studies. I was residing in France for research during the most disruptive semesters of protest on the UW campus. My main worry was about being recalled to active duty in the Navy. I took the medical exam for promotion to lieutenant just in case.

Tortorice: What was the reputation of the History Department at UW? What was its national reputation? What was the History Department like in those years? What were your fellow students like?

Hutton: UW-Madison was well-known for its outstanding history faculty and high standing nationally. The History Department dealt quite well with enormous numbers of students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. As I recall, there were some 800 of them enrolled in graduate history programs during that era. But only a small percentage were serious candidates for the PhD. I got to know a good many of them in seminars or through social networking. I made some solid friendships, notably with Julian Archer (Drake), Robert Nye (Oregon State), Christopher Johnson (Wayne State), Michael Boll (San Jose State), Konrad Jarausch (University of North Carolina) and Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study).

Tortorice: Who did you study with at UW? Who was your graduate advisor? Discuss any professors, or classes that stand out in your mind. What was it like to be a graduate student during those years? Was there a core of students who were studying in your area of specialization that enriched your graduate experience?

Hutton: Henry Hill (1907-1990) was my major professor, advisor, and advocate. He was kind and supportive and advanced my cause for a teaching assistantship during my second year of study. Henry wrote elegant prose and had done some solid work on the history of the French Revolution. But he had recently taken on a deanship, and I recognized that he was no longer doing cutting-edge research. I looked elsewhere for guidance on a dissertation project.

My professors were impressive scholars. I especially admired Ted [Theodore S.] Hamerow (1920-2013) (German history), and Stephen Nichols (b. 1936) (literary theory and criticism). But the History Department had two celebrities, Harvey Goldberg and George L. Mosse, and, as different as they were in interests and personality, they had the most profound influence on my professional formation as a historian. They both taught enormous classes of undergraduates, each one enrolling hundreds. Goldberg was a stunning lecturer, at once passionate and well-organized. He was deeply committed to social democracy as it was understood in the French revolutionary tradition. He had poured his heart into a biography of the socialist statesman Jean Jaurès during the early Third Republic, and Jaurès shaped the optimistic way in which he understood historical change tending toward social democracy into our times. It was a reasonable expectation, given the success in the making of the welfare state in the Western democracies after World War II. I studied modern French history with him, and also followed his lectures in social history.

Initially, I found Mosse somewhat intimidating, but as I came to understand him better, I recognized that his manner was a style. Mosse was an imposing and confident lecturer. His knowledge was encyclopedic, his historical interests original, and he had strong convictions. I judged him an old-fashioned liberal in the English tradition, into which he had been initiated in secondary school. He was conscientious about his responsibilities for his students, and he loved them all. He dealt promptly with student requests. If asked to write a letter of recommendation, he did so the same day. Students with more radical opinions liked to challenge him, and he enjoyed sparring with them.

Tortorice: How did you decide what to research? Talk about your teaching and research experiences in graduate school. What were your experiences like with your graduate committee?

Hutton: During my second year at UW, I served as one of Mosse’s teaching assistants for his two-semester course on modern European cultural history. I was responsible for some 100 students, divided into four sections. He gave his TAs a lot of independence. I took close notes during his lectures, and used these as a basis for discussion with my students, posting an outline on the blackboard (I used the blackboard in this way throughout my teaching career.) Basically, I endeavored to explain his ideas, but began to develop a teaching style of my own. I found the experience exhilarating. As much as study for my course work and PhD qualifying exam, my role as a TA prepared me for entry into college teaching.

I wrote a dissertation in modern French history. Goldberg suggested the topic I decided to pursue. It concerned the political campaigns of General Georges Boulanger (1837-1891) in the late-nineteenth century, the point of departure for an emerging style of radical populism. Goldberg was interested in the rise of the labor movement and proposed that I look into the appeals of his campaign for the incipient socialist party. More specifically, he pointed out the role of Raymond Lavigne, who was instrumental in developing the party in Bordeaux and opted to support Boulanger despite the objections of some party leaders. The topic turned out to be a good project; my research led me to archives in both Paris and provincial France. I delved into this material in search of Boulanger’s appeal to the Left, but also discovered that the Boulangist movement prefigured all of the elements of the Right-wing fascist parties of the 1930s. Mosse read my dissertation and emphasized the importance of my findings about the making of modern mass political movements. My dissertation committee recommended publication of my dissertation, and Professor Hill sent it over to the UW Press for consideration. I ran into the opposition of a skeptical reader, who thought that my opening chapter relied too much on rhetoric, too little on substance. I was too easily intimidated, for my research in primary-source materials was extensive. Despite Mosse’s advice, and my wife’s insistence, that I persevere, I put the manuscript in a drawer and never explored further possibilities for its publication. Not a wise decision! I published some of the material in scholarly articles, and a good deal of it later found its way into my first book, The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition (1981), which concerned commemorative practices among the followers of the famous insurgent Auguste Blanqui as a strategy to perpetuate the French revolutionary tradition.

Tortorice: The 1960s were in many ways the “golden era” of humanities graduate study in the U.S. with large numbers of students in graduate school, and a sense that the Humanities mattered-that the study of history could have a real impact on the world. Can you reflect on the uniqueness of this period, and perhaps how things subsequently changed? What do you think is the most important legacy of the 1960s?

Hutton: We still believed in progress in those days, as it had been prophesied during the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. By the 1980s, a major sea change in our understanding of historical time was underway. Historians began to distinguish a post-modern from a modern historical era. The postmodern view of history abandoned the notion of the unity of history; it was pluralistic and uncertain about the human prospect. My awareness of the change underway led me into an interest in historiography. Deeply influenced by Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) and Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire (1984), I began to write on the topic of memory’s relationship to history. My History as an Art of Memory (1993) was my most important contribution to this field.

Tortorice: When did you first come in contact with Mosse’s work? Was he an influence on your life and work? What was he like as a teacher, as a person? Did you make close connections with other students influenced by Mosse? Is there a “Mossean” community in your field of history?

Hutton: During my first semester at UW (fall 1963), I enrolled in Mosse’s course on the cultural history of early modern Europe (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). He was well-known for his work on the radical Reformation of the sixteenth century and the rise of romantic nationalism in the early nineteenth. His interpretation of this intervening era was less developed in his publications, though I found his lecture material and his perspective fascinating. He argued that Baroque culture appealed emotionally to the senses as rear-guard resistance to the growing rationalism promoted by the natural sciences. He surveyed Baroque culture through such examples as anxiety prompted by the reality of decay in nature, grandiose religious funeral practices, and imposing architectural edifices, such as St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For Mosse, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the brilliant scientist who held fast to his religious faith, was the intellectual hero of this era. Mosse addressed some of these issues in what I believe was his first book – The Holy Pretence (1957), a study of the politics of casuistry – the uses of Machiavelli’s theory to justify morally suspect political causes.

As Mosse’s TA during my second year of graduate study, I came to appreciate the full range of his thought. He was best known for his work on the deep sources of fascism, and he published significantly on this topic. Thanks to the popularity of Marxism among his students, he also developed a series of lectures about revisionist Marxism in the twentieth century, which he characterized as “Marxism of the heart” – a reading of his writings (notably the recently discovered “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”) in light of the romantic appeal of the notion of an egalitarian society. Put more philosophically, Marxist intellectuals read him in the spirit of Immanuel Kant’s moralizing categorical imperative rather than Georg Hegel’s impersonal dialectic of history. This was original material, though to my knowledge he never published his interpretation in detail.

Mosse continued to develop in original ways as a historian long after I left Madison, and I continued to follow and learn from his publications. At the time I studied with him, he was a local hero. But his teaching in Israel in his later years vastly enhanced his international reputation. At the plenary session of a recent conference of the Memory Studies Association (Madrid 2019), Aleida Assmann (University of Konstanz), the keynote speaker, characterized him as a pioneering scholar in this newly emerging field. In my recent book, The Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing (2016), I analyzed his elegantly written Fallen Soldiers (1990) for its contribution to the history of commemorative practices.

Tortorice: What do you think was Mosse’s main contribution to the study of history? His work encompasses a vast range, and unique approach to history. Talk about his contributions in the various areas of history he worked in. What was unique about his method? Is there an underlying theme or approach in his work? Why do you think he was wary of the use of theory in history?

Hutton: Mosse’s major contribution was to method in cultural history. One might argue that he defined the field, a new direction in historiography that went beyond the long-standing interest in European intellectual history. He managed to relate the study of modern European philosophers, historians, literary critics, learned statesmen, and even popular demagogues to our historical understanding of the dynamics of broad popular movements, seeking to show the way the ideas of intellectuals influence the mindset of ordinary people. In recent decades, scholars have expanded on this legacy, with attention to the way habits of mind, together with more consciously conceived ideas, play into the networks of popular thinking about politics and culture. The history of collective mentalities, popular during the 1970s, is one avenue of such scholarship, another is that concerning collective/cultural memory, which has become prominent in cultural history since the 1990s.

Mosse may have been suspicious of theory because he dealt with so many of them in his scholarship and he understood the nature and limits of each one. As a scholar, he had no desire to commit himself to a theoretical position so as to forestall any tendentious political identification in his scholarship. His deepest admiration was for English liberalism, for its open-minded toleration, its commitment to fair play, and moral integrity. He had a place in his heart for Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) as well as for John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) among the heroes of his course on nineteenth-century Europe.

Tortorice: Where have you taught? What courses have you taught? Describe your approach to teaching. Did you enjoy teaching undergrads, grads? Were you influenced by Mosse’s teaching style? Has your teaching changed over the years, and if so, how? How many doctoral dissertations have you supervised? Discuss any students undergraduates or graduates whose work and/or career stand out.

Hutton: I taught history and humanities courses for 48 years at the University of Vermont. I was hired in 1968 to teach French history and European intellectual history. Over time the latter became my primary interest, and I presented its subject matter in a variety of formats. For most of my career, I also taught in UVM’s Integrated Humanities Program, an interdisciplinary residential program for first-year students. My two-semester sequence was entitled “Ideas in the Western Tradition,” relating philosophers from Greco-Roman antiquity to the present to their historical context. These were the courses I most enjoyed teaching. For grad students and advanced undergrads, I developed courses in historiography, emphasizing schools of thought and broadly-conceived trends. These courses played into my research and writing on the history of mentalities and on the history of collective memory.

As for teaching style, I always enjoyed lecturing. Mosse’s role in presenting “big picture” interpretation was an important influence on the way I prepared my lectures. With experience, I became more skilled at small-group discussion.

I taught graduate seminars, mostly for high school teachers. I regret that I never had a chance to supervise doctoral candidates. A number of my students have since become teachers in both secondary schools and in colleges and universities. Robert Zaretsky, an intellectual historian at the University of Houston and a public intellectual in his journalism, wrote his masters thesis under my direction. He has received significant scholarly recognition for his work on leading intellectuals of the European Enlightenment.

Tortorice: From where did your research interests come? What are the large questions that are explored in your research? Describe and summarize the substance of your research work. What do you consider to be your most important contribution to your field?

Hutton: Mosse’s influence was crucial in the development of my research interests, especially as I began teaching myself. Over time, I gravitated toward interpretation of trends in historiography, and it has been in this field that I have received the most scholarly recognition. Nearly all of my writings deal in some way with issues about the historical interpretation of collective memory. My most important book was History as an Art of Memory (1993), a broadly conceived study of modern uses of the ancient art of memory.

Tortorice: During the course of your career, what have been the most significant developments in your field of study? Have you stayed in contact with colleagues you met at UW?

Hutton: During the early years of my career (1970s and 1980s), the most significant development in European historiography was the abandonment of the grand narrative of progress through the agency of the nation-state, displaced by the rise of pluralism in historical scholarship. In broad terms, social and cultural history flourished, displacing older approaches based on the primacy of politics. In this respect, the 1960s launched the “golden age” of a new historiography. In keeping with the landmark study by Hayden White, Metahistory (1973), historiography moved from a focus on method in examining historical evidence toward rhetorical style in the composition of historical writing. Since the 1990s, interest in the relationship between memory and history has emerged as a prominent scholarly preoccupation, particularly among historians with a theoretical bent. In recent years, my most important professional contacts have been with sociologists and literary critics in this interdisciplinary field of scholarship. I recently traced the rise and development of the historiography of this field in my The Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing (2016).

I cherish my professional friendship established over the years. Some date from my time of research in Paris, when we shared the challenge of living and researching there. Julian Archer (Drake University) and Robert Nye (Oregon State University) are the most enduring friendships among those in my seminars at UW during the mid-1960s.

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